Are You Ready to Become a Board Member? A Guide to What it Takes

“I wish someone had told me the nuances of trying to cultivate a community while also trying to manage a business,” said Pat Burke, president of the Fieldstondale co-op in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, and a 12-year member of its board. “The two tasks are usually in dire conflict, or so I’ve found.”  

It’s a common refrain among members of co-op boards, that they didn’t expect the time investment to be so great. “It takes time,” Daniel Sabillon, of Daniel Sabillon Management Corp, said, “it’s not a paying position so [people looking to be board members] need to make sure that they are aware that it is involving work and takes up their personal time.”

Being a board member is more involved than just going to the meeting every month. Board members need to be actively involved with the building and need to actively communicate with the building management so that they can remain aware of any issues and stay a step ahead of problems that could potentially cause problems. Here are a few aspects to consider before taking on that responsibility.

1. You Don’t Need to be a Rocket Scientist

While Mr. Burke has a background in construction and as an operational engineer, you don’t necessarily need to have any experience to be a board member. “To serve on a board you just need to be willing to give the time and attention,” said Mary Ann Rothman, executive director of the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums, “No particular expertise is required but it makes sense to read the proprietary lease, the by-laws and house rules of your co-op and note any questions you have and ask those questions before joining the board so you can learn how co-op governance works and what your role would be.”

While you may not need experience to serve on your co-op board, you should probably learn how it works said a long-time board member who wished to remain anonymous, “I would recommend that anyone joining a board request an hour or so with an officer or other board member for the purpose of gaining an overview of the co-op’s history, financials, contracts, committees, projects in the works, and current issues of concern. If they cannot do that before the first meeting they attend, do it before the second meeting.”

2. Remember That You’re Not a Rocket Scientist

“If the co-op has a managing agent then they will bring the professional expertise of building operations and how the building is run and how bills are paid and so on,” said Rothman.

The old mantra from school seems to apply: there’s no such thing as a stupid question. If there’s something you don’t understand you should ask other board members or the property manager.

“If you have legal questions find out who to ask as contacting the building’s lawyer will incur legal bills and only go to the lawyer if you need to, learning the proper chain of command is important here,” said Rothman. No one wants to be the guy who cost the co-op $500 just to ask a question someone else could have answered for free.

3. You’re Not Steve Jobs Either

“Being elected confers a lot of responsibility, but it doesn’t confer extra privileges,” said Rothman, “Board members should not be giving orders to staff or be expecting special treatment; they should be setting an example and working in the best interests of the co-op or condo.”

When it comes to making sure repairs, or anything else, gets done, “The goal is to keep focused on the big picture,” said Burke, “it’s easy to get bogged down in minutia.”

4. Always Consider the Big Picture

Our unnamed board member’s board has found a way of making sure they spend time getting things done and not just talking, “Even though we are a small board, we have developed a way of working on tasks in committees of one, two or three members, so meetings can focus on progress reports rather than the entire board spending meeting time working on every project,” she said.

When it comes to repairs there are always a lot of companies bidding for a project and the temptation is to go with the cheapest, which Sabillon said to watch out for, “it’s best to consider all options and not always go with the cheapest.”

And if a contentious subject comes up, like pets for example, Mrs. Rothman said it’s best to take it slowly, making sure that everyone in the building has a say, not necessarily a vote though as the board should have the final say, and make sure that whatever decision is reached is in the best interest of the entire building and not just a few people.

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