An Insider's View Life on the Board from a Board Member's Perspective

Remember the adage that 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the people? The same appears to be true of boards throughout the city.

In many cases, board members–and even certain shareholders–feel that being on a board is punishment for some indiscretion done in a previous life. Some feel that they can’t live without the angst, and others find they suffer a psychological problem. The common feeling is that being on the board of a co-op is an unrewarding and thankless job; I find just the opposite. The shareholders in my building are grateful and thankful. At each under-attended open meeting, someone always gets up and says how great a job the board is doing, how much time and energy the members put in, and that they should be applauded for their service.

I live in a very large co-op on the Manhattan’s West Side and because its so large, we are lucky enough to have a large population of very intelligent people in many areas. Our board is made up of nine people; one seat is still held by the sponsor. We meet about once a month for three to four hours. As a board member, my goal is to sit down with eight intelligent people each month and learn something new; to have a discussion about a topic and to approach that topic from a variety of disciplines and arrive at a conclusion that seems likely to succeed. While this is not always the case, I believe that we’re getting closer to this goal.

The following is a typical agenda for the monthly meeting:

1. Apartment purchases/sublets/refinances/name transfers: Our policy is that two board members review documents submitted, and then meet with prospective purchasers or sublets asking them any questions that they feel will be asked by the board in general. (These questions tend to be financial.)

2. Approval of Minutes: This usually means correcting grammar and correcting any inaccurate statements.

3. Alteration Escrow Deposit Returns: Our policy is to require that the shareholder doing major work in an apartment deposit into an escrow fund a sum equal to about ten percent of the total cost of the job. Once the job is finished and approved, this money is returned.

4. Alterations: This involves discussing planned alterations and timing. (See above.)

5. Projects in Progress: This isn’t always on the agenda, but the building is presently involved in major construction projects that we need to monitor.

6. Management Report: This report is usually given by the executive manager and the resident manager and discusses various topics of concern that are not covered above. Staffing, new equipment needs and the like.

7. Old Business: in which past decisions or recommendations are revisited

8. New Business

Like some of you, I first ran for the board because I felt that my building wasn’t being run properly. We are self managed, and the board has historically been very much involved with the day-to-day operations. In my opinion, that wasn’t the role that the board should take. I felt that it was the board’s responsibility to set policy and direct the managers. I also felt that given my background in mangement and my involvement in this community, I would make a good board member. Being on the board of this building these some-odd years has driven me to three conclusions:

1) Just because it appears that the ink on this paper appears to be black, there are people who would disagree.

2) The scene from Five Easy Pieces; the one where he tries to order a lettuce and tomato sandwich, was a real life experience.

3) If you believe you’re correct, you have to persevere.

I’m sure many board members have reached similar conclusions. What I will try and focus on in this column are issues that my board faces and how we handled/are handling them and what was learned from it. Similarly, we’d all benefit from reading about some experiences you have had which might be worth sharing.

The first question that we are dealing with is whether we should continue as a self managed building. In order to evaluate the pros and cons of hiring an outside management firm, it was first necessary to analyze what kind of services we as a board thought our shareholders wanted. Such seemingly mundane questions arose: How often do we feel the hallways or sidewalks should be cleaned? What intra-apartment services should be free, and what should be charged? What kinds of reports do we as a board need and what should be the frequency of those reports? What objective criteria do we use to asses the accomplishments of management and the cost of such services?

To resolve these questions, the board met in an all-day session with a facilitator who attempted to focus the board members’ thoughts to establish a mission statement that would define these issues and would carry us through the next few years.

Whether we decide on maintaining the present system of self management or go outside, the answers to these questions and the decisions we make based on our findings, will lay the groundwork for the type of management we prefer.

Over these past years, the makeup of our building has changed dramatically. We have more working families, more families with young children, more people having food delivered and more messengers. As such, building services are being taxed. Along with the question of management comes those that require us to make the adjustments to the allocation of our service personnel. In response, we are in the process of creating a building-wide survey to assess our constituency and their needs so that we can plan accordingly. We felt this is the first step. Any suggestions?

Please feel free to mail or e-mail your thoughts on this or any other topic you would like discussed here to: The Cooperator, 31 East 28th Street; New York, NY. We appreciate your comments and look forward to your feedback.

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