The Benefits of Being on the Board The Upsides Far Outweigh the Downsides

The Benefits of Being on the Board

 Many condo owners want to get involved in their community but they soon find out  that being on the board is no picnic. Soon neighbors are pestering them asking  for feuds to be settled, decisions that affect all resident’s lives have to be made, and then there are the matters that  have to be addressed with little or no room for error. Knowing all of this, why do so many people decide to serve on a board—some for years at a time? Responsibilities, stress and pressure may build but  believe it or not, there are benefits to being on a board.  

 Get Blamed for Everything

 Being a board member is tough. There are little thanks. If anything isn't going  the way someone thinks it should, it's easy to just blame the people who are  perceived to be in charge, even if that isn't really the case.  

 "Residents are always complaining to you," says Michelle Harvath, a board member  at the Atrium Condominiums in Chicago, "Most residents believe that the board  is all powerful and if anything goes wrong, the board is to blame. If there is  a carpet stain that's not cleaned in a timely manner, I'll get phone calls and  e-mails complaining about it.”  

 In fact, many residents forget that the people who are on the board are subject  to all of the same decisions that are made on behalf of the building, continues  Harvath. “They blame the board for raising maintenance fees but they forget that the same  people on the board will be paying the same fees. When we raise maintenance  fees for residents, we're also raising our own fees. Don't they realize that we  don't want to pay more? We try our best to run the building as efficiently as  possible. I can't afford a maintenance increase but sometimes you have no  choice.”  

 “Sometimes I don't feel appreciated,” laments Jonathan Sinclair, board director/president at Versailles Condominiums  in Chicago. “We work so hard but as Abe Lincoln said, 'You can't please all the people all  the time.' At meetings people yell, but if we didn't do the job, the building  would be rudderless.”  

 For many residents, a perspective shift might be in order to understand the role  of a board. Consider this anecdote from Harvath. "I was at the mailboxes the  other day when a resident told me that 'all you guys do is raise my maintenance  and you can't make sure the elevator works properly [the elevator was down for  maintenance’]. So 'I ask her, 'do you have a car?'”  

 “She says 'yes.' I respond and ask if her car ever has to go to the garage for  maintenance? She answered 'of course' and I ask her 'do you still have to make the payments  on the car?' She says 'yes.' I made my point by letting her know that it's the same thing, the elevator isn't  running, needs routine maintenance but payments still have to be made.' ”  

 Backstage at the Condo

 There are a lot of downsides—it may seem that being on the board has no appeal at all. However, if the job  was that bad, who would want to take it? The truth is, there are upsides to  being on the board, this includes being privy to many behind-the-scenes things  that keep board members interested in serving their community.  

 Getting the job done, says Harvath, “You set the bar.” There is also a sense of pride that comes along with being on the board for  some. “Sometimes people go on the board to say they are on the board, it's an ego  thing,” Harvath notes.  

 “We get to make the final decisions for the building. There is a sense of  control,” continues Harvath."There is a temptation to become autocratic, but the bylaws  keep us in check. We're a democracy, my vote is only one vote and if I don't  keep the good of the building in mind, then when election time comes around the  residents will vote me out. I always remind myself that my votes are for the  good of my neighbors.”  

 Being on the board is an active way to have a hand in managing your life,  community and finances, says Ernest Scheidemann, who is with Scheidemann Real  Estate Management, LLC in Joliet. “There is a sense of accomplishment. At the end of the day, you feel like you've  done something for yourself, you've done a good job, but most importantly  you've done something to protect your investment. Everything you do to protect  and better your building only raises your property values.”  

 Another advantage of being on the board is that they are “privy to more information, things like policies or waiting lists or that sort of  thing,” adds Scheidemann.  

 According to the experts, it's unanimous: being on the board does not entitle  anyone to favors or special treatment. “Board members may get more respect, but no special treatment,” adds Scheidemann. “The main advantage is that board members know what is going on in the building  better than anybody else. There are no special favors for being on the board.  However,” he adds, “that you have the insider knowledge to keep your neighbors informed...that makes  you feel good.”  

 Educational Benefits

 Board members have to volunteer their personal time, but there is an upside.  Board members have the opportunity to gain knowledge about the co-op, condo or  HOA industry in general. “The major upside for me is that I get to learn: issues that happen in the  building, elevators, interviewing consultants, facades, air rights,” says Harvath. “You learn about contracts, the process of working with city agencies, and the  process of having a meeting, motions, and seconds of motions. Pretty soon I'll  know enough to write for your paper,” she laughs.  

 “I have learned so many new skills as a board member, and those skills I've been  able to use in my professional life,” says Sinclair. “A former board member who I used to serve with was facing a career change. He  decided that he liked real estate and wanted a career in a related field, so he  used his education as a board member to become a property manager. He still had  to go to school to learn the ins-and-outs, but he said he was far ahead of his  class because of the experience he had as a board member. He's now a successful  property manager and he credits his time as a board member for his success.”  

 Being on the board may also have value for members' personal careers and  resumes. “I'm an accountant,” says Harvath, "I serve as treasurer for my building, being able to mention this  experience to potential clients is fantastic. It shows I have experience. It  proves that my neighbors trust me. Being the treasurer of a 320-unit building  shows my potential clients that I really know what I'm doing. It's definitely a  plus.”  

 Using your position to make personal business contacts, is one benefit. However  as Sinclair notes, using your board member position to make profit from your  neighbors is a definite no-no. “Board members should never try to make money from their board position. It is a  serious conflict of interest. Using your experience as a lawyer or accountant  is very helpful on a pro bono basis,” he says, “but a board member getting hired to do a job within their own building is a  no-no.”  

 Being Neighborly

 One major upside of serving on a board is the building friendships with fellow  board members, says Harvath. The varying backgrounds of board members bring  varying degrees of knowledge to the table. “Board members bring their experiences to the conference table, which for us  included having an accountant, a lawyer and a municipal court judge,” says Harvath. “The expertise they provide is phenomenal. We also have stay-at-home moms;  retired firemen; small businessmen; they all bring a dynamic point of view. The  board becomes a microcosm of our building...a picture of who we are.”  

 There are social benefits, says Sinclair. “When a unit is sold and new neighbors move in, we're nervous about the new  neighbors and they're nervous as well. They don't know anything about our  community. As a board we welcome them. We get to know them. We invite them to  participate such as joining a committee. Getting them involved helps them to  speed up the process of getting to know their neighbors and provides the board  with talent to help get jobs done.”  

 No “I” in “TEAM”

 Everyone has a different reason for wanting to be on the board. Some see it as a matter of service; some see it as a means of socializing; and  some have personal reasons. Whatever the reason, a board member gets a sense of  satisfaction. "I've seen residents try to get the board to do something like  providing space for a kids’ playroom, which would benefit many, and have the board vote against it. They  are so committed to their idea that they run for a place on the board to try to  make their idea a reality.” says Harvath. "When they are elected, they try to push for their idea again.  Sometimes they're successful, sometimes not. My time as a board member has made  me understand exactly what goes on in Washington.”  

 This makes a great point. Many times, personal agendas, which are often  perceived as negative if they aren't for the good of everyone, can be a driving  force for good. "In my opinion, most people join the board to push their own  personal agendas," says Sinclair, "but that's not a negative. They may have an  agenda, such as not liking the way things are being run. For example, they want  to ensure the board is practicing fiscal responsibility, or they notice a  building problem, like the sidewalk that needs repairing or hallways that need  to be painted. Most board members become board members because they don't like  something and they join the board to try to make a difference."  

 The length of service of board members also has its pluses and minuses, notes  Harvath. "Old board members have experience and know how to get things done  while new board members bring a fresh perspective and enthusiasm. The new board  members can re-energize a board.”  

 “Sure there's stress and responsibility being a board member, but there is fun to  be had, knowledge to gain, and new friends to meet,” says Sinclair. "If you, as a board member, fulfill your responsibilities; if  your building's property management does a good job; and if you are there to  hear your neighbor's concerns and advocate for them, being a board member can  be a lot of fun.”    

 J.M. Wilson is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland  Cooperator.  

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