In September 2015, I wrote an article titled “Stay in Your Lane”. To quote myself, “Defining roles helps to eliminate confusion, reduces duplication, and provides people with a better ability to clearly define their part in what needs to be done and the clarity to move their vision (or someone else’s vision) forward. In essence, roles help to keep people in their respective lanes.”
Regardless of someone’s position or involvement with a community association, each person has a part in creating, developing, and preserving a vibrant, well maintained and fiscally sound community.
To understand the roles of the “major players” in community associations, one needs to first understand the community association construct. As defined in the M-100 The Essentials of Community Association Management, a community association is a group of owners who wish to provide a communal basis for preserving, maintaining, and enhancing their homes and property. Community associations have 3 defining characteristics: mandatory membership (whoever buys in stays in, and does not get a “get out of jail free” card if they don’t like it), binding (i.e. it’s the law) governing documents, and required lien-based assessments (chips, coins, moolah, money) levied on each owner to operate and maintain the community association.
Using a more generic definition from dictionary.com, a community is a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality (you are in the same building, complex, or neighborhood), share government (e.g. by-laws, rules, board of directors), and have a common connection (buying into a lifestyle and sharing the amenities with other owners). A community implies a sense of familiarity and togetherness.
Community associations were not designed or intended to be adversarial or a source of frustration and contention. While no relationship is ever conflict-free, community associations were not envisioned as a way to exert dominance over the residents, but rather, associations were conceived “…to provide oversight for the governance, business, and communal aspects of the association.” (M-100) We are a society of laws and rules and a community association is no different. Associations cannot control the actions of every resident or solve every problem, but associations are in place to provide a framework to obtain and maintain a certain lifestyle. An association is an entity to help people and create a lifestyle (M-360 Leadership Practices in Building Community). Everyone living in, working for, or with a community association plays a role in accomplishing the goal of maximizing the desired community association lifestyle.
Let’s look at roles of the players to learn what they contribute to the community.
They are the individuals who buy into the community based on their lifestyle needs. Homeowners have committed themselves (knowingly or not) to following the rules set before them in the governing documents for the community. Homeowners have nine rights and nine responsibilities listed in a CAI handout entitled From Good to Great Principles for Community Association Success. I want to highlight three responsibilities: to read and comply with the governing documents of the community, to pay assessments and charges on-time, and to vote in community elections.
There are times when owners do not want to comply with these rules and want to have additional rights. Certainly, many managers reading this have faced an angry owner who has told them to do something because, “you work for me” or, “I pay your salary.” Sometimes owners conflate paying assessments to operate the association as the equivalent of having the right and authority to direct staff or contractors. This is not correct. Associations are not pure democracies – they are democratic republics. Directors are elected by the membership and they govern the association including giving direction to management. Consequently, when an owner reacts like this, it means that they need to be educated. Provide them with the CAI publication to start, answer and clarify any questions they may have, and invite them to run for the board at the next annual meeting if they want to have more direct involvement in the association decision-making. The hope is that as members become more aware of their rights and responsibilities, they will begin to participate in the community as a good neighbor and volunteer. It’s not about you, It’s what you bring to the group.
“All will concede that in order to have good neighbors, we must be good neighbors. That applies in every field of human endeavor.” – Harry Truman
Board of Directors
The board is comprised of non-paid individual member volunteers elected by the membership (or appointed by sitting board members due to lack of volunteers to run for the board) to oversee and make decisions about how the community should be run. “This doesn’t mean that your board runs the association by itself, from the ground up. It can and should delegate its authority to professionals—managers, attorneys, accountants, and others—to conduct the day-to-day business of the community” (Leading Indicators Common Ground). The board, as a collective, holds the decision-making authority, not individual board members, unless the board grants that authority to an individual member including the President.
Keep in mind that the governing documents may provide basic or certain details about the responsibilities of the officers. The board should be guided by an accepted set of principles explained through the vision and mission statements of the community. If the board has not developed a vision and/or mission statement, it is highly recommended to create them. These statements keep the association focused on not just where the community is, but where it wants to go. Additionally, the board should govern through accepted industry standards and best practices in reliance and confidence upon the managers and business partners who advise them.
In the CAI handout, From Good to Great – Principles for Community Association Success, it lists a model code of ethics for board members, noting eight do’s and eleven don’ts. I want to highlight three do’s: serve the best interest of the association as a whole regardless of personal interests, use sound judgement, and always speak with one voice. Occasionally, there are board members who decide to act outside of these constraints: board members directing staff to do things not approved by the board, restricting or not allowing residents or fellow board members an opportunity to voice opinions, telling residents inaccurate information or posting items on social media in direct conflict with the board’s position. When board members follow their roles, they are protected legally, even if they make incorrect decisions. However, board members who go “rogue” or act outside of their authority may not be. Accordingly, when you encounter a board member stepping outside of the grant of authority, that person should also be educated. The CAI document should be provided and perhaps counsel should come in and provide governance training for the full board. Good governance is essential in community associations and all board members should receive regular education on it. It’s not about what you want, it’s what is in the best interest of the community. Dwight Eisenhower said, “You do not lead by hitting people over the head – that’s called assault, not leadership.”
Committee Members & Other Volunteers
Because a community is comprised of many different people with many different voices, committees are a way to allow members to provide input into the decision-making process. Many of the enjoyable activities that are planned and occur in communities require a lot of manpower. The research invested to determine the feasibility of a project can take a lot of man hours. The manpower and man hours are invested by members who join committees or by individuals who commit their time to certain community events and/or projects.
Boards typically establish and use committees to provide recommendations before making a final decision on certain issues. Committees serve at the pleasure of the board and are a resource to assist the board in its decision-making process. Committees are a method to encourage community involvement and member buy-in to proposed ideas.
Committees may work with other committees and/or management to assist with information gathering. While management might help facilitate aspects of a committee’s information gathering, committees do not task management. Typically, the “heavy lifting” for their assignments is done by the committee members. Like the board, committees are expected to work for the good and betterment of the community as a whole and not for themselves, certain members, or certain groups. However, the grant of authority to a committee should be crystal clear. Member involvement and committee participation fosters good will and allows people to remain connected to the community because…it’s not about you, it’s what you bring to the group.
“Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” – Author Unknown
The role of management may have initially been limited to managing the asset, but as time passed and the industry evolved, so has the role of management. Management provides a service to the community to help fulfill the imagined and desired lifestyle as established by the association and the board of directors.
Management’s primary responsibility is the day-to-day management of the community: board assignments, physical plant operations, administrative functions, and owner/resident interaction. Like individual homeowners and board of directors, management can overreach its authority.
There are occasions where boards want to control costs and ask management to step into a role that would normally be handled by a consultant or specialist. While management may have been involved in various projects and worked with consultants and specialists, management cannot be a substitute for those professionals. It is a common misconception by boards that management can provide oversight to all projects in lieu of hiring consultants and specialists such as structural engineers, architects, designers, electricians, plumbers, landscapers, concrete and paving specialists, etc. It is management’s ethical duty and responsibility to tell the board when consultants and specialists should be engaged. Like owners and boards, managers can blur the lines to gain favor with boards. However, it is important that management not feel restricted to give honest opinions because omitted information can be just as detrimental to the decision-making process as inaccurate information.
Management isn’t about being in unison with the board or the board president. Management’s role is to provide professional input and recommendations from education and experiences by sharing best practices while providing oversight to operations, which includes deference to specialists when needed. Professional standards dictate that management perform work that best serves the community and that may or may not mirror individual member desires, but it serves the association’s best interests. “Management is, above all, a practice where art, science, and craft meet.” – Henry Mintzberg
These are the companies and their staff who do work with the association: attorneys, auditors, engineers, landscapers, consultants, etc. They collaborate with management to execute the work needed to be done for a successful community association.
As with any industry, business partners build trust with communities by adding value to the community (good service, plus good price). Preferred business partners are normally responsive to the needs of the association, provide quality workmanship or goods, and are competitively priced. In addition, they should be educated on working with community associations and ideally, should have the Educated Business Partner distinction from CAI. If a business partner is not living up to the contract, then terminating the relationship is a good thing. However, learning the in’s and out’s of a community takes time, so providing a business partner a couple of seasons to really get their footing is beneficial to obtain the best performance results. Not only is it helpful to the business partner, but it benefits the community.
Constantly switching business partners doesn’t allow the association to build solid relationships. As a matter of fact, when business partners recognize the lack of loyalty in associations, they tend not to be loyal to the association, especially if the relationship is short-lived. However, if a community has secured a business they like at the price they like, mindlessly bidding can create problems. Many times, the reputation of a community may deter business partners from providing bids if they know the community really doesn’t plan to change contractors. It is important to be honest. Honesty builds trust and trust builds better relationships.
In the end, all of the people that comprise a community are important to its success. No matter how smart a person is (or thinks they are), the person does not operate or live in absence of others, especially not in a community association, because the structure and process to achieve success is realized through collaborative efforts.
All of the individuals in a community association make a collective that illustrates the wonderful tapestry of diversity and togetherness. It makes no difference if you are a homeowner, a board member, a committee member or volunteer, a member of the management team, or a business partner because each person has something to contribute to the whole. It’s not about you, it’s what you bring to the group.
“Individual commitment to a group effort — that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” – Vince Lombardi
By Brandi Ruff, CMCA, AMS, PCAM
Brandi is the general manager at Skyline Plaza Condominium in Falls Church, VA. She is an active member of the Quorum editorial committee and a frequent contributor. One of her favorite quotes is “Your gifts are not about you. Leadership is not about you. Your purpose is not about you. A life of significance is about serving those who need your gifts, your leadership, and your purpose.” Kevin Hall, author “Aspire.”