Spring 1992 // Volume 30 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA4

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Selecting Advisory Council Members

If Extension is to embark on new programming initiatives, it should also embark on a new selection process for council members. The process should ensure that all sectors of the local society are represented. The council should also do an internal needs assessment to determine what's missing and recruit to fill the identified gaps.

Donald C. Black
Extension Educator
Forest Resources, Cooperative Extension,
University of New Hampshire-Durham

Gerald W. Howe
Extension Specialist
Community Development, Cooperative Extension
University of New Hampshire-Durham

David L. Howell
Associate Professor
Occupational Education, Cooperative Extension
University of New Hampshire-Durham

Patricia Bedker
Assistant Professor
Animal Sciences and Vocational Technical and Adult Education
Cooperative Extension, University of New Hampshire-Durham

When Cooperative Extension began in 1914, society in the United States was different than it is now. Ninety percent of the nation's work force was active in agricultural production, compared to just three percent in production agriculture and 23% in agribusiness today.1 Extension has also changed. Its technology, its clientele, its volunteers, and the ways it deals with the greater masses of people have undergone a dramatic evolution. Its mission of putting knowledge and research to work so people can help themselves and others is, however, still the same.

Another characteristic that hasn't changed, but is in need of change, is the makeup of the county Extension advisory councils. In general, the people who comprise the councils still come from groups primarily associated with farming, 4-H, home economics, and forest management. This signifies that Extension advisory councils haven't kept pace with the changing times, the changing clientele base, and the changing programing emphasis.

Over the past 20 years, many Extension educators have argued for change in the advisory council system and provided the tools to help make it more effective.

Extension agent, Sally K. Ebling of Cuyahoga County, Ohio restructured her advisory council with new people who more effectively represented the people she was trying to serve. The result was increased participation by new clientele and the increase of public funding as a result of new people volunteering on the council.2

Cole and Cole in their book on advisory councils maintain that: "A necessary ingredient for success in Extension programming is the active participation of a cross section of people in developing and supporting its programs."3 Other Extension faculty have demonstrated how to educate and develop the leadership potential of public service groups. Biagi developed a guide for helping groups work together.4 Dale developed educational manuals to empower the leadership potential in advisory boards,5 and Silas Weeks illuminated the power of individuals working together to solve community problems and bring about social change.6

Advisory Council Study

A 1988 report of the Presidential Task Force on the Future of Cooperative Extension at the University of New Hampshire recommended that "the make-up, role and method of selection of county extension councils must be reviewed."7 In response to this recommendation, a survey was developed and sent to all 126 members of New Hampshire's advisory councils. Council members were asked because often the solution to a problem and its resolution can be found and developed from the group involved. The validity of the questionnaire was tested with county office coordinators and the reliability was tested in the adjoining states of Vermont and Maine.

The object of the survey was to answer the following questions:

  1. Is training and orientation needed for Extension council members?
  2. Is continually updated information on Extension issues to all council members needed?
  3. Is there a need to reorganize the makeup of Extension council representation to reflect the changing society the organization serves?
  4. Is there a need to change and standardize the method of selection of new members?
  5. Do members of Extension councils see themselves as continually saying "yes" to the Extension administration?
  6. Do many members see their role as governing the county Extension program rather than advising it?

Of the 126 council members, 101 (81%) responded to the survey. Included in the survey along with research questions were inquiries about demographics and council member's availability for orientation and continuing education. Fifty respondents were women and 51 were men. More than half of the respondents (57) were ages 25 to 49 and 44 were older than 49 years of age. Eighteen council members were past age 65.



Of the various ways people became council members, 47% were appointed or brought to the group by an Extension agent and 42% joined by means of a balloting process, sometimes through an associated group or a mass county balloting, such as a newsletter. Even though these elected members joined the council through a balloting process, usually their names were on the ballot as a direct result of Extension educator selection.

Member Role

Council members showed high esteem for their county Extension educator and the Extension administrators at the university. They also indicated their input was needed, useful, and that they weren't "rubber stamping" Extension programs.

Appropriate Tasks

Participants strongly stated they didn't want to be managers of the county Extension offices, but did want to advise and in many cases approve or disapprove:

  • Development and implementation of Extension programs at the county and state level.
  • Expenditure of county funds allocated for Extension programming.
  • Hiring and firing of county Extension educators and the support staff in county offices.
  • Salary changes of county Extension educators and support staff in county offices.

Council members acknowledged the need for orientation and continuing update information on UNH Cooperative Extension activities. Moreover, they advised on a time commitment to be available for that purpose. Getting politicians to act positively on state and county Extension budgets was also viewed as an important role for them.


One area of concern that emerged as a result of the survey was the way people become Extension council members. Almost half of those that responded said they were on the council as a result of action by Extension educators. Another 41% said they were on the council as a result of balloting; however, the balloting was done in an audience with very strong Extension ties and an established Extension history.

This selection process means 89% of present members could have strongly focused (perhaps narrowly focused) concerns for a particular Extension program area. As a result, they'd have a vested interest in maintaining current programming efforts. Their historical link to program direction might present an obstacle to responsible programming for emerging needs. Further study would be necessary to determine if this was indeed a fact, but the potential was there. To have such a large portion of the Extension council come from such a narrow and specific audience doesn't serve the current direction Extension is taking nor does it serve the needs of our changing society.

If Extension is to embark on new programming initiatives, it should also embark on a new selection process for council members. The process should ensure that all sectors of the local society are represented. The council should also do an internal needs assessment to determine what's missing and recruit to fill the identified gaps.

The council should be an important component of the needs assessment process as well as key to program direction. Extension can no longer afford to use the council simply as a grassroots advocacy base. The councils must be used to ensure Extension programming is germane to the needs of the people and the programming efforts are effective. Today, our mission to help people put knowledge and research to work is much broader than just educating those engaged in agri-business. Our advisory councils must represent all our clientele to be effective.


1. Bureau of Census, U.S. Department of Commerce, 1987 Abstract of the United States, 107th edition, #661, Employment by Selected Industry (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1987), p. 389.

2. Sally K. Ebling, "Using the Advisory Committee Effectively," Journal of Extension, XXIII (Fall 1985), 16-17.

3. Jacquelyn M. Cole and Maurice F. Cole, Advisory Councils (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1983), page xi.

4. Bob Biagi, Working Together: A Manual for Helping Groups Work More Effectively (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, Citizen Involvement Training Project, 1978).

5. Duane Dale, How to Make Citizen Involvement Work (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, Citizen Involvement Training Project, 1978).

6. Silas B. Weeks, "Involving Citizens in Making Public Policy," Journal of Extension , VIII (Winter 1970), 40-45.

7. Paul Bofinger, "Summary of Major Recommendations" (Report of the Presidential Task Force, May 10, 1988, p. 31).