The council, which had an income of £781m in 2012/13, is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. Its work includes teaching English and running cultural programmes, and it employs 7,000 staff in more than 100 countries around the world.
Devane will take over in January from Sir Martin Davidson, who will stand down in December after more than 30 years with the British Council, the past seven as chief executive.
The British Council said that Devane’s appointment had been approved by Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary. The Foreign Office is the charity’s sponsoring department and the secretary of state is answerable to parliament for its performance.
The department provides about 20 per cent of the British Council’s income, with most of the remainder coming from contracts for its services, such as English teaching.
Sir Vernon Ellis, chair of the British Council, said Devane would bring "a passion for the charitable sector and for public service and a broad range of international experience of leading change and growth. His knowledge of building partnerships between the private, public and charity sectors will be hugely valuable to the British Council as we extend our international cultural relations work for the UK."
Devane, who completed a masters degree in international policy and practice in Washington DC before joining Macmillan in 2007, said he was honoured to be offered the British Council role.
"From a personal point of view, I have a long-held interest in international affairs, cultural relations and soft power, so it is all the more a privilege to join an organisation with such a record of achievement," he said.
He will be paid £185,000 a year.