With so many people leading busy, sometimes hectic lives that revolve around work, kids, social functions, and other obligations, it's often very difficult for co-op, condo, and HOA administrators to find residents willing and able to serve their community as a board members (or 'directors' or 'trustees,' depending on what part of the country you're in).
Board members are unpaid volunteers, and the job can sometimes seem like a thankless task—but having a complete, competent, committed board is crucial to running a solvent, functional building or association. Let’s look at what buildings are doing to attract new board members—and retain them once they're appointed or voted onto the board.
Assessment: What Makes a
Good Board Member
“It’s difficult to find the right people to serve on boards,” says Ellen Kornfeld, vice president of The Lovett Group in College Point, “and it’s also hard to get certain board members off the board.”
There are the wrong people who serve on a board for the wrong reasons; the wrong people who serve for the right reasons; the right people who serve for the wrong reasons; and the right people who serve for the right reasons. While you might hope to assemble a crack team of number fours, if you have a board comprised of number threes, you’re still ahead of the game.
According to the pros, what makes a good board member is, first and foremost, the ability to put aside personal interests to act for the greater good. “A selfless person,” Kornfeld says. “One who’s more interested in being a fiduciary of a building than in acting in his or her own interest.” In 2015 New York—and probably in every city in every era—such individuals are in short supply. “It’s hard to find selflessness today. I’m finding that it’s more and more difficult for people to be a little bit objective and to think in terms of the betterment of the majority as opposed to the individual.”
In a perfect world, a qualified professional would observe that the board of his or her building or association could really use expertise in the area of finance or law or accounting, and they would decide to run for purely altruistic reasons. Needless to say, New York City is not a perfect world.
“Most people want to run because they don’t like what they see or because they have their own personal agenda,” says Pamela DeLorme, president of Delkap Management, Inc. in Howard Beach. “They don’t run because they’re a CPA and they thought the board could use their help. It doesn’t happen that way.”
Other important traits include a number of time-honored virtues: patience, prudence, humility, kindness, generosity. “I think they have to be very patient,” DeLorme says. “They have to be very open and understanding to both sides of the coin. They have to be someone willing to secure all the information before they make a judgment call.”
Another vital characteristic: “The ability to play well with others on the board, and the people who live there,” adds Ralph Westerhoff, chief executive officer of Manhattan-based BrickWork Management. This ability to work well with others extends to property managers, vendors, accountants, attorneys, employees—anyone the board has dealings with.
“It needs to be somebody who is willing to consider the recommendations of management,” says DeLorme, “because management’s ultimate goal is to make it as easy as possible for the board members that are there, giving them the correct information, and the recommendation. Utilize the professionals who are currently working for you to their utmost, so that the job is not as tedious as it can be.”
Good Board Members
Given that serving on a board is a thankless, glamourless, sometimes tedious job that carries an annual salary of exactly zero, how do buildings go about finding people to serve? One way is to get more residents involved in the process by forming committees.
“We always recommend boards utilize a committee system to get more people involved in the working and management of the co-op or condo,” says Westerhoff. “This is a great way to shift some burden of responsibility from board member shoulders onto those of someone who might be passionate and quite knowledgeable about a subject of importance to the co-op or condo as a whole. Specialized committees are a great way to discover hidden resources among shareholders and unit owners, and it can serve as an apprenticeship for later board membership.”
Kornfeld agrees. “One way to kind of get a feel for people prior to them serving on the board is to ask them to serve on committees. So if you set up certain committees, even if you have to have board members on it, it gives you a good feel for the volunteerism, and it’s a good place to jump off from the committee to the board. Whether it’s an interview committee, a finance committee, a capital improvements committee, whatever it is. You can find people in the building,” she says. “Some people are architects, some are lawyers, some are in finance, so you try to get a feel for who’s living in the building if people know what some of the people do for a living and who might be a pleasant enough person.” This last aspect is crucial. One bad apple can ruin it for everybody. “Because it really does depend on their demeanor. You can be brilliant, but be very cantankerous and difficult to deal with. Some people don’t work well in groups,” says Kornfeld.
Boards should have a good idea of who is eligible to serve, and what characteristics potential candidates might bring to the table. Some people might be tempted to serve if they are asked, if they are perceived as being wanted or needed. Understanding the roster of potential candidates is a good opening move.
“What we generally recommend to buildings when there is a vacancy, is to look at the list of residents in the building,” Kornfeld says. “Perhaps speak to the super, try to get some information on the people that are living there and who might be good candidates and are pleasant enough to serve on a board.”
In these cases, it’s best to trumpet the benefits of serving on a board—and there are many such benefits, as anyone who has served in such a capacity well knows. Beyond that, stress that the time commitment can be more variable than is sometimes believed. “In terms of attracting new people to the board, it’s getting people to think about term limits, or, alternatively, trying to get people who don’t see it as a full time lifestyle,” Kornfeld says.
Or, if you can arrange it, appoint someone as an heir apparent. “It gives you some time before the next annual meeting to see if that person is who you want to be serving on the board going forward, Kornfeld says.
Retention: How to Keep Good
Although there are plenty of buildings who have board presidents that have longer reigns than Queen Elizabeth II, board turnover is always a potential issue for a co-op or condo. Running a co-op or condo is no different, fundamentally, than running a corporation, a job CEOs are paid ungodly sums of money do perform. And yet boards work gratis. Sooner or later, people run out of steam.
“Sadly, board burnout is an inevitability,” says Westerhoff. “What you hope is that the best members can devote a number of years to the co-op or condo, then take a rest, and come back after a year or two off. Again, boards should try and enlist the efforts of non-board members to ease the burden of board members through the use of committees, etc. Another way to make the life of board members easier is to have management who feels it is their job to relieve board burdens; we see that as an integral part of our work.”
When good board members leave it can be especially troubling. Attempting to retain them is prudent. “When a good board member is thinking of quitting because there is too much arguing, you might say to them, ‘It is for this reason exactly that we need you here. Because you are a contributor, you understand the issues, you’re not looking to get into arguments with people. We need someone who’s sane and rational who can make decisions in the best interest of the property. It’s for these reasons that you shouldn’t resign,” says Kornfeld. “’The majority of the board values your service and feels that, without you, it would be a real issue. We don’t really have a replacement that can pick up where you left off. Perhaps you might consider staying until we can find somebody who can fill your shoes.’ Very often the reason people want to resign are the very reasons that they should consider staying. They may be the only voice of reason on the board, and they just get frustrated.”
Sometimes a good board member can adjust his or her approach to the job to make it work—to delegate more, for example, and keep their own involvement to a minimum.
“You try to make meetings as simple as possible, so that they don’t become cumbersome,” says DeLorme. “People don’t want to give up all of their time. You try to keep the day-to-day processes away from board members who don’t want to be involved in them. You assign it to someone else, and make sure that one board member is involved instead of five, because all five don’t want to be involved.”
At the end of the day, co-op and condo buildings are worth vast sums of money—and a slice of that money belongs to everyone on the board. The bottom line, too, often makes people stay. Even in a job with no salary, money has a way of talking.
Greg Olear is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.