What Drives Extension Work — Really?

Yesterday was one of those days  I was reminded of how fortunate I am to be an Extension professional.

I spent the morning interviewing an elderly northwest Alabama Extension volunteer – a Homemaker Club member and officer — who has spent her entire life either being served by Extension programs or dispensing them as a volunteer.

But wait: Is dispensing programs an adequate description of what she has done?  Doesn’t this phrase minimize, if not demean, what has amounted to an awe-inspiring commitment of time and creative energy?

As she related all the years of passion she poured into her volunteer work, I was reminded of the book I’m currently reading: Dan Pink’s “Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us.”

Pink summarizes what behavioral science has revealed over the past few decades: that the old Frederick Winslow Taylor-style carrot-and-stick incentives really aren’t that incentivizing.   Science has discovered that we’re driven far more by autonomy, mastery and purpose.  Simply put, people want control over their work, to get better at what they do, and, finally, to be part of something bigger than they are.

A thought occurred to me as I reflected on this dear lady’s experiences and the lessons from this book during the long drive home: So much of Extension work really is about these three things – autonomy, mastery and purpose.

This raises a fascinating point — something I fully intend to explore in subsequent posts: Isn’t our outreach work as much about providing experiences as it is administering programs?

Anyway, take the time to watch this excellent overview of Pink’s book and then, by all means, read the book!

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2 responses to “What Drives Extension Work — Really?

  1. So much of Extension work is about these three things: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

    A few years ago I met an elderly woman in the ladies dressing room of the local YMCA—I was dressing for work after a swim; she was suiting up for a bout of aqua-aerobics.

    She’d overheard me talking with someone about my work as an Extension writer/editor and approached me.

    “Excuse me, but did I hear you say you work for Cooperative Extension?” she asked in a refined British accent. I said yes.

    “Well, you know, that organization saved my life.”

    “Oh! How so?”

    “Well, I came to this county as a war bride after World War II. I was desperately lonely and depressed, ignorant of American culture, and knew nothing about raising children. A neighbor invited me to an Extension Homemaker’s group and, despite extreme shyness, I went with her to the next meeting.

    “I’ll make the story short. I kept attending those monthly meetings for years. I made many friends and developed a strong support network. The homemakers group taught me to cook and navigate their strange culture. They helped me gain confidence in raising my children, who turned out well. I heard a lot of interesting speakers and tried a lot of different activities. I gradually took on leadership roles in the group and in my community.

    “What’s more, after one of the meetings—a flower-arranging session with a professional florist, I discovered I had both a talent and a passion for that work, and I found my vocation.

    “I began doing floral arrangements for various functions–getting paid for it! Eventually I opened my own florist shop. It became very successful, and I sold it a few years ago for a handsome profit.

    “So, I really do credit Cooperative Extension for saving me, pulling me up, helping me out. I think I turned out OK!”

    Not many women self-describe as homemakers these days, and we’ve discontinued the Homemaker Circles here in New Hampshire. But I think the story underscores the multi-layered nature of Extension work.

    It’s not just information and programs “delivered” by technical experts. It’s enabling peer support and peer learning networks, leadership development, creating environments where random collisions with new ideas and ways of thinking open up new possibilities. And more.

  2. Great stuff Jim and Peg! Loved those stories.

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