Community. What a nice concept. So simple. So appealing. And so elusive for residents of so many common-interest ownership developments that are communities in name only. A collection of residents who share ownership but nothing more may form an association, but they do not create a community by any definition of that term. True communities – living, breathing, vibrant communities – are not born, they are built, and the community association board is the primary architect in that construction process.
Unfortunately, many boards lack both the community-building tools they need and an understanding of how to use them. The results are evident in all-too-frequent news reports of boards and owners locked in bitter battles that portray the board members as tyrants, and their communities as places in which no one would particularly want to live.
Communication, commitment, and concern for the community
In the common-interest ownership world, those terms are invoked with the insistence and intensity of a mantra, repeated so often that they risk becoming background noise, like the ‘buckle your seatbelts’ speech that begins every aeroplane flight. The safety information is important, but does anyone really focus on where the exits are located or how to activate the oxygen masks? We’ve heard the speech so often we think we know what do in an emergency, or assume that we’ll figure it out if the need arises.
We treat the homeowners association (HOA) mantra the same way. The concepts are so familiar and so deeply etched in our understanding, we don’t have to think about them. Association board members know communication is essential, don’t they? They know how to keep owners informed, how to involve them in the decision-making process, how to encourage their cooperation, foster their concern and ensure their commitment to the community in which they live.
Boards understand and apply all of those principles to the process of building and sustaining a sense of community, don’t they? Well, maybe not. In the articles you read in industry publications, in the seminars you attend, and in the discussions you hear in board meetings and overhear in common hallways, it is clear that:
- apathy is as much of a concern in the common-interest ownership world today as it has ever been
- getting owners involved remains a challenge for all communities and a source of frustration for many
- building a sense of community is more likely to be a question asked (‘How do we do it?’) than a statement made about how it is done.
So perhaps it is worth taking another look at these familiar community-building concepts – communication, commitment, and concern. They are trite perhaps, but also unquestionably the true cornerstones on which a strong community is built.
We’ll start with communication because, in structural terms, it is the support beam on which all other community-building efforts rest – the mortar, without which, as a Yeats poem suggests, ‘things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’. Communicating with owners isn’t difficult and it needn’t be complicated or expensive, but it does require commitment (recognise that term?), planning, and ongoing efforts by the board to ensure that owners know what is going on in their community – what has happened, what is happening, what needs to happen, and why. The more people understand about the board’s decisions, the more likely they are to support those policies, or at least not resist them. The more residents know about the community, the more likely they are to feel connected to and concerned about it – concerned not just about their own property and their personal investment in the community, but concerned about other residents and about the community as a whole.
The communication effort starts, or should start, when new owners arrive. The board or a designated committee should be responsible for creating a welcome pack that includes:
- the community’s governing documents, including the rules and regulations, which the new arrivals have almost certainly not read
- a copy of the association’s newsletter
- a list of board committees
- a schedule of board and committee meetings
- a list of association contacts – board members and volunteers who can answer questions
- general information about the local community – schools, hospitals, shopping, libraries, etc.
- an owner ‘profile’ card, on which new arrivals can indicate special interests or skills that might match volunteer opportunities.
Don’t leave this welcome packet in a mailbox or outside the door; have someone – a board member or a volunteer – deliver it personally, along with a welcome to the community. The message you are conveying is: ‘We have a real community here, and we want you to be part of it.’
Newsletters, websites, apps and other communication with owners should be ongoing, and should take many forms. Notices posted online, signage in the parking lot and discussions at board meetings all provide means of keeping owners informed.
However, associations that take communication seriously understand how their residents consume information and include as many channels as possible. Boards that don’t have news updates will tell you they are too much trouble; those that have them will tell you they are essential. A news update doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive to create; it just has to be informative. Make the news update a channel the residents want to read – better still, make it a channel they feel they must read and don’t want to miss. Also make it a channel with which owners identify and view as their own.
Encourage them not just to read the news but also to submit ideas and articles of their own. Use the channel not only to report board decisions, meeting schedules, agendas, and the like, but also to provide news about community events (tennis tournaments, the planting of new shrubs, a clothing drive for needy families) and, equally important, about community residents. People enjoy reading about themselves, and learning about other residents who are interesting or who share their interests. After reading about the Smiths’ trip into Africa, Mr and Mrs Jones may call to talk about their trip to that area. One thing may lead to another and perhaps the two families will decide to create a travel club in the community. It could happen. This is the kind of connection well-crafted news updates can forge. And it is from connections like these that a sense of community evolves.
The association’s website or app is, or can be, an equally effective communications tool, but only if it is informative, relevant, interesting and accessible. So put the emphasis on clean design, good organisation, ease of navigation, and on the content, of course. There is no single template for what your website should contain; that list is limited only by your imagination, by your budget and, even more, by the energy, time and commitment of the volunteers responsible for maintaining the site and keeping the information current. With those limitations in mind, it is usually a good idea when you first introduce your site to start small. ‘Don’t let your eyes get bigger than your stomach,’ as your mom used to say. In website terms, don’t bite off more content than you can comfortably produce and update consistently.
The following list is a reasonable starting point, a basic content menu to which associations can add over time, if they choose:
- a calendar of community events
- essential association contact information – for the board, the management company, and the maintenance staff
- announcements of board meetings and other upcoming community events
- the minutes of board meetings
- the association’s newsletter
- the association’s governing documents, including the rules and regulations.
- information about the broader community, including proposed ordinances about which residents might be (or should be) concerned. Links to local resources and articles of interest beyond these basics; the sky, literally, is the limit.
Many associations also allow owners to transact business – submit maintenance requests, fill out forms, and even make payments – online. Although your website will function primarily as an internal communications tool aimed at community residents, it is also a looking glass through which others will peer to form an impression of your community and, perhaps, to determine if it is a community in which they might like to live. In this respect, your site will function as an online marketing brochure, so you want to make sure it conveys the image you want to project. If the site is interesting, lively, well organised and well maintained, then prospective residents will conclude that your community is also interesting, lively, well governed and well maintained. Work with a marketing and community expert like Estate Living to secure the right messaging.
Communication is a two-way street
Newsletters, websites, welcome packets and the like are all means through which the board and management talk to owners, but it is equally important to listen to them. You want owners to know and understand what the board is doing, but you also want to know what owners like or don’t like about what the board is doing, and what they think the board should do. The best way to obtain that information is simply to ask for it. Owner apathy is real; unless it’s a policy or decision they hate (a levy increase, for example), most owners won’t comment or make suggestions on their own. But the board can at least create an atmosphere that encourages owners to speak up by making it clear that suggestions and input are welcome.
Openness and accessibility
Open meetings are essential. If the meetings are closed, owners will assume the board doesn’t want to hear from them and (even worse) doesn’t want them to know what the board is doing. To counter those assumptions, invite owners to attend board meetings; announce them well in advance, and schedule them at times when people are likely to be able to attend. You’ll have to make it clear that owners can’t participate in board discussions or vote on agenda items, but set aside a designated (and limited) time during which owners can express concerns, make suggestions, or discuss issues the board is considering. Residents will be more likely to support decisions in which they think they have had some input.
They will feel more a part of the community, and will be more concerned about it if they think their opinions matter. So, ask what they think – position suggestion boxes in a few convenient locations, and respond to the suggestions you receive. Conduct surveys on important issues and publicise the results. Above all, follow up on suggestions. If you reject an idea, explain why; if you adopt a suggestion, publicly recognise the owner responsible for it. Make accessibility to owners a board policy and a commitment. Board members don’t have to be on call 24/7, but they also shouldn’t insulate themselves from residents, or create the impression that they are trying to do so by being unnecessarily and unreasonably hard to reach. You want to fight the ‘us versus them’ attitudes that create friction in so many communities.
Accessibility and openness will help reinforce the idea that the board is an extension of the association, not an outside force with which owners have no connection, and over which they have no control.
Creating committees and commitment
The most successful and most cohesive communities have strong governing boards and a string of enthusiastic, active committees behind them. If you want owners to be involved in the community and committed to it, you have to give them something interesting and meaningful to do. Well-structured committees provide an organised framework for those activities. Committees provide input and advice for the board along with willing hands to work on specific tasks. They also serve as a kind of ‘farm team’, grooming volunteers for future positions on the board.
This process works, however, only if the committee experience is positive. Remember those owner profile cards you collected from new arrivals? Use them as a recruitment tool to match volunteers as much as possible with committee assignments and with tasks that reflect and capitalise on their interests. Most volunteers become involved in community affairs because they want to contribute, and they want to make a difference. That means the committees must be an integral and respected part of the board’s decision-making process and the work they do must be ‘real’ work – tangible, useful, and necessary – not make-work. Committees’ missions must be clear, the scope and limits of their authority must be well defined, volunteer assignments must be specific, deadlines must be set, expectations must be both clear and realistic, and committees must have both the time and resources required to complete their tasks. Finding volunteers is never easy, but within those (often formidable) limits, boards should select committee chairs carefully, choosing individuals who are enthusiastic, energetic, and well organised, and who ‘play well’ with others. You don’t want committee chairs to be one-man bands; you want them to be effective band leaders.
With a few exceptions, the committees will play an advisory role, recommending decisions but not actually making them. Boards should ensure that committee members understand those boundaries, but they should also make it clear that they value the advice committees provide, and the contributions they make. Publicise committee activities; discuss their recommendations during board meetings, publish committee reports in the association’s newsletter or on the website, and thank committee members publicly for their contributions. Some associations recognise volunteers monthly or annually with awards, small gifts, or appreciation dinners. Others offer special perks, such as preferred parking spaces, to express their thanks. This recognition is essential, industry executives say, not only to thank volunteers in a meaningful way for their efforts, but also to show others that the contributions of volunteers are appreciated and worthwhile.
Forging connections and concern
Involvement remains the Holy Grail for community associations – the elusive but essential ingredient in the community-building recipe. If you want owners to be involved in the community, you have to make them feel connected to it. Newsletters and websites create virtual connections, but the connections between owners must also be personal and real. A sense of community implies a level of consideration and concern for others. It’s hard to care about people you don’t know. Boards have to find ways of bringing people together, physically, not virtually, in settings in which they can discover common interests and be reminded that they share common concerns. This isn’t easy. Schedules are crammed, time is limited, and people who say they don’t know their neighbours are also likely to tell you they don’t think that is important.
How do you persuade owners to mix and mingle? Announcing a special assessment or a levy increase will almost certainly bring them en masse to a board meeting, but that’s not really the ‘getting-to-know-you’ gathering you are trying to create.
Social events are a much better idea and food is always a draw. Combine the annual meeting with a braai, sponsor events, celebrate Fridays (or Thursdays or Wednesdays) by inviting everyone to bring nibbles to the clubhouse. Invite speakers (with or without food), encourage owners to organise special-interest groups, and make that process easier by collecting and sharing information about owners’ interests. Use larger gatherings as opportunities for the board and other volunteers to talk to residents about what they are doing, and about opportunities for others to become involved. Enthusiasm is infectious; it can’t cure apathy, but it can do much to counter the lack of interest that keeps so many owners on the sidelines. Developers build common-interest ownership communities, but it takes time and effort, plus those old HOA concepts – communication, commitment and concern – to create a sense of community within the structures developers create.
Community building is hard work, there’s no question. But it is so worth it