Getting Good Help
Recruiting (and Keeping) New Board Members
Attracting new members to join your board of directors may be a daunting task. As current board members, you know that occasionally you need new members to keep the business of your co-op running smoothly—but people are often reluctant to join a group they may not really know much about. Even more challenging, they might be convinced that serving on the board will be too difficult, too time-consuming, or will make them the targets of potential lawsuits if there’s a problem in the building.
So how do you go about getting people to think about joining you on the board of directors? What makes a person want to serve on the board? And what do you do if a certain board member doesn’t end up working out?
The process of finding new people to join your board might involve talking to people before they’ve even unpacked their boxes on move-in day. As a board president or current member, you can introduce yourself on the first day they move into their new co-op and tell them about what it’s like to live in your building. As you get to know them through conversation, their application and their preliminary interview, take note of their background, their occupation and their interests. Would this person make a good addition to your board?
“Remind them from day one that this is their co-op,” says Albert F. Pennisi, an attorney with Pennisi Daniels Norelli in Queens and president of the Federation of New York Housing Cooperatives and Condominiums (FNYHC). “Serving on the board of directors for your building will only enhance and protect your investment.”
Perhaps the best sources for new board members, however, are the committees that are already formed. These might include committees that handle such tasks as admissions, maintenance, finance, building and grounds, management or capital improvement.
“Look first to those people who are already involved in the co-op but are not yet on the board,” advises David Baron, senior vice president and principal of Metro Management, Development, Inc., a full-service real estate management and brokerage firm in Long Island City that manages almost 15,000 co-ops and condos. “There are usually a number of active committees in a building where you can find volunteers. For instance, look to the finance committee to recruit someone to be the treasurer of your board.”
“Committees are a good source to get a feeling of how a person would interact with other members,” says Lorraine Kresse, board president for Terrace View Owners, Inc., a 146-unit co-op in Jackson Heights. “Also, you can work with the committees to speak to shareholders and find out who has special concerns. They might make a good addition to your board.”
In addition to initial introductions and committees as places to dig up new members, an existing board might also look to those people who have expressed interest in your co-op or condo development at meetings. Who are those people who might have come forward to ask constructive questions at informational meetings? Who seems to be interested in the projects that are going on around your co-op? Talk to your neighbors and acquaintances in the building—these people might not immediately be apparent. Finding a new board member might take some asking around.
“Also remember to look to those people who might have professional experiences that would be good for the co-op,” urges Baron. “Architects, engineers or attorneys have expertise that they are able to translate into positive things for the co-op or condo.”
A Thankless Job
Although many people are honored by a nomination, not everyone is willing or able to run for a position on your board of directors. What makes a person say yes to a nomination? What makes them turn you down?
“Serving on a board is non-paying work and often thankless,” says Pennisi. “People join a cooperative through their investment and their ownership—they should be involved. However, people often have conflicts in schedule or are trying to balance their careers with lots of other commitments.”
Often, people don’t want to serve on the board because they feel as if they will have to give up their privacy.
Baron, who has served as board member and current president of a 300-plus unit co-op in Bayside Queens, describes how his position on the board causes some loss of privacy. He says that even on the elevator people will ask him questions about the building, to which his response is always, “What happened to ‘hello’ first?”
“You’re suddenly equivalent to the super, the managing agent, the tax man,” says Baron, who has served as board president for 14 years. “People will ask you questions—about the maintenance going up, say—and will talk to you as if it’s your fault.”
Many people, like Baron, are more than willing to sign up to serve on their board. They do so for many reasons, but the primary one is to help to protect their personal investment in the place that they live.
“People have an interest in their building, in the way things run, in the expenses of the building, and so forth,” reports Pennisi. “Serving on the board helps keep them in the decision-making process regarding all of these issues and helps to better their community and also their quality of life.”
Only a few join the board to acquire status or power.
“This happens in some buildings, but fortunately we’ve never had a case like this as long as I’ve been president,” relates Kresse. “People serving for these reasons only can really be detrimental to a board, because they’re only doing it for reasons of self-interest and not for the betterment of the entire community.”
“Most people will volunteer to serve the board because they can offer something back to their community,” says Baron. “They think they made a good investment and they want to protect that investment. They may feel they can do that better than others who have stepped forward to serve in the past.”
People do not sign up for board work because they see it as a way to make money.
“There is no compensation for serving on a board,” says Pennisi, who reports never having seen compensation given to board members in his entire 35 years of experience in this field. And there shouldn’t be compensation, he says, since this would constitute a conflict of interest.
“Stay away from compensation,” instructs Baron. “These are volunteer roles, strictly and simply. People should serve because they feel they can contribute not because they are compensated.”
Baron does offer light meals at his 5 p.m. board meetings, however. This works as sort of a lure to get people to come on time, particularly when they work through the dinner hour.
The Term Limit Question
The question of term limits is one that every board must face. Should you require that board members serve no more than a certain period of time, or should they be able to serve for as long as they are willing—and as long as shareholders think they are capable?
Baron is emphatic in his belief that term limits are a bad thing for boards. He doesn’t think term limits are necessary, since if shareholders don’t want a person re-elected, then they have the power of the vote to make the change they want.
“A person should not be forced out of office just because he has served for two consecutive terms and now it’s time to give someone else a chance,” he argues. “If somebody else wants a chance, then they can run on their own platform and on their own set of accomplishments. If you don’t want someone on the board, vote them off. Everybody can be term-limited that way.”
“I’ve known several buildings that have term limits,” she says. “They start out with members who are very concerned and interested in maintaining the building, but as time goes on, people get into office just because no one else is allowed to run. Services are diminished because of that.”
Instead of imposing term limits, a board might consider the use of staggered terms, instead. Pennisi reports that the Federation encourages boards to renew their group a third at a time. In this way, you are able to preserve the “institutional memory” of your board. This would mean that one third of the board is elected the first year, one third is turned over the second year, the remaining third is turned over the last year, and so forth.
“This is the best way, in my mind, because it allows for continuity,” says Baron. “If you have a nine-member board, every year, a different three will come up for re-election for another three-year term. Co-ops that are successful have staggered terms rather than term limits, which can really cause a board to lose its history and knowledge, both of which are crucial to a successful building.”
As said earlier, if a board member doesn’t work out for whatever reason, the other shareholders can vote that person out of office. Most usually wait until the person is up for re-election.
Occasionally, though, people dislike the work a board member is doing so much that they feel they need to oust them immediately. If this is the case, then board members may be voted off through a special meeting of the shareholders.
Boards should check their bylaws for further information regarding how to do this.
Resources for Boards
Both new and veteran board members may need information about how to serve their building more effectively. Many resources exist that offer boards information and training.
Trade papers such as The Cooperator, as well as the New York Times’ real estate section, are great resources for those who are looking for support.
Board members can also join organizations like the FNYHC or the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums (CNYC), both of which offer information and support to board members. These organizations provide training seminars that feature keynote speakers from the fields of law, accounting, engineering and real estate.
Domini Hedderman is a freelance writer and a longtime contributor to The Cooperator.