Why do we do this anyway?

Strategies for aligning the functions of a 4-H advisory group with their purpose.

“What is the purpose of your advisory group?” It is a common question asked by trainers visiting county 4-H program advisory councils and committees. While most volunteers serving on a 4-H advisory group may cite fundraising, program growth or member recognition as important tasks, trainers challenge advisory group members to consider their ultimate purpose as it relates to 4-H: positive youth development.

Many times, 4-H advisory groups maintain busy annual event calendars filled with fundraisers, banquets and educational meetings. While these activities are important to the success of the county-wide 4-H program, it’s important for advisory groups to revisit their purpose from time to time and discuss how their activities align with youth development objectives. Consider this hypothetical anecdote:

A 4-H advisory council meets monthly, and spends on average 80 percent of their meeting time discussing the management challenges associated with the 4-H fair kitchen, the biggest fundraiser of the group. In reality, the profits from the kitchen bring the group a meager revenue each year. One wise council member posed an important question, “Why do we do this anyway?” This was quickly met with answers from seasoned volunteer council members, “Because my family has been eating in that kitchen for generations “or “Because my relatives look forward to it.”

Certainly tradition has a place in any community-based organization, however, the question provided pause for those council members considering, “What does this 4-H kitchen have to do with youth development?” The council members then engaged in a meaningful conversation about the big-picture purpose of the kitchen: providing life skills for youth who volunteer and funding for educational experiences and scholarships. After a brief tangent from the task at hand, council members were able to re-focus their efforts on their big-picture purpose. Council members who were previously feeling buried in minutia were reminded of the purpose of the activity, and able to press forward with renewed enthusiasm while ensuring the significant time investment they put towards that project continues to connect back to youth outcomes.

For 4-H advisory groups looking to keep the group energized and focused on its purpose, consider the following strategies:

  • Write. Assure the 4-H advisory group has a purpose statement in writing. This is required in order to be a chartered 4-H organization and should make up the first article of any 4-H advisory group’s bylaws. If you’re looking for tips and ideas on writing your purpose statement, refer to the Michigan State University Extension article written by Roxanne Turner about how to write an effective purpose statement.
  • Review. Review the group’s purpose statement and bylaws at least annually. An even better technique is to include the group’s purpose statement front and center on meeting agendas or posted in the meeting space.
  • Ask. Encourage a quick pause for open, honest dialogue about how 4-H advisory group activities relate to that stated purpose.
  • Revisit. Once something has been put in writing or done for a number of consecutive years, it can still be changed. Purpose statements aren’t written in stone and should be updated to reflect the current goals of a group. Similarly, activities may need to be re-worked on a regular basis in order to keep programs vibrant or to better accomplish a group’s goals.

Occasionally, tradition and statements like, “That’s the way we’ve always done things” can unnecessarily narrow a group or program’s potential. Groups that engage in honest, open communication and that are receptive to new ideas grounded in youth development will result in the most vibrant 4-H programs.

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