Being on a board of a condo or co-op is no picnic. There are tons of decisions to be made, disputes to settle, finances to keep track of and a chance of being sued for a slip-up. So why do so many people decide to serve on a board—some for years at a time? Even though it's easy to lose sight of them under the pressure and responsibility, there are benefits to being on a board.
Blame the Board
Let's face it, being on the board can be a tough, thankless job. If anything isn't going the way someone thinks it should, it's easy to just blame the people who are perceived to be in charge, even if that isn't really the case.
"You get a lot of negative feedback from the shareholders," says Mona Shyman, vice president of the Federation of New York Housing Cooperatives & Condominiums (FNYHC). "The majority of people who live in a co-op feel that they are renters, that the board is their landlord."
In fact, many shareholders forget that the people who are on the board are subject to all of the same decisions that are made on behalf of the building, continues Shyman. "They feel like the board is raising my maintenance but the people on the board are going to be paying the same thing that you are. So when they are raising it, they are raising it for themselves also."
"It's an unappreciated job," says Manuel Cartagena, board director/president at Gouverneur Gardens Housing Corporation in Manhattan. "No matter how much you try you always have people who will complain about something. There's shouting. People don't always agree."
For many shareholders, a perspective shift might be in order to understand the role of a board. Consider this anecdote from Shyman: "I got in the elevator the other day [with another shareholder] and she says 'all they [the board] do is take money from me and they can't even get the elevators to run right.' I say to her, 'you have a car?' She says 'yes.' I say 'does it ever have to go in for maintenance?' She says 'yes.' I say 'do you still have to make the payments on the car?' She says 'yes.' I said 'it's the same thing here. If the elevator isn't running, you still have to make the payments.'"
In the Know
With all the negative attention, 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 perks to being on the board, including a variety of things beneath the surface that keep people interested in serving their community.
A sense of self-satisfaction is one positive, says Shyman. "You can set standards." There is also a sense of pride that comes along with being on the board for some. "Sometimes people go on the board to say they are on the board, for the cachet of being a board member," Shyman notes.
"One of the perks may be that you get to participate in the final decisions for the building," continues Shyman, "but it's a democracy, so yours is only one vote."
Being on the board is an active way to have a hand in managing your life, community and finances, says Steven Greenbaum, with Mark Greenberg Real Estate Co., LLC in Lake Success. "You get a feeling that you have done something for yourself, you've accomplished some goals, and you have done something to better your investment."
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.
Another advantage of being on the board is that they are "privy to more information, things like policies or waiting lists or that sort of thing," adds Cartagena.
According to the experts, it's unanimous: being on the board does not entitle anyone to favors or special treatment. "Board members may get more respect, but no special treatment," adds Cartagena.
Greenbaum agrees: "The only advantages that board members have is that they know what is going on in the building better than anybody. There are no special favors for being 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, Local Law 11, elevators, interviewing consultants, facades, air rights," says Cartagena. "You learn about contracts, the process of working with city agencies, and the process of having a meeting, motions, and seconds of motions."
"No question about it, board skills are transferable," says Greenbaum. "One of our property managers used to be on a board and was facing a career change. He decided that he liked real estate and wanted a career in a related field, so we trained him to be a property manager, and it has turned out to be an excellent fit."
Being on the board may also have value for members' personal careers and resumes. "I'm an engineer," says Cartagena, "and for me being on the board helps my resume because it applies to what I do: maintenance issues, security and other things. It certainly looks good on my resume that I am a board president of 728 units, or a board president of a corporation, so that's a plus."
Drumming up business for personal, outside interests, however, is generally frowned upon, continues Greenbaum. Professional advice is very helpful on a pro bono basis, he says, but a board member getting hired to do a job within their own building is a no-no. "We do ask people on the board for referrals, but this is a volunteer effort so it usually doesn't end in a contract."
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, says Cartagena. The different professions of members bring varying degrees of knowledge to the table. "Board members bring in their experiences, which for us have included an economist and one guy who was running for city council," says Cartagena. "They bring in their own expertise and it's always good. Then, sometimes we have housewives, with common sense and they want to help. We even have ex-police officers on the board. As an engineer I am asked about my area of expertise when it comes up."
And then there are the potential social benefits, says Greenbaum. "When people move into a building, they don't know people, and they tend to meet people by being on the board. If you are new to town and you have some organizational or community skills and you want to meet people, you can join a committee, and work your way up to being on the board. There are actually some board members who go beyond their building to become community board members. They volunteer with other organizations, that sort of thing."
People have varying reasons for wanting to be on the board, some of them altruistic and some of them personal. Either way, a board member is fulfilling a sense of duty from serving. "I have seen people try to get something passed, have it voted against by the board, and then run for a place on the board," says Cartagena. "Then, when they get on the board, they try to press the issue again. I've seen it happen, but that's not any different than what goes on down in Washington."
In fact, personal agendas, which are sometimes looked at as negative if they are not for the good of the whole, can be a driving force of good. "I think that most people do get on the board for their own personal agendas," says Greenbaum, "but I don't mean that in the negative sense. I think that they have an agenda, meaning that they don't like the way certain things are running. For example, they want to make sure that the finances are handled properly, or they notice that there is a problem with a part of the building, like the waterproofing or having the hallways redone. That's where a lot of board members come from - people saying that they don't like something, then they join the board and try to effect some change."
The length of service of board members also has its pluses and minuses, notes Greenbaum. "New board members have fresh eyes and a new perspective. Old board members are more experienced and that has its advantages as well."
Even with all the potential stress and responsibility of being on the board, it is possible to have fun while serving, says Greenbaum. "If your building is running well, and your management company does a good job and you are there to effectuate decisions, and you are not bogged down by minutiae, it can be a lot of fun. You go in and treat it like a business, and it's run properly and efficiently."
Denton Tarver is a freelance writer, teacher and professional gardener living in New York City.