An ex-board president speaks: 5 things co-op boards can do better

By Toni L. Kamins  | October 7, 2013 - 10:29AM

I look back on my years as president of my co-op board with less than fond memories. Although our board accomplished a lot, it was a difficult and thankless job.  I think that most board members, with the exception of the power-hungry martinets, if they are truthful, are happy to let someone else take it on.

 I came away not only with a sense of relief, but also a list of things that boards can do to make co-op life easier for the shareholders they serve.  Some may be already doing these things, but many are not. So listen up.

1. Enter the digital age

Seriously, can we discuss paperwork?  Seems like more than a decade ago we were talking about the paperless office, but some co-op boards never got the email. 

While the forms required for the mental and physical obstacle course known as the board package may be downloadable from a management company’s website, those forms often still have to be filled out by hand.   

Newsflash: There’s no reason that anyone should have to fill out forms by hand.  And there is no reason for a buyer or a refinancing shareholder to have to provide copies of that ream of paper for the entire board.  

Software that can make this process much easier is widely available – Adobe Acrobat, for example, is hardly new to the market, nor is form creation software.  A buyer or shareholder should be able to receive the forms by email or from a website, fill them out on their computer, save a copy, and email the whole thing to the management company who can in turn forward them to each board member.  Not only does it avoid major headaches, it’s good for the planet.  

Is your management company balking at joining even the 20th century? Demand it. You’re paying them.

2. Hire the right property manager 

Co-op boards work in tandem with a building’s management company... and that’s where it can get tricky.  No matter how good or dedicated your board officers are, if you’ve got a lousy management company or building manager your job is going to be that much more difficult. 

Here's why:  Although the board makes executive decisions for the building, it's up to the management company and the specific property manager assigned to your building to carry them out.

Unfortunately not all managers are good at their jobs. They have difficulty managing building staff, they communicate poorly with residents, they don't know their jobs as well as they should, or they are just inept.  

At that point a board officer, usually the president, has to step in and maintain constant contact with the manager.  Of course the manager and the management company are getting paid a nice sum to be inept, but the board officer is doing it because there is no other choice and the smooth operation of hearth, home, and building resources depend on it. 

3. Keep house rules updated

Have you read through your co-op’s house rules lately?  I didn’t think so. More than likely they were written when your building was converted and they’re now out of date.  

Co-ops should make it a policy to go through the house rules every five years, get rid of ones that no longer apply.  For example, your building may have rules that apply to an incinerator or the disposal of household chemicals that are no longer in use.  It's also a good idea to update the language, and as Henry David Thoreau said, “simplify, simplify.”   Make sure the rules are not so broad or comprehensive that they become unintelligible. Break out each rule so that its intent is obvious.

4. Open up the lines of communication

To many shareholders, the inner workings of the board are a big mystery and as a result decisions can seem arbitrary.  While you can’t open up the meetings to everyone, you can make things more transparent.  

If you don’t have a newsletter that’s published at least quarterly, start one.  Email newsletters are really easy to do, and it doesn’t take much effort to get shareholder email addresses considering the myriad other info that gets collected.

Sign up for an email marketing service like IContact or a free one such as MailChimp, customize one of their templates, and send out some building info a few times a year.  

You can also include pressing neighborhood issues or ephemera and throw in a summary of the board-meeting minutes.  It will be appreciated, I guarantee it.  And having information ahead of time should make for smoother, less time consuming annual meetings.

Don’t have the time?  Try to get your management company to do it. Some offer the service. If all else fails, there are services that will do it for you for not much money.  All you have to do is feed them the information.  

Ongoing communication is also a good way to encourage attendance at the annual shareholders meetings.   Unfortunately the only time most boards communicate with their shareholders is when they send out the mandatory notice of the meeting and elections.

5. Take advantage of the Internet

If your management company doesn’t already have password-protected dedicated building pages on its website try to get them to develop them. Again, not rocket science.  The idea is to have a venue for ongoing discussion of building issues and complaints.  No luck getting management on board? Start a private Facebook group or a discussion list with Yahoo or Google groups.

And for you shareholders reading this who have never served on your board I want to leave you with two thoughts:

1) Living in a co-op is akin to representative democracy. Let your board do its job and if you don’t like the way they’ve done it, vote them out.  

2) Representative democracy is not a spectator sport.  Do your bit and run for election.

Related posts:

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Just moved in? Here's how to succeed as a first-time owner

10 ways to be an awesome board member

5 secrets of successful boards (sponsored)

Board life, after the interview

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