September/October 2017 Issue of Common Ground Article by Katie Anderson, CMCA, AMS, PCAM
BEAUTIFULLY LANDSCAPED STREETS. Happy people strolling down the sidewalk, waving hello at one another and chatting about their days. Pet-waste-free common areas. Immaculately maintained homes. Board members going to their mailboxes without being accosted about the latest community drama. A line of volunteers waiting to help with even the most menial task. Is this picture-perfect community yours? If it’s not, your board members and community managers have work to do.
Happy communities build value. Communities that attract drama can do just the opposite. If you want to turn your community’s frown upside-down, start with the following 10 steps.
1) DEVELOP A STRATEGIC PLAN.
You have to start by knowing where you’re going.
A strategic planning conversation goes much deeper than, “What reserve projects do we have coming up in the next five years? Does the community have the money to pay for them?”
Instead, the conversation should be focused on questions like, “What goals do we have as a community? Are we happy with the landscaping and amenities we have now? Do we want to add things down the road? How strict will we be with compliance?” Determining these kinds of things leads to shared community goals.
The strategic planning session should be held outside of a regular board meeting. The board should discuss its vision and set tactical goals. This plan will help your manager and committee members prioritize tasks. If an issue comes up, such as an owner’s request to rewrite design guidelines, and the manager knows the board reviews all policies every two years, he or she can share this timeline with the owner without bogging down the board’s next meeting agenda.
You can create a successful vision by:
• Assessing your current and historic positions
• Identifying your purpose or mission
• Setting goals that help you achieve your purpose
• Deciding how to meet your goals
• Developing an action plan
• Monitoring and updating your plan
2) CREATE A CULTURE.
Culture is a direct reflection of what board members and owners are doing to improve the community, and a positive culture can enhance the community’s value. The board should set the tone. If board members want a community that works hard and has fun together, then their actions need to reinforce those ideals.
3) CREATE A FINANCIAL PLAN.
Both annual and long-range financial planning needs to be a focus. With proper planning, it will help avoid surprises for owners and build trust in the board’s leadership. The fastest way to create an unhappy community is to hit an owner’s wallet with additional unknown expenses.
The areas that need to be analyzed include:
• Annual budgets
• Reserve studies
• Maintenance plans
• Regular financial audits
Each of these items should be reviewed, at a minimum, annually. If the board doesn’t understand the community’s complete financial position, it will be difficult to make effective decisions.
4) FOSTER A GOOD RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE MANAGER AND BOARD.
The board-manager relationship is complicated. It requires openness, honesty, and dedication. Communication forms the backbone of the relationship. The board and manager should be communicating regularly, positively, and constructively.
Both parties should make sure expectations are well-defined. How often are updates required? How quickly is a response expected?
Board members should make clear decisions. Include timelines for action completion and specific authority on the issue. Managers don’t make decisions; they take their marching orders from the board.
Be open to constructive feedback. Each person working or volunteering for the association should respect each other. Any feedback should be given with that in mind.
Be professional. Any toxic or aggressive communication should be stopped immediately and avoided in the future.
5) PROVIDE OPEN AND HONEST COMMUNICATION WITH OWNERS.
Communication with the residents, no matter what form it takes, is crucial.
Every manager has managed a community where an owner stands up at the annual meeting and says he or she wants better communication. What does that mean? Frequency? Type? Sometimes, the biggest challenge is getting to the bottom of what defines communication for your community. A manager could be sending regular updates, but if the communication isn’t the right information, and isn’t in a format that meets the community’s needs, it will still be perceived to have fallen short.
Is your communication being heard as you intended and conveying the message you want? Do your owners know what’s going on in the community? Do you have buy-in?
These steps can get you there:
Understand your demographics. Every manager would love to live in a paperless world, and for the most part, our industry has evolved to provide the technology to do so. But is this the right choice for your community? This is something that every manager and board should analyze from time to time. If you’re sending emails, can you see how many people open them? Do your owners read the information, or is your office receiving calls about information already distributed? You may need to diversify how you share information.
Share your successes. Take advantage of the marketing opportunity to toot your board’s horn. When reserve projects come in on time and under budget, for example, let your owners know.
Be relevant. If you’re sending garage sale notices and lost puppy posts but fail to communicate information like road closures or upcoming meetings, the ownership will not rely on your communication.
Be honest. Just like sharing your successes, board members and managers shouldn’t be afraid to share challenges or mistakes. Owning the situation can be the most respectable way to approach a challenge.
6) BE FULLY TRANSPARENT.
Transparency goes deeper than communication. Your community must be kept apprised of information, but they must also be encouraged to participate. Your community should be:
• Holding open board meetings and making decisions in the open
• Providing access to association records, including minutes, financials, and budgets policies
• Providing regular management reports with action updates
7) EDUCATE HOMEOWNERS.
Owners who understand how an association works will have a greater understanding and perspective of their responsibility toward the greater good.
Community leaders should be educating owners on federal law, state statutes, and governing documents to help the association run smoother and create a sense of ownership in the process. You can help education efforts by:
• Taking a few minutes at the beginning of every annual meeting to explain what an association is and what the vision/mission is for the community
• Sharing the top five most common compliance issues in your welcome letter to new owners. Educate them on how these can be avoided.
• Writing regular newsletter articles about association processes. You might consider writing about how decisions get made, why the community needs committees, the role of management and the board, and the lifecycle of a compliance issue.
• Holding an annual board training and inviting the community to observe. This will give your owners a better perspective of what the board does.
8) HIRE EXPERIENCED VENDORS.
Whether it’s a management firm, landscape company, or general contractor, hiring an experienced, properly licensed, and knowledgeable vendor helps provide comfort to owners that their money is being well spent.
Quality work can reinforce the board’s vision and improve the overall value of the community. Make sure your community has a process in place for how project scopes are developed, how projects are sent to bid, and how the bids are reviewed.
Additionally, make sure the board sets a process for how often contracts will be sent out for bid. Annually changing contractors can create inconsistency and not allow the community to reach its best operating goals.
Changing contractors based on price isn’t always the best approach and can fail to meet owner expectations, so when analyzing contractors, make sure their ability to complete the job within the set scope is part of the process.
9) SOLVE PROBLEMS NEIGHBOR TO NEIGHBOR.
Encourage neighbors to communicate and solve problems amongst themselves before reporting to boards, committees, or management. Many issues don’t require official association intervention, and better relations between community members is fostered by open communication, as opposed to behind-the-back finger-pointing.
The board isn’t responsible for solving every problem. When neighbors shut their doors and avoid conversations with each other, the board and management can be forced to resolve issues over which the association has no jurisdiction. For example, if an owner’s dog is going to the bathroom on a neighbor’s lawn, unless the area is common property, this is a conversation that should take place between neighbors.
If your community is seeing a rise in neighbor-to-neighbor complaints and a resistance to working them out, try bringing a local mediator in to your next annual meeting to share tips on conflict resolution. Find resources that can help facilitate these conversations and improve neighbor dynamics.
10) FORM A SOCIAL COMMITTEE.
Owners who work together need to play together. Social gatherings will help neighbors get to know one another and open lines of communication. Communities should offer a diverse range of events to accommodate a wide range of interests. The events can be simple, like a book club gathering, or as large as a themed party.
As with all committees, the board should set the social committee’s charter and provide guidance on its responsibilities. Above all, the committee should keep matters light and fun.
We know from the Foundation for Community Association Research’s 2016 Homeowner Satisfaction Survey that homeowners believe their board members and managers are doing a stellar job.
• 87 percent of residents rate their overall community association experience as positive (65 percent) or neutral (22 percent).
• 84 percent say members of their elected governing board “absolutely” or “for the most part” serve the best interests of their communities.
• 69 percent say their community managers provide value and support to residents and their associations.
• 88 percent say their association’s rules protect and enhance property values (66 percent) or have a neutral effect (22 percent).
• 67 percent of residents say they pay about the right amount—some even say too little—in association assessments versus paying too much.
That means most communities already have many of the pieces in place to be happy. With a little bit of work and a little bit of fun, your board and manager can take the next steps by improving your community’s overall culture and bettering operations and governance. That happy place is within reach.
Katie Anderson is founding owner of Aperion Management Group, AAMC, in central Oregon. firstname.lastname@example.org