Remember your first day at a new school? Most likely, you didn’t know a soul, had no idea what the students were learning and you probably felt nervous, intimidated or maybe even afraid. In most cases, this is what it’s like to be a new board member. A newcomer walks into a meeting for the first time, may or may not know a fellow neighbor volunteer, has no idea what is or has been discussed and might also feel nervous, intimidated or even afraid. Getting elected to a board is a big job and the members can also find themselves unsure of what they've gotten themselves into.
New Kids on the Block
To help a new student calm their jitters and get them up to speed to the others, a teacher will often appoint a current student to show the newbie around, share books, introduce him to other students and give him the lay of the land. It’s a great concept to follow when new members come on board. “It’s a good idea for veteran board members to mentor newcomers to the board,” says Tom Pahos, president of operations for Cervelli Management Corp. in North Bergen and a former board member. “It’s the only way to go and it practically insures a smooth transition. There are nuances and subtleties in each individual building.”
“It’s been my experience that most veteran board members are accepting of the new volunteers on the board. They were new once too,” says Lisa Hibbs, executive director of Community Associations Institute’s New Jersey (CAI-NJ) chapter in Mercerville. “I would recommend to any interested volunteer considering making a run for the association board to talk with veteran board members. They have historical perspective and knowledge of the current issues facing the community—both are critical to effective decision making. If that volunteer does decide to run for the board, he or she has already established a relationship or two, allowing him or her to hit the ground running once elected.”
In addition to being mentored, Elaine Warga-Murray, CEO of Regency Management Group in Howell also recommends an orientation for new board members. “New board members should have an orientation with management where all board members and managers can come together and meet,” says Warga-Murray, who is a former board member. “At these orientations we generally introduce everyone to each other. We go the building’s website and explain how the minutes, bylaws, house rules and policies are all on the website. During this orientation, new board members should also read and sign a board member code of conduct or a board member code of ethics.”
According to Warga-Murray, every board member in an association normally signs a code of ethics. The document states that board members will act in a professional, ethical manner, the most important thing is the general welfare of the association and that personal agendas are not important.
“Most incoming board members are not aware of the time and dedication that is required of them to perform responsibly,” says Ray Barnes, CMCA, AMO, of Taylor Management Company in Somerset. “The board members I have had the privilege to work with possess the deep desire and commitment to provide for an attractive community and a functional association, however, most are unaware that they are the party responsible to provide due diligence. As a former board member myself, I volunteered to provide a comfortable way of life for my family and neighbors. I had no idea how many monthly meetings that would entail.”
Know the Rules
All industry pros interviewed agreed that it is necessary to familiarize yourself with the association’s governing documents. “The very first thing a new board member should do is to read the fine print of the bylaws, house rules and policies,” says Warga-Murray. “They should also read any amendments or resolutions that have recently been passed and see what contracts have been signed and what each vendor does. After that they should introduce themselves to every vendor and contractor that they are going to be dealing with on behalf of the association.”
Barnes also recommends that the new kids on the block review past minutes of meetings. The minutes of the meetings will show the newcomer, minute by minute, what happened during each meeting. They can then take time to digest the information and ask any questions based on what already has been discussed.
Unfortunately, while some neophytes come in eager to learn and help and have no other agenda, others start their term with their own agendas and some major misconceptions on how the board operates. “Most unit owners, including new board members are under the impression that the management company makes the decisions,” says Barnes, “It’s a continual process that we inform residents that the management company enforces and acts on the dictates of the bylaws under the board of trustees.”
“A lot of people believe that the board is somewhat skewed and that their opinions are discussed in private before anything is done,” adds Warga-Murray. “New board members often think that older board members are holding meetings in secret.”
Warga-Murray also believes that it is important for new board members to understand the association’s financials. “New board members should understand where the money coming into the association goes and how it can be utilized,” she says. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years so I’ve talked to a lot of board members and most of them are really happy to take the time to understand the limitations of the financials and that the reserves are limited to scheduled items. Lots of times new board members think that reserves are a slush fund for whatever the board wants.”
Board members should also be brought up to speed on how meetings are run. One way to do that is to refer them to Robert’s Rules of Order, which spells out in explicit detail how to run a meeting, form the proper way of introducing a new item of business, voting on it, and closing the floor for discussion.
Although the board of directors acts as a governing body for the condominium, and thanks to the Condominium Act, they have powers to control what is permitted to take place and not take place in the individual units and the common areas, uneducated board members may take this sense of power to a new level.
There are many resources available to new board members to become oriented on how the board is run. They can keep up to date on industry news and laws and find tips on running a successful board by reading trade publications such as The New Jersey Cooperator. On the national level, the National Association of Housing Cooperatives (NAHC) gives a six-hour course called “The 3R’s: Roles, Risks and Rewards.”
CAI is a particularly valuable resource for new and existing board members and property managers. An international organization dedicated to building better communities, CAI provides education and resources to community association homeowner leaders, professional managers, association management companies and other businesses and professionals who provide products and services to community associations.
“Granted, these materials don’t get into the state laws governing New Jersey’s common interest communities,” says Hibbs, “However, the New Jersey chapter offers several educational programs throughout the year that provide state-specific information to board members. The online course, The Fundamentals of Community Association Volunteer Leadership, is offered to CAI members at no cost and is just $19 for non-members. For a more robust curriculum, board members can take our classroom course, The Essentials of Community Association Management. Participants receive a 400-plus page manual, as well as a CD containing additional resources.”
Serving on a board is a volunteer job and members give up a chunk of their free time to make sure their condo or co-op association is run smoothly. They may even take on other volunteer tasks that require more of their time, such as president, vice president, treasurer or secretary. They have to attend meetings, make decisions and, at times, go against the popular vote in order to do what’s right for the association. Not everyone wants to volunteer for this thankless job, so it’s important to make a new board member feel as welcome and informed as you can.
Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator. Staff writer Christy Smith-Sloman contributed to this article.