Renée K. McKee, Assistant Director of Purdue Extension, State 4-H Program Leader Purdue University
Epsilon Sigma Phi Distinguished Ruby Award Lecture
Indianapolis, IN
October 8, 2014

Good morning  --- and please let me begin by letting you know how humbled and honored I am to be standing before you today as the 2014 Epsilon Sigma Phi, Ruby Award Recipient. It is an extreme honor to be with you as my colleagues from the Alpha Lambda Chapter host this 2014 National meeting here in Indianapolis, and I sincerely hope that you’ve been enjoying our capital city and this historic property. It is also very special to receive this honor during the year in which we are celebrating the centennial of the signing of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, the launch of the Cooperative Extension System, and our collective promise to the future of a unique system and the contemporary application of Extension’s transformational, educational programming. It was quite a surprise to learn this spring that my colleagues in the Alpha Lambda Chapter had worked behind the scenes and without my knowledge to prepare and submit my nomination for this distinguished honor. It was an even bigger surprise to receive the notification that I would be the 2014 recipient of this award. I have a number of people with me today who have contributed to my being here, to my successes during my career, and I would like to take just a bit of time to acknowledge them for having provided unwavering support as I’ve journeyed through my life and career with Purdue Extension.

Though I don’t recall a specific conversation as I was growing up, I also don’t remember a time that I didn’t understand that I would be a first generation college student. I am extremely grateful that my parents instilled in me the importance of education and made it possible for my journey through a life and career focused on lifelong learning. I’m sure my Dad is looking down at this moment and is smiling ear to ear to see me at this podium, and I am grateful that my mother was able to join my family here today. My husband, Jim is also with me and I must acknowledge his love and support during my career. I am certain that everyone in this room understands, Extension isn’t just a job or career, but it becomes one’s lifestyle. As I reflect over the past 35 years, there have been times when I was gone from home more than I was there, or was buried in paperwork or on the computer, yet Jim was always there keeping the home fires burning. This brings me to our daughter Rachel and her fiancé, John Carroll who were able to travel from Chicago to be here with us. I just can’t tell you how proud Jim and I are of the young adult they’ve each become as they’ve launched into their professional careers and are now planning for their future together.

While there have been hundreds of individuals in the Purdue Extension System with whom I’ve worked through the years, I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize a few key individuals. I’ve had the privilege to work under 5 Directors of Extension who in varying degrees helped to shape my career. I’m honored that Dr. Hank Wadsworth is here today along with his wife, Dr. Emy Wadsworth. Hank and Emy have become dear friends as Hank and my farmer husband Jim, joined together in Hank’s farming enterprise… and Hank, I’m sure glad you’re there each fall to assist with the harvest, as driving those grain trucks is not a job that I covet. Hank (also a  former Ruby Award Recipient), was instrumental in my transition from an Extension Field position via a couple of trial stints on campus. A temporary one year assignment working with Leadership, Volunteerism and Teen Programming turned into 2 years, and eventually I became a permanent member of the 4-H Department. Dr. David Petritz (another Ruby Award recipient) was Director at the time I was appointed to the State 4-H Program Leader position, while Dr. Chuck Hibberd was key in reconnecting our Indiana 4-H Foundation to the Purdue campus, thus enhancing our ability to launch new efforts in our three 4-H mission areas.  Just over a year ago, Dr. Jason Henderson began leading Purdue Extension as Director, and his support of the Indiana 4-H Program’s growth goals for reaching new audiences of youth as well as the parents and volunteers who come with them has been a real blessing. I have a wonderful team of staff in the State 4-H Program office but without the individual who serves “most” days as both my “left and right brain,” I may not have made it here today. I am very grateful that my Administrative Assistant, Jane Robertson, was able to join us. I wouldn’t have forgotten about my responsibility with all of you today, but can assure you, Jane has spent the better part of the past two weeks keeping the wolves at bay so I could focus on getting this presentation finalized.

I titled this lecture: Extension Volunteers ….. How Will They Impact Our Future? The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 created a systematic process for funding on-going Extension education. It was visionary educators such as Seaman A. Knapp, A. B. Graham, Jane McKimmon and Booker T. Washington who helped move our nation’s Land Grant Universities toward a model of cooperative extension education. This model placed professional educators in local communities with the goal of improving lives. I would suggest, it didn’t take those university personnel long to realize that their efforts in those communities could be greatly expanded and enhanced when they enlisted key individuals to support and work with them. In the Extension System, we call those key individuals “volunteers.”

Volunteering is a strong component of the fabric of our nation and we know that volunteering spans generations. In the book titled, By the People: A History of Volunteerism in America by Susan Ellis and Katherine H. Campbell, 4-H programs are noted as being one of the earliest agricultural programs for youth and are described as being heavily dependent upon and led by volunteers. There is also acknowledgement of many additional volunteer dependent rural organizations that partnered with early Extension personnel such as the Grange, the Farmer’s Union, and Farm Bureau. A core tenant of the 4-H Program across the decades has been teaching the young people engaged in the program the importance of giving to others and we do a tremendous job with this! We all know that many of our 4-H alumni return as volunteers to give back to the program from which they personally benefited. According to Volunteering and Civic Life in America, an annual research report issued by the Corporation for National and Community Service, one in four adults in America now report that they volunteer through an organization. In February of this year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released data indicating that 33 percent of volunteers report spending the most time working with religious organizations, followed by 25.6 % indicating they volunteer with educational or youth service related organizations. When analyzing all levels of educational attainment, volunteers were most likely to volunteer for religious organizations, followed by educational or youth service organizations; and finally, when volunteers report having children under 18 years old, 44.5 percent of mothers and 38.3 percent of fathers volunteered mainly for an educational or youth service organization, such as a school or scouting group.

As an individual who has spent a career working in 4-H youth development, this is GREAT news! Especially when one considers that volunteers who work with Extension programs enrich not only those they serve but also their communities, AND that volunteering can improve an individual’s life by allowing them to gain new experiences and build new skills. These data also indicate that we may have better than a one in three chance of having a 4-H parent become a volunteer, if we would only ASK them to do so.

As Extension programs have grown across the decades and they have evolved to meet the continually changing needs of our clientele, we sometimes find ourselves with new and unique challenges. Volunteering in our system is not what it was when the Extension system began! When I reflect back on my first assignment in Extension, we accepted virtually everyone who came to us indicating they wanted to serve as a 4-H volunteer. Today, we have formal application processes, required reference and background checks, behavioral expectations, liability releases, etc. which have become a necessary (and expected) norm for those adults who choose to volunteer to work with young people. In the late 70’s, it was not uncommon to conduct development opportunities with 4-H volunteers during my normal workday, as most of the volunteers I worked with at that time were either farmers or their wives. We’ve now reached a point with technological advances that allow us to provide volunteers similar development opportunities in the convenience of their homes. The transitions and changes in the profile of our volunteers today, the technologies we (and they) have access to, as well as the changes and requirements for serving as a volunteer connected to a public university in a post-Jerry Sandusky environment, are extremely difficult for some individuals to accept.

There is a condition in the non-profit world from which Extension is not immune. This is a condition that affects many non-profits and religious organizations as well as boardrooms across America. The condition is labeled Founder’s Syndrome. While Extension certainly is no longer engaged with the original volunteers or founders who supported our early efforts, I do believe we have organizations and volunteers who demonstrate the symptoms of Founder’s Syndrome. I’ve also come to believe this is every bit as detrimental to the Extension system as any of us ever dreamed our funding would be. Let me define some of the symptoms organizations express when Founder’s Syndrome or Founderitis exists – and by the way, this occurs so commonly today that Wikepedia has a lengthy description of the condition. Here are a few of the symptoms that are found throughout the literature on the subject:

·         The organization is strongly identified with the person or personality of the founder.

·         Typical founder behavior is not that of a team player. The founder makes decisions without a process for input from others. Decisions are made in reactionary mode,
          with little future planning.

·         Meetings are generally held to get the troops in line or to assign tasks.

·         There is little meaningful strategic planning, or shared agreement on how the organization functions, with limited or no opportunity to provide skill building.

·         There is little organizational infrastructure in place, and what is there is not used correctly. Committees may be nonfunctioning with all decision making being made in
           meetings that are hours long.  There is no succession plan.

·         The founder may hand pick key board members who are friends and colleagues. Their role is to support the founder, rather than to contribute to the mission.
          Conflict of interest is rampant.

·         Board members may be under-qualified, under-informed or intimidated, and may not be comfortable, or able to answer basic questions without checking first.

·         Anyone who challenges the founder is subject to being treated as a disruptive influence and is subject to being ignored, ridiculed or removed. The working environment
          becomes increasingly difficult with decreasing public trust resulting in the organization becoming increasingly reactive, rather than proactive.

This is obviously not a very positive or flattering list of characteristics. I would suggest if you’ve worked in Extension long enough to be a member of this organization and are present in this room today, you’ve likely had the opportunity to attempt to work with a volunteer who exhibits some of these characteristics! I have a couple of phrases that our Extension Leadership Team and the 4-H staff in Indiana have heard me say many times. The first is “I don’t have to make up examples of situations, because they just come to me.” Another one is “just when I think I’ve seen and heard everything.....I get surprised again.”

During my years of service with the 4-H Youth Development Program, there were many times when we found ourselves working with volunteers who did indeed surprise us! Though I believe most are initially, well intentioned, there can be over time, a tendency to become inward-facing (and founder like) thus developing a circle that closes to outsiders and new thoughts or ideas. In some cases, we were simply working with individuals who lost sight of the 4-H Youth Development Program’s mission and focus on developing the young people of this nation, and instead were focused on personal 4-H history and self-interest. Stephen R. Block who has actually conducted research on how founders operate indicates that “the need to control others, to make an impact, and to be influential are stereotypical descriptions of founders. Not only is it a need for power, but it is also a need to influence the behaviors of other people.”

So what are we to do when we find volunteers behaving in these ways?

·         What do we do: when they have agreed to work with us but begin to work against us?

·         What do we do: when they lobby elected officials to eliminate positions in our offices or remove our funding because they’re unhappy with changes we have made as we
          strive to move a program in Extension forward?

·         What do we do: when they begin social media attacks on Extension personnel, other volunteers, or even the youth engaged in our programs?

·         What do we do: when they object to our obligation to diversify the profile of those working with us to guide future organizational direction? Or even more disconcerting,

·         What do we do: when they publicly declare we shouldn’t be working with those people.

Perhaps the questions I’ve asked are only relevant in Indiana and only apply to the 4-H Program, but my experience with the broader Extension system and network tells me otherwise. While some individuals in Founder’s mode display annoying but tolerable behavior, there are other situations where the individual simply disrupts the very ability to function as an organization. I believe our colleagues at the University of Wisconsin have done some of the pre-work for us in terms of tackling these concerns for our collective future. Paula Rogers Huff and Sue Pleskac provided Strategies for Change in Volunteer Organizations in a December, 2012 article in the Journal of Extension. I would like to leave you today with some of the recommendations they provide for staff who find themselves dealing with Founder’s Syndrome.

I hope these recommendations may help answer the question of how we guide Extension volunteers to support our future.

·         Awareness of Founder’s Syndrome and the characteristics that accompany founder’s behavior will likely lead to solutions.

·         The by-laws that guide our partner organizations serve as an important tool to guide a group in a positive direction. Structuring them to encourage term limits leads to the involvement of new individuals,
           and begins a shift from a founder driven, to a community driven organization.

·         Procedures are needed to assure new members are selected based on not only current, but also anticipated future needs of the organization.

·         Providing role descriptions is key to allowing all members of the organization to understand what is expected.

·         Volunteer education that focuses on building skills and understanding with respect to the concepts of conflict resolution, diversity, inclusivity and the creation of
          welcoming environments are key.

·         Working directly with the individuals who exhibit Founder’s characteristics (while challenging), will no doubt improve the situation. Putting our heads in the sand and
          hoping the situation will take care of itself just won’t cut it.

·         There are also times when it may be necessary for an individual volunteer to be reassigned or to retire from the role he/she has served.

Ultimately, how we deal with a founder may come down to the question of whether or not the “founder or founders” are more committed to what’s best for the organization and the community of individuals it serves, or to doing things “the way they have always been done.” I believe we, as individual employees of a system that is committed to meeting the emerging needs of individuals in ever changing communities, owe these final recommendations to our future constituents. We should commit ourselves to helping volunteer founders transform themselves and the organization by focusing on the future rather than the past. We can do this by working with members of the board who have an interest in making meetings matter. We can also be strategic with the creation of a nominating committee or nominating process and seek individuals for what they can offer the organization in the future. We can work to get the board to operate as a team where each member has a clear idea of their responsibilities, values and strengths and the board can work together to hold the founder accountable. These actions obviously take time and can require a tremendous amount of energy. More often than not, the energy will result in change. If it doesn’t, there are those times when we have to be brave enough to encourage some individuals to envision their future with another organization that might better meet their needs. Doing nothing, serves none of us well.

I want to thank you again for this honor and recognition and for your time and attention today. I wish all of you the best as you continue on your personal journey working alongside volunteers in the communities you serve.


Block, S. R. (2004). Why Nonprofits Fail. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Block, S. R., & Rosenberg, S. (2002). Toward an understanding of founder’s syndrome. Nonprofit Management & Leadership, 12 (4), 353-368.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. Volunteering in the United States, 2013. Released February 25, 2014 Retrieved from:http://www.bls.gov/news.release/volun.nr0.htmSeptember 2, 2014.

Corporation for National and Community Service. Volunteering and civic life in America, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.nationalservice.gov/impact-our-nation/research-and-reports/volunteering-america  September 2, 2014.

Ellis, S. J. & Campbell, K. H. (2005). By the People: A history of Americans as volunteers, New Century Edition. Energize, Inc. Available at:  http://www.energizeinc.com

Huff, P. R. & Pleskak, S. (2012). Moving forward with founders: strategies for change in volunteer organizations.Journal of Extension, 50 (6) Article 6FEA2. Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2012december/a2.php

McLaughlin, T. A. & Backlund, A. N. (2008). Moving Beyond Founder’s Syndrome to Nonprofit Success. Washington, D.C.: Boardsource.