Living in a condominium community means working together. Cooperation and a spirit of volunteerism are visible every day in community gatherings, board meetings, even in the scheduling of time on the tennis courts. The men and women who volunteer their time to work as part of board committees play a large role in ensuring that the community functions smoothly and as a whole.
How do committees work? What are their responsibilities and what is the best way to recruit active, engaged committee members? Every community is different and every community has its own needs that its committees will be asked to fill. With that in mind, it is always best to start at the beginning: What are the most basic needs?
Board committees are most often seen in larger developments, says attorney Howard Goldman of Goldman & Pease in Needham, Massachusetts. “In developments of 25 units or less, there are usually no committees.”
For communities large enough to have committees, the most popular volunteer duty is serving on the landscaping or grounds committee. “The cosmetic committees, like landscaping, painting or interior design, are the most common,” says Ian Gopin of G&G Management in Newton, Massachusetts.
The grounds or landscaping committees most often deal both aesthetic and financial issues, choosing, for example, what types of plantings will be made in the common outdoor areas or making recommendations on which landscaping businesses will provide the most value for the dollar. Making decisions for an entire community can be a tricky affair, even in something as seemingly innocuous as landscaping. A lot of homeowners may want to maintain their own lawns or yards, but the committee may feel that front yards may look best with roses on display. It’s up to the committee members to come up with a plan that will satisfy the needs not only of the community but of the individual unit owners as well.
In larger condo developments, boards also may have use for rules, finance or budget committees. These groups may not meet as often as the grounds volunteers, but they are often called upon to help make important recommendations to the board on things like whether or not the community’s current penalty system is working or whether rentals should be allowed or whether any new fines need to be considered.
One other important type of committee is the ad hoc variety, one that arises to deal with a specific issue or problem. These committees meet until the issue is resolved, holding meetings perhaps three times in one month and then disbanding once they have conducted the necessary research or made the requested recommendations to the board. “These committees meet convene in response to specific needs,” Goldman says. “Not a crisis, but something that needs to be done.”
For example, a committee might be formed to find ways to encourage residents to move their cars during snow removal or find a new snow plow vendor.
When it comes to making final decisions on what can or should be done, a committee does not always have the power to make those choices. “The enforcement power belongs to the board,” Goldman says. “The committees do the nuts and bolts and on-the-ground work. Their goal is to get the expertise to get the work done.”
Committees may report directly to the board or they sometimes work with the community’s manager. Every community is different, and the reporting line can be dependent on the size of the association.
One important requirement for a successful committee is the ability to reach some sort of consensus. “Usually small groups, from two to four unit owners, works best,” says Eric Mason of Action Vest Management in Brighton, Massachusetts. “You don’t want too many people because too many opinions can cause problems. And, of course, an odd number usually works best.”
Committee positions are unpaid, which means the men and women who put in hours or days each year in service of their community are all volunteers. “People will usually join a committee because they are interested but don’t have time for a full-time commitment to the community like a trustee role,” says Mason.
Volunteers also may join because they have a specific interest in seeing something done about a certain issue. Sometimes recruits can be found at annual meetings. When people disagree with something or express concern about something, “you can suggest that person serve on a committee,” Gopin says.
Other times, managers or board members may recruit someone who has professional experience in a certain field or who is a hobbyist. A lawyer, for example, may be invited to join the rules committee. An accountant may receive a request to serve on the budget committee or a decorator may be recruited for interior design.
“Often committees are formed because there’s a problem, irritants or concerns,” Goldman says. “Boards may try to groom people to take spots on those committees and match people’s skills with needs.”
The rise of social media and message boards nowadays can serve as a recruitment point. If a manager sees a particular discussion taking place within Google groups, he or she can invite one or two of those individuals to perhaps form a committee or join a committee to take action on that issue.
Why Do They Serve?
Whatever it is that gets volunteers involved, the strength of most committees is that participants are there because they want to be. “They’re there by choice and desire, not because they have to be,” Gopin says. “The motivation is there.”
In addition to the tenacity and sense of purpose inherent in these small groups, committees serve a number of other important roles. “It promotes a sense of community,” Gopin says. For most owners, “you vote in a trustee and then you’re done until you vote another one in the next year. A lot of people will participate in a committee because they want to feel like they’re part of everything that’s going on.”
Committees also help ensure that different experiences and opinions are heard on a regular basis. “Sometimes people can get stuck on one particular issue (on the board),” Gopin says. With a committee, “you’re getting opinions different from the norm.”
And of course, committees serve as a “great farm system for replenishing the revolving door for trustees,” says Goldman. “You’re able to groom future leaders.” People learn to listen, respect each other’s views and learn the ins-and-outs of running and participating in official meetings. “It’s also a chance to work with each other and get constructive criticism,” Goldman says.
As valuable as committees have been to homeowners’ associations, they may one day become a rare beast. Or at least the kind that engage in face-to-face meetings. Gopin says, “I’m finding that organized committees are really becoming things of the past and their numbers are a little down.” One of the reasons is that boards are becoming reluctant to cause problems with residents and volunteers by perhaps not using their recommendations. What if that idea of a rose in every front yard is nixed for reasons of cost or aesthetics by board members? How will the proponents of that idea react? Will it cause a conflict within the community? Sometimes, it may just seem more prudent to simply have the board or management make the decision.
Another reason for the decline in formal committees is the fact that e-mail and message boards have provided a new, easier means of finding consensus. “We can do our business via e-mail these days,” Gopin says. “We’re not totally there yet but it’s moving in that direction.” His firm recently reduced the number of board meetings each year with no push back from condo leadership because so much association business can be conducted at a distance. If one board member or volunteer committee member cannot attend a meeting on a Tuesday at 8 p.m., they might still be able to check their e-mail and give their opinion by 10 o’clock that night. The process moves forward even without having everyone around one table.
No matter what the future of technology, committees and boards, the value of recruiting volunteers to address issues, gather information and share their opinions has been a staple of association oversight for years. It gives residents the chance to build a greater connection with their HOA and create a sense of ownership. It also reduces workloads for board members and managers as volunteer committee members meet with vendors, collect data and make valuable recommendations for action. When consensus is truly achieved, it creates a stronger, happier community—something that benefits everyone involved.
Liz Lent is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England Condominium.