Board Resource Guide: Serving on the Board: What It's Really Like
A Tell-All Tale
As any co-op or condo board member knows, serving on the board carries with it a responsibility to fellow residents and shareholders to make decisions in the best interest of the building. They don't leave their role as board members at the door after a meeting, and this can present a problem if neighbors pick inappropriate times to discuss building matters. Board members can end up devoting a great deal of their personal time to the position, essentially working for free. At the same time, protecting one's investment firsthand can be a rewarding experience for some. Maintaining a careful balance between the positive and negative aspects, and working in the interest of the co-op or condo is a key component of being an effective board member.
When Your Time Becomes Theirs
"It really depends on the building. I basically found that with the building that I owned in, which was a 10-unit, self managed co-op, any problems were handled basically by me," says Gene Keyser, who served as a member and as president of his Brooklyn co-op's board.
"During emergencies, it cut into work and personal time. About 30 to 40 percent of my personal time was devoted to waiting for contractors, interviewing contractors or meeting with other board members," says Keyser, who was the board president for four years, and currently remains a consultant to the board. "It was like having a job."
For Bob Friedrich, president of Glen Oaks Village in Queens, being president of the board means he deals with issues facing the largest garden apartment co-op in New York City. The community has 134 two- and three-story buildings with 3,000 units, approximately 10,000 residents, and an annual budget of $23 million.
"I devote a minimum of 40 hours per week to [board duties], more than my paying job," says Friedrich, who has been president for 10 years and on the board for 15 years. An accountant by trade, Friedrich is glad to have both the ability and time to devote to his various responsibilities.
"Running a co-op is a real business and really needs to be done like a business," he says. "We have nine board members who all live in the community and like each other. We can debate issues and it never gets personal, we all enjoy participating."
"There's no hard and fast rule about how much time you'll spend," says Stu Hochron, currently board vice president at 12 Bond St. in Great Neck, N.Y., a co-op with 44 units, 40 of which are residential and four that are commercial. "When I was president, I made myself accessible and I continue to do so as vice president. People will come to me any hour of the night, any day of the week, with building issues," he says.
Although every board is unique, there are two clear challenges Keyser has faced that seem to be inherent issues for most boards.
"It's difficult to get people to see the bigger picture and control spending, because as soon as you take a look and see that you've got a lot more money in the reserve than in the past, you come up with ideas for spending it to increase value. But the best way to increase value is to have a lot of money in the reserve. I had to figure out some way not to spend every penny we had," he says.
Financial issues are a top concern for any board. Many boards are lucky enough to have in-house financial professionals, some of whom might even be board members. Others have to look outside the co-op or condo for professional guidance.
"I think you need to have some kind of a background in financial issues. If you don't, you need to start a committee that's headed by someone who understands interest rates, underlying mortgage issues and refinancing issues," says Keyser. "A treasurer should have an understanding of finance, where money is coming from and where it's going."
Another trying issue for Keyser was starting committees and keeping residents involved by distributing responsibilities among other shareholders. "The best way is to keep all members involved and encourage people to start committees to make small but effective changes. You have to make everyone feel like they're part of the group and that they have to take responsibility for the co-op."
"It's very important to have a committee system that includes a collaboration of staff members, board members and shareholders on all committees," says Friedrich. "This is especially important when selling a budget: everyone has a hand in it, not just management."
Dealing with pushy or demanding residents is also a common occurrence for board members. "The hardest part is when you have an individual who wants something and it's just not within the budget or your power, but they don't take no for an answer," says Hochron.
Many times, boards members find themselves at odds with residents over building issues, but occasionally, problems can arise among those serving on the board.
If there's a serious problem, take your fellow board member aside and talk to him or her, advises Hochron. "If they continue to not do their job, you have to replace them. Getting people on the board is difficult, but getting them to do work is even more difficult," he says.
One of the trickier areas of a board member's responsibility is remaining impartial, especially when issues concern other shareholders that are also the board's neighbors and friends.
"If there is an issue, every shareholder has to be treated the same," says Friedrich. "It's important that management understands that there should not be special favors. I always try to keep that distance between myself and staff members. A cozy relationship is not a good one to have, especially with people who are accountable. Board members have to maintain a separation between friendship and business."
To head off potential problems, Hochron thinks it's important to build relationships with your fellow board members as well as residents, if possible.
"This is a small building, and I know every person in the building," says Hochron. "As a result, I already knew a number of people who serve on the board now. Get to know as many people in the building as you can."
Hochron's co-op encourages this 'getting-to-know-you' attitude by providing activities and communicating with residents periodically.
"At our annual meeting, we serve a dinner so people can get to get to know each other. We try to have holiday parties and publish newsletters. You have to have some familiarity, no matter how big or small the building is," he says.
"We reach out to spouses of board members, and around the holidays we send a small token of appreciation to spouses and volunteers to say thank you," says Friedrich. "Once a year we have a staff and volunteer barbecue on our property. Everyone gets together and talks. If you can do those small things, people know you appreciate what they're doing. It goes a long way to keeping everyone happy and on board with what you're doing."
Friedrich also emphasizes the importance of communicating with other shareholders, whether it's though a newsletter, e-mails, a website or another method. Glen Oaks Village has a newsletter as well as a website (www.glenoaksvillage.com) to maintain transparency between the board and residents.
Reaching out to members of other co-op boards is a good way to get feedback from people familiar with your board responsibilities, but who are removed from your current situation. Friedrich started the President's Co-op Council, an online community for co-op board presidents in Queens, a year ago. "We use it as a way to bounce ideas off each other, ask questions and get feedback," he says. "It's been enormously successful and we're getting more co-ops and condos who want to get on board. We do everything by e-mail and it's been so helpful and a great tool. And because it's board presidents, we can talk honestly to each other."
Maintaining a strong sense of community is essential in co-ops and condos. But space constraints in communal living often force many residents to leave their homes in search of larger units. Friedrich's board decided to tackle this issue head-on, and came up with an innovative solution.
"The strength of a community is to have long-term residency. We asked ourselves: how do we get people to stop leaving the community? We realized that if we could reclaim attic space, we could create a third floor for second floor occupants to give them more space," he says. "Now rather than moving, they can literally double the size of their space by taking over the unused attic space."
A Rewarding Experience
To many board members, the more rewarding aspects of serving on the board are intangible. With all the challenges and responsibilities that are integral to every board, it can be a rewarding experience.
"I've been on the board for over 10 years and we try to do what's best for the building," says Hochron. "There are times when board members disagree, and then we talk it out. The board does what the majority wants and we try to put our personal feelings aside. We have a great building and we want to keep it that way."
"I find working with professionals gratifying, enlightening and helpful," says Friedrich. "I've been able to work with smart people. I've worked very closely with elected representatives and local communities to make sure our community gets what it needs and deserves."
"I've become acquainted with numerous property managers and contractors, and I'm proud that they're my friends," says Hochron. "My knowledge has grown considerably, and I get calls from people all over the Island asking me about co-ops and condos. I want to give something back, and this is one of the ways I can do it. I love walking down the street and hearing people say, 'there's the co-op and condo guy.'"
For some board members, serving on the board of a co-op or condo is often a thankless job. But it can also be a rewarding experience, allowing owners or shareholders to take a more active role in their communities. Some members come to meetings with great enthusiasm, and approach the position as if it's a second job (which it can often become). Others look at the duty begrudgingly, serving but one term and resisting additional involvement. But no matter how you look at it, however, every co-op and condo needs a capable board to keep the building afloat and protect everyone's investment.
Stephanie Mannino is a freelance writer and published author living in Hoboken, New Jersey.