Learn How to Recruit and Keep Active 4-H Members In Your County- Part 1


A disturbing trend is being felt in 4-H groups across the nation. Enrollment of new members is on the decline. Directors and club leaders are concerned over how to keep their current members, as well as reach out to new families.

As a 4-H family, it is hard to imagine my family ever leaving the program. This presented a problem, myself and the other leaders, already knew all of the benefits to the program. We have to figure out why families are leaving, and how to reach new members. However, our own love of the program makes it hard to notice these issue, much less address them. The only logical step from here was to take it to social media.
If there is one thing social media will always be good for, its getting opinions. I am a member of several “women in agriculture” and “parenting” groups online, so I had an opportunity to ask, and hear answers, from women literally across the world!

I must admit, some of the responses were a bit shocking to me! Although the reasons varied, there was one consistency throughout every comment, they all were valuable. It is important to know that everyone I am going to quote was very enthusiastic about helping. No matter what, they ALL wanted to help and still believed strongly in 4-H and its importance!

This two part article will discuss what I learned.

Struggling with the image

It is not uncommon to hear children that live in the city say that they “can’t” join 4-H because they do not have a farm or livestock. As a whole, the 4-H program offers numerous options for children that are not able to, or do not want to, work with livestock and agriculture. However, many people do not even know that they need to look, much less where to look.

There needs to be an effort made to reach out to these potential members and inform them of the opportunities. Some ideas to do this would be to contact local schools science clubs, host a “spring break” or “summer camp” program that will cover these additional subjects with attendees, and reaching out to various churches and youth groups.
At the same time, we have to be careful to lose emphasis on the agricultural side of the program. There needs to be a balance between catering to these children in different demographics and with differing tastes.

Finding the Balance

“I left when I got older and I regret it now.
But I think it was because my parents didn’t let me do the animal side of things like I would have enjoyed. We had the livestock – but lack of want to haul them back and forth to the show barn and the willingness to stay there with them.
Mind you, I got all kinds of county champions ribbons in Aerospace, Geology, Foods and Nutrition, Plants and Soils, and Animal Sciences, plus god knows what else. But there isn’t really any involvement to take any of those projects to state. Just a put your project together, make a nice display, and talk about it. We did small pets and dogs/cats, and had fun (taking our heelers around groups of tiny dogs was a sight to see!), but I mean, it wasn’t the same.
Maybe it was because my parents were leaders and didn’t have time because they were not only helping us, but other kids too, I can’t really say.
I think the trick is to make the projects more involved.” – Afton Sisney

Along with spreading the word that 4-H isn’t JUST about agriculture, we need to make sure that we provide opportunities for those families as well. We can preach that 4-H isn’t just “sows, cows and plows” anymore, but our words are useless if we do not do anything with these projects. Simply giving a kid an activity book and telling them to come to meetings is not enough.

4-H has numerous programs that go beyond agriculture. Handcrafts are a great way for your students to learn skills, and creativity!


Don’t forget the homeschoolers and specialty groups

Too often, people focus on going to the public-school classrooms to talk to children about 4-H.
Homeschool families are often hammered with the dreaded “s” word, socialization. Due to this, many homeschool families work extra hard to ensure that their children are deeply involved in various programs that will give them a variety of social opportunities.
Homeschool groups also often have very active parental figures. In most, not all, homeschooling families, at least one parent stays at home to focus on educating their children. This means that kids will be available to help at off hours, and parents will have more availability as well.

Similar to homeschoolers, many states are offering online public school opportunities! This option is like homeschool in that it is done at home, and under the supervision of a parent or guardian. However, the child will take online classes and do “live lessons” with their teachers. With that being said, these online schools host events and clubs throughout the state. They are always looking for ways to involve students and to connect them to their community and others. Reaching out to these groups would give you access to yet another group that is often overlooked!

Learn more about why your 4-H program needs homeschool families!

Other Commitments

A few parents commented that they had overheard band directors or coaches telling kids that they didn’t have time for both activities. Some even said they heard them telling kids that 4-H wouldn’t benefit them like their programs will!
Sometimes, we do need to admit that there are simply not enough hours in the day to do it all. That’s a tough lesson for adults, much less teenagers. With that said, as 4-H leaders, coaches, band directors, or any adult that a child turns to for advice, we do not need to manipulate their decision to our will. From some of the parents, I got the impression that it was like military recruiters when it came to these various programs. All of them were saying why the kid would miss out if they didn’t join up with their “service”. We should never put a child in that situation. If we are approached, we need to be able to have a fair and balanced talk with the child and encourage them to weigh the pros and cons to form a decision.
Not only is this a great teaching opportunity and life skill, it is the honorable thing to do for the sake of the child. Our job, as 4-H leaders, coaches or any other mentor figure is never to create more stress or turmoil for these kids!


Sports are a great benefit to youth! However, sports and 4-H do not have to be exclusive to one another. One reason that high school students in particular leave 4-H for sports is because they are told that they need the scholarships they can earn through them. Many people do not know that 4-H offers scholarships! Another way to help combat this is to ensure that your scholarship programs are well advertised and visible. There are numerous options for scholarships, at county, state and national level, but it will not do the member any good if they do not know about them.
A way to help this is to request a meeting with local sports leaders and groups. Create an atmosphere of cooperation, not an attitude of making a child have to choose. We are always more effective when working with our community leaders.

Losing the value of lessons

“It also feels like 4H is just about one upping other clubs, other families, other kids etc. It is a huge ribbon race and the knowledge keeps going out the door. We can do weekend shows and chase ribbons without having to take so much time off work or spending so much on a week at fair.
We need to see families actually doing the care of the animals. Folks with money, and that’s great, come in, purchase a very expensive animal, then have experienced families and showman raise it, or professionals train it, while they have almost zero contact until fair time. And I get so irritated at older showman happily taking payment for the above, as well as doing almost all the fitting until it is time to go in the ring, then it is handed off to Jonnie or Suzie.” Audra Bryant

This is probably the most difficult problem to work with, but one that came up several times. The banner chasers. There has been a trend to dump tons of money, not truly involve the students, and let the child take credit for all of the work. This is disturbing because it strays from the entire point of livestock projects- to teach responsibility and business skills.
With that said, how do we deal with this problem? After all, it is not a crime to have money for an expensive animal. A child shouldn’t be punished for that, just like they shouldn’t be punished for NOT having money.
One idea that was presented was to ban, “professionals” at county shows. This would mean that the children would be responsible for the care, fitting, and all work with their stock for these shows. Professional fitters would not be allowed.
Although to many that may seem drastic, the playing field can be evened by having the professional fitters come to give clinics for ALL of the 4-H kids!
The second idea was to encourage proper 4-H values. By having added prizes, and awards for those that are seen sticking to the 4-H values, and going above and beyond with their stock. Eventually, these awards will be noticed by all of the competitors, and the ideals should start to shift. Essentially, we would be giving the kids an HONORABLE banner to chase!

Dump the Drama

“I loved it, and the connections etc, but our club was faltering due to some destructive kids and parents, and it just became a nightmare by the time I switched to independent. And by that point I was so disillusioned by some of what was occurring in the “political” sense, that I just wanted to do my thing, and not have to deal with the drama.” Elizabeth Schultz

This is another tough one to deal with. Drama on any level, from kids or parents can be a fine line to walk. Make sure that your leaders and volunteers know that you have a zero tolerance for drama or anything that negatively affects the program. Do not let people be chased out by overbearing parents or kids that are bullies. Be sure that you have a protocol for handling this within your clubs and county.

With that being said, make sure that your club leaders know your policy on how to handle these situations. It is also wise to make sure that you, and they, know what their legal protection is in the event of a very problematic parent.

Don’t miss more tips! Continue reading Part 2!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *