A Brand New 4-H: Revitalizing a 100-year-old Nonprofit

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Artis Stevens

What do you think of when you hear 4-H?

For many, it typically conveys cows and plows, county fairs and farms, since perceptions of the organization have traditionally been focused on 4-H’s rural roots, dating back to its start in 1902. Today, 4-H, the youth development program of United States Department of Agriculture and Cooperative Extension System, provides nearly six million kids with diverse programming in science, healthy living, civic engagement, as well as agriculture.  

Like many legacy nonprofits, we needed to reposition our brand image to capture the modern organization we had become. That meant reinvigorating our relevance, expanding our reach, and staying connected to the youth and families we serve in order to reach our goal of impacting 10 million youth with a 4-H experience by 2025. To meet this audacious goal, we began implementing a breakthrough marketing-led growth strategy that mobilized our greatest, yet most underutilized asset—our 25 million 4-H alumni.

Leveraging Underutilized Assets: 4-H’s 25 Million Alumni

To lay the groundwork of our strategy we began with audience research and insights to clearly define and understand the alumni market segments. We learned that two-thirds of alumni grew up in rural communities and now, two-thirds of alumni live in urban/suburban communities. The millions of 4-H alumni who had participated in the program during their childhood lost touch with the brand over the years, becoming less informed about the true diversity of 4-H’s programming as well as the changing demographics over time. The 4-H network engaged alumni sporadically, but didn’t have a unified approach in harnessing the potential power of built-in supporters who shared the organization’s values.

However, we recognized the potential of alumni as a key factor in the organization’s growth, and sought to engage many alumni from corporate, government and university leaders to celebrities and 4-H moms. These alumni influencers opened doors for us in securing new corporate partnerships, brand ambassadors, board members, while expanding our ability to change the lives of more youth across the country. Alumni became critical drivers of our growth and their engagement became infused in every part of our organization—from business development, to board recruitment, marketing strategies and more.

Continued Growth: “Grow True Leaders” Campaign

This alumni strategy became the foundation of 4-H’s Grow True Leaders brand campaign, which launched in 2016. The campaign re-engaged our alumni by connecting them to the magic of why 4-H was created in the first place: to help young people and their families gain the skills needed to be proactive forces in their communities. However, we needed more than a noble mission, we needed to persuade our target audience that 4-H was necessary in their lives. We aimed to demonstrate that 4-H’s practical, hands-on learning experiences addressed an important societal need for youth skills development in life and career.

This key messaging was communicated through the brand campaign to reach alums across the country with a focus on millennial moms—4-H’s key demographic—as well as high-level influencer alumni who were dedicated to the mission and could help propel 4-H’s growth. Through the campaign, 1,000 youth ambassadors were deployed in communities across America; 100,000 alumni and supporters were engaged through social media and TV, radio PSAs as well as earned media coverage which generated millions in media value.

Through our alumni-focused strategy, National 4-H Council, in partnership with America’s Cooperative Extension System within 110 universities, over 3,000 local field offices, tripled revenue through alumni influence to reach $13.7M; increased Board giving 36 times to reach $4.6M; and tripled the value of 4-H’s earned media coverage in four years.

Path Forward

This September, to keep the momentum of the “Grow True Leaders” campaign going, we are launching the next phase called, “Inspire Kids to Do,” a campaign to give kids more opportunities to do and to grow leaders ready to navigate life and career. This next phase will feature a new initiative called “30 Days of Doing,” which will be led by youth voices and invite alumni, parents and consumers to join 4-H for 30 Days of Doing experiences, engage partners across industries to amplify the story and create doing experiences through their channels, and galvanize local communities to sustain programs, projects and experiences that empower kids to learn-by-doing year around.

To continue emphasizing 4-H’s role and relevance in fulfilling a societal need, we will also highlight our STEM programming through our annual National Youth Science Day challenge this October. This year’s theme and activity, “Code Your World” was developed in collaboration with our partner Google and will expose young people to important life skills and possibilities in computer science.

Through 4-H’s growth, we have remained true to our roots of youth empowerment and life skill development, as well as our early beginnings in agriculture. We strive to be a modern brand and thought leader that continues to make an impact through creativity, insight-led strategy and unwavering focus on those we aim to serve—the country’s next generation of true leaders.

Artis Stevens is Senior Vice President, Chief Marketing Officer of National 4‑H Council, and the American Marketing Association’s 2018 National Nonprofit Marketer of the Year.

One response on “A Brand New 4-H: Revitalizing a 100-year-old Nonprofit

  1. Joan Hickman says:

    I agree with you wholeheartedly in almost every point made. However, we need to intentionally and quickly address the need to make it easier/more convenient for alums to assume leadership positions. It is far too difficult for young/mid-career professional alums to assume club or project leadership. I am speaking from the experience of having 2 adult children alums currently trying to assume club and project leadership and their being ready to throw in the towel at all the cumbersome bureaucracy compared to the scouting programs. These two alums were both 11 year members and each attended National Congress and National Conference. I am a former 4-H Youth Development Specialist, and am finding their concerns and issues valid in today’s fast-paced world with career demands so high. All their city-living alum peers have shunned 4-H in favor of scouting programs for their children because they find it too difficult to organize a club…even a SPIN club.
    Faced with high academic demands in many city schools and demands from school sports coaches, incentives for staying in 4-H during teen years are weak compared to the 1980s when competitive national scholarships were offered at National Congress. Someone at the National level needs to consult with high ranking, competitive institutions of higher learning to see how extracurricular activities such as 4-H rank in the admission process. Our oldest grandson is going through the college visit phase now, and is finding that the 4-H awards requirements for equal effort in citizenship and community service may be to his detriment. Being really excellent/outstanding in one area will serve him much better than being good in all areas. I am extremely loyal to the 4-H program, but without radical change in a number of areas, 4-H will soon be greatly diminished. It breaks my heart to know one or more of my grandsons may be soon defecting to scouting due to concerns already mentioned. They have learned so much more in 4-H so far than they would have by earning badges, but it’s not within my power to restructure the program to make it more attractive to them and their peers. I could write a book on changes needed from my perspective as former member/award winner, parent, grandparent, and retired staff. Thanks for allowing me to vent.

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