Across the country, one of the biggest challenges to governing co-ops, condominiums, and homeowners associations is finding new members who are willing to volunteer their time and energy to serve on their community’s board of directors. In addition to a time commitment that can seem onerous to those whose lives are already packed with work, families, hobbies, households, and more, board service comes with myriad tasks, responsibilities, and politicking. After all, who would want to take an unpaid gig that potentially makes you the recipient of all your neighbors’ grievances?
Oh, right—I did. Seven years ago, in an effort to help a small cohort of relatively new shareholders redirect a long pattern of what we saw as dysfunctionality, financial mismanagement, and abdication of fiduciary duty among previous boards, I ran for a seat on the board of the co-op where I live in Lower Manhattan. In a 1,700-unit community where around half of the shareholders acquired their units during the decades when the corporation operated under Title I of the Federal Housing Act of 1949 (inelegantly titled “Slum Clearance and Community Development and Redevelopment”), getting new members elected was not an easy feat. It entailed weeks of campaigning, printing and distributing fliers about my qualification and intentions, and even positioning myself in the lobbies with my two toddlers and free lemonade.
This is my story about becoming a New Kid on the Board that I hope will offer some advice and resources that might be useful to others who are new to their own co-op, condo, or HOA board; those who are considering board service; or existing board members and their support professionals looking to help educate newer members—or themselves.
Step By Step
Once our co-op’s board election was certified, one of the veteran board members called to inform me of my ‘win.’ A retired educator with a fondness for conspiracy theories and a helping of good ol’ mid-century chauvinism, he told me, “I have one piece of advice for you: Stay quiet and let the others talk.” He said in my first year, I was there to learn. (Our board members serve three-year terms.) There was a lot of complicated stuff going on, he warned, and it would be best if I would just listen.
My “board orientation,” as it were, consisted of a four-inch binder from our management that contained previous years’ meeting minutes, resolutions, financial statements, management reports, and communications to shareholders; copies of the corporation’s governing documents; and printouts of various articles—some straight from this publication!—about legal precedents, board governance, and other matters related to multifamily living and the history of co-ops. While legal and management professionals universally agree that new board members should read and understand this information, it is admittedly easier said than done. In hindsight, it would have helped to have a current, knowledgeable board member walk me through some of the more salient items. Alas, I had no such guide.