NCERA215: Contribution of 4-H Participation to the Development of Social Capital Within Communities

(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)

Status: Approved Pending Start Date

NCERA215: Contribution of 4-H Participation to the Development of Social Capital Within Communities

Duration: 10/01/2024 to 09/30/2029

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Non-Technical Summary

Social capital has been shown to impact many aspects of community and personal life for all members of society. Youth programming, specifically those led by 4-H/Extension, have shown to help young people expand their networks in communities and develop systems that help them get ahead. Our goal is to develop tools for extension educators to successfully develop programs that impact young people’s development of social capital and expand their networks beyond their peer groups. Throughout the years this team has been researching youth social capital development, we have helped colleagues develop a greater understanding of the impacts of these connections on youth and communities. We have developed tools for youth development and community development practitioners to use to intentionally build in aspects of programming that supports social capital development. Our presentations at professional conferences and our peer reviewed work has added to the conversation around the importance of social capital in the lives of youth and in communities where youth have built connections with adults and tapped into systems that help them thrive. 

Statement of Issues and Justification

While the benefits of 4-H participation are well documented for youth, little is known about the impact of 4-H participation on community social capital, largely due to measurement challenges. 4-H programs foster youth-adult partnerships that encourage active participation by youth and adults, often over many years. The development of habits of community contribution is a key outcome of 4-H programs (Lerner & Lerner, 2013) and a marker of community health that requires renewal in each generation. We have worked to determine how these unique partnerships contribute to the well-being of youth and of the greater community in which the 4-H development program is based. For the purposes of this project, the words 4-H and 4-H youth development have the same meaning and refer to any youth program of Cooperative Extension, unless the 4-H club is singled out for specific purposes. 4-H and Extension programs are positioned well to fill this need for youth programming. Julia Freedland-Fisher makes the case in Who You Know; Unlocking Innovations That Expand Student Networks for out-of-school programs as being best positioned for this work because it draws in more connections from outside the school system (Freedland-Fisher, 2018).  

We have seen increasing interest and attention over the years in the work we do to center social capital as a key link between youth and community development and in the use of our research in the conversations around positive youth development. The 2023 National Association of Extension 4-H Youth Development Professionals Conference featured a discussion with Positive Youth Development expert, Karen Pittman, who shared that “young people with strong sparks and developmental relationships are more equipped to translate opportunities in their lives into social capital.” Through multi-state engagement with the social capital evaluation tool created and distributed by our team, we have demonstrated that 4-H programming does indeed contribute to the development of youth’s social capital. Because of this, our team has shifted a focus from the collection of data to support our claims to the creation of materials that can help our colleagues develop programs with features that specifically and intentionally help young people build connections in their community. 

Over the past 5 years of our research effort, we have created a website with to house our work and make it accessible to colleagues. We have developed two Toolkits that have been peer-reviewed and published by the National 4-H Council. The first (Anderson, Baker et al, 2019) offered reasoning and support for the importance of building youth social capital. The latest toolkit (Henness & Anderson, 2023) provides practical tips for how one builds social capital into programming intentionally and this team aims to continue to work with colleagues to assist with this through continued presentations and workshops.  We have shared our work at national conferences of both youth development professional audiences and community development professional audiences. Our work is of importance to all audiences interested in engaging youth in a meaningful way that not only benefits the adults but has a lasting impact on the youth in programs across the country. 

As we look towards the next 5 years we plan to expand our team to include more Land-Grant institutions that have shown interest in social capital development. The challenge is always to follow-up the presentations with guidance to actually implement the types of programming that has social capital as a key outcome. This will take further involvement of the educators who participate in our sessions and outreach from our team to mentor along the way. This will be done in a few ways. First through the creation of subcommittees where colleagues can participate in the development and application of research/evaluation tools to get a better picture of the impact of the work we do to develop social capital.  Secondly, to work with our team to develop professional development opportunities that will help replicate impactful programming with social capital as an intentional outcome. Thirdly, we plan to pilot and research program models, creating opportunities for engagement from new professionals and communities. 



  1. Supporting interdisciplinary youth development and community development
    Comments: To convene researchers, Extension educators, and faculty whose research, teaching and/or practice involves youth and community development in order to foster interdisciplinary work on social capital and community youth development.
  2. Developing and applying measurement tools
    Comments: To refine existing and develop new measurement tools to identify and analyze how Extension programs contribute to youth social capital and to overall community development (Community Capitals Framework).
  3. Professional development and program replication
    Comments: To improve the quality of community youth development practice in the Extension system and beyond by building professional capacity and growing the number of communities implementing social capital-promoting youth programs.

Procedures and Activities

Supporting interdisciplinary youth development and community development 

The team has included community development researchers and practitioners and youth development researchers and practitioners since its inception. Team leadership meets monthly for coordination and research, teaching, and professional development activities including representatives of both disciplines. In addition, the team intentionally shares findings and training opportunities at conferences and webinars for both community development and youth development audiences. 

Planned activities include: 

  1. Propose a special issue of a community development journal focused on youth engagement. 

  2. Present at professional meetings of Extension and non-Extension community development practitioners about youth engagement strategies.

  3. Present at professional meetings of Extension and non-Extension youth development practitioners about program approaches that engage youth in community development. 

  4. Recruit new team members from both fields to join our research subcommittee and our professional development subcommittee.

Developing and applying measurement tools 

  1. Create, utilize, and modify instruments to better understand the impact that community youth development work has on the communities and on adults. Planned research includes:

    1. Existing ripple effect mapping tool will be used longitudinally and for cross-community comparisons.

    2. Social network analysis has been piloted for measuring youth-adult relationship development at the community level and will be assessed for practicality in informing community practice and research.

    3. Longitudinal community case studies of intentional social capital development programming

  2. Fund and implement a major national research project utilizing the tools already piloted and validated by this project to explore how the 4-H Program contributes to the development of social capital within communities, specifically:

    1.  To determine 4-H experiences that contribute to the development of youths' social capital.

    2.  To identify and analyze how the quantity and quality of the 4-H Program's community involvement impacts the level of social capital among youth and adult volunteers

    3. To identify and analyze how the quantity and quality of the 4-H Program's community involvement impacts the development of social capital within the community. Develop and replicate pilot programs proven effective in research and evaluation

  3. Identify and replicate key community-level practices and systems that support social capital

    1. Pilot and evaluate Extension programming strategies to document and replicate successful practices across communities and states

    2. Study systems-level change in communities and the relative role of Extension and other community institutions to provide strategic guidance to Extension efforts

Possible funders: AFRI, National 4-H Council, W. T. Grant, state-specific Extension funds and grants to support team research efforts

Professional development and program replication

  1. Disseminating research findings through publications and presentations (more detail in Educational Plan)

  2. Creating and delivering training modules on effective program practices

    1. Develop additional training activities and curriculum for practitioners drawing from Building Social Capital on Purpose Toolkit

    2. Training on program practices utilizing toolkit for YD and CD professionals for a variety of audiences: brief conference presentations, longer training sessions for youth development professionals and community development professionals

  3. Develop and disseminate program evaluation tools to support practitioners in different settings

    1. Continue to share outcome measurement tools developed by the project

    2. Pilot narrative and participatory evaluation techniques including story-telling, iterative ripple-effect mapping and assess their effectiveness in improving practice 

Expected Outcomes and Impacts

  • Increased Interdisciplinary Programming Between Youth Development and Community Development Professionals in Extension: Comments: We will lead a research and extension project that includes pilot programming in multiple ( 5 new) states that engages local youth and community development professionals in testing interventions. Implementation of this project will directly increase interdisciplinary programming and create evidence supporting further replication. Through annual national conference presentations, state and regional workshops, and virtual professional development opportunities we will continue to reach both youth development and community development professionals and increase their understanding of Social Capital and its role in creating vibrant communities as well as the development of thriving youth. Based on previous year’s presentation totals and attendance at these presentations we will conduct 2-4 presentations each year with an intended audience of 50-100 each year. Development of additional entry points to the NCERA-215 team and new opportunities to expand our team and the work we do. The creation of subcommittees to develop tools based on the interests of colleagues will make it possible to expand the reach of our previous team structure. The peer-reviewed toolkits already created will help guide the creation of new measurement tools and professional development opportunities. The expansion of our team by 10-15 new participants will also increase the capacity of our members to teach more audiences throughout the 5 year cycle.
  • Increased Interdisciplinary Research: Comments: The expansion of our team through greater visibility at professional conferences, meetings, and events will grow our capacity to develop and test new research and evaluation tools and examine more case studies of programming that builds youth social capital. These additional case studies will help us to create more resources to build the capacity of youth development and community development professionals to develop similar programming. By expanding our team we will be able to add 10 new case studies over the next 5 years.The number of youth and Adult participants will be dependent on the size of each program. We plan to measure program effectiveness within a wider range of delivery models in development of social capital in youth. We will support the availability and utilization of measurement tools: Along with tools already created for the measurement of social capital in young people, we will explore other options to evaluate network building among community members.
  • Improved Quality and Expanded Reach of Programs Comments: Professional Development with Extension and other practitioners will lead to innovative program practices. Practitioners will use team-developed tools to document outcomes and reach new audiences.
  • Outreach Plan Comments: Throughout the next year our team will continue to reach out to leadership networks and collegial organizations about opportunities to share our work more broadly. We will develop professional development opportunities for youth development and community development staff to sharpen their skills in building social capital development into their programming. This will continue efforts we’ve already engaged in through previous work on this team and will also expand our efforts to new groups of Extension colleagues (ie, 1890 networks) and other youth-serving organizations (ie, National Youth Employment Coalition). • Regularly attend and present at national conferences and statewide professional development events. • Share with colleagues in each team member's state programs through regional or statewide professional development opportunities. • Promote our toolkits available for free download on our website and on the National 4-H curriculum store • Collect and share impactful program models that have demonstrated social capital building through social media, presentations, and journal submissions • Develop workshops & presentations to share with agencies outside the university and 4-H networks. o ie. Badger Talks in Wisconsin provide an opportunity to share our work more broadly. o ie. National Youth Employment Coalition

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Educational Plan

This multi-state ERA project will benefit 4-H programs across the nation in several ways, including learning how the social networks formed from natural outcomes of 4-H involvement add value to young people and communities and that how we intentionally build relationships matters a great deal in the overall impact of youth programming. Specific actions proposed by the project's membership to disseminate findings and expand the awareness of the importance of social capital within 4-H, and between 4-H and communities will include:

  1. Publication of research findings within youth and community development journals such as Journal of Extension, Community Development Society Journal, Local Development and Society, or reports published by National 4-H Council or centers housed at land grant institutions.

  2. Publication of articles through professional organizations like NAE4-HYDP newsletters, other periodicals, our 4-H social capital research & practice website,, and interactive websites like eXtension or CYFERnet.

  3. Presentation of findings at Extension practitioner conferences such as the Children Youth and Families At-Risk (CYFAR) Conference, National Association of 4-H Youth Development Professionals (NAE4-HYDP) Conference and/or Community Development Society Conference, and professional development experiences outside of Extension. Presentation of findings at youth-centered conferences such as National 4-H Conference, National 4-H Congress or Citizenship Washington Focus.

  4. Creation of white papers that synthesize the research findings on the potential for social capital formation within different 4-H modes of delivery and programs, such as Youth in Governance, 4-H Tech Teams, GIS Community Mapping, 4-H Camping, and state youth leadership development and civic engagement conferences and events.

  5. Professional development training modules designed to strengthen Youth Development and Community Development professionals capacity to create programming that builds young people's connections to community and networks within the community that help them thrive. Utilization of resources published by the team including the Contribution of 4-H Participation to the Development of Social Capital within Communities: Social Capital Toolkit (2017) and the Building Social Capital on Purpose: A Toolkit for Youth and Community Development Professionals (2023).

  6. Convene practitioners for program sharing and feedback related to building social capital at in-person and on-line meetings.”Supercharge” their relationships.

  7. Project member sharing of information in local forums emphasizing how youth development ultimately affects community development and social capital.

  8. Maintain and update our website with current team findings and social capital research.

Many members are actively involved in education and outreach within their own states and institutions. There will be intentional focus on sharing 4-H program experiences and practices that contribute to the development of social capital for youth who have inequitable access to social capital networks and resources. We will promote the Social Capital Template for Community/Youth Programs created by the team as a tool for integrating social capital elements into new or existing programs. The template can serve as a resource for practitioners throughout the program planning, development, and evaluation process. In addition, members will disseminate project findings though their state and national level networks through training that will ultimately benefit client groups. Therefore, a great deal of outreach and education regarding the role and importance of 4-H for building social capital will occur naturally and informally through the many connections and collaborations of the project's membership. 

Activating our networks to assist in disseminating the results of the research and the toolkits will increase opportunities to generate social capital in communities that stand to benefit from improved community social capital. We will capitalize on strengthened relationships between land-grant staff and faculty in each state and/or tribal college to increase access to the research and use of the programming materials.


Project governance closely follows the recommended guidelines outlined in the Guidelines for ERA Projects. The recommended Standard Governance for multi-state ERA Projects includes the election of a Chair, a Chair-elect, and a Secretary. The Chair and Chair-elect will be elected for two-year terms to provide continuity, and the Secretary will be elected for a one-year term. Administrative guidance will be provided by the assigned Administrative Advisor and the NIFA Representative. The Chair is responsible for calling the meeting(s) and teleconferences, developing the agenda and conducting the meeting(s). He/she is also primarily responsible for coordinating with other regional committees. The Chair-elect is responsible for meeting(s) program(s) and conducting the meeting(s) and teleconferences in absence of the chair. The Secretary is responsible for keeping meeting minutes, including teleconferences, maintaining mailing lists, handling registration fees, and distributing meeting minutes to project members and other interested parties.


Literature Cited

Anderson, C., Baker, B., Brown, M., Calvert, M., Fields, N. I., Henness, S., Klemme, N., Nathaniel, K. C., Lonning, J. (2019). Contribution of 4-H participation to the development of social capital within communities: Social capital toolkit.  North Central Extension & Research Activity (NCERA) 215: Contribution of 4-H Participation to the Development of Social Capital Within Communities. (National 4-H Peer Reviewed)

Freedland-Fisher, J., Fisher, D. (2018). Who You Know; Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students Networks. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA. 

Henness, S. & Anderson, C. (Eds.) (2023). Building social capital on purpose: A toolkit for youth and community development professionals. North Central Extension & Research Activity (NCERA) 215: Contribution of 4-H Participation to the Development of Social Capital Within Communities. (National 4-H Peer Reviewed).

Lerner, R. M., & Learner, J. V. (2013). The positive development of youth: Comprehensive findings from the 4-H study of positive youth development. Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development. Tufts University and National 4-H Council.


Land Grant Participating States/Institutions


Non Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

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