Once upon a time, Habitat magazine conducted a poll of its readers, asking what was the most pressing problem facing boards. "The most pressing issue in our co-op?" one reader said in response "Security: (1) Resident thief whose apartment is tenanted by a relative. (2) Deranged elderly tenant whose apartment is controlled by uncaring sponsor. (3) Apathetic shareholders who don't participate. The topic we would most like to read about? Board of directors succession in light of the above."
Our suggestion at the time was to "put (1) and (2) in charge of the building and before you know it, (3) will be no problem."
It was a flip answer but one that struck at the root of a perennial difficulty faced by boards of cooperatives and condominiums: apathy. Unless there is a major controversy at a property, few people want to get involved in serving. "The way to get attention is to pass a pet policy or renovate your lobby," says Donald Levy, director of management at Lawrence Properties. "If there are no major issues that affect people's comfort zone, getting people involved is not easy."
Indeed, on the face of it, some professionals say apathy is not a bad thing: apathetic can be translated as content. "I'm not sure that apathy is all that bad," claims David Kuperberg, president of Cooper Square Realty. "It may mean things are running smoothly. It reminds me of the Monty Python sketch where a newscaster says, 'Yesterday, there were no strikes, no protests, no riots. Nothing happened.' Well, we attended an annual meeting last night and the board said, 'There are no arrears, no maintenance increases, no capital improvements to discuss, no incidents regarding safety and security.' This annual meeting lasted a half-an-hour. In fact, we barely had a quorum, and, in this instance, what one man might call apathy was really a vote of confidence for the board and management."
Yet there are dangers in apathy: by forcing the same candidates to serve, burnout could become an issue. There is the problem of succession: when board members ultimately step down, there are few qualified, experienced candidates to replace them. Also, you want "new blood" because that brings new ideas.
So besides putting a thief or a lunatic in charge of your building, what are some measures you can take to combat apathy?
(1) Recruit people at their first interview. When the admissions committee is interviewing prospective owners, be sure you ask: "Are you willing to serve?" This makes board service more of a "civic duty," placing it in the shareholders' minds from the outset. "When you have new residents entering, reach out to them as potential board members," advises attorney William Hibsher, of counsel at Robinson Silverman Pearce Aronson & Berman.
(2) Use committees as training ground. Single-issue committees — lobby redesign, roof repair — are often ways to get people to volunteer who are interested in a particular issue. The committee can serve as a training ground for future board members. "You can have them serve on committees, and, then, you can even have shareholders come on board as non-voting participants," Levy says. "That way, the people develop interest in the workings of the building and may want to become a board member." Hibsher agrees: "A committee process is a good apprenticeship to gain experience as to service. It's a natural transition from the committee to the board."
(3) Impose term limits. By limiting terms, you force turnover and make it everyone's responsibility to run. "Boards should consider imposing term limits so you have a fresh rollover," says Edward Kalikow, president of Kaled Management. "You want a fresh pair of eyes."
(4) Don't scare away potential directors. When talking to fellow residents, don't make board service sound onerous or else you'll never get people to serve. "Oftentimes, apathy can be created inadvertently by board members when they indicate to other residents how hard it is to serve," Kuperberg explains. "What you're accomplishing is the opposite of what you want. You're driving people away."
An overworked board, in fact, may be the sign of a mismanaged board. "Board members should not be expected to micro-manage the affairs of the property," says Hibsher. "They should be delegating and, like any director of a company, their job is oversight. If you get involved in taking out the garbage or cleaning the hallway, the shareholders will look to you as the 'manager.' People will see board service as a lot of work and will be reluctant to do it. So, one way to overcome apathy is to project an image that the board is run in a professional, non-histrionic way."
(5) Get people involved socially first. Getting people involved in building activities is a first step to getting them on the board. Board member Wendy Wullbrandt recalls that her property faced that problem. Bay Street Landing, her three-building co-op/condo/HOA complex in Staten Island was facing serious apathy issues. "We had difficulty finding enough people for a quorum," she says.
The board began employing Sunday morning brunches as a means of getting residents interested. "We had one on each floor, once a week, and it became a time for shareholders to come together over a month or two. I had one at my place; all the people from the floor came and the board president was there, answering questions about how things worked. People got reacquainted, and there was more sense of neighborliness. It helped. That has encouraged people to see that we're doing things around here and encourages attendance and involvement."
(6) Actively recruit. You should seek out people who you think would be important additions to the board. Says Levy: "Talk to them and see if they're willing to put their name forward."
In a broader sense, fighting apathy is all about communication: getting out the message that board service is everyone's duty. You should always be looking for ways to reach out. "Communicating to the building about what is going on can only help in keeping people interested and involved," says Hibsher. "Communication keeps people motivated."