As an agency that relies on a strong volunteer workforce, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service is on the forefront of making sure volunteers are engaged, not merely managed. A new article in the Journal of Extension explores how shared leadership and decision-making with volunteers helps ensure a positive return on investment and greater community impact.
Meeting the needs of volunteers is critical to keeping them trained, engaged and mobilized to leverage our agency’s outreach, wrote Andy Crocker, collaborator in the journal article. Crocker, located in Amarillo, is an AgriLife Extension statewide program specialist in gerontology and health who oversees the agency’s Master Wellness Volunteer program.
“Volunteers are as fundamental to Extension work as our reliance on research-based information,” the journal article stated.
But just as the volunteers are helping the agency meet its needs and goals, the agency must be prepared to help meet the needs and goals of the volunteer.
Master volunteers provide time, resources to help meet agency goals
Within AgriLife Extension, opportunities abound but time and resources do not. Volunteers, especially the Master volunteer programs the agency has developed, are a strategy to reach every Texan when the resources or the priorities of the agency are stretched.
Master volunteers are local citizens with a particular interest in a topic or set of issues, and AgriLife Extension provides them further training to increase their knowledge and skill in that area. Master volunteer programs offered by AgriLife Extension include Master Gardener, Texas Master Naturalist and Master Wellness Volunteers.
“Our AgriLife Extension county agents will always remain the face of the agency in a community,” Crocker said. “But we are increasingly needing to employ a variety of strategies to reach Texans – continuing to build and empower our volunteers is one of those tools.”
With more than 93,000 volunteers engaged in programming in all 254 counties during 2019, AgriLife Extension is able to reach out to all Texans, said Laura Huebinger, Ed.D., AgriLife Extension state volunteer specialist, Bryan-College Station. Huebinger is tasked with ensuring AgriLife Extension agents and specialists are equipped with the knowledge, tools and resources needed to train and engage volunteers in Extension education.
“With some of our volunteers – our Master volunteers – we invest a lot of time and training to deploy trusted peer-educators into communities,” Huebinger said.
To be qualified as a Master volunteer, individuals must complete a specified number of hours of specialized training in their subject, provide 40 or more volunteer hours in their community, and be able to lead educational programs in the subject.
Developing a corps of peer educators
Jayla Fry, Texas Master Gardener program coordinator, Bryan-College Station, said the Master Gardener program in Texas has been operating for more than 40 years. It has included a Junior Master Gardener program for the past 20 years.
Fry said the volunteers logged more than 600,000 hours in 2019. In addition to answering more than 16,000 phone calls and making about 2,500 presentations concerning gardening, they spent time working on community beautification, demonstration gardens, youth gardens and a variety of other horticulture-related projects.
Mary Pearl Meuth, assistant state coordinator for the Texas Master Naturalist program, said certified Master Naturalists are dedicated to the beneficial management of natural resources and natural areas in their communities.
Meuth said there are 50 Master Naturalist chapters formed across the state in conjunction with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the over 5,188 active certified members logged more than 491,198 hours in 2019 on projects like water quality testing, maintaining nature trails, improving wetland habitats and conducting interpretive programs in state parks and schools.
Crocker said in 2019, Master Wellness volunteers in 38 counties conducted 2,027 educational events, reached 56,176 Texans and reported 8,689 hours of service.
“Our 2020 numbers through the end of September are clocking in right around 50%, but I’m still pleased with that as I expected everything going on with the pandemic to just decimate volunteer-led activities,” he said.
Crocker said since its inception, AgriLife Extension has sought and innovated new ways to leverage outreach and education into communities, and Master volunteers are an extremely important part of that innovation.
“Peer education is one of the pillars of Extension education, and who better to do peer education than trained peers,” he said. “We just have to figure out the best way they can work to support what we do and how we do it.”
Maintaining a satisfied volunteer workforce
Crocker said it is a delicate balance to manage this large “workforce” of the agency. In their paper, he and his colleagues outlined a plan for Extension agents to help shift the focus when dealing with volunteers from: “What do I do with my volunteers?” to “What can my volunteers do?”
“We need or want them to do things with/through/for us, but we have to reconcile that with what they want to do, what they’re trying to get out of this process,” he said. “We cannot expect our volunteers to be or treat them like unpaid employees. This is where the concepts of shared decision-making, co-leadership, etc., come in.”
Crocker said it is a balance of what requires the time of the county agent and what can be done by a trained, trusted “Master” volunteer. It is important to recognize the benefits these volunteers bring: access to groups agents can’t readily get entrée to or maybe experience or expertise those agents don’t have.