Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 5, Issue 2 - December, 2012


Developing Strategic Stakeholder Partnerships through the Ohio Governor's Residence and Heritage Garden Ambassador Program

Bennett, P., State Master Gardener Volunteer Coordinator, ANR Educator, Ohio State Univeristy Extension


The Ohio Heritage Garden (OHG) Ambassador program is sponsored by the Ohio State University Extension Master Gardener Volunteer (MGV) program.  MGVs in good standing are appointed by their County Coordinator to serve as an Ambassador to the Heritage Garden.  The Ambassador's role is to deliver presentations in their county on the Ohio Heritage Garden at the Governors Residence.  They are trained by OSU Extension and are provided the necessary tools.  They extend the outreach of the Heritage Garden into the counties in the state.  This has led to a valuable relationship with key stakeholders, including First Ladies, and has raised their awareness of OSU Extension programming.  This article explains the logistics of the program and the value of as well as challenges in the relationship. 


The Friends of the Ohio Governor's Residence and Heritage Garden, (FOGRHG) is a non-partisan, non-profit organization with the mission of preserving and enhancing the residence and gardens.  Board members are recruited from around Ohio.  The State MGV Coordinator was asked to serve on the Board of Directors and was actively involved in the Heritage Garden committee with a specific focus on the Agriculture Garden.  The FOGRHG was established in 2006.


The Governor's residence and Heritage Gardens are located in central Ohio and are visited by 10,000 people a year.  Former First Lady Hope Taft established the Heritage Gardens in 2005 with the purpose of teaching citizens about the different physiographic regions of Ohio as well as the associated native plants.  These regions and their associated plants are represented and showcased at the Governor's residence in the Heritage Garden.  Ohio MGVs got involved initially when First Lady Taft requested a plant from each of Ohio's 88 counties to be planted in the meadow garden.  The State MGV Coordinator organized an effort to gather meadow plants from each county and MGVs worked side by side with Mrs. Taft to plant the garden; thus the relationship started.  The meadow is called the Master Gardener Volunteer Meadow.


Upon completion of the Heritage Garden, it was apparent that people in central Ohio were more familiar with the Heritage Gardens because of the location.  However, those around the state who could not easily visit the site knew very little about it.  The challenge was to develop options that would provide residents around the state opportunities to learn about the Heritage Gardens.  A website was developed that provided information but there was still no physical connection to Ohioans.  An avenue was needed in order to connect people around the state to the residence and Heritage Gardens, thus increasing the awareness of the physiographic regions and associated plants found in Ohio.  The State MGV Coordinator proposed the idea for the Ohio Heritage Garden Ambassador program which met this need. 


MGVs serve in more than 60 Ohio counties and have access through programming to a variety of audiences, including other MGV, social, service, and church organizations.  Because they live in their communities and have the ability to provide local publicity and generate community interest (Sellmer, Berghage, Michael, & Bilik, 2003), the MGVs provided a natural connector for the Heritage Garden.  They are recognized in their communities as having the ability to teach others and are often already connected to these local organizations.  In addition, OSU Extension educators possess the necessary skill sets to become the community organizer for this program. Scott Peters discussed the role of the community organizer being one that has a long history in Extension in his Journal of Extension article, "Rousing the People on the Land: The Roots of the Educational Organizing Tradition in Extension Work" (Peters, 2002).  He noted that "there was, indeed, a mainstream tradition of organizing in the first few decades of cooperative Extension work that was deeply educational and that involved a positive, constructive politics that was (and is) appropriate for Extension educators to engage in."  Therefore, with OSU Extension taking the lead in organizing the program, and with training and the proper tools, the Ambassadors could teach Ohioans about the residence and Heritage Gardens with a primary emphasis on Ohio's natural areas and the associated plants.  The purpose would be to raise the awareness of both the Heritage Gardens as well as the types of native plants growing in Ohio.  Thus, the OHG Ambassador program was created.



One MGV per county is appointed by their County Coordinator to serve as an OHG Ambassador.  Each person signs off on a contract of expectations.  The Ambassador is required to:  1) Attend a one day training session at the Governor's residence; 2) Present at least 3 OHG Ambassador presentations in their county; and 3) Report the feedback to the MGV State Coordinator who then reports it to the FOGRHG Board.  They are also required to attend follow up training each year in order to remain an Ambassador.  It was recommended to County Coordinators that the hours for this project would be completed in addition to their volunteer hours given in their home county, rather than replace those hours.  However, the final decision is up to the local County Coordinator and many of them included them in the normal scope of hours.


Hosting the training at the Governor's residence and in the Heritage Gardens was an important part of this program.  Participants considered the opportunity to attend training at the Governor's residence an honor.  In addition, because they experienced the Heritage Gardens through hands-on training, they were better able to understand what they were to teach.  The training started with a general tour of the residence and Heritage Gardens.  While the residence was not the main focus of their local presentation, it was important that the Ambassadors understand the general details about the history of the residence.  Audience members tend to have an interest in the place where the Governor and First Lady reside.  In addition, very few MGVs had toured the residence and found this increased their understanding of the overall project.  After the tour, participants received classroom training on topics that included the history of the residence and the development of the Heritage Gardens, Ohio's natural resources and physiographic regions and the plants associated with them, how to use an LCD projector, tips on presenting the PowerPoint program, and reporting feedback.  Ambassadors were given a CD copy of the presentation along with a hard copy printout of the notes that included the content to teach.  They also learned how to modify the presentation by hiding slides in order to fit their needs according to the county and audience. 


In order to enhance learning as well as provide the Ambassadors the necessary tools to present the program, a training manual was developed.  The PowerPoint presentation was the basis for the manual and has been modified several times since the inception of the program in order to keep up with the changing design of the Heritage Gardens.  Each slide has an extensive notes page that also includes additional references for in-depth learning for the Ambassador.  An unexpected benefit of the manual was that it was used extensively by former First Lady Frances Strickland when she was in office.  She was not a gardener and was not familiar with the Heritage Gardens or many native Ohio plants.  She utilized the manual to familiarize herself and often referred to manual when she had guests at the residence.  Of course, the OSU Extension and MGV logo were in several prominent locations in the manual, reinforcing the partnership and keeping the name in front of the Governor's wife.


This introductory training was required for new Ambassadors but veterans were also invited.  This allowed the veterans to brush up on topics as well as share their teaching experiences with the newcomers.  Training, both initial and follow-up, is critical to the Ambassador's success (Peterson, 2001).  There is a great deal of information to learn regarding Ohio's natural areas and most MGVs do not possess this knowledge.  In addition, 80% of the Ambassadors had no idea how to use an LCD projector or PowerPoint software.  Extensive training was provided on the logistics of delivering the program.  For instance, sharing tips and techniques on using PowerPoint increased their ability to customize the presentation for their audience.  An added benefit was that they can transfer this skill and teach other MGVs in their county in order to increase public programming and outreach.


Follow-up training is held at least twice a year.  These programs focused on a specific topic related to the Heritage Gardens and native plants.  Topics included tours of the Heritage Gardens and information about the associated physiographic regions, discussions on plants in a specific physiographic region, updates that have occurred both in the residence and Heritage Garden, as well as specific native plants.  In addition, there have been bus tours to parts of the state that allowed the Ambassadors to actually see firsthand and experience the physiographic regions and natural resources. 


The Ambassador program was delivered at a relatively low cost.  The MGVs paid for their travel to the residence.  The FOGHG paid the expenses associated with the training (meals, snacks) as well as the printing of the manuals.  OSU Extension provided the PowerPoint program on a disc for each MGV Ambassador.  A recognition and thank you luncheon with the volunteers and the First Lady is held at the end of each year.



One benefit of this partnership was that the First Lady gained an increased awareness of the OSUE MGV program.  The First Lady is Chairman of the FOGRHG Board and thus, attends Board meetings and gets involved at a certain level.  She learns firsthand about this OSUE program and is aware of the significance and impact, reinforcing the fact that OSUE is reaching a broad audience.  This supports the fact that OSUE is using "a proactive approach when working with legislators and other decision makers (Jackson & Smith, 1999).  She hears and receives reports involving Ambassadors as well as their impact in counties across the state.  Throughout events and meetings, MGVs are involved in other projects at the residence and Heritage Gardens and in many cases the First Lady has come to know them by name.  This relationship was extremely valuable in 2010 when OSUE faced severe budget reductions.  The MGV State Coordinator sat down with the First Lady to share issues and the ramifications of the proposed budget cuts.  Because of this relationship, OSUE had a seat at the table with someone who was close to the Governor.  The cuts were not as severe as anticipated and it is not known if this discussion had an impact but it certainly didn't hurt.  It is an asset to have this relationship with the First Lady.


In addition, a former First Lady has maintained contact with the Ambassadors and the MGV program.  She participates regularly in projects in her community that are hosted by the MGVs.  She is a champion for OSU Extension and the MGV program and is willing to go to legislators on our behalf should this become necessary.  Again, the Ambassador program helped to strengthen this relationship.  Persuading decision-makers and decision-influencers to financially support Extension programs is critical to Extension's success (DeYoung, 1988).  Just having quality programs is not enough and relationships with these decision-makers is crucial. 


The MGVs are recognized in their county as an Ambassador.  This is viewed as a special recognition for this additional service to their community and the state.  It is important to have only one Ambassador in each county in order to keep this a "sought-after" volunteer position.  The MGVs receive additional training and gain knowledge about native plants and the residence and Heritage Gardens.  The volunteers also receive the satisfaction of giving back to their community with a unique opportunity that is not available to everyone.  All Ambassadors have indicated an increase in knowledge regarding the rich native plant diversity, the five physiographic regions in Ohio, and the associated plants in these regions.  In addition, 97% indicated an increase in their confidence level in understanding the value of and teaching others about native plants.  All Ambassadors have indicated that this program inspired them to learn more about the physiographic regions as well as the individual plants.


The first year of the OHG Ambassador program, Ambassadors presented 80 programs across the state, reaching 2,150 people.  They gathered feedback from the participants and noted common questions asked.  In each of the 80 programs, participants indicated that they would be interested in touring the gardens, demonstrating that the presentation met the goal of raising the awareness of the Heritage Gardens.  In addition, 53% of the attendees indicated that they plan to visit the Heritage Garden in the next year.  Comments about the Ambassador's presentations included: "I didn't know Ohio had such diverse plant life," and "Your talk was more informative than an actual tour."


The volunteers are proud to be associated with the Governor's residence and many have volunteered to maintain the Heritage Gardens.  Their MGV County Coordinators also allowed the time working in the Heritage Garden to count as volunteer hours for their local program.  In addition, the Ambassadors invite other MGVs to help, increasing the exposure for OSU Extension.  Many Ambassadors have had an opportunity to meet the First Ladies as well as Governors and always share that they are a MGV with OSU Extension. 


An existing challenge occurs when a new Administration enters office.  The transition to the most recent (2011-2014) administration has challenged the Board significantly.  The First Lady has not been as involved in the FOGHG and thus, the relationship is not as strong as in the past.  The relationship requires additional work to strengthen the bond between OSU Extension and the Governor's residence. The education of the First Lady regarding OSU Extension programs is similar to the ongoing work that Extension staff has to do any time a new legislator comes into office (Adkins, 1981).  However, the Ambassadors are still working in their own communities, spreading the word about the residence and Heritage Gardens and the First Lady hears about this work during Board meetings. 



This program is still in its infancy and there will continue to be challenges to address as each new administration comes along.  However, the long-term relationship with the "Governor's Residence" can help to further the partnership and the awareness of Extension.  The partnership with OSU Extension, MGVs and the FOGRHG provides an avenue for Extension to be "connected" to the Governor's residence and thus, the decision-makers and influencers.  It also allows an opportunity to share other programs that OSUE has to offer that might address other issues that the Governor or First Lady has on their agenda.  For instance, when the current First Lady mentioned that she was interested in youth health issues, she was made aware of potential 4-H and Youth Development programs that might be valuable to her.  Public relations in Extension is just as important now as it was in 1978 when LaVern A. Freeh wrote in a Journal of Extension article, "We live in a time when increasingly greater numbers of institutions, agencies, and organizations -public and private- are developing Extension-type program-and Extension-like organizations."  Nothing has changed; Extension has to continue to develop relationships in order to keep our name and our programs in front of the decision-makers and influencers; the OHG Ambassador program does just that.    


Literature Cited

Adkins, R. (1981).  Motherhood, apple pie, state legislators, and Extension.  Journal of Extension, 19(2), 7-11.  Available at:

DeYoung, B. (1988).  What's relationship marketing?  Journal of Extension [On-line], (26)3, Article 3FEA9.  Available at:

Freeh, L.A. (1978).  Public relations - what, why, and wow!  Journal of Extension, November/December, 1978.  Available at:

Jackson, D.G., & Smith, K.L. (1999).  Proactive accountability:  building relationships with legislators.  Journal of Extension [On-line], (37)1.  Article 1FEA5.  Available at:

Peters, S.J. (2002).  Rousing the people on the land:  the roots of the educational organizing tradition in extension work.  Journal of Extension [On-line].  (40)3, Feature Articles 3FEA1.  Available at:

Peterson, B. (2001).  First, break all the rules: what the world's greatest managers do differently - a book review.  Journal of Extension [On-line], (39)2, Tools of the Trade 2Y0T2.  Available at:

Sellmer, J.C., Berghage, R.D., Michael, A.H., & Bilik, T.  (2003).  Pennsylvania gardener selects plant evaluation program.  Journal of Extension [On-line].  (41)1, Ideas at Work 1IAW4.  Available at: