It's almost a mantra: the more you know, the better off you are—certainly when it comes to doing the job of a cooperative, condominium or HOA board member. No matter how enthused and engaged a new board appointee may be, they don't come to the job knowing everything; and no matter how seasoned a veteran board member may be, they can always hone their skills and add to their knowledge. To help all board members do their job better, there are an array of educational resources and opportunities throughout the region.
In fact, few volunteer jobs are as big and involving as serving as a board member for a co-op or condo. In some cases, it means helping to run a multimillion dollar corporation in one’s spare time. It means managing the place one lives—along with a couple hundred neighbors. In means poring over contracts, examining budgets, making decisions about high-priced capital projects.
It is an enormous undertaking for a seasoned veteran, let alone a novice. That’s why a little bit of education can go a very long way in helping volunteer board members find their way in the complicated world of co-op and condo management.
While there is no legal requirement regarding the education of co-op or condo board members, it is certainly not a bad idea, no matter how much experience the person has in the business or volunteer world.
“Many board members are professionals in their own fields, but not in building management or, often, in corporate operations,” says David Kuperberg, president of Cooper Square Realty, based in Manhattan. “It’s difficult sometimes and frustrating,” he says, that board members do not have a way of learning other than “through experience or the school of hard knocks.”
Help is Out There
There are a wide variety of classes and educational events offered for board members who wish to learn more to better serve their communities—many of them free of charge.
Of course, The Cooperator is an excellent—and free!—source of information on a wide variety of issues of concern to boards and residents, including law and legislation, energy conservation, insurance, and board operations, just to name a handful. And don’t forget about The Cooperator’shugely popular Co-op & Condo Expo, now in its 26th year of serving boards, managers, real estate professionals and residents in the New York area. The 26th Annual Co-op & Condo Expo will be held on Tuesday, April 16, 2013, at the Hilton New York hotel in Midtown Manhattan, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Like The Cooperator itself, admission to the Expo is free—but the information and educational opportunities offered within are invaluable. With over 270 exhibitor booths, a full day of educational seminars for board members and owners, and advice booths staffed by industry professionals—all for free—the Expo is a one-stop educational bonanza for the greater New York area's residential real estate community. For more information on who is exhibiting at the show, to sign up as an exhibitor, or to register for the event, go to www.coopexpo.com.
Learn by Doing
While there is no official requirement for education or training, some management companies such as Kuperberg’s have taken it upon themselves to help their board members learn the ropes. “We try ourselves to educate our board members,” says Kuperberg.
Often this will take place following the annual meeting, when board members will be presented with a board book that will serve as a guide for new recruits and a refresher manual for veterans. “It offers a wealth of information to allow new board members to get up to speed quickly and returning board members to reacquaint themselves (with key information),” Kuperberg says. The books include minutes from past meetings, copies of contracts currently in place, a description of board member responsibilities, a copy of the building’s policies and procedures and any other documents that the manager feels might be valuable.
In addition, Cooper Square Realty offers its board members an extraordinary opportunity to experience simulation learning. “In 2004, we built a physical building systems training center for our property managers,” Kuperberg explains. The center has examples of working building systems, such as a boiler and an elevator. Although the center is primarily for use by property managers, “we found that our board members like to do the training too. We’ve had several decide to go through it.” By seeing these systems up close and in person, the board member gains a better understanding not only of how their building or community functions, but also a better understanding of what their manager and superintendent deal with on a regular basis to ensure optimal building function, he notes.
“The idea is that we can offer knowledge,” says Kuperberg. With knowledge and understanding, “situations can be judged more objectively and not subjectively.” It makes the job easier for everyone involved. “We love the educated client,” Kuperberg adds.
Margie Russell, executive director of the New York Association of Realty Managers (NYARM) agrees that education can make the board member experience a better one. “It’s one thing for a board member to get voted in, but since they are taking on such a big responsibility, it could be an argument for self-imposed education.” In other words, board members should take it upon themselves to learn about the building, its rules, its finances, its personnel and anything else that makes it tick.”
Russell suggests that property managers play in active role in educating their board members. “The property manager’s role is to push board members to do things like take seminars,” she says. And it would not hurt for the manager to serve as a mentor or guide. “Bring the board member with you when you go to continuing education classes, for example. It offers a personal touch and it’s a buddy-buddy activity,” Russell adds.
And it can help build a stronger relationship between boards and management. “The management team that educates together, flourishes together,” says Russell. “A big chunk of client retention comes when you connect with a client. It is good for the client to experience what the manager experiences.”
Mary Ann Rothman, executive director of the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums (CNYC) agrees that property managers can play a key role in helping board members not only learn the ropes but stay abreast of changing rules and requirements. “Property managers should advise board members of new requirements and be prepared to discuss the mechanics and likely costs of compliance,” she says. She also said that managers often recommend joining organizations like CNYC and the Federation of New York Housing Cooperatives and Condominiums (FNYHC) and encourage participation in educational programs offered by those organizations.
Take a Course or Two
Fortunately, even beyond the educational opportunities that property managers and their firms can provide, there are a number of organizations throughout New York that can provide valuable training for new and experienced board members as well.
NYARM does monthly training sessions for managers “that could be appreciated by board members,” says Russell. They also host a trade show in September in Midtown Manhattan at the Hotel Pennsylvania with exhibits and credit-based seminar instruction.
Board members can also turn to CNYC, which “offers an excellent seven-hour introduction to co-op board responsibilities and a similar condo basics class in the evening,” says Rothman. “At our annual housing conference on the second Sunday in November, there are always three-hour introductory classes for co-op and for condo board members in the morning.” CNYC’s 32nd annual Housing Conference will take place Sunday, November 11, 2012 at Baruch College’s Newman Campus. Each CNYC member building can send one person to attend all day at no cost. Additional members pay modest fees. At the conference, the city often offers classes that could be valuable for board members, says Rothman, including courses in energy conservation, pest control and recycling.
For veteran board members, there are plenty of opportunities to continue to learn more about the always changing field of residential property management. “Throughout the year, CNYC offers evening classes on a variety of topics,” says Rothman. “These are posted on our website, are generally free or low cost to anyone in CNYC member co-ops or condos, and open to the public for a fee.” Recent class subjects included an examination of major innovations in the 21st century proprietary lease.
Websites and books also may be helpful sources, although board members should ensure that they are accessing the latest and most up-to-date information. “(Books) quickly become dated, or they may be nationally focused and therefore not necessarily apply directly to New York,” Rothman says. She recommends Patrick Hohman’s An Association Leadership Guide for Condos, Townhomes and Homeowner Associations, calling it “a helpful working tool.”
She adds that “the websites of the Community Associations Institute (www.caionline.org) and the National Association of Housing Cooperatives (www.nahc.coop) are both helpful.” Both organizations also hold large annual conferences throughout the U.S. that could be beneficial both for novices and seasoned board pros.
Board Members are Volunteers
For some board members, perhaps there is simply not enough hours in the day to take on education and training while working full-time, raising a family and serving on the board. It is important to remember, Kuperberg says, that “board members are volunteers. How many can really devote a lot of time beyond board meetings to learn? They are busy people. You can’t force them to take part in training.”
Although it should always be requested of board members that they serve “to the best of their personal abilities and put the best interest of the board at heart,” says Russell, formal training is not always needed. Sometimes, she says, “less is more.” She suggests that new board members “observe and ask questions. It’s a whole new experience and there is lots of stimulus being taken in from a whole new point of view.” It is important not to become overwhelmed but instead take it slow and rely upon the advice and guidance of other more experienced board members.
And in terms of self-training, Rothman suggests that “every new board member should re-read their cooperative’s proprietary lease, bylaws, house rules and the minutes of the last year or two of board meetings. In a condo, it’s the declaration of the condo, the bylaws, the house rules and the minutes.”
Rothman adds that board members should “listen, read and learn,” she says. “Ask all the questions that occur to you. Remember that your job is now to act in the best interests of the co-op or condo. Personal agendas must be put aside—even if it was an agenda that got you elected – in favor of doing your best for the cooperative or condo.”
Learning to take the reins of a multimillion dollar housing community or even a six-unit building can be intimidating and stressful, even for successful businessmen and women who are used to the pressures of the working world. Co-op and condo boards are not only charged with protecting the business interests of the property but also with ensuring that people’s homes—the most important possession they likely will ever have—are cared for and protected.
It can feel overwhelming but a sound education is key. Whether it’s taking advantage of a seminar and attending with a property manager, going solo to a workshop or just learning to ask questions at the right time and of the right people, there are numerous opportunities to fill those knowledge gaps. All of it will help make the board experience better and allow board members to fulfill their duties with confidence.
Liz Lent is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.