Fall 1985 // Volume 23 // Number 3 // Ideas at Work // 3IAW2

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Using the Advisory Committee Effectively


Sally K. Ebling
County Extension Chairman
Cooperative Extension Service
Cuyahoga County
Cleveland, Ohio

Can an advisory committee be used effectively in a metropolitan county? Cuyahoga County, Ohio (Cleveland) is 99.6% urban, with some remaining greenhouses and roadside markets, many garden supply stores, a large grounds maintenance industry, and an enormous home gardening population. The opportunities are many and the chances to work with special audiences are great.

Historically, the County Extension Advisory Committee had been dominated by a small agricultural group. It met occasionally to appoint someone to district or state committees or to interview a candidate for a vacant staff position. It did have, however, a man of vision serving as chairperson during the late 70's.

The Right Time

The timing seemed right to reorganize the committee's function and form. The county Extension staff chairperson, working with the volunteer chairperson, identified 15 leaders, not necessarily Extension users, but known to be potentially interested in Extension's mission. They visited each person to familiarize him or her with Extension and to extend an invitation to serve. All finally agreed.

After the first meeting, a subcommittee prepared operating guidelines. They called for staggered three-year terms with the chairperson to be designated by the Extension staff to ensure a harmonious working relationship. A one-year hiatus is required before one may serve a second three-year term. No one has served more than five years, speaking well for the reservoir of potential volunteers to draw on.

The circle of committed volunteer support is continually expanded as former members frequently continue their association in some other way. Potential nominees are suggested both by the Extension staff and committee. A nominating group of three selects people to best complement those whose terms continue and recommends a final slate to the entire committee for approval. That group follows through with invitations and helps orient the new people. Four luncheon meetings are held each year, with subcommittees meeting as needed on special concerns.

Members don't officially represent constituencies, but balance is sought regarding program interests, men and women, ethnic and racial make-up, type of employment (always private sector), volunteer or civic experience, and voting district the individual lives in. Desirable backgrounds for members include legal, public relations, accounting, office management, personnel. People with broad community ties and high visibility are especially valuable.

Committee's Purpose

The committee's purpose is to help in planning and conducting effective educational programs, but in these special ways-lend guidance to needs assessments and program emphasis, help in budget preparation and presentation, advise on staffing patterns and personnel, consult on public relations, inform those who need to know more, and maintain legislative ties at the local, state, and federal levels.

Extension staff is encouraged to involve member in recognition activities and through mailings to keep them apprised of ongoing programs. The committee has its own stationery identifying each member. One person serves as chairperson for C.A.R.E.T. (Committee on Agriculture, Research, Extension, and Teaching) and handles funds solicitation in support of legislator education.

Advantages of This Approach

There are multiple advantages to this approach to advisory committees. Competition between users for limited Extension resources is minimized when the citizenry is viewed in a broader. context. Because members aren't intimately involved programmatically, they feel free to raise critical questions that prompt agents, and occasionally administrators as well, to re-evaluate their outlooks on certain issues. Being people with substantial experience themselves, they contribute fresh ideas that often work well. And their legislative contacts are the best.

As for measurable results, the county appropriation for Extension has doubled in seven yearsprivate sector funding has increased substantially. Agents enjoy higher-level involvement in important community affairs. More doors have opened to the "real power structure," always difficult to identify in the urban setting. Ensuring that membership comes exclusively from the private sector has been a key element in its success. Another has been the consistent and thorough staff follow-through on its recommendations.

Committees at the planning and implementation level aren't neglected in Cuyahoga County. There's a place for novices as well as for long-time cooperators. The 1984 Report of Results, for example, includes rosters for 20 different program committees comprised of 368 different people. People from all segments of the county are included.

The essential ingredients to successful committees include the right mix of individuals, the degree to which they understand their charge, and their level of commitment. We treat all our advisory committee members like the VIP's they are. Benefits to the Cuyahoga County Cooperative Extension Service are obvious.