Many co-op and condo owners want to get involved in their community but they soon find out that being on the board is no picnic. Soon neighbors are pestering them asking for feuds to be settled, decisions that affect all resident’s lives have to be made, and then there are the books...financial matters that have to be addressed with little or no room for error. Knowing all of this, why do so many people decide to serve on a board—some for years at a time? Responsibilities, stress and pressure may build but believe it or not, there are benefits to being on a board.
Getting Blamed for Everything
Being a board member is tough. There are little thanks, if any. If anything isn't going the way someone thinks it should, it's easy to blame the people who are perceived to be in charge, even if that isn't really the case.
“Things go wrong, things break, maintenance needs to be done, neighbors get into disputes and when something goes wrong they complain to you. Besides being a board member you're also a resident and neighbor and as such, you're accessible and that makes you the perfect target for criticism and complaints,” explains James Aiello, board president of The Grist Mill Condominiums in Haledon.
"Nobody really appreciates the work you do," says Eleanor Mauro, a board member at Garrett Heights in Paterson. "You work so hard, you sacrifice your personal time and in the end the residents only see the problems, they don't see the fact that you keep the development humming along."
In fact, many residents forget that the people who are on the board also live there and are subject to all of the same decisions that are made on behalf of the building. Mark Bogert, a board member at The Atrium in West Orange says, “The residents blame us every time we raise their monthly maintenance. I hate voting to increase maintenance, but sometimes we have no choice. I remind anyone that complains that I pay the maintenance too and why on Earth would I raise my own monthly bills? I tell them we had no choice. Someone's got to be responsible for the building's expenses.”
Then there's the social aspects. You're on the board, so you have power—or, at least, you're perceived to have power. People treat you differently. Some of them recoil, like you're Darth Vader. Others polish your apple, in hopes of future as-yet-unnamed favors or special treatment. And some, upon seeing you in the lobby, innocently retrieving your mail (not even good mail; catalogs and bills), seize the opportunity to grouse, complain and bellyache over any and everything that might be wrong about the property—or what they perceive is so.
And then there are the risks. While insurance does insulate a board member from most sticky situations, short of fraud or gross negligence, serving as a board member does expose you to litigation more than, say, not serving as a board member would. The less subpoenas in your life, the better.
And yet people all over New Jersey, in every co-op, condo or townhome in the Garden State, populate the boards of their HOAs. Why do they do it? What possible benefits can there be to taking such a thankless job?
When board members are asked about the benefits of being on the board, their first response will invariably be humor. "There are none!" you'll hear, or words to that effect. Or the person will just laugh. But, all kidding aside, there really are benefits to serving on one’s HOA board.
Every major religion in the world stresses the importance of charitable works. And serving your community is a good way to help out and give back.
"With all the things I've done, you've got to give something back," says Charles Remlinger, board president of The Pointe at Galloping Hill in Union. "You can't just be a taker in this world."
Remlinger, who is 87 years old, has been president of the board for the last 16 or so years. He decided to run because he'd served on the planning committee for the Town of Springfield, and felt his knowledge of government would be put to good use on the board.
"Life's been good to me," he says. "You have to stop looking at what the world owes you and look at what you can give back to it."
While there are a lot of downsides—it may seem that being on the board has no appeal at all. However, if the job was that bad, who would want to take it? The truth is, there are upsides to being on the board, and this includes being privy to many behind-the-scenes things that keep board members interested in serving their community.
Being on the board is an active way to have a hand in managing your life, community and finances. According to Elaine Warga-Murray, CEO and managing partner of Regency Management Group in Howell says, “The most important benefit is the idea of protecting your personal investment.”
Aiello agrees, “The most exciting part about being on the board is that you are the first person to know what's going on in the building, you're in the know—plus you are a part of the decision-making process. You have the power to make a serious difference in your community. It is a great feeling to have some power in how your community is run and protecting your home.”
The alternative is to leave your investment in the hands of other people and in extreme cases where not enough board members can be found, in the hands of the state.
Sense of Duty and Accomplishment
To some, nothing is more important than feeling needed, and being able to contribute positively to the community at large.
Whether a learned societal response, or a deep-seated aspect of our DNA, the idea of duty, utility and accomplishment is a prime motivator. So another benefit of being on the board is a sense of accomplishment. Conversely, it is the work involved in generating this sense of accomplishment that turns many potential members away from running.
“Because it's non-paying, because it's meeting-overloaded, because there are too many time requirements, the unofficial common impression is that you have to live, breathe and make the association your business," says Warga-Murray. "I think that needs to change."
"The best board member is the board member who makes it look easy," she says. And the best way to make it look easy is to be transparent. This generates more interest in serving and promotes a healthy turnover on the board.
Even though board members have to volunteer their own personal time, that time may be advantageous in terms of gaining knowledge about the co-op, condo or HOA industry in general. "The perks for me are that I get to learn a lot about many new things: issues that happen in the building, municipal codes, elevators, interviewing professionals, architecture, and so much more." says Mauro.
"You can learn a lot and it'll help you in the outside world," says Aiello. "One of our residents who was a lawyer decided that he liked real estate and wanted to specialize in that field. He used his board experience as a jumping point and now he specializes in community association law.”
Drumming up business for personal, outside interests, however, is generally frowned upon. Professional advice is very helpful on a pro bono basis, but a board member getting hired to do a job within their own building is a no-no.
Another potential perk of serving on a board is the value of the relationships that may be formed between people who serve on a board, the social benefits. Is serving on the board fun? Yes and no. But one of the benefits is getting to know people you might not otherwise get to spend time with.
"It's a pleasure to be on the board, particularly when you have a good board—each of the members having their own thoughts and impressions," says Remlinger. "It's stimulating. We learn a lot."
Aiello, for one, enjoys the process of learning through debate.
"We don't all agree, and that's a healthy thing," he says. "Like my father used to tell me, if you don't learn something new every day, you close your mind to education."
Mauro also finds fellowship among his colleagues on the board. He serves as an unofficial mentor to two younger and newer board members, and he's close with the board president.
"The treasurer and I have become very, very good friends," says Mauro. "I'm glad I had the opportunity to get to know him."
Out of school and college, working the same job for years or retired, it gets harder to get to make new acquaintances and friends as you get older. That may not be a reason to volunteer for the board, but it's certainly one of the perks. It offers a chance to socialize with fellow homeowners and board members in your community. "Our complete pay is, we go out to dinner once a year, in January," says Remlinger with a chuckle.
All laughing aside, there are certain benefits to board service. Some—like improving property values and personally seeing to it that the grass is cut regularly and the property is maintained—are tangible. Others are less so.
The sense of purpose, accomplishment and solidarity that one can get from working with a committed board of directors in your HOA can often make up for what the position lacks in glamor or monetary compensation.
J.M. Wilson is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator. Associate Editor Liam P. Cusack contributed to this article.