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Building Relationships within Your Club

Learning Objectives

  • Participants will identify ways to build and foster relationships with members.
  • Participants will list what options may be available for club members to participate in on a local, state and national level.
  • Participants will gain an understanding about the need for members to work independently.

Essential Elements: Belonging and Independence

4-H is one of the largest youth led organizations in the world, serving more than 6 million youths and nearly 200,000 adult volunteers. 4-H is a youth led model, where members make informed decisions for their clubs, with guidance from community adult leaders. A critical component of a successful 4-H club are relationships between leaders, parents, and members. Once members know that their opinions and ideas are valued, they are motivated to participate in club activities Li, J., & Julian, M. M. 2012).

Successful relationships occur within clubs when there are caring adults, defined goals, inclusive activities, community service and recognition (Murk, P.J. & Stephan, J.F. 1990). 

Caring Adults

Serving as an adult club volunteer creates the opportunity for developing a relationship with club members that can support them through the challenges of growing up and can last a lifetime. Allow for the time before and after meetings and during activities to talk with club members and get to know them. This also helps youths develop a sense of belonging with the 4-H club (Roehlkepartain, E. C. et. All. 2017).
Youth members are likely to be more successful in the 4-H program if their parents are involved (Radhakrishna, Foley, Ingram, & Ewing, 2013). Since we cannot require parent involvement, 4-H clubs often face a lack of parents (McKee, Taulbert & Barkman, 2002). However, most members are below the driving age and need a parent to bring them to the meeting.  By engaging parents as volunteers to assist with specific activities, it can create stronger family-based community clubs (Paisley& Ferrari 2005).
Some parents are unable to be involved. The 4-H volunteer could become invaluable as possibly the only positive and caring adult that they interact with consistently outside of the home. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are negative interactions that occur between the ages of birth to 21.  According to the Center for Disease Control, 61 percent of adults surveyed across 25 states reported experiencing at least one type of ACEs, and nearly 1 in 6 reported they had experienced four or more types of ACEs. Knowing that you may be the only positive influence with a member, makes your positive interactions essential for a youth’s development.  Consider how a high five can be valued differently by two children. To one it’s a simple gesture of friendship that doesn’t mean anything, but to another, it means that you took the time to acknowledge them personally.

Defined Goals

Setting and achieving goals are an integral process of club success. Often members believe they have defined and thoughtful goals. They begin motivated toward achieving them, only to look back weeks later after failure and wonder how they got so far off track. This is discouraging. Ideas to ensure goals are clear and reachable include:

  • making sure youths have a say in setting the goals,
  • f ollowing the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Time-bound) goals model,
  • having goals and expectations written down and shared,
  • determining responsibility for tasks, and
  • tracking progress with various updates.
When volunteer leaders foster and encourage the initial thought process and provide the structure for youths to implement, then the project will have longevity and the youths will have success! Achieving the goal together builds relationships among the members and volunteers (Radhakrishna, R. & Ewing, J. C. 2011).

Inclusive Activities

Youths need opportunities to be involved in activities that spark their own talents and interests to feel included and empowered (Matthew H Morton, P. M. 2012). Empowerment is defined as “the ability to get what one wants and needs.” 4-H is an empowering option for all youths when they are involved in decision making, develop friendships around a common interest, and gain life skills that transpire into their daily life.

By providing community access to 4-H programs regardless of location, beliefs, or titles, 4-H becomes an inclusive organization where anyone can become successful. An inclusive organization, (Sumner, R., Turner, A., & Burrow, A. L. 2018­):

  • recognizes that all people deserve to experience the 4-H program;
  • creates chances for all members to experience leading, discussing, and forming ideas;
  • values what each person brings to the table;
  • supports individual participation; and,
  • recognizes success while explaining failures.

Community Service

Many 4-H clubs are traditional community clubs. To encourage a strong bond between local leaders, community members and 4-H clubs, visible community service, such as sponsoring food drives or community night, is a great way to show the true impact of our clubs. Even by helping with the smallest of tasks, like cleaning up trash along a road or making crafts to be passed out for senior meal deliveries, 4-H youth volunteers can make a true difference with the lives of people, animals, and environments in need.

Volunteering is often viewed as a symbiotic relationship with both parties gaining valuable benefits (Murk, P.J. & Stephan, J.F. 1990). Teaching youths to think through each step, while giving guidance that will help make it a success can benefit members by showing them how to properly plan and execute a community service project. Most importantly, it shows members that no matter how big or small, 4-H makes a difference!


Whether it is a Blue ribbon, Gold Banner, or Traveling Trophy, members and communities like to be rewarded for their work and success (Holtham, M.M. 1989). Be sure to recognize members, officers, outside contributors, and those that support the club. Take the time to print certificates, send achievements to local news outlets, send thank you notes, and share social media recognition posts. Teach youths to do this as well. Members and the community will feel appreciated and valued by the 4-H organization. This also contributes to building positive relationships between 4-H and community groups.

Making it Real

Developing connections with youths is as simple as consistently taking the time to acknowledge and talk with them. By taking the time to develop relationships with youth members, you will have a better understanding of how to engage and include them, saving months of angst, confusion, and worry as you coordinate and plan events with your club.

Club Tool Box

  1. Remember YOU may be that one caring adult that makes a difference.
  2. Doing the activities (games, hiking, community service, woodworking, etc.) with youths creates the environment for talking and developing a relationship.
  3. Talking and listening are the keys to building relationships with youths.
  4. Setting and achieving goals together builds relationships among members and volunteers.
  5. Activities that are inclusive of different talents, skills and interests supports a sense of belonging among youths.
  6. Community service projects provide an opportunity to teamwork, talking and relationship development.
  7. Both community service and recognition of community partners contribute to building positive relationships between the 4-H program and the general public.


  • Holtham, M.M. (1989). Extension's blueprint for volunteer excellence. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Cooperative Extension Service, Cornell University.
  • Li, J., & Julian, M. M. (2012). Developmental relationships as an active ingredient: A unifying working hypoth-esis of “what works” across intervention settings. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 82(20), 157-166).
  • Matthew H Morton, P. M. (2012, December). Youth Empowerment Programs for improving adolescents' self-efficacy and self-esteem: A systematic review - Matthew H Morton, Paul Montgomery, 2013. SAGE Journals. Retrieved October 12, 2021, from
  • McKee, R. K., Talbert, B. A., & Barkman, S. J. (2002). The challenges associated with change in 4-H youth development. Journal of Extension [On-line], 40(2) Article 2FEA5.
  • Murk, P.J. & Stephan, J.F. (1990). Volunteers enhance the quality of life in a community...or (How to get them, train them and keep them). Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education. Salt Lake City, UT: October 28 - November 3. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 326 639).
  • Paisley, J. E., & Ferrari, T. M. (2005, April). Extent of Positive Youth-Adult Relationships in a 4-H After-School Program. Extent of positive youth-adult relationships in a 4-H after-school program. Retrieved from
  • Radhakrishna, R. & Ewing, J. C. (2011). Relationships between 4-H volunteer leader competencies and skills youth learn in 4-H programs. Journal of Extension [On-line], 49(4). Article 4RIB2.
  • Radhakrishna, R., Foley, C., Ingram, P., & Ewing, J. C. (2013). Effectiveness of the 4-H program as perceived by parents of 4-H participants. Journal of Extension [On-line] 51(4) Article 4RIB8.   
  • Roehlkepartain, E. C., Pekel, K., Syvertsen, A. K., Sethi, J., Sullivan, T., K., 7 Scales, P. C. (2017). Relationships first: Creating connections that help young people thrive. Minneapolis, MN: Search Institute
  • Sumner, R., Turner, A., & Burrow, A. L. (2018). Diversity and inclusion as essential elements of 4-H Youth Development Programs. Journal of Youth Development. Retrieved October 12, 2021, from National 4-H Peer Reviewed Checkmark of Approval.
Authors:  Michael Withrow , WVU Extension Agent,  Berkeley County, and  Kelly Hicks , WVU Extension Agent,  Hampshire County
Published: September 2022

Strong 4-H Clubs Series passed National 4-H Peer Review in February 2022