Fall 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 3 // Forum // 3FRM2

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Advisory Councils - Real Friends


Julia A. Gamon
Assistant Professor
Department of Agricultural Education
Iowa State University-Ames

Action To Take

What can we do to develop Extension councils and committees who are interested and supportive friends? Successful procedures hinge on looking at the council from the viewpoint of the member or potential member. Here are some proven ideas:

  • Meet at a convenient time and familiar place. Sometimes the difference between good and poor attendance at meetings is simply choosing the right time. A colleague schedules his advisory council meetings during the daytime, usually from 2 to 3:30 p.m., and gets perfect attendance. When he recruited the members, he told them the days and the times. If they couldn't attend, he asked someone else.

    Don't meet! Telephone conferences, mailed reports, and individual contact, either by telephone or face-to-face, can be an alternative to meetings.

  • Size the council appropriately. If there are representation guidelines that mandate too large a group, a good strategy is to subdivide the council for part of the meeting so that every person has a chance to voice an opinion. A study by Tai showed that as members participate more in a meeting, they judge the meeting to be more successful.1 Structure the meetings so each person sees himself/herself as a contributing member.

  • Make it a working group, not strictly an advising one. I've found the strength of a group to be proportional to the activity level. For a new group, pick out the first activity and make it one that: (a) can be completed in a short time, (b) is relevant and timely, (c) requires input from all the members, and (d) has visible results. As members work together, they become a stronger, more cohesive group, better able to advise.

  • Expect some rough times. Sociologists say it's normal for groups to go through a "storming" period, a time when all members are at odds as they advance their own ideas and reject the ideas of others.2 It's also normal for groups to have cyclical periods of strength and weakness. An advisory council or committee can certainly be strong and active most of the time. It's unrealistic to expect it to be excellent all of the time.

    Set up a process for selecting and rotating chairpersons who will share the blame for the down times. Don't fall into the trap of serving simultaneously as chairperson, secretary, meeting notifier, refreshment server, idea generator, and, of course, garbage collector.

  • Make the advisory experience personally rewarding for the members. They're giving their time and expertise - they need to get something as well. Publicize their names, pictures, and activities. If they have children in the program, arrange it so their child is in the newspaper candid shot or is the one chosen to be on the radio or TV.

    They should have the satisfaction of being in the know and of seeing their ideas have some real input into the program. Peters and Waterman's popular book In Search of Excellence contains descriptions of successful companies who really listen to their clientele, just as a successful professional really listens to his/her advisory council.3

    Along with the advising and activities that are their work, advisory council members usually want some fun, sociability, and informal contacts with people. This helps build group cohesiveness and returns dividends in group morale and productivity. The kind of sociability will depend on the group, but food and time to talk are staples.

    It's perfectly acceptable to ask everyone to pay for their own or to bring something to share. I've found people very willing to spend their own time to make pies or their own money to buy food. The important thing is to have a time for fun and fellowship so that advisory council members are getting something from their membership as well as contributing to the program.


Convenient, right-sized, action-oriented, personally rewarding - these are time-tested, never-fail guidelines for successful councils or committees. Essentially, they involve looking at the advisory council or committee from the members' viewpoint. Structure the experience of serving on an advisory council so that it's profitable and worthwhile from the members' point of view. The result will be a council that's enthusiastic and supportive from the professional's point of view - real friends indeed.


1. Simon Tai, "Participation During Meetings of 4-H Clubs in Four Washington Counties" (Master's thesis, Washington State University, Pullman, 1968).

2. B. W. Tuckman and M. A. C. Jensen, "Stages of Small-Group Development Revisited," Group and Organizational Studies, II (No. 4, 1977), 419-27.

3. Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., In Search of Excellence (New York, New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc., 1982).