I wish someone had told me the nuances of trying to cultivate a community while also trying to manage a business,” said Pat Burke, the current president of the Fieldstondale co-op in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, when asked what he wished someone had told him when he joined his co-op board 12 years ago. “The two tasks are usually in dire conflict, or so I’ve found.”
Time is Not on Your Side
Being on your building’s board can be a time-consuming job, says Jared McNabb, CMCA, PCAM, a property manager and vice president of acquisitions with Crowninshield Management Corp., AMO, a property management firm in Peabody, Massachusetts. “People are working more hours. Many times boards meet in the evening hours, beyond 5 o’clock, and at that point a lot of folks are home from work and may not have the time or desire to do anything but come home and relax or take care of their own errands.”
While being on the board can take up quite a bit of time, you don’t necessarily need to be an expert on the nuances of property management or administration, says Mary Ann Rothman, the executive director of the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums (CNYC), “You just need to be willing to give the time and attention. No particular expertise is required, but it does make sense to read the proprietary lease, the bylaws and house rules of your co-op or condo and note any questions you have and ask those questions before joining.”
Keith Hales, the president of Hales Property Management in Chicago, however, says, “A board member should be familiar with how condominium associations operate as well as generally how a business operates.” He adds that reviewing the condo act or your local condo or co-op laws, the condo declaration, bylaws, and any rules and regulations of the particular building community are also beneficial.
“The biggest requirement to us is that they must act in the best interest of the condo association,” says Hales. “Other attributes of a good board member include responsiveness, have a hands-on approach, attention to detail, reasonable expectations, and ultimately understands their responsibility.”
Rothman adds that “If the co-op or condo has a managing agent, then they'll bring the professional expertise of building operations and how the building is run and how bills are paid, and so on. If there is no managing agent, then you should ask the rest of the board these questions. The most important thing is not to hesitate to ask. In my view, there’s no such thing as a question that doesn’t deserve an answer.”
So while you don’t need to be an expert in anything, it doesn’t mean that you can just show up to a board meeting and fly by the seat of your pants. There’s a certain amount of work that goes into learning what you can and cannot do as a member of the board—and what you are allowed to do with your building or association. But even from this point, there are still certain responsibilities a board member will have outside of the monthly meetings.
“If you’re going to volunteer for the board, make sure you have the time to put into the position,” says McNabb. “It isn’t just showing up once a month for the monthly meeting; its multiple e-mails during the day, there are meetings with contractors if there’s work going on or different vendors, or interim meetings between the monthly board meetings. There are also different levels of involvement within that too. It’s a tough sell for a lot of folks. If you ask people to volunteer for the board, they associate it with being a very thankless job, and in some ways they’re very right.”
Finding New Board Members
“It’s getting more and more difficult to get people to run for the board,” McNabb continues. “People are becoming less inclined to get involved in community activities or volunteer groups and many people purchase into a condominium with the idea that it is a condominium, they write a monthly check for their condo fees, and their job ends there. A lot of people don’t want to be involved in the day-to-day process.”
And to a certain degree, he’s right. While being a member of your building’s board can be a very rewarding undertaking, it can also be immensely frustrating. At times it can be thankless, but the feeling of accomplishment when seeing a finished renovation or addition can be rewarding for certain people. How do you know if you’d be one of those people? Well, it often starts with wanting to make a difference in the building.
“We often look for owners that are interested in adding value to their building as well as positive participation,” says Hales. “We often find these owners when conducting meetings or addressing requests. We might send an announcement asking for volunteers or asking the existing Board of who they think might be a good fit.”
Making a Difference
McNabb adds, “I always tell folks to come to the board with the idea that you’re there to improve the overall community as a whole. I think too often the motivation for some board members to get involved is that they have an axe to grind or a single issue to resolve and once they come on and either get it resolved or see that it won’t be, they’re no longer interested in participating in any other aspect of the community.”
And, he continues, “In communities where you don’t have committees, and many don’t, I always recommend that the current board members seek out neighbors that they have had prior conversations with informally about the board and operation about the community. Maybe look for someone who is critical but has positive ideas. So the best recruitment is by existing board members or trustees.”
But while board members are tasked with making sure the value of units remains constant, or even increases, and making sure everything in the building is running smoothly, that doesn’t mean a board member position isn’t about more than just the physical aspects of the building.
“It’s very much a business, but at the other end of it—and this is where the difficult balance comes in—it’s also people’s homes. So there’s also a significant emotional component to it. I think if folks come to the position with the idea that there is an emotional component to it, more than a business one, that can really be a key to succeeding as a board member,” says McNabb.
Rothman adds that board members should also be looking to set a good example, “Being elected confers a lot of responsibility, but it doesn’t confer extra privileges. Board members should not be giving orders to staff or be expecting special treatment; they should be setting an example and working in the best interests of the co-op or condo.”
Running the Board
“The board has a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of the condo association,” says Hales. “They are ultimately responsible for managing all aspects of the Association although most board’s hire a professional property management company to help guide through the management process. Illinois now requires a license to manage the financials and maintenance of the association as well as guide them with the proper procedures and social interactions with other owners.”
While the board must act in the best interests of the association, each board goes about that job differently. Outside of a building’s individual governing documents the board has a certain amount of discretion in how they run things. That doesn’t mean they have to go it alone though. Property managers can help execute plans, like renovations, accountants can help keep track of finances and lawyers can help the board with any legal questions they might have.
Though in the case of lawyers, going to them too often can also be a negative, as Rothman notes, “If you have legal questions find out who to ask as contacting the building’s lawyer will incur legal bills and only go to the lawyer if you need to, learning the proper chain of command is important here.”
More experienced board members can also help answer questions and make sure the board doesn’t get lost in the minutiae. Though, everyone has a responsibility to make sure the board works together.
“A divided board means no progress will take place. Everyone needs to come together with a team player attitude, and while it sounds contrite it’s important,” says McNabb.
Hales adds that you might want to look out for, “other members that perhaps may have their own personal agenda such as those members that are trying to sell their property and don’t want to vote in favor of a much needed special assessment. Although board members don’t need to live at the property (unless your declaration says otherwise) be careful of those running for the board that might be renting out their unit as they might have a different agenda than someone who currently lives in the building.”
Unfortunately not everyone is always working in the building’s best interests. As McNabb notes, “As of late, there’s been some news about board members who have been derelict of their duties or grossly negligent.”
As a result of things like that, and of the board members having to make the tough decisions to keep the building running, board members are often subject to criticism. There’s no keeping everyone happy.
“You need to have a thick skin,” says McNabb. “The decisions you are making are often not popular ones. Sometimes it results in an improvement for the property but it results in an assessment or you’re voting on a budget and it comes with an increase in the fees. You will be criticized for every decision you make, whether or not those criticisms are justified is another discussion. The recipe for failure is trying to please everyone, you just can’t please everyone. If you can’t take criticism, it’s just not a position you should be in.”
John Zurz is a staff writer for The New Jersey Cooperator and other publications.