Volunteers for Board Service Often in Short Supply
By George Leposky
In a dense urban or sprawling suburban environment, people can still feel isolated. While high-rise residential buildings and suburban subdivisions put many people and families in very close proximity to one another, living side-by-side doesn’t automatically transform a group of people into a community. Sometimes, just the opposite.
We all lead busy lives, our schedules are more than hectic and the last thing most people want to do is attend an HOA board meeting to discuss tedious bylaw alterations and HVAC repair schedules. Therefore, attracting and recruiting committed board members is crucial, because it ultimately improves the quality of life within the building or association community.
On the whole, community-management pros believe that committees provide a worthwhile training ground for potential board members, and a way to tap into other owners’ specific knowledge and keep them involved and engaged.
“I think being on committees are good training grounds for future board members,” says Arnie Lauri, a property manager with Argo Real Estate, LLC in Manhattan. “I manage this one condo where we have a regular board meeting on a monthly basis but we have a committee meeting the day before the board meeting. We invite everybody in the building to come to the committee meeting, and they have a voice—it’s not like they sit in a corner and don’t say anything.
“We discuss everything from interior design to cable and Internet access,” says Lauri. “When you have a committee it allows residents who aren’t on the board to have a voice. We encourage residents to bring their expertise to the building committee meetings. At these meetings you get a chance to see how people interact with others and what they bring to the table. If somebody continually comes to meetings and brings good, positive stuff that would work in the building then if you have an open seat you can talk to them and say you were good on that committee—would you like to run for a position on the board?”
“Being on a committee will give the owner an opportunity to see how the board functions,” says James Cervelli, a portfolio manager with Cervelli Management Corporation in North Bergen, a property management company that manages properties in both New York and New Jersey. “It will also allow them to see how their involvement in the committee can make a real difference within the community.”
“To encourage people who look like they want to better the community as a whole, ask them to serve on committees,” says Matthew Hohl, assistant vice president at a Midwestern branch office of Associa, North America’s largest community-association management firm. “Committees are a great tool for recruitment of board members. It’s a good idea to have committees, especially in large communities. In smaller communities, it’s hard enough just to get people to run for the board.”
Many professionals believe that before owners can be recruited to serve on committees or the board, they need a shared sense of community and a desire to be involved in its affairs and that many newcomers don’t understand what living in a residential community requires of them.
Conflicting personalities and administrative style can be a barrier to involvement as well. “Where the board has strong personality conflicts, people would rather not be bothered in their home with that type of drama,” Hohl says.
If these barriers can be surmounted and the community functions well, owners enjoy significant benefits and in most cases, security immediately improves when everyone knows their neighbors. Also, when people feel pride of ownership in their community, and a shared value system with shared goals in maintaining the property and amenities, it creates a more collegial and harmonious living environment.
“One great thing about fostering that strong sense of community is that when you have an annual meeting or you have an informational building wide meeting there’s no fighting between the board and the residents or between the residents,” says Lauri. “If you have a good community everybody listens to each other and work together. Even in a building that has a really good community feel, there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t want to fit into that community. There’s always going to be that. When you have a strong sense of community it helps the board manage the building better.”
“The major benefit of a strong sense of community is quality of life,” says Cervelli. “Most people will want to know who their neighbors are, especially when the neighbors share a common interest financially. Having a strong sense of community will make it easier for the board to form committees, conduct business and quite simply have a more peaceful place to live. If there is not a strong sense of community than it will be easy for erroneous information to be spread throughout the community which can result in disagreements among unit owners and board members.”
The drawbacks are numerous in buildings and associations who lack a sense of community. “The main drawback is that if you do something like a hallway renovation without having a committee or a good sense of community you can get overrun at the next board meeting,” says Lauri. “What I mean by that is you can get an uprising in the building, residents can say ‘We are going to vote out these seven members because they are keeping us in the dark.’ But if there is a strong sense of community, I don’t see that happening. If you get everybody involved and allow them to have a voice and hear them out, it’s positive for the residents, the board and the management company.”
Building a Community
The experts note that there are a wide variety of approaches to successful community-building. One firm may query residents via survey to gauge their opinion on community issues such as landscaping or lobby décor, while others may take an informal vote. Another community-building technique is inviting owners to attend educational programs or to host a welcome wagon for newcomers.
“I manage one building where they have things like tequila-tasting parties with the board and residents,” says Lauri. It is common for boards at social gatherings to have wine and cheese events as well, but attorneys recommend that at any HOA events where alcohol is served that there be proper insurance coverage and liability. “We also have semi-informational meetings where there is no voting. We invite people to come and the board says this is where we’re at financially, this is what we’ve done, and this is what we are planning on doing. Then they open up the floor to questions. One building has a big Christmas party where they open it up to the entire building, board, residents and vendors. I go, just to talk to people and put faces to names. It’s a relaxed atmosphere and a good way to bring people together,” Lauri says.
Hohl’s managers encourage owners in their buildings to become active in neighborhood organizations and report back to the board. “Each neighborhood has its own community calendar, festivals, and parades,” he says “Getting the building involved in the larger neighborhood’s activities and neighborhood organizations helps feed the building’s sense of community.”
“Managers and board members can organize workshops, community gatherings such as barbeques, or a day where everyone just gets together to plant flowers,” says Cervelli. “The idea is to get owners active and involved to be able to cultivate that relationship.”
If No One Volunteers
Conflicts notwithstanding, poor engagement and apathy has real costs, say the professionals. If no one is willing to serve on a co-op, condo or HOA's board, and no one is making decisions or paying the bills, sooner or later the association winds up in court. Then the judge appoints a receiver (sometimes called a trustee) to run the association and pay the bills. Receivers charge substantial hourly fees, and they are empowered to increase assessments or impose special assessments as needed. And that's to say nothing of the negative impact on community morale such a measure would represent.
“I’ve gotten up on my soapbox a couple of times” to describe to reluctant residents the implications of a non-functioning board, says one veteran manager. “I tell them, ‘You’ll have to go to a judge to manage your assets.’ A hand goes up, and someone says, ‘I’ll volunteer.’”
With luck, however—and some proactive, positive effort on the part of your building's administrators—it need not come to that. Getting active board participation from your residents may be as simple as helping neighbors get to know each other.
Whether your community is a small urban building or sprawling suburban development, getting your residents actively engaged and involved in community business is key to maintaining value and cohesion among neighbors. Through communication, committee work, and conscious effort, today's active residents can become tomorrow's proactive board members.