Civilian Again Former Bord Members Can Be Valuable Assets

Civilian Again

For board members, the time spent serving their association and fellow residents can be among the most strenuous yet rewarding periods in their lives. For years, they make decisions that affect their community in the present and may continue to impact them years down the road.

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 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. “Most of the time, former board members just fade away,” says Walt Williamsen, presidentof Condominium Consulting Services LLC in Torrington, Connecticut. “They’ve had enough of it.”

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 roofs now?’ or, ‘How come we have to pay this assessment?’” says Williamsen. A board member may be in no mood to continue working in any capacity for the association.

Recognize the Service

Which is why, if a board member has served well, it’s in the best interest of theassociation 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 acknowledgement. It’s a nice gesture.” And it reminds them that the time they gave was valuable and will not be forgotten.

Why is it so important to keep strong relationships with former board members? It all boils down to one vitalasset: institutional memory. “On the whole, the association doesn’t want to have to reinvent the wheel every time a decision has to be made,” says Julie Adamen, president of Adamen Inc., a consulting firm specializing in the community management industry.

Lewin agrees. “Whatever knowledgethey 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 analyses, and I’m finding that that kind of memory is really lacking. Associations may not have good records of what’s been donein 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.”

Can Return as Committee Members

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. Formal-izing 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 thesevaluable resources exist,” says Lewin.

It’s important to be specific when asking for a former board member’s help, says Adamen. “Giving them a general role may not result in anything,” she says. “Ask them to do specific committee work. If there’s a specific problem an association may have beyond the scope of their management company contract, this is something they might be able to help with. They can understand what the problem is, study it, solve it and move on. Everybody needs a specific job description.”

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 Adamen. “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,” she says. “It’s a liability issue.”

Even 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. “As long as they’re technologically savvy, there’s no reasonthey can’t still participate and still be a committee member,” says Adamen. “With e-mail, you can do just about anything.”

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 giveyou 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 advice under advisement. To stonewall and never say thank you is 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 makea 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.”

Letting Go

For many board retirees, the opposite issue is the problem: rather than them not being able to let go, it’s other residents not being able to let go of them. 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. “If you’re getting phone calls, you need to set your voice mail to say, ‘if this is association business, please call this number,’” says Adamen. “You need to learn to say no. You always have to push those questions off because you have no authority to be doing anything on behalf of the board anymore.”

Setting boundaries is vital. If a discussion of the association arises, “you have to make it clear that you’re speaking as a neighbor,” says Lewin. “It’simportant 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 acknowledgement is worth its weight in gold.”

Liz Lent is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England Condominium magazine.

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