Communication Leadership

Associations Aren’t Democracies, But They Can Be More Democratic

Owners are sometimes justified when they grouse about how their community associations are run.

Maybe you’ve heard complaints like, “The board’s too powerful,” or “The board’s too weak.” Rules are “never enforced” or they are “too strictly enforced.” Others include, “Nothing is getting fixed,” or “Assessments are too high.”

Experienced board members get used to hyperbolic, negative feedback outrunning compliments. On occasion, we struggle to solve problems in ways that will please everyone. And sometimes controversial decisions that leave both sides of an issue dissatisfied are truly the right ones.

That’s what leadership and democracy look like in real life.

Community associations fall short of some democratic ideals by design. Our purpose, according to our governing documents, is to protect property values. We don’t exist to govern every function, fulfill every need, or to execute every worthwhile idea that might improve our communities. Sometimes we must say no.

Nor are associations answerable to all residents. Our constituents – the only people who can vote board members in or out — are property owners. Those realties can frustrate well-intentioned board members.

Despite their shortcomings, associations can operate more democratically without straying outside their governing documents’ confines. Here are some suggestions:

  • Don’t dismiss out-of-hand what association’s critics say. Boards should always review criticism from anyone in the community even when it seems exaggerated or unwarranted. An objective discussion may reveal opportunities to improve.
  • Be fair. Let people have their say. Bend over backward to seek the community’s input. When announcing a controversial decision, publicly acknowledge the opposing opinions that the board chose not to accept. Explain why. Leaders build trust when they can accurately describe their opponents’ views back to them. People may still be unhappy with a board’s action, but they will gain respect for the board’s decision-making process.
  • Be transparent. Publish informative agendas before every board meeting. Produce minutes that are concise, clear, and accurate accounts of what transpired at those meetings. Can an owner gain a basic understanding of community issues and board actions by reading a year’s worth of minutes? If so, the association is doing its job. If not, this might be a high-priority target for improvement.
  • Communicate pro-actively. Commit to stay in touch with the community regularly even when there doesn’t seem to be much to say. Create activity that the association can talk about. Hold listening sessions and report what people said. Or do surveys. Talk about upcoming events or future plans. Promote volunteerism and community engagement. Reach out to the community year-round with newsletters, fliers and a frequent presence on social media. Board members should routinely attend community social events to meet neighbors, introduce themselves, collect feedback and pick up suggestions. Open channels of communication encourage people to talk back, informing boards’ actions and making them more responsive to their communities.
  • Be positive. Board members should be encouraged – maybe trained — to avoid negativity traps when debating solutions. Keep open minds instead. Focus on solving problems, not making circular arguments about obstacles to every proposal. When confronted by a divided board, leaders might try to identify the broad community’s interest to guide the board toward agreement.

Community associations will never please everybody, but they can manage conflicts better and maybe prevent some entirely.

By Doug Carroll

Doug is a homeowner in Alexandria, VA. He is a board member of the Windsor Park Home Owners Association, a community of 386 townhouses near the Franconia-Springfield Metro Station. Doug was a business reporter and later a business editor at USA TODAY for nearly 30 years.

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