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Who benefits from 4-H volunteering? You might be surprised

Pamela-Nippolt.jpgYou might think that the sole beneficiaries of youth program volunteering would be youth. But you would be mistaken -- the value extends to the community and to the volunteers themselves.

A recent study of 4-H volunteers in the North Central United States documents the types and levels of contributions made by volunteers that benefit youth, their communities, and the volunteers themselves.

More than half a million adults across the US give their time to the 4-H program and Extension. This is a lot of "people power". To put it in context, the YMCA and the American Red Cross -- two of the largest nonprofit organizations in the country -- are each supported by similar-sized corps of volunteers.

Extension 4-H Youth Development, a public organization, is a key actor in the landscape of programs that recruit volunteers to promote the positive development of youth in communities. We can quantify this by turning volunteer hours into dollar signs at the rate of just over $20 per hour. But there is more to it than that.

archery.jpgIn this study, my colleagues and I learned, from the responses of more than 3,000 "mostly women living in rural communities" volunteers, that they:
  • Tend to be college-educated and to stick around for several years of service, particularly when they themselves were 4-H members in their youth.
  • Tend to spend as much time planning for and communicating plans with youth as they spend actually working with them.
  • Give more than time -- they donate money, supplies, and mileage on their cars to the 4-H program.
  • Need training and development as as much as they do a well run volunteer system.

We also learned that volunteers benefit from the relationship, and that their communities do, too. Volunteers told us that they directly benefit from:
  • Opportunities to be involved with youth learning; in other words, the privilege to partner with young people in community settings
  • Opportunities for personal growth, becoming better at public speaking or a specific skill
  • Opportunities for contributing to the 4-H mission and giving back to the organization, being part of something "big"
  • Becoming better connected and valued as member of their communities

The benefit they most often mentioned was that the 4-H volunteer experience contributed to their own pathway toward becoming a better person. This is both humbling and startling in a "we are all connected" sort of way. It is also incredibly difficult to quantify. This finding sheds new light on youth and adults as partners in youth programs, and their interdependence on one another in the community. Extension and 4-H are strong threads in the fabric of communities, and if we listen closely to 3,000-plus volunteers, one of those brightly-colored, extremely resilient threads is woven by volunteers in partnership with youth. Think about this.

How does your experience with volunteerism compare with the results of this study?

-- Pamela Larson Nippolt, state faculty and program leader, program evaluation

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  1. Thank you, Pam, for bringing us the results of this study and putting it into context. Knowing why people volunteer - and why they might volunteer if they knew how others benefit - helps us to ensure that these benefits stay in place for our volunteers present and future. It also helps us to better understand the interconnections of "community" writ large and models for our youth the rewards of connecting in this way with this program.

  2. Pam Larson NippoltMay 31, 2012 at 5:30 AM

    You bring up an important point, Heidi, about interconnections in communities that are strengthened by Extension programs, in this case those that engage volunteers. Programs have a clear edge - a youth or a volunteer is either formally on the inside of - or outside of - that edge. We know that we have accountability to participants in Extension programs but we also have accountability to non-participants - and the study helps us to point to the benefits that stem from volunteerism for community members who are on the "outside" of our programs.

  3. Thank you for sharing. Volunteers play an very important role in nonprofit organizations. It is always good to know more about what help keep their interests to stay. Yet, I think it is also important to explore why they want to leave. I wonder if people (communities) have different agenda, will they see different value of volunteers? :)

  4. It is so amazing to see the true impact of 4-H groups around the country on today's youth. CTSO groups like 4-H don't merely allow students to participate in service activities, but more importantly, they empower students to spark projects in areas where they are personally passionate. I am actually the featured youth motivational speaker at the Iowa 4-H state conference next week in Ames, and I will definitely try to bring some of this optimism to the stage. Great article!!