While a board and management take on the lion's share of responsibility for maintaining a building or community association, it certainly helps to have some extra hands on deck to keep track of smaller details. While by no means mandatory, the forming of standing committees to oversee certain constant aspects of association business (landscaping or events, for example) or ad hoc committees focused on shepherding through one single project (like a facade renovation) can go a long way toward alleviating the burden for the board or management. As a bonus, temporary participation in a committee can whet one's appetite for getting involved in a deeper sense, whether it be on a permanent committee or as a member of the board.
Of course, committees are only effective if they're run efficiently and given proper oversight. Property managers tend to have a measured view of what makes for a successful committee, and can usually provide the guidance necessary to ensure that committees have the support and mandate to complete their tasks successfully.
Valuable at Any Size
Admittedly, a smaller association might struggle just to fill the seats on its board, and as such, staffing committees may be pretty far down the list of things to worry about. But regardless of size, whenever possible, committees can provide a solid value-add to an association, especially if board members are effectively working a second (unpaid) job trying to keep the association running smoothly.
“In my experience, committees are incredibly helpful to an association,” says Jacqueline Abraham, a regional director with Lieberman Management Services in Chicago. “Creating ad hoc committees to assist the board with projects such as revising rules and regulations, or remodeling the common spaces, are invaluable. There is a great deal of planning involved with certain projects that can be a challenge for board members to undertake in addition to their regular duties and personal obligations. Committee members act in an advisory capacity to do the leg work to gather information and present it to the board to assist with decision-making. Typically committees are comprised of community members that have a specific interest or background that is relevant to the project at hand. For example, a resident interior designer might volunteer to be part of a committee for a lobby redesign.”
“Committees, regardless of the size of the condo or cooperative organization, can be a great asset to the community,” agrees Karen Jahn, a property manager with Heritage Management Services in Somers, New York. “The committee should be given a specific scope of its project with firm deadlines. The community benefits from a committee with fresh ideas and, if the committee members are well-chosen, possibly some expert advice.”
Again, the size of a community does come to bear on the forming of committees, and each association's approach should be assessed based on its specific needs. “The effectiveness and methodology of committee forming is very relative to the size and structure of the community,” explains Jim Hoppensteadt, President and COO of the Pelican Bay Foundation in Naples, Florida. “Different condos or HOAs have different needs for committees because of their size, and what they rely on those committees to do. Take landscaping, for example: in some communities, that committee might be really hands-on; everyone out there digging and planting. But the larger the community gets, the less participatory that committee is likely to be; they become more managerial, overseeing vendors and the like.”
And Pat Brawley, Owner of Central Management and Consulting Services in Milton, Massachusetts, advocates for committees as a training ground for those who want to participate in their communities, but maybe not to the extent of running for the board...yet. “Committees are good because they allow homeowners who don't want to take a lead governance role to still have a say in what's going on,” she notes. “They also provide an option to the board to have others than themselves investigate the options and the best approaches to handle various projects and ongoing services they're looking at.”
A board should ensure that every committee has a clear goal from the outset, even in the form of a charter, if the scale and scope of a project or mission warrants that level of formality. A permanent committee that finds itself without a mission statement can potentially overstep its bounds, getting involved in areas where it originally had not aimed to participate – and not only does that run the risk of derailing its initial goal, but it also can lead to committee members getting frustrated, burnt-out, and more likely to quit.
“I like single-purpose, ad hoc committees that are established for a particular task,” says Brawley. “To meet with vendors, review specs, meet with unit owners to gauge interest for a specific initiative. It's really crucial that the board develop a charter that spells out in as much detail as possible the responsibilities, limitations and the board's expectations [of the committee]. What is the objective of this committee, and how will the committee present that back to the board?”
“Both ad hoc committees dedicated to a single project AND standing committees can be successful assets to their communities,” adds Abraham. “To be successful, it's important to establish guidelines during the formation of the committee to ensure that members understand their roles. For our committees, we create mission statements and written procedures to assist with the process.”
For larger communities, adapting the hierarchical structure used in the association at large is often the wisest way to structure committees, Hoppensteadt advises. “The committee must be aware that it's advisory to the board,” he says. “That's true in smaller communities as well, but there, it's much more likely that a board will delegate responsibility to that landscaping committee to handle, say, a planter bed on its own. But in a larger committee, the committee will be overseeing the work of the vendor.”
While the board has ultimate veto power of a committee's decisions, that won't necessarily stop the committee from encroaching on a board's terrain. Or, in some cases, the board may lapse in its oversight of the committee, allowing it to overreach in its decision making. Regardless of how it happens, a board must know when to rein in its committees.
One way to ensure things remain on the up-and-up is to have a board member serve on the committee in some capacity, as a sort of informal liaison to the rest of the board. “The board liaison should not necessarily chair the committee, but serve as a member,” advises Brawley. “In addition to the clear charter, this will help define the committee's responsibilities, as well as its limitations. When problems occur, it can be with committees dealing directly with vendors, even to the point of signing contracts. Or if there's no accountability, and committees aren't reporting info back to the board in a timely manner, and things aren't getting done. And then you have the occasional situation where someone joins the committee because his brother has a landscaping company; it becomes about serving personal interests and personal agendas. Having a board member in the group can help nip that in the bud.”
“If you're in an HOA that has its own food and beverage operation and you form a restaurant committee, sometimes those committees can get involved in managerial-type operations, which can be dangerous if nobody on that committee has the expertise to be managerial,” warns Hoppensteadt. “And sometimes broad committees that don't have a narrow, specific function with generally declarative powers... I wouldn't say that they overstep the board, as the board has authoritative power, but if these committees serve in an advisory capacity to the board, and there is a precedent whereby their advice is almost automatically adopted by the board, they may not take it well in the instance where the board doesn't take their recommendation.”
Way to Go!
When a committee is successful, it's important to recognize a job well done – especially when considering the point of view that a committee serves as a training ground for future board members.
Jahn recommends acknowledging the committee members' efforts and achievements through newsletters, or a notice of recognition at the annual meeting.
Abrahams advises that boards solicit participation at social events. “We typically get a better turnout when there's food involved,” she admits. “Or set up a table in the lobby or other common area during a busy time and start a dialogue with the residents about a committee. Offer refreshments such as coffee and donuts in the morning, or cookies in the early evening.”
“In my view, it's critical that the board really values and supports the input from the committee,” says Brawley. “The cast of characters is truly important to the committee's success. By engaging them, giving them a taste of responsibility and building relationships in a positive way, the board can develop people who will then serve. It can be difficult getting people to run for the board in communities where there's little participation. The board should look at committees as their progeny, and celebrate their work externally.”
Mike Odenthal is a staff writer/reporter for The Cooperator.