Picking a Few Good Apples Attracting New Board Members

These days, there’s no shortage of articles in magazines, newspapers, and online about how time-crunched most people feel. Between work, family obligations, long commutes, and a vast array of other factors vying for attention and precious minutes, getting anybody to devote still more time (without compensation, no less) to their building’s administration can be a very tough sell.

It’s hard to attract new board members, and can be hard to hold onto them once you’ve got them. The best board members are involved volunteers with a vested, active interest in the well-being of their building community—people who can make balanced, well-thought-out decisions that are in the best interest of the building community as a whole. That can be a tall order, however. So how can a building attract and keep the best board members? Turns out the answer is a little more nuanced than tacking a flyer up on a cork-board by the front door.

Slim Pickings

Finding people willing to serve on their community’s board is tough—doubly so if the building in question is small. Fewer residents obviously means a smaller pool of prospective board members, and less social padding between neighbors who have differing opinions on building administration, or who simply don’t get along with each other.

Bruce Anglin, president of the board at Canterbury Woods Condominiums in Old Bridge, New Jersey, says that getting people to serve on the board can be a real challenge. “We’re a small community; we only have 28 units,” he says. “We’re supposed to have five board members, but last year we were down to two—so we had to appoint one in order to comply with state regulations. We had an annual meeting, but only 12 people showed up, so it seems that people are content to ‘let the other guy do it,’ so to speak.”

Overcoming apathy among residents is perhaps the biggest challenge when it comes to populating a board. Considering that a willingness to engage in the day-to-day running of one’s building is one of the most (if not the most) important trait for a prospective board member to possess, apathy among residents can spell frustration when it comes time to draft a new round of community administrators.

If the willingness is there however, it really doesn’t matter what a person does for a living outside of their work for the board. While it’s certainly great if the people on a building or association board come to the position with some knowledge of how buildings and grounds are maintained and what the relationships are between the management company and staff, most pros feel that these details can be learned on the job. “Everybody comes on the board with a different knowledge base,” says Paul Santoriello, president and director of property management of Taylor Management in Cedar Knolls, New Jersey. “We have attorneys, truck drivers, accountants, machinists—all kinds of people.”

“We do have a couple of gentlemen who know about construction or engineering, which is handy if something comes up in the building, we can get advice and they can handle it,” says Anglin. “They understand what the problems are and can give recommendations. If someone knows about finances, it empowers the board to follow along with what is being done and they can report to the rest of the board.”

One excellent source for new board members are the committees that already exist in your building, such as admissions, maintenance, finance, building and grounds, management or capital improvement committees.

“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 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,” agrees 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.

No Thanks

One of the reasons it’s so hard for some buildings to attract board members is that time issues aside, being on the board really doesn’t offer much — if anything—in the way of concrete compensation. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time, board members are unpaid volunteers, and they often take a lot of abuse from non-board residents for their trouble.

“Serving on a board is non-paying work and often thankless,” says Albert F. Pennisi, an attorney with Pennisi Daniels & Norelli LLP, in Queens and president of the Federation of New York Housing Cooperatives and Condominiums (FNYHC). Pennisi 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. “People join a cooperative through their investment and their ownership,” he says. “They should be involved. However, people often have scheduling conflicts, or are trying to balance their careers with lots of other commitments. There is no monetary compensation for serving on a board.”

Nor should there be, echoes Baron. “Stay away from compensation,” he says. “These are volunteer roles, strictly and simply. People should serve because they feel they can contribute—not because they are compensated.”

There’s also the issue of privacy. Some people might hesitate to join the board out of concerns that their lives and business will be open for scrutiny by their neighbors, or that people will take their position on the board as carte blanche to pester them at all hours about every little thing.

Baron, who has served as board member and current president of a 300-plus unit co-op in Bayside, Queens, does concede that being a board member can result in 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 nevertheless has served as board president for 14 years. “People will ask you questions—about the maintenance fees going up, say—and will talk to you as if it’s your fault.”

So Why Serve?

Despite the difficulty many buildings have in attracting good people to their boards, many residents, says 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,” agrees 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 rarely does someone join their board out of a misplaced desire for power or undue influence in their community.

“This happens in some buildings, but fortunately we’ve never had a case like this as long as I’ve been president,” relates Anglin. “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.”

Avoiding those types of scenarios can be as easy as giving new board members— and even prospective members—the sense that they haven’t been dropped into the deep end of the pool without a lifeguard. Pairing them up with a veteran board member, or sitting down with your manager for a quick tutorial can go a long way toward demystifying board operations and giving new members an idea of the overall tone and mood the board maintains.

“You typically have at least some board members who have been on the board for a time and have a good knowledge base,” says Santoriello. “They can take new members under their wing. We recommend that new members sit down with the manager and board president and review the last six to 12 months of board packages—which includes management reports and so on. As a new board member you can get up to speed quickly on that, because you’re looking at what the board has been dealing with for the last year with the physical, financial, and administrative aspects of maintaining the association.”

In the final analysis, being on the board means having a hand in the maintenance of the building community in which you live, which can be a source of pride and fulfillment.

“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.”

“You just need to remind [people] from day one that this is their co-op,” says Pennisi. “Serving on the board of directors for your building will only enhance and protect your investment.”

Hannah Fons is associate editor ofThe Cooperator.

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