Few board members would argue that the time spent serving their buildings and fellow residents can be both very strenuous and very rewarding. For years, they make decisions that affect their community in the present and may continue to impact them years down the road.
It’s a powerful position to hold, one that requires them to acquire a significant depth of knowledge about the inner workings of their board or association, amassing an institutional memory that can be difficult to replace.
That knowledge and that experience are just two of the reasons why former board members can be so valuable to the community in which they still live, and why sometimes it’s in the best interest of the board or the association to try and keep those former board members active and involved.
For many former board members, the matter of whether or not to stay involved boils down to the seemingly mundane question of how they feel. Are they burned out? For many board members, the answer is yes. “Mostly because they get burned out,” says Denise Lindsey, vice president of Access Property Management in Edison, New Jersey, “especially if there is no appreciation shown for them volunteering their time.”
And if they’ve just recently left the board, they may still be dealing with the after-effects of decisions they helped make. “There might be finger-pointing along the lines of, ‘Why are we having to borrow money to put on a roof now?’ or, ‘How come we have to pay this assessment?’,” says Walt Williamsen, president of Condominium Consulting Services LLC in Torrington, Connecticut. In that case, a board member may be in no mood to continue working in any capacity for the board or the association.
Recognize the Service
The consensus among most professionals is that if a board member has served well, it’s in the best interest of the building community to recognize that service and help ease that person’s transition into “civilian life.” “It’s good to keep in touch with them,” says Debra H. Lewin, an author of numerous books on community association governance, including Volunteers: How Community Associations Thrive. “Give them some type of recognition or acknowledgment. It’s a nice gesture.” And it reminds them that the time they gave was valuable and will not be forgotten, she says.
Why is it so important to keep strong relationships with former board members? It all boils down to one vital asset: institutional memory. “Previous board members can give the history on projects and/or conflicts that have taken place so research doesn’t have to be repeated and cost the association additional money,” says Lindsey.
Lewin agrees. “Whatever knowledge they gained while they were there or the training they received, it can be important to hold on to that.”
Institutional memory can help the bottom line as well, says Williamsen. “We do a lot of reserve analysis, and I’m finding that that kind of memory is really lacking. Associations may not have good records of what’s been done in the past. When was the roof last replaced? It’s hard for an outsider to judge something like that. So it can save you money to have someone who knows.”
Back Into the Fray
One of the best ways to take advantage of that inside knowledge is to create an advisory board or invite past board members to serve on committees, whether standing or ad hoc. Formalizing the contributions of retired board members can help ensure that their value is not lost. “Sometimes, after repeated turnover of boards or staff, people might not even realize that these valuable resources exist,” says Lewin.
It’s important to be specific when soliciting a former board member’s help. Giving them an unspecified role may result in counter-productivity as everyone needs a job description. According to Lindsey. “Ask that they join or chair a committee, encourage them to keep active and continue to maintain the hard work they committed to the association.”
Lewin believes that those sorts of roles can save a lot of time, money and resources. “If you have a problem and then 10 years and umpteen board members later, the problem resurfaces, you can go back to those people,” she says. “They can pull out the data and say here are the questions we asked. Maybe it’s time to get new data but there’s value in being able to ask similar questions.”
Putting past board members in place as the heads of standing committees can be valuable as well, “as long as it’s not stepping on other people’s toes,” says Julie Adamen, president of Adamen Inc., a consulting firm specializing in the community management industry. “Energy is always welcomed. Just channel those energies where you need them channeled.”
Adamen adds that current boards and management who wish to work with past board members should remember to separate those volunteers from the inner workings of the existing board. “There are things they should not be privy to—that could be a liability issue.”
Retirees Can Help
Even former members who have retired and live part-time in other areas can contribute their expertise, thanks to things like e-mail and conference calls. Lindsey suggests asking former board members with more carefree lifestyles to contribute in areas where they are most interested and appeal to their talents, such as the newsletter or the Architectural Control Committee, covenants or the alternative dispute resolution (ADR) Committee.
And if past board members do contribute via committees or advisory boards, it’s again important to thank them for their work. “Even if they give you advice that you might not use, you need to review it,” says Adamen. “And then you need to thank them publicly and let them know you’ll be taking their input under advisement. To stonewall and never say thank you is just untenable. That’s why people don’t want to volunteer.”
If they’re willing and interested, retired board members can be invaluable when it comes to supporting the decisions of the current board, letting fellow residents know that whatever issue has arisen was studied in their time and they came to the same conclusions. “I’ve seen a couple of cases where people have to start raising fees, and I’ve seen past board members standing up and saying they had recommended that,” says Williamsen. Being able to point to continuity in the decision-making process can make a significant difference in helping residents accept change.
Because this is an imperfect world, not all board transitions from current to past run smoothly. What happens when a board member has difficulty letting go of their authority? What if they start interrupting board meetings, or asking for special treatment? According to the experts, that’s a relatively rare occurrence. “You don’t see that happen very often,” says Lewin. “Too often you’re just trying to get people to serve in the first place.”
Williamsen agrees. “I’ve been to some raucous meetings, but none as a result of former board members,” he says. “Those board members have all been there and done that. They’re not interested in that kind of thing.”
When former board members do want to voice their opinions, though, “invite them to speak at a homeowners’ forum or ask for their ideas in writing,” says Lewin. “Sometimes people are just feeling left out. Treat them with respect. You don’t want them to feel like it’s all or nothing, that you either love them or hate them. You don’t want that.”
For many board retirees, letting go of once appointed authority can be a problem. “I don’t run across this that often,” says Lindsey. “But sometimes you may get an overzealous board member, who claims that certain things wouldn’t have happened under their watch and will give the manager continued directions.”
Often the reverse situation is a problem as well—residents may be reluctant to let go of a once beloved board member. Neighbors who used to stop by with a complaint about the clubhouse might not be able to get used to the idea that their board member connection has given up that role.
Setting boundaries is vital. If a discussion of the board or association arises, “you have to make it clear that you’re speaking as a neighbor,” says Lewin. “It’s important to support board decisions. It’s okay to disagree with something but you still have to support the board’s authority. You don’t want to create any dissension.”
Ultimately, the best way to build strong, positive relationships between past and present is to remember how much time, energy and effort past board members gave to their community. “Acknowledge the input of volunteers,” says Adamen. “Positive acknowledgment is worth its weight in gold.”
Liz Lent is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.