March 22, 2012

Are we disoriented about Extension's assets?

Module 7 of the Building Extension's Public Value workshop leads participants to answer the question "Why Extension?"--that is, why should Cooperative Extension, and not some other public or private entity, develop and deliver outreach education programs? We answer the question by listing the people and organizations that are perceived to deliver programs that are similar to what Extension does, and naming Extension's strengths relative to those alternative providers. The result is a type of asset inventory: a list of the qualities that make Extension a preferred source for programming or the assets that we bring to the table when we engage in partnerships. The inventory usually includes Extension's trained educators, research-based curricula, local knowledge, statewide and national networks, and connection to the land-grant university.

disorient.JPGIt can be affirming for Extension professionals to assemble this asset inventory and see the organization's strengths. However, the exercise also gives us an opportunity for transformative learning through a disorienting dilemma, an idea from Jack Mezirow that I learned from Nancy Franz and wrote about in these blog entries.

The fact is, we can only use our list of Extension's strengths to make our case for Extension funding if the items on the list are true. In the "Why Extension?" exercise, I challenge participants to think about whether their organization really does ensure that educators are using the best teaching methods, curricula are based on current research and local knowledge, and connections to the university and to key networks are maintained. Inevitably, I hear participants share that for their organization, there is frankly room for improvement in at least some of these areas.

I think this challenge can create a disorienting dilemma for some participants: they have been asked to switch from admiring their organization's strengths to recognizing some of its weaknesses. I suggest that the way out of the dilemma is to see the asset inventory as a list of possible investments that Extension administrators can make to shore up Extension's strengths. Investing in our strengths can help us make Extension's best case.

I thought about this opportunity for disorientation and transformative learning on Tuesday of this week when I lead the "Why Extension?" exercise for Virginia Cooperative Extension professionals. Were you at the VCE workshop? What did you think of the exercise? Have you taught this module? What approaches work for you?

March 19, 2012

Investors are buying what Extension is selling

In public value workshops, we emphasize that Extension programs' impacts create value for people who have no contact with the programs. We argue that creating value for these stakeholders--the greater community--helps us make the case for public sector funding for Extension programs.

VT.jpgToday at the 2012 Virginia Cooperative Extension Professional Development Conference, I heard Jill Bramble, Chief Development Officer for the National 4-H Council, make a case for private sector investments in Extension programs. Jill suggested that Extension organizations view private businesses as potential investors who have a stake in the impacts that our programs generate. When a local 4H program increases the supply of prepared workers in a community, local employers benefit. When a nutrition education program increases demand for farmer's market produce, local farmers benefit. By highlighting these kinds of impacts, we can help private businesses see how they will reap rewards by investing in Extension programs. As Jill put it, our programs generate the impacts, and businesses "want to buy that impact." Jill said that businesses are eager to engage in "impact investing," but we need to know and tell our programs' impact story.

Whether we want to make a case for public investments or private investments in Extension programs, it seems to all come down to measuring impacts.

Have you generated private funding for Extension programs? Were program impacts an important part of the case for that funding? What approaches have worked for you?