December 2000 // Volume 38 // Number 6 // Feature Articles // 6FEA3

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Planning Educational Volunteer Forums: Steps to Success

Both volunteer and paid staff devote considerable time, energy, and resources to developing, planning, and staging local, area, district, state, and regional Volunteer Forums or Conferences. This article proposes five "steps to success" that can help ensure the success of these educational volunteer events. These steps include: Constructing the Steering/Planning Committee; Contracting Facilities; Planning the Program; Arranging for Food, Meals, and Catering; and Developing the Budget. Each of these five steps is explained in detail. By focusing on these five steps, conference planners can coordinate a successful Forum or Conference while avoiding being bogged down in detail management.

Ken Culp, III
Extension 4-H/Youth Development Specialist, Volunteerism
The University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service
Internet address:


A considerable amount of time and resources, on the part of both volunteer and paid staff in, are dedicated annually to the planning, coordination, and execution of educational volunteer events. These may include workshops, in-services, conferences, or forums that may range in duration from a few hours to several days. Regional 4-H Volunteer Forums are held annually in the four national Extension Regions. Each Regional Forum is somewhat different, displays its own personality, and reflects its host state's unique culture. Many similarities exist, however, including the recurring issues that must be addressed by each group when planning such an event.

The purpose of Regional Volunteer Forums is to increase the capacity of volunteer and salaried staff to contribute to the achievement of the mission of 4-H Youth Development Education and the Cooperative Extension System as a whole (Curtis, Hampton, Hougen, Howard, Johnston, McCoy, Peterson, Rutledge, Grieb, & Mullen; 1991). Similarly, the purpose of a state, area, or district Volunteer Conference or workshop is to provide the educational and technical resources that volunteers need in order to deliver the 4-H Youth Development program as well as to meet 4-H members' needs. Although the following suggestions are offered as steps to consider when undertaking the planning of a Regional Volunteer Forum, they have been proven to be equally effective when planning a state, area or district Volunteer Conference or workshop.


This article is one of the results of a qualitative, longitudinal study. Since 1992, the researcher has participated in eight Forums in the North Central and Southern Regions, has worked with regional steering committees in four states, and has participated in state 4-H Volunteer Conferences in four states. In addition, the researcher collaborated in researching, developing, and implementing the Ohio 4-H Volunteer Recognition Model (Culp, Schwartz, & Campbell, 1997) and the Kentucky 4-H Volunteer Recognition Model (Culp, in press).

The Ohio 4-H Volunteer Recognition Model was implemented and resulted in a single-day, combined volunteer education and recognition event that was attended by 1700 individuals in 1998, 1900 in 1999, and 1400 in 2000. The Kentucky 4-H Volunteer Recognition Model resulted in a two-day, combined volunteer education and recognition event that was attended by 752 individuals in 2000.

The "Steps to Success" for any Regional Volunteer Forum and most, if not all, State Conferences, may be divided into five categories. These categories include: Constructing the Steering/Planning Committee; Contracting Facilities; Planning the Program; Arranging for Food, Meals and Catering; and Developing the Budget. By focusing on these five categories, planning committees can coordinate a successful forum or conference without getting completely bogged down managing endless details.

Discussion and Recommendations

The steps are introduced and discussed in the order in which they should be executed. For example, the planning committee should be constructed before contracting the facilities, developing the budget, planning the program, or arranging for meals. This is important, because the planning committee needs to be a player in the decision-making processes that are involved in the other four steps.

Constructing the Planning/Steering Committee

Have enough people to do the job.

Committees are composed of volunteers. Most volunteers also have jobs and professional and personal lives, and aren't able to devote their full attention to a volunteer role. "Many hands make light work" is a good motto to remember. Providing secretarial support and technological resources (duplicating, mailing, faxing, printing, etc.) from the State 4-H Office in support of the Steering Committee and its chairpersons will support the volunteers, facilitate goal achievement, and help avoid burnout.

Sometimes, however, more is less. Large groups can be unwieldy and unproductive. Having too many people can cripple some committees. The important thing is to know your volunteers, especially the committee chairs, and to respect their wishes and leadership styles.

Construct committees with a cross-section of personality types and leadership styles.

Each committee needs an assortment of Thinkers, Doers, Dreamers, and Watchers. The Thinkers will envision the details. The Dreamersl be creative, spontaneous, and dynamic. The Watchers will keep lend balance and stability to the group. And the Doers will make sure that the job gets done.

Structure each committee to have more volunteers than paid staff.

Remember that this is a volunteer conference and the volunteers should have both wide-spread responsibility and authority in planning and undertaking it. The volunteers are likely to have the best concept of what will appeal to other volunteers, what frills are unnecessary, and where to place budgetary and educational priorities.

Make sure all Extension staff on the Steering Committee are Forum literate.

The quickest way to cause a "them against us" rivalry is to place a group of well-meaning Extension staff in leadership roles who have no concept of, or history with, the Regional Forum. Regional Forums are not NAE4-HA conferences. The purposes, objectives, and audiences of the two are quite different and have no bearing on each other.

Don't expect a lifetime commitment.

With the exception of booking facilities (which needs to be done at least three years prior to the event), most Forum details can be accomplished in 18 months or less. In no case should a committee be meeting on a regular basis more than 2 years prior to the regional event.

Contracting Facilities

Knowing your audience is crucial. Many volunteers attend Regional Forums and State Conferences without reimbursement. Others take vacation to attend on their own. Planners should consider these factors when contracting the conference center and hotel.

Negotiate hotel costs.

Hotels costing $100 per room per night are likely to be too expensive for volunteers. Remember that, of the "big three" costs (meals, facilities, and sleeping rooms), the sleeping room cost is likely to be the most negotiable. One option is to get the hotel to guarantee a room price, regardless of the number of guests in the room. Be aware that many conference hotels in large cities also charge a bed or conference tax, ranging from 10 to 20%, that is not tax-exempt.

Recognize that big convention centers are intimidating.

People don't want to pull out a map to determine the location of their next workshop. Nor do they want to leave the hotel every time they attend a workshop. Meeting rooms should be in close proximity to lodging rooms; there should be ample elevators to transport guests to different floors; and meeting rooms should be easily located.

Be the only conference scheduled at that facility.

It is more advantageous to be "a big fish in a small pond," or, even better, the only "fish" in the pond. Being the only conference scheduled at a facility ensures that you will have all available staff and resources funneled toward your event, rather than have to share them with other groups.

House all conference delegates at a single facility.

Most 4-H volunteers have been found to be motivated by affiliation (Byrne & Caskey, 1985; Culp, 1997; Henderson, 1983; Rouse & Clawson, 1992). Forum and conference delegates attend largely due to three motivational influences: the quality of the educational workshops (achievement motives), the opportunity to share information (achievement through affiliation), and building or renewing relationships (Culp & Schwartz, 1999).

Housing delegates at multiple hotels complicates schedules, requires additional transportation, and reduces opportunities to meet and share. Volunteers staying at an "over-flow" hotel are likely to feel disconnected and left out, and will have a less positive experience.

Know the preferences and limitations of your audience.

If your audience is accustomed to a hotel/conference center, planning a Forum at a state 4-H camp may be out of the question. While historic hotels can be wonderful places to spend a weekend, consider whether their turn-of-the century elevator(s) will be able to transport your guests from the main floor to their rooms and back between workshops. Can the facility accommodate the special needs of all of your delegates? Make sure that the facilities are convenient, accessible, and easy to locate and navigate.

Understand the constraints that "tradition" places on your event.

If the Forum in your region has traditionally been successfully scheduled during a particular month or time frame, moving it to another time could be disastrous. A difference of 3 weeks may not seem to be a problem on an agent's calendar, but a move from mid-October to late September may seem "undoable" to a volunteer.

Developing the Budget and Financial Resources

Plan your budget based on a 3- to 5-year attendance average.

A 3- to 5-year average provides a good benchmark from which to base your budget. Other issues, including registration, lodging and transportation costs, location within the region, and local attractions may have a bearing on attendance. Basing break-even costs on a conservative attendance estimate will help ensure that your event operates in the black.

Have a contingency plan that is reflected in your budget.

When Nebraska hosted the 1997 North Central Forum, three budgets were developed, based upon different registration numbers. These registration numbers were 400, 500, and 600 delegates. While 600 was the 5-year average, the previous Forum held in Ohio (scheduled a month earlier than traditional dates, in an expensive luxury hotel) had registered barely 400 delegates. By comparison, South Dakota (which adjoins Nebraska) hosted 775 delegates at the 1993 NCRVF. Nebraska's 600-delegate budget (which was ultimately the budget that was utilized) featured two nights out, two off-site dinners, and heavy-duty speakers. The smaller budgets reduced the number of off-site visits and meals, as well as Forum "extras."

Understand what the threshold is for Forum registration fees.

Volunteers understand inflation. However, increasing registration more than 10% in a year is likely to significantly reduce attendance figures, particularly if a good reason for the increase is not perceived or understood.

Establish up-front who will be responsible for resource development and financial contributions.

What role will your state 4-H Foundation play in resource development? If the Foundation is involved, coordinating fund raising activities will be important. A development officer may be more effective in securing a $5,000 gift than a volunteer. Additionally, a development officer is more likely to ask a potential donor for $5,000, while a volunteer may ask only for $500. Realize that in-kind contributions may be even more important than long-term financial support. For example, a printer is more likely to be willing to donate printing the registration booklet, dinner menus, programs, or evaluations, than cash. In the budget, however, in-kind donations are as important as cash.

Budget and spend money where it makes a difference.

You should spend most of the budget in two key areas: education (speakers, workshop locations, and offerings that are conducive to learning, and high-quality educational tours) and meals. Money spent on professional decorators, elaborate lights and sound, and exotic meals will neither increase the educational value of the Forum, nor attract potential delegates to attend.

Find out early what recognition each donor desires in return for contributions.

Each Regional Forum has a JC Penney banquet. Yet many Forums have donors who have made larger contributions but who receive less recognition than JC Penney does. For most donors, seeing their name listed in the program is not enough.

Some alternatives include: displaying their logo or signage prominently throughout the Forum, including a catalogue or products in goodie bags or on tables at meals, inviting a company representative to give remarks at a meal, and including self-addressed thank-you notes in goodie bags or on tables at a meal for participants to complete and mail. It's also important to provide donors with impact information within 2 months of the Forum.

Planning the Program

Remember that the success of the Forum rests on the educational workshops.

Forum delegates attend to gain new ideas, become re-energized, develop or renew friendships, and take information back home. Workshops should be hands-on, ready to use, and easily understood. Offering workshops that appeal to both newer and more experienced volunteers will have greater appeal and educational value.

Because Saturday will be part-timers' day of choice, fill it with high-quality workshops.

A common temptation of many Steering Committees is to load the Saturday schedule with tours. However, if a Forum goal is to appeal to part-timers, remember that part-time attendees are likely to be employed and will therefore be weekend participants. Part-timers will not be as interested in going on a tour as they will be in attending a meaningful workshop.

Recognize that one "heavy-duty" speaker per day is more meaningful (and more cost-effective) than one speaker per meal.

An effective speaker can greatly enhance any Forum. Everyone will hear the speakers, so make sure that your money for speakers is well-spent. It is also important to remember that informal sharing is an important aspect of the Forum. Providing time during one or two meals each day for sharing and developing relationships will meet the volunteers' motivational needs, help keep the program uncluttered, and also keep the budget in check. When budgeting for speakers, the minimum for a "reputation" speaker, contracted through a speaker's bureau or conference planner, will start at $2,500 plus expenses.

Vary speaker types.

Different speakers appeal to different people. In order to please everyone, include a cross-section of motivational, inspirational, educational, and humorous speakers. Engaging the services of a meeting planner will provide access to a larger speaker's pool. Remember it is possible that an effective speaker maybe someone local, who may be willing to speak for free. However, any speaker should be reputable and experienced. One lackluster speaker can do a lot of damage.

Respect tradition.

Some aspects of the Forum are considered sacred! The volunteers will recognize those and won't want to compromise them. Planners are well advised not to alter or compromise such sacred traditions.

Try at least one new idea. Start a new tradition.

Each Forum has its own personality. Each Forum brings an opportunity to try something innovative and new. Be creative, make an impression, and try something a little bit different.

Schedule at least one evening meal "off-site."

Having one meal off-site livens up the program and breaks the routine. Off-site meals also present an opportunity for a state to showcase some of its own unique culture. A bar-be-que, luau, crawfish boil, hog roast, or fish fry; dinner at a museum, mall, farm, or zoo; or one with an ethnic theme will add to the Forum experience without drastically increasing costs. In addition, eating off-site provides commodity groups an opportunity to make in-kind donations, whereas most convention centers or caterers will not accept foods from other suppliers.

Schedule time for mingling, meeting new people, and exchanging information.

Forum delegates are "people-persons." They want to share and receive information, as well as develop and rekindle relationships. Scheduling 90-minute meals, 30-minute refreshment breaks, and some "down time" between workshops will facilitate these exchanges.

Arranging for Food, Meals, and Catering

Have plenty of wholesome, hearty food, in ample servings.

Eating is a celebration, a tradition, and a way of life in most cultures. Meals should be wholesome, nutritious, hot, on-time, and abundant. The wait staff should be punctual, courteous, and responsive to individual requests. Most people perceive that their registration fees are spent largely on meals and therefore want good value for their money.

Remember that "grazing" buffets can be awkward for large groups.

Many people prefer to be waited upon, rather than to serve themselves. Additionally, buffets are not conducive to exchanging information and developing or renewing relationships. While lingering over a meal may be desirable, standing in a long line with 400 other delegates may be perceived to be a waste of time. Finally, buffets are awkward for older people or those with disabilities.

Have alternative entrees available.

Many people are on restricted diets. Restricted diets may require eliminated or reduced amounts of sugar, salt, fat, cholesterol, and meat. Check with your caterer and have an alternative entree available. Provide a space on the registration form for special or restricted diets.

Have ample seating available.

The "fallout rate" is generally lower for State or Regional Forums than for most other volunteer programs. This is likely due, in part, to the sizable investment volunteers make to attend. It is embarrassing and hard on a schedule to be caught short of seating and to hao set-up additional tables, chairs, and place settings.


There are many effective means of planning and orchestrating Regional Volunteer Forums and State Volunteer Conferences. All of them, however, are time and resource intensive. This article is not exhaustive and has not covered all details, but conference planners who pay attention to the five "Steps to Success" described here will gain the necessary structure to keep focused on the "big picture" without getting completely bogged down managing endless details.


Byrne, R.A., & Caskey, F. (1985). For love or money? The Journal of Extension. 23(3): 4-7.

Culp, III, K. (1997). Motivating and retaining adult volunteer 4-H leaders. Journal of Agricultural Education. 38(2): 1-7.

Culp, III, K., & Schwartz, V.J. (1999.) Motivating adult volunteer 4-H leaders. The Journal of Extension. 36(1).

Culp, III, K., Schwartz, V.J., & Campbell, I.J. (1997). Volunteer recognition: A new model for a new millennium. Proceedings of the 26th annual conference for the association for research on nonprofit organizations and voluntary action. December 4-6, 1997. Indianapolis, IN.

Curtis, O., Hampton, A., Hougen, R., Howard, M., Johnston, S., McCoy, E., Peterson, D., Rutledge, J., Grieb, J., & Mullen, S. (1991). A guide to planning regional 4-H volunteer forums. National 4-H Council: Chevy Chase, MD.

Henderson, K.A. (1983). The motivation of men and women in volunteering. Journal of Volunteer Administration. 1(3): 20-24.

Rouse, S.B., & Clawson, B. (1992.) Motives and incentives of older adult volunteers: Tapping an aging population for youth development workers. The Journal of Extension [On-line]. 30(3). Available: