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?
Size Doesn't Necessarily Matter
“Committees are valuable in any size community,” says Lisa Evans, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, of Vanguard Community Management Inc., an Associa company, which provides property management services throughout Illinois.
“In our experience,” says says Jim Stoller, president of The Building Group, a property management company based in Chicago, “We see committees in all sizes of associations.”
Stoller points out that committees are, “Sometimes more important in smaller associations when they [the association] can't afford to hire experts or can't afford to hire management services to advise them, so the owners band together to work out issues and explore options.”
“The most committees that we see are landscaping or grounds committees,” says Evans, who is the manager-marketing and national sales director at Associa. Other committees may include architectural control as well as social and welcoming committees.
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 committee, 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.
“Ad hoc committees can be very useful if an issue arises which needs additional attention and resources,” says Evans, “The use of ad hoc committees allows residents the opportunity to volunteer who may not have the time to commit to an ongoing committee. It would also allow the board and management to delegate some tasks while offering volunteers a sense of involvement and accomplishment.”
“We recommend these types [ad hoc] committees to associations because one good thing about committees is that they allow the information to be gathered and then the board to make decisions. It allows the board to not be spread out too thin. One thing we're very protective about is not burning out board members, these committees help to ease the burden,” says Stoller.
When it comes to making final decisions on what can or should be done, a committee does not have the power to make those choices. “The enforcement power belongs to the board, the committees have only the power that is given to them by the board,” says Stoller. “The committees do the nuts and bolts and on-the-ground work. Their goal is to get the expertise to get the work done.”
One important requirement for a successful committee is the ability to reach some sort of consensus. “Following a set of rules is so important. I urge that when a committee is formed someone take the role of chairman, to keep the committee focused. Someone needs to set the agenda, and take minutes.” says Stoller. “You want to keep the committee on target and not allow it to go off on a tangent.”
Why Do They Serve?
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 may volunteer to serve on a committee because they have a particular interest or skills and enjoy applying it for the benefit of others, or because they want to make a contribution and wish to learn how their association functions.
“Many people want to contribute to the well-being of their association,” says Stoller.
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.
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.
“Committees offer associations the opportunity to utilize people that have a specific knowledge in an area. Someone who might have an accounting or bookkeeping background might serve on a committee, while someone who has an engineering background might work on the building and grounds or the interior design committee,” says Stoller.
“Boards may try to groom people to take spots on those committees and match people’s skills with needs,” says Stoller.
The rise of social media and message boards nowadays can serve as a recruitment point. If a manager sees a particular discussion taking place on online groups or social networks, 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.
Whatever it is that gets volunteers involved, the strength of most committees is that participants are there because they want to be.
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,” Stoller 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. The experts note that sometimes people can get stuck on one particular issue when they’re serving on a board. However, with a committee, you tend to get a variety of opinions necessary for building consensus.
Compared to a major league baseball team, committees serve as a great farm system for replenishing the revolving door for trustees. Stoller explains that many people who volunteer their time for committees are, “contemplating running for the board and want to get involved on a smaller level at first. We have found that the best board members are people who participated first in committees that made a positive difference in an association.”
Decline in Committees?
Though there have been those that have suggested that committees may be on the decline due to the advancement of email and social technology, most industry insiders disagree with this view.
Industry insiders point to many reasons why there has been a decline in committees. “I think that we are busier than we've ever been, and with technology, we dedicate our attention more and more to email, social networking, reading and researching items on the Internet,” says Evans. “People just don't have the time to devote their volunteer efforts to their community associations. Apathy is another issue.”
There are ways to combat apathy, though, Evans says. She explains that, “It's difficult to recruit and maintain volunteers to serve on committees.” But, there are “methods that can be used to recruit and involve other new members as active participants in the association's activities and governance structure.”
Some of the suggestions that Evans recommends include:
• The board should establish guidelines, direction, and expectations.
• The board should encourage owners to become involved in opportunities to bring fresh ideas and insight to the table. Provide the committee with meaningful tasks.
• Many people do not think they have time for involvement. Establish a guideline for the time commitment involved and suggest the committee meetings center around a social event, such as a pot-luck dinner at a member’s home.
• Provide necessary resources and authority to the committee.
• Communicate and check in with the committee regularly and include committee reports on board meeting agendas.
• Act upon the committee’s recommendations (where applicable) and acknowledge ideas and suggestions.
Evans believes that, “Recognition is essential. You must ensure that all committee members receive credit and praise for their work. A simple reward such as a plaque, certificate, handwritten thank-you note, or recognition in the newsletter can go a long way.”
Whatever the future of technology one fact remains certain, committees and boards, as well as 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 The Chicagoland Cooperator. Associate Editor Liam P. Cusack contributed to this article.