The possibilities are endless in 4-H advisory groups

Many different governance models provide opportunities for youth voice.

Youth at advisory meeting
Photo by National 4-H Council

There are many ways to structure a 4-H advisory group. While Michigan 4-H Youth Development strongly recommends youth have at least equal voice with adults while serving on 4-H advisory groups, there are many different structures that can accomplish the same goal. According to the Michigan 4-H Guiding Principles, youth should be “considered participants rather than recipients in the learning process,” and 4-H advisory groups provide an excellent vehicle for youth participation in designing county 4-H programs.

Three models for structuring 4-H advisory groups are provided in this article along with advantages and disadvantages to each. This is not an exclusive list of models for advisory group structure, but may provide a starting point for counties that are creating or re-designing their 4-H advisory groups and are looking for new models of governance.

Established board

In the established board model, board members or representatives and officers are elected once per year. As with all 4-H meetings, these meetings are open to anyone in this model, however only the elected representatives vote. The number of board members, lengths of terms and method for electing board members may vary county to county based on local needs. For example, representatives may be elected to represent a particular project area elected by youth participants at an annual meeting or county-wide recognition event.

The established board model provides the greatest opportunity for consistency of membership. With the same people attending each meeting, it often leads to a higher degree of trust, ability to build a cohesive team and a high level of ownership of the activities of the advisory group. Because the same people attend meetings each month, strong and supportive bonds can be formed between members and with adult advisors.

One major drawback to this model is that it limits the number of people that attend meetings and are aware of the happenings of the advisory group., putting a higher level of responsibility on board members to assure they are communicating their plans and decisions Established boards also need to work diligently to make sure the people elected to serve on the board represent the diversity of the program as a whole, assuring the board is not dominated by a single 4-H club or group.

Club representation

In the club representation model, each 4-H club in the county or with participants in a designated project area may send a representative to vote at advisory group meetings. These representatives could be a single individual elected by the club or advisory group annually, or the individual that represents the club can change from one meeting to the next. Occasionally, advisory groups may determine the number of voting representatives per club based on the number of members enrolled in the respective club annually.

The club representation model assures that every 4-H club has the opportunity to participate and vote on the activities of the advisory group, which may bring more voices and diversity of perspectives to the table. This model assures that all clubs, not just big ones, can be involved in discussions at a county level. When club representatives are determined based on the number of members enrolled, it can slow groups down as they determine exactly who can vote at each meeting, and requires a system to keep membership numbers updated.

Finally, because the representatives can change from one meeting to the next, it’s likely that groups will spend more time re-hashing conversations from previous meetings. While it’s important that groups bring their members up to speed, remember that it’s not a good use of time to revisit motions that have been passed in previous meetings within the last year.

Open voting

In the open voting model, there are fewer set policies about who is able to vote at 4-H advisory group meetings. This could be limited to any enrolled youth in the program or project area, or voting privileges could be extended to parents, screened volunteers or other interested persons. This model implies that anyone that fits the established criteria can attend a single meeting and vote.

The open voting model requires the least amount of preparation and record-keeping, as it is typically very easy to determine who votes at each meeting simply based on who walks in the door. This model is likely to draw the most people to meetings since there are few barriers for voting and participation. The biggest drawback to this model is when the advisory group is facing a contentious or divisive issue.

Occasionally, strongly opinionated members are able to recruit new voices to attend a meeting and vote in order to steer an agenda item in a particular direction. While permissible in this model, regular meeting attendees can feel steamrolled by a group that is able to garner a lot of support for their ideas, sometimes after only hearing one side of the story.

For all of these reasons, there is no single model that is recommended for every Michigan 4-H advisory group. Regardless of the model a 4-H advisory group chooses, it is important to create written bylaws that explain the structure in a way that can be communicated with new and prospective members. As groups are establishing or revising bylaws, it is important that groups discuss all of these models and their implications in the local 4-H program. Fortunately, 4-H advisory group structures don’t have to be permanent, and bylaws can be revised as local needs change. Members of the Michigan 4-H Advisory Group Resource Team are available to assist with this process, and sample bylaws are available on the team’s website.

Did you find this article useful?