Philanthropy through 4-H

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Community service
Volunteer Service
4-H develops skills in today’s youth through a variety of programs. Once for the education of rural children, it has expanded to all parts of the country to tackle issues such as food insecurity, sustainable energy, childhood obesity, and many others. 4-H offers youth leadership opportunities that will last a lifetime. These research-based experiences include a mentor and a hands-on project.



The purpose of 4-H is to develop skills in today’s families and young children to become productive citizens and to create an innovative economy. This is the meaning behind the 4-H pledge: 

“I pledge my head to clearer thinking, 
My Heart to greater loyalty, 
My hands to greater service, 
My health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, my world” 

4-H develops skills in today’s youth through a variety of programs. Once for the education of rural children, it has expanded to all parts of the country to tackle issues such as food insecurity, sustainable energy, childhood obesity, and many others. 4-H offers youth leadership opportunities that will last a lifetime. These research-based experiences include a mentor and a hands-on project.  

Today there are nearly 6 million participants in 4-H. With 2.6 million from rural areas, 1.6 million from suburban areas, and 1.8 from urban areas. It consists of over 100 public universities, 3,500 professionals, and 500,000 volunteers (4-H Organization). 



4-H began over 100 years ago and serves over 6 million children today. It was part a youth development movement that began in the 1890’s. Subjects that taught children to appreciate rural life was the foundation of the program. The 4-H’s program called for education for the head, heart, and hands. Today it has been expanded to the head, heart, hands, and health.  

Farmers of the late 1800’s did not openly accept the agricultural advances that were discovered on university campuses. However, young people from rural areas were much more open-minded toward these innovations. These youth would explore these techniques and share this acquired knowledge with their communities. This communication built led to solving agricultural challenges and learning about surrounding industries. This was also a form of “hands-on” learning that was desired to relate the public school education to the life on a farm. 

In 1914 the Smith-Lever Act was passed which created the Cooperative Extension System at U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and led to the nationalization of 4-H by 1924. The Cooperative Extension System is a partnership of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), land-grant universities, and thousands of offices around the country. The cooperative extension utilizes knowledge and resources from all levels of government to further research and educational programs.  

In 2012 the NIFA earmarked $341 million for 4-H programs at university extensions, state and county offices. These are not the only funds for 4-H programs, but also state, county, and city budgets. 4-H is also supported by the national 4-H council, which raised nearly $40 million dollars in 2013, most of these funds come from private donations, foundations, and corporate sponsors. 

The elected symbol for the 4-H was the clover. The Clover was important because it was believed to help preserve the soil. Today that Clover is still the symbol of 4-H. 

A 2011 study found that students who participated in 4-H’s Science initiative were more likely to feel more confident in science than students who did not participate in the program (55% to 42%), felt that science was useful in solving everyday problems (61% to 40%), listed science as a favorite subject (73% to 40%) and were more interested in pursuing a career in science 67% to 37%). The study also found that girls who participated in 4-H were three times more likely to participate in a science program (Butler, 2014).  



4-H has been a program to create supplemental education programs to fit the needs of communities. From its early roots of taking on agriculture challenges and offering youth opportunities to develop leadership skills that will be needed in the future. 4-H also offers national program curriculum over creative arts, STEM, business and citizenship, environment and outdoors, plant and animal sciences, Cloverbud activities, food and healthy living, and practical learning. 

STEM programs develop critical thinking skills to solve the issues that the world will face tomorrow. 4-H offers numerous STEM programs, including 4-H National Youth Science Day: Motion Commotion, STEM 4-H Career Pathway, Maker Summit, and 4-H Connecting Youth to Nature. 

The Healthy Living Project contains the 4-H Food Smart Families, Youth Voice: Youth Choice, Health Living Summit, HealthRocks, and Culture of Health Initiative. These all combine to create over 2.7 million different projects happening across the country. Living a health life leads to the decrease of disease, injury, an increase of energy and obtaining a healthy weight. Having health habits are also associated with happy moods and more self-confidence. 95% of youth are more aware of the foods they should consume after participating in a 4-H Healthy Living Program. 

The agriculture aspect of the 4-H involves 3.1 million projects. These projects are a part of programs such as 4-H Ag Innovators Experience, Commodity Carnival, Ag Science Summit, and True Leaders in Agriculture.  

4-H also offers Civic Engagement programs such as 4-H National Mentoring Program, Juntos 4-H, Citizenship Washington Focus, and Leadership Focus. These programs combine to create over 2.4 million projects. Studies have found that 85% of youth who participate in the Juntos 4-H program had an increase in their grades. Another heart-warming program Operation: Veteran Smiles. This program creates “Smile Kits” which contain encouraging messages and music therapy. They are then delivered to veterans during a visit from the student. This program has helped over 5,000 veterans over the past five years (4-H Organization, 2018).  

In 2008, with the help of the Noyce Foundation and 4-H national council, 4-H partnered with 111 land-grant institutions to start the 4-H Science Initiative, which focused on Science, Engineering, and Technology. The goal was to add over 1 million new members by 2013. One of the major challenges that 4-H faces was the assumption that 4-H members drove tractors. To combat this assumption, 4-H helped sponsor numerous events around the country such as a National Youth Science Day, 4-H Robotics, and a college level anatomy course for high school teenagers. This push for science education led to an increase of corporate funding of $9.7 million dollars in 2007 to $23.1 million dollars in 2013 (Butler, 2014). 


Ties to Philanthropic Sector 

4-H connects to the philanthropic sector through its work concerning education. Once founded on the principles of rural living, 4-H has expanded its reach and impact. By partnering with corporations, foundations, universities, and individuals, 4-H has the potential to be viable learning avenue to be pursued by today’s youth to develop skills they will need in tomorrow’s world. 

Some of the supporters of 4-H include Google, the Walmart Foundation, Tractor Supply Company, Lockheed Martin, the office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and many others (4-H National Organization, 2018).  


Important People 

  • Albert Belmont (A.B.) Graham is considered by many to be one of the original founders of 4-H. He began what was referred to as the “Tomato Club” or the “Corn Growing Club” in Clark County Ohio around 1902Graham was a rural school teacher and felt that his students were not being helped in their education from their surroundings. He decided in begin a research study using seed corn of different varieties. He then took this program to surrounding schools. Graham was a leading force in the development of junior high schools and became a founding member of what would become the Association of Communication Excellence, an international organization for land-grant communicators (College of Food, Agriculture, and Environmental Sciences, 2018). 
  • Jessie Fields Shambaugh started her club in Page county Iowa. She was an 18 year old school teacher. She started a club for girls in 1901 because the boys at the time had corn clubs because corn was the most important crop of Iowa. She is referred to as the “Mother of 4-H” and designed the 3-leaf clover which was used to award to project winners (Iowa 4-H Foundation, 2018).  
  • Ella Agnew grew up on Nottoway County Virginia and attended business school in Richmond. She would later work for the American consulate during the Boer war. Upon returning to the United States she became involved with Young Women’s Christian Association. Her interest in practical rural education for girls began to grow. She created a vocational educational program and in 1910 would become the first female home-demonstration agent of the United States Department of Agriculture. Her vocational program included training in sewing, poultry husbandry, and other areas of home economics. In 1919 she became the founding president of the Virginia Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (Virginia Women in History, 2018). 


Related Organizations 

  • Future Farms of America, FFA, ( ) is a closely related organization to 4-H. FFA is an organization composed of those who are interested in agriculture education. Its members are future chemists, veterinarians, teachers, and government officials. FFA was started in 1917 by the Smith-Hughs Act, which was aimed at improving life in the Rural regions of the country (National FFA Organization, 2018).  
  • Other organizations that are similar to 4-H and its youth programing are The Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and The Boys and Girls Clubs of America.  


Reflection Questions 

  • What are some of the areas that 4-H should address today to prepare for tomorrow’s challenges? 
  • Should 4-H clubs play a larger role in public education? 
  • What programs would you like 4-H to develop? 



  • Butler, K. Raise: What 4-H Teaches 7 Million Kids & How Its Lessons Could Change Food & Farming Forever. Oakland, California, University of California Press, 2014. 
  • College of Food, Agriculture, and Environmental Sciences, The Ohio State University.
  • 4-H National Organization. “4-H Grows: National 4-H Council 2017 Annual Report.” 2017. 
  • 4-H Organization, accessed November 1, 2018. 
  • National FFA Organization, Accessed December 3, 2018. 


This briefing paper was authored by a student taking a philanthropic studies course at The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.