One irony of modern life is that being in close proximity to your neighbors doesn’t necessarily make you closer to your neighbors. Often people live near each other and don’t know each other well. At best, people might know just a handful of neighbors in their community. Many of us lead hectic lives, and justify our lack of community involvement by saying we just have too little time.Lack of time is an issue, no doubt about it, but residents can be persuaded to get involved, says Michael R. Pierson, an award-winning property manager and author of “Taking Control, Time Management and Communication Tools for Community Association Management.”
“People want to be a part of something larger than themselves. We all like that. We’re driven to it,” says Pierson. “The community association is a great vehicle for that to happen. And once we become part of something larger than ourselves its easier to find that gift of time.”
Putting It Into Practice
So how do community associations get residents to become involved? It all starts, says Pierson, with a board that is interested in “flattening the hierarchy,” and “reducing the distance” between board members and the community.
The easiest way to reduce that gap is for a board to demonstrate that “they don’t lord over other people, they actually want the best interests of the entire community, and don’t have any specific personal agendas they’re trying to achieve,” he says.
And the best way for a board to show residents that they care, Pierson says, is “through every communicationtool at their disposal.”
Although newsletters are often seen as outdated or low-tech, they remain the best communication tool because they engage every resident,” says Pierson. “They’re sent out to everyone in the community. Websites are effective but they’re not necessarily proactive because not everyone is forced to receive the website. You have to make a choice to go to it.”
The most effective newsletters are those that are published frequently, and contain up-to-date information, says Pierson. “They should go out after every board meeting and tell what’s going on. What happened at theboard meeting.” Committee meeting reports should also be included, along with any information about decisions and issues facing the condominium, he says.
“If people understand what was going on, what the board was making business decisions on, there’s going to be more interest in the community, and there’s gong to be more participation.”
One good place to start developing community involvement is with a welcoming committee that contacts new residents as soon as they are settled. “Welcoming committees are very effective. As somebody moves in, they tell them what’s going on. They make sure they know when meeting dates are, how to access the website. They give them a copy of the latest newsletter,” says Pierson.
Beyond getting newcomers involved in the community, many welcoming committees go further and help more established residents who are experiencing difficulties, says Pierson. “Somecommittees, they not only go in and welcome them [newcomers], but if somebody is sick, or if they’re elderly, or if they need a ride, they help out.”
Lack of Knowledge Can Lead to Conflict
Associations that aren’t effective in communicating the rules of community living are bound to have trouble, in the form of inter-neighbor conflict or conflict between residents and the board.
And conflict with the board, usuallyover rules, can actually make formerly content owners angry and outspoken, stirring up trouble throughout the community.
The best way to avoid that conflict? Education, says Pierson.
“It does come down to education, and compliance with association rules means understanding what those rules are. And the only way to understand them is if they’re communicated to them — and not just once, but on a regular basis.”“The average things— parking in the street, picking up after your pet, noise at the pool area, speeding within a community— those things are fairly common anywhere. It becomes a matter of helping people understand that saving a few seconds by speeding through a community isn’t worth the risk if a child or pedestrian or another vehicle comes out in front of them and they’re goingtoo fast to avoid a collision.”
Communicating rules can go a long way towards preventing conflict—and disarming conflict once it’s become established. At Rivendell Condominiumin Shelton, Connecticut, communication has proved to be a key tool in healing wounds after a divisive battle last year that resulted in a new board being installed, says current president William McGuire.
At the 126-unit community, McGuiresays they’ve put out a new newsletter, overhauled its website and are now posting all the meeting minutes and community financials online, to help overcome the sense of distrust in the association. Contact information for all the board and committee members was published in the new newsletter, along with a report on recent ice storm and water damage
A social committee and welcoming committee have also been formed to build up a sense of community, says McGuire. A recent ad in the newsletter about a social outing to a local cabarettheater had attracted 20 sign-ups, he notes.
The key to his community’s healing, McGuire says, is “openness, open communication and transparency.”
Creating a Neighborhood Network
Other strategies for cultivating closer ties among members of a community include hosting trips, barbecues, wine and cheese parties, pool parties, movienights at the clubhouse and other events. Some communities have contests for the best holiday decorations. Community gardens are a great way to get people together, as are neighborhood watch programs.
Despite the best efforts, “There’s always going to be people who say, ‘Leave me alone, I just go to work. This is my home, it’s my castle,’ and they don’t buy into the community side of it,” says Pierson. But, he notes, “even those people can be touched through social events.”
The trick to reaching isolated residents, or even those just casually disinterested, is to keep plugging away, says Pierson. “You just have to keep hitting them over the head with opportunities to get to know their neighbors. You can have a very strong community with isolated members, but those members know what’s going on. So it’s just a matter of the more communication you provide—again continually updated through the website, not something that hasn’t been touched for six months. Regular newsletters, even setting aside bulletin board space where you list things that are going on. Just so they know that there’s always something going on.”
And if neighbors know what’s going on, when they finally want to plug in and become part of the community, chances are they’ll grab the opportunity.
Jonathan Barnes is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England Condominium magazine.
Jim Douglass contributed to this report.