There are plenty of reasons why many condo, co-op, and HOA residents would rather cross the street than talk about serving on their board. Maybe it’s the time demand—or maybe they have concerns about liability. Maybe it’s good old-fashioned apathy—or perhaps a combination of all three. Whatever the reason, having a full and functional board is critical to the efficient operation of any shared community—and despite its bad rep, serving on the board can actually be a positive experience for board members.
For Everything, There is a Season
The main hesitation many people report about serving on their co-op or condo association board seems to revolve around the time commitment involved—real or perceived.
Just how accurate is that perception? It depends who you ask—and what type and size of community you’re talking about. “It’s a volunteer position, and can be very demanding of a person’s time,” says Andy Marks, senior vice president for management firm Maxwell-Kates Inc., an Associa Company based in New York City, and president of his Manhattan co-op for seven years. “If someone works a full-time job with little flexibility and has a family, it can be a daunting prospect to devote the time required [to serve].”
On the other hand, Andrew Robinson, a condominium owner in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has served on the board of his 103-unit community since 2010, and maintains that the stereotype of board service being a huge time commitment is overblown. “People will say they don’t have the time,” he says, “and to be fair, that statement is sometimes valid. But in the bigger picture, one meeting, once a month, for an hour, and an occasional email or phone call is not a ton of time. We have an effective manager. He handles most everything, so I’ve never found it to be a time squash.”
Of course, the time commitment required of board members can fluctuate when capital projects, legal issues, or other challenges arise. “Time-suck can become a big problem when a community has a large issue to deal with,” says Dan Wollman, CEO of New York-based management company Gumley Haft. “If management is doing a good job running the building, however, there shouldn’t be such an issue. If the community isn’t well managed, the time issue grows. If there’s a major project, or litigation with a resident, then admittedly more time is involved.”
“In terms of time usage, lawsuits are the biggest abusers,” says Richard Brooks, a principal with Marcus, Errico, Emmer & Brooks, a law firm located in Braintree, Massachusetts. “There are depositions, etc. If you have a professional management company, less time is required, but if you are self-managed it can be a full-time job. For small properties—and there are many of those in the Boston area—that’s a real problem.”
Along with the amount of time board service demands, another misconception that can hold people back from participating in their community’s governance is that board service means taking on personal liability exposure that they don’t have as an owner. Unlike concerns about time, which may have some validity, the pros say that concerns about liability are pretty much baseless. Virtually all condominium associations and co-op corporations carry directors & officers (D&O) insurance to protect board members against any added liability.
“Despite people’s fears,” says Brooks, “there is, in reality, minimal liability. Board members are indemnified and protected by condominium documents, and there is almost always a D&O policy. They are protected, even if sued individually.”
That’s not to say that residents’ trepidation about being held personally liable for their board-related actions or decisions is silly; we live in a litigious culture, after all, and even the best, most agreeable board will inevitably be on the receiving end of a legal action. But again, that’s not the problem of individual board members operating in good faith. “Concerns about liability are all legitimate to an extent,” says Marks. “There must be a distribution of the burden and risk amongst all board members, as well as enlisting the guidance of the various paid professionals—managing agent, legal, accounting, architects, engineers, building staff—to enable the board to make the most informed decisions possible for the good of their community, and in accordance rules of governance set forth in the bylaws and other governing documents.”
Wollman agrees, and also points out that D&O coverage protects board members from personal liability, “as long as no one has done anything illegal or immoral. Then there’s nothing to worry about.” As an example of a board member who was not protected, he cites the case of a Manhattan co-op that rejected a prospective buyer, who then sued the board for illegal discrimination. The board’s notes were subpoenaed in the process, and one member’s remarks showed clear evidence of bias. Because such discrimination is illegal, he wasn’t covered by the board’s D&O insurance, and was deemed liable for damages in the suit.
The bottom line is: worries about liability are valid, but shouldn’t discourage anyone from serving on their board. As long as members operate in good faith, within the law, and in the best interests of the building or HOA, their D&O coverage and governing documents should indemnify them against any litigation resulting from their work on the board.
The Problem of Apathy
Once we get past the excuses about lack of time and worries about liability, the difficulty in finding volunteers for board service often boils down to simple apathy (or laziness, if you’re feeling less generous). “People are apathetic,” says Wollman. “They’d rather let someone else do it.”
Brooks has observed over the years that many people who buy into condominium communities do so because they don’t want responsibility for their home. He also points out that board service often feels like a thankless job. “More people might be inclined to serve if community members appeared more appreciative of the service made by board volunteers.”
Robinson, the board member from Cambridge, points out that “a big part of the problem is condo owners want what they perceive as the luxury of living in a condo where they don’t want to deal or worry about anything. They want to live like renters.” It’s difficult to change the renter mentality.
Board Lite: Committees
One idea to induce condo and co-op owners to volunteer for board service is to seek out people who might be good candidates for board service in the long-term and ask them to serve on a committee for a specific project first. This gives them a taste of what serving on the board might be like.
“Often, you have retired people in a building who volunteer because they simply have more time,” says Wollman. “We see a lot of professional types, former bankers, lawyers, etc., who are retired and looking for something to do. Professional people still working couldn’t take on such an obligation. Retired professionals have some time. There are others in a building,” he continues, “who don’t have a specific skill set, they’re not accountants, engineers, etc., but they add a lot to a board. Those people add a practical common sense element to running a building that others don’t see. They’re good to have on a board.”
Of course, this toe-in-the-water approach could go either way.
Mike (not his real name) has served on the board of his 56-unit co-op in Upper Manhattan for the past five years or so. He initially became involved in governance by volunteering for a committee charged with renovating the building lobby. When the board president recently stepped down after serving for a decade, the building held an election—but no one wanted the presidency.
“We don’t have a president now,” says Mike. “No one wanted to take it on. We are trying to distribute the responsibilities of the former president between the board members. We will let the shareholders know who to call with what issues, so no one person is overburdened with too much. It’s hard for any one individual to make that level of time commitment to the building. The former president did pretty much everything. No one person’s role will look like this. It’s just too much. But we think we’ve come up with a creative way of handling the situation.”
To encourage residents to get involved with board service and building governance, Mike reports that they use committees. “We try to bring people onto committees to get them started.”
“In most associations,” says Brooks, “at an annual meeting we bring up the subject of service, and I suggest getting people involved who aren’t elected. Get them onto a committee—even the troublemakers. It changes their views. The board doesn’t have to take the recommendations of the committees, but they may have a good idea from time to time, and then those serving on committees may decide they want to become board members. It’s a good way to get people involved.”
Wollman sees this differently. “In my experience, as a practical matter, committee work hasn’t been a road to getting people involved in their board. It’s hard enough to get seven people to serve on the board. What we do prefer to do—particularly in condos, where often there are five-member boards—is to put one or two non-voting members on the board, which gives them the opportunity to learn about how the board functions so they can slip into a board position when it opens. It’s sort of like having board-members-in-training.”
“Having the ability to influence positive outcomes to increase shareholder/property values was a strong incentive for me to volunteer and serve on my own board,” says Marks. “We were in the beginning stages of a multi-million-dollar capital project—a complete rebricking for FISP/Local Law 11 compliance—and I wanted to ensure that certain improvements were made (e.g., installation of an ADA-compliant ramp) that the previous board had not elected to include in the original project scope. Suffice it to say, the ramp was installed and the project completed. I often say being board president is like being mayor of a small town. Making a difference in peoples’ lives was a large part of the appeal for me. That’s why I decided to go into it professionally. I like serving and making a difference.”
In the final analysis, maintaining a functioning board and a continuing flow of potential board members is not easy. Perhaps the best approach is to illustrate to owners the positive side of the experience as well as dispelling misconceptions.
A.J. Sidransky is a staff writer/reporter for New England Condominium, and a published novelist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.