In 2019, Ohio 4-H enrollment statistics showed there were 9,495 third and fourth graders enrolled in community 4-H clubs across the state compared to 5,676 11th and 12th grade youth. Conflicting time commitments with school and community activities has been identified as the main reason for youth departure from the 4-H program (Defore, Fuhrman, Peake, & Duncan 2011). Additionally, adult volunteers also can play a large role in the retention of 4-H members. Youth need the right amount of support from adults; the amount needed changes as youth become more skilled (Larson, Hansen, & Walker 2005). Youth that remain involved in 4-H discover benefits of continued participation (Gill, Ewing, & Bruce 2010). By engaging and supporting older youth as participants, their likelihood for retention increases.
Valuable Volunteer Skills
Volunteers are the individuals who work with 4-H members to engage them in project work and club activities. Homan, Bloir, and Epley (2017) conducted a study evaluating specific areas of knowledge, skills, and abilities of 4-H volunteers. This study found that 4-H families, advisors, and professionals rated volunteer competencies of interpersonal characteristics and positive youth development as the most important. Positive youth development encompasses the framework and theories explaining the methodology of 4-H’s activities used to achieve desired outcomes and impacts, while interpersonal characteristics relate to personality traits. Specific personality traits of volunteers mentioned as important in this study include:
- Fun/sense of humor
- Passion for 4-H and youth
- Willingness to learn
- Willingness to invest personal resources
Having an awareness of this information will enable 4-H professionals to select, orient, and train volunteers who will be able to engage youth throughout their tenure as 4-H members.
Challenges in Working with Adults
While some youth report positive relationships with their club volunteers, many youths reported inappropriate behavior exhibited by adults and parents, uninvolved and unsupportive volunteers, as well as volunteers who were overly involved (Albright & Ferrari 2010). Additional challenges teens have working with adults include:
- Adults not allowing teens to do enough.
- Adults not listening to teens.
- Adults not accepting (or having a willingness to try) new ideas or activities.
- Adults not understanding teens.
- Adults not trusting or allowing teens to have responsibility.
- Adults not clearly communicating deadlines and rules.
- Adults making all the decisions and not allowing youth to have a voice related to types of programming and events.
- Adults not showing appreciation for teens.
Why Youth Continue Involvement and Tips to Encourage Their Engagement
Even though there may be challenges, 13,160 youth in grades 9-12 were involved in the Ohio 4-H program in 2019. Youth continue involvement in the 4-H program for many reasons. Some of these include:
- Attending high quality 4-H club meetings. Key components to encourage youth involvement include:
- Encouraging older members to take on enhanced leadership roles within the 4-H club, such as club officers, committee members, and mentors of younger members.
- Having a balanced focus on the business at hand and time for member interaction and socialization. Add fun to the meetings, activities, and experiences. Implementing fun activities in 4-H club work will engage youth and keep them involved. Vibrant youth groups work hard and play hard, making sure fun is not forgotten in the 4-H experience (Astroth 1996). Things that could add interest to 4-H club meetings:
- Nominate and vote on an “Office of Fun” instead of a recreation leader.
- Invite outside speakers to talk with your 4-H club. The use of online videos and web conferencing can enhance these club experiences.
- Plan a 4-H club tour.
- Challenge your recreation officer to bring games to the 4-H club that can involve everyone.
- Organize a community service project so everyone can participate.
- Having high levels of responsibility and personal commitment. Provide opportunities that allow for youth to be actively engaged.
- This can occur by encouraging youth-led discussions, promoting youth decision making and providing opportunities in order to maximize opportunities for youth development of mastery and independence (Cassel, Post, & Nester 2015).
- Take the members suggestions seriously and try to guide them in leading their 4-H club. Do not do things for them that they can and want to do for themselves.
- Opportunities to plan their own programs such as community service, guest speakers, or project specific items such as career development.
- Being able to fully discover ideas, make decisions, and evaluate outcomes by being in real life problem-solving situations.
- Positive parental involvement and support.
- Positive experiences with competition.
- Participation in 4-H club, county, state, and national activities.
- Enjoy being part of a group.
- Guidance and support from adult leaders and staff. This may include:
- Showing care and dedication. Make an effort to get to know each youth and what is unique about them.
- An easy way to accomplish this is by varying the ways in which the 4-H club conducts roll call at each meeting. For example, after their name is called for attendance, have them reply with not the typical “here” but with their favorite food, song, movie, etc.
- Respecting them and expecting respect as well.
- Letting teens know what is expected and communicating these expectations to them.
- Learning needs, wants, and expectations and then providing it for them.
- Being open to suggestions and constructive feedback.
- Being aware of what is really going on. Be fair and reasonable.
- Encouraging youth by helping them to see their positive self-worth.
- Demonstrating a positive attitude of confidence and trust.
- Showing care and dedication. Make an effort to get to know each youth and what is unique about them.
- Programs that adjust to their needs as they get older.
There are additional strategies to ensure that youth are engaged in the 4-H club.
- Recognize members. All 4-H members appreciate a little recognition for their time, efforts, and achievements. Infuse methods of recognizing all youth in your club. Consider fun awards for small achievements, notes on birthdays, have benchmarks in attendance, camp participation, membership in Junior Leaders, CARTEENS, or another similar county wide 4-H group. A simple “Hello and thanks for coming!” as youth arrive to meetings is a great start. Track your acknowledgements as not to miss members throughout the club year.
- Utilize social media platforms. As a result of technology and social media platforms, youth are increasingly connected beyond the school and 4-H club environments. Social media offers the potential to promote club opportunities and added communication with youth. Youth organizations can strategically communicate and foster positive youth development via social media (Ah & Horsley 2017). 4-H clubs can develop shared event calendars, social media group pages, online polls to schedule events and meetings, and send group communication through text and apps. Clubs can even consider hosting video conference calls for members who may not be able to attend a face-to -ace meeting. These technology tools and strategies can strengthen connections, contributions, and confidence among club members (Ah & Horsley 2017). As you get started, consider these tips to engage youth using social media:
- Ask participants how they prefer to communicate with each other.
- Post updates often to keep information fresh and relevant.
- Monitor digital outreach to ensure youth privacy and protections.
Older youth have many activities available to them that demand their time. Of these various activities, the 4-H club program can position itself to be of value to older youth if leadership opportunities are integrated into the structure. 4-H volunteers must work with young people to develop programs and activities that address the needs of older youth to maintain their interest and involvement. Allowing them to have responsibility and ownership of the program assists in this process. Keeping meetings fun, listening to youth, appropriately recognizing youth, incorporating social media, and ensuring that youth retain a feeling of ownership of their 4-H clubs will help keep older youth engaged in 4-H club programs.
Ah, R. & Horsley, J. (2017). The role of social media on positive youth development: An analysis of 4-H Facebook page and 4-H’ers’ positive development. Children and Youth Services Review, 77, 127-138.
Albright, M., & Ferrari, T.M. (2010). “Push” and “Pull” A Qualitative Study of Factors that Contribute to Older Youth Leaving the 4-H Program. Journal of Youth Development, 5(3), 55-74. Retrieved from yd.pitt.edu/ojs/jyd/article/view/209
Astroth, K. (1996). Welcome to the Club: Education where the bell never rings. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Bozeman, MT: Montana State University. Retrieved from scholarworks.montana.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1/7484/31762102377957.pdf?sequence=1
Cassels, A., Post, L., Nestor, P. (2015). The 4-H Club Meeting: An Essential Youth Development Strategy. Journal of Extension; 53(1). Retrieved from joe.org/joe/2015february/pdf/JOE_v53_1a4.pdf
Defore, A. B., Fuhrman, N. E., Peake, J. B., & Duncan, D. W. (2011). Factors influencing 4-H club enrollment and retention in Georgia. Journal of Youth Development, 6(2), 60-73. Retrieved from jyd.pitt.edu/ojs/jyd/article/view/188
Gill, B. E., Ewing, J.C., & Bruce, J. A. (2010). Factors Affecting Teen Involvement in Pennsylvania 4-H Programming. Journal of Extension, 48(2). Retrieved from www.joe.org/joe/2010april/a7.php
Homan, D. M., Bloir, K. L., & Epley, H. K. (2017). Evaluating Volunteer Competencies to Achieve Organizational Goals. International Journal of Volunteer Administration, 32(2), 35-49. Retrieved from www.ijova.org/docs/Full_Issue_November_2017_(1).pdf
Larson, R., Hansen, D., & Walker, K. (2005). Everybody's gotta give: Development of initiative and teamwork within a youth program. In J. L. Mahoney, R. W. Larson, & J. S. Eccles (Eds.), Organized activities as contexts of development: Extracurricular activities, after-school and community programs (p. 159–183). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.