Fall 1986 // Volume 24 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA4

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4-H Volunteer Training - Who Needs It

Implications for planning volunteer training.

Mary Jo Cook
Program Leader/4-H, Central Region
The Pennsylvania State University - Altoona

Nancy Ellen Kiernan
Department of Agricultural Science and Rural Sociology
The Pennsylvania State University - University Park

Harold R. Ott
Program Leader/4-H, Western Region
The Pennsylvania State University - University Park

A Myth?

Many Extension agents believe that 4-H volunteers don't want to participate in leadership development, an area that includes teaching methods, 4-H philosophy, subject-matter content for projects, and child psychology.1 Specifically, agents may believe that:

  • Volunteers who've led a 4-H Club for years know about 4-H from experience and consequently don't need further training.
  • Volunteers who've had previous training through 4-H, other organizations, college, or who've taught school, have less desire for additional training.
  • Many volunteers respond favorably to one-to-one help from agents, and agents assume volunteers prefer this method of training.
  • Many volunteers don't attend county training meetings planned by agents.
  • A few volunteers request leadership training, but not enough to make a leadership development program worth planning.

These ideas pervaded the thinking of many professional Extension agents in north central and western Pennsylvania.2 If the agents' perceptions about volunteers were correct and, as a result, leadership training wasn't provided, the potential for improvement or expansion of the program in these regions could have been in jeopardy. In fact, experts on volunteer organizations have suggested that:

One of the reasons that volunteer turnover may be so great is that they (volunteers) receive insufficient training. Without good training, volunteers may not be able to do their assigned jobs well or to get the intrinsic rewards they expected.3

The lack of leadership training in 4-H could result in poor education for 4-H youth, discontented volunteers, and an increased burden in volunteer recruitment for agents. It was important, therefore, for agents to find out if their impressions were a myth or if indeed volunteers did want leadership training.

Solution: Needs/Interest Assessment

In 1984, 23 county Extension agents in north central and western Pennsylvania agreed to survey their more than 2,400 volunteer 4-H leaders to find out what the volunteers perceived their training needs to be and what delivery method they thought was most effective for each need. The survey asked the volunteers about their previous training and years of experience in 4-H to see if these 2 characteristics made a difference in the kind of training and method they wanted.

A seven-page survey was developed, precoded, pretested, and distributed to the agents, who then mailed the surveys to volunteers in their counties. A record was kept of the volunteers who returned the survey, and follow-up contacts were made every two weeks with those who didn't respond. Follow-ups included a postcard, a second survey, and a final postcard. Of the volunteers, 1,533 (64%) respondents returned the needs/interest assessment; of these, 97% were usable. Three percent weren't usable, primarily because the respondents were no longer volunteers.

Table 1. Relationship between the desire for leadership training and previous training.
Aspects of leadership
Percentage of leaders wanting
future training
Club mechanics  
1. Program planning
92.7 %
80.8 %
2. Agenda building
3. Committee functions
4. The 4-H Club meeting
5. Parliamentary procedure
Leadership roles  
6. Recruitment of 4-H members
7. Recruitment of 4-H leaders
8. Working with teen leaders
9. Role of the 4-H leader
10. Stages of youth development
Public relations  
11. Building exhibits
12. Demonstrations
13. Public speaking
Program development  
14. The purpose of 4-H
15. Teaching tools and methods
16. Project/subject materials
17. Project completion and scoring
Awards and recognition  
18. Blue forms and national awards
19. Events/opportunities for members
20. Events/opportunities for leaders
Leisure education  
21. Recreation
22. Song leading
23. Camping
*Under the assumption that the two groups represent simple random sample, those differences measured by chi square and marked * would be significant at the.05 level.


The survey form listed 23 aspects of leadership (see Table 1) and asked respondents to indicate if they wanted or needed training in each one by circling "the most effective way for you to receive this help: group training sessions at county or multicounty level. one-to-one help from county staff or another leader, or-printed materials in the form of a newsletter or handbook." If they didn't want training in a particular aspects of leadership, respondents were asked to circle "none."4

In every aspect of leadership development identified in the survey, at least two-thirds of the volunteers indicated a desire to participate in training; the percentage ranged from a low of 64% in song leading and parliamentary procedure to a high of 85% in both events and opportunities for members and leaders. The results of the needs/interest assessment point out that there's a hunger for training on the part of volunteers in north central and western Pennsylvania.

Effects of Previous Training

For each aspect of leadership, respondents were asked to indicate if they'd had previous training that had helped them carry out 4-H responsibilities. As shown in Table 1, respondents indicated their previous training was varied. As expected, the volunteers with no previous training were more likely than those with previous training to express a desire for future training.

Effects of Tenure

Volunteers were asked the length of time they'd worked as volunteers in 4-H-their tenure. Respondents were equally represented in each of the tenure groupings: 1-2 years (30%), 3-5 years (34%), 6 or more years (36%).

In general (14 of 23 aspects of leadership), tenure made no substantial difference in whether the volunteers wanted training. In the nine aspects of leadership where a relationship existed, it was in the expected direction-volunteers with fewer years of experience desired more training.

Priorities for Training

Overall, the volunteers demonstrated a hunger for training in all aspects of leadership. In this era of limited resources, however, developing a realistic training program for volunteers requires selecting some leadership aspects to set priorities. Listed in Table 2 are the aspects of leadership requested most often by volunteers.

In addition, the results were analyzed to find the 10 aspects of leadership each tenure group wanted to participate in most. In the seven top priorities, tenure didn't influence the selection of the training need, but tenure did influence the selection of the last three training needs for each tenure group (see Figure 1).

Table 2. Aspects of leadership training wanted most
by volunteers.
Aspect of leadership % wanting
(N =1,480)
Events/opportunities for leaders 85%
Events/opportunities for members 85
Blue forms and national awards 84
Project/subject materials 83
Teaching tools and methods 80
Project completion and scoring 80
Building exhibits 78
Working with teen leaders 78
Role of the 4-H leader 77
Program planning 76
Demonstrations 76

Figure 1. Priorities in aspects of leadership by tenure.
18 - Blue forms and national awards
19 - Events/opportunities for members
20 - Events/opportunities for leaders
15 - Teaching tools and methods
16 - Project/subject materials
17 - Project completion and scoring
11 - Building exhibits
9 - Role of the 4-H leader
8 - Working with teen leaders
12 - Demonstrations
1 - Program planning
2 - Agenda building

Methods for Training

The survey asked volunteers to identify what was the most effective delivery method for each aspect of leadership in which they wanted training. The question format, outlined previously, included two types of one-to-one help-from another leader and from a county staff member; two types of group training-county meetings and multicounty meetings; and two types of printed materials-handbook and newsletter.

No one method received a consensus from a majority of volunteers as most effective. For each aspect of leadership, a similar pattern emerged: the majority of volunteers who wanted training divided their support among three methods. For example, in project/subject materials (N =1,221), 30% chose group training at the county meeting, 25% chose handbook, and 24% chose one-to-one help from county staff (for a total of 79% of those who wanted training in that area); the rest divided minimally among all other methods. Listed in Table 3 are the aspects of leadership, the percentage, and number of volunteers that chose the methods effective.

Only one method, the county meeting, was selected as effective in all aspects of leadership. However, the support for the county meeting in each aspect of leadership only came from a third of the volunteers.5

If future training should be based on what volunteers consider the most effective method, a variety of training methods will need to be used to reach a majority of the volunteers in any aspect of leadership.

Dispelling the Myth

Despite the impression that agents had about volunteers not wanting to participate in training, the needs/interest assessment dramatically demonstrated that volunteers themselves appreciate and recognize their need for leadership development. Regardless of years of 4-H experience, volunteers indicated an interest in participating in a wide variety of topics. Only volunteers with previous training were somewhat less likely to want training.

Also, despite many agents' impressions that volunteers prefer one-to-one help, volunteers in fact have identified a variety of methods to receive training, and methods most preferred depend on the particular aspect of leadership.

Evidence also supports the agents' perception that volunteers don't wish to attend county meetings. This study suggests that it's not because they don't want training. Volunteers do want training. Rather, two-thirds of volunteers suggest that other methods besides the county meeting would be effective for them.

The implications of this study for Extension agents planning to train volunteers are:

  • Consider a leadership development program for your volunteers. Whatever reluctance volunteers seem to have about training, it shouldn't be interpreted as a lack of desire for training.
  • Consider a needs/interest assessment of your volunteers. Survey the volunteers themselves to determine their needs and the methods they find effective. Don't rely solely on volunteers who routinely communicate with you.
  • Consider training in a particular aspect of leadership using more than one method.


Some of the benefits of going directly to volun teers to determine their training needs include:

  1. Involving volunteers in a needs/interest assessment will make them stakeholders in the leadership development process and enhance their commitment to any training programs resulting from a study.
  2. You may find as we did that volunteers want training and share priorities, but they feel that the most effective training methods vary with each priority.
  3. The evidence from a needs/interest assessment should give you a comprehensive picture of what your volunteers feel their training needs are.
  4. Specifically, a needs/interest assessment will provide a stronger basis for selecting the priority topics and delivery methods.
  5. You'll have confidence that the time and effort required for a new program is justified.
  6. A needs/interest assessment can help legitimize program direction with advisory committees and funders.
Table 3. Volunteer preferred methods for training.
Aspect of leadership Percentage N   Delivery methods
Program planning 69% 1125  
Agenda building 69 1068  
Committee functions 71 1061  
Parliamentary procedure 79 943 County meeting
Role of the 4-H leader 72 1138 1 to 1: county staff
The purpose of 4-H 71 1066 Handbook
Teaching tools and methods 74 1183  
Project/subject materials 79 1221  
Project completion and scoring 82 1186  
Blue forms and national awards 76 1227  
Recruitment of 4-H leaders 70 1025  
Working with teen leaders 72 1148 County meeting
Building exhibits 69 1154 Multicounty meeting
Demonstrations 72 1127 1 to 1: county staff
Public speaking 74 1045  
Stages of youth development 74 1084 County meeting
Recreation 68 1036 Multicounty meeting
Song leading 71 950 Handbook
Camping 69 986  
Events/opportunities for members 77 1257 County meeting
Eventslopportunities for leaders 78 1237 1 to 1: county staff
      County meeting
The 4-H Club meeting 71 1046 1 to 1: another
      leader Handbook
      County meeting
Recruitment of 4-H members 68 991 1 to 1: county staff
      1 to 1: another leader


Don't just rely on your perceptions of what you think volunteers want or, for that matter, on the few volunteers who communicate with you most often. Instead, survey all the volunteers through a needs/ interest assessment to find out if they want training, and if so, in what areas.


  1. Although 4-H adult volunteers in Pennsylvania are called 4-H leaders, the term "volunteer" is used so readers can apply the rationale of this project to their own volunteer program.
  2. During 1983-84, these ideas were expressed to us when we questioned agents in 23 counties about the amount of their training for volunteers.
  3. Armand Lauffer and Sara Gorodezky, Volunteers (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1977).
  4. The question was asked in this form to reduce any tendency for respondents to say they needed training, when in fact they weren't really willing to attend. In addition, respondents were asked, "When would be the best time for you to participate in leader training programs?"Answer categories included weeknights, weekdays, and Saturdays.
  5. County meetings represented the choice of 28-39% of volunteers, depending on the aspect of leadership.