Better Communication in 2013
I love the fresh start of a new year. Like many people, I use the last few days of the year to reflect on accomplishments, identify areas for improvement and growth, and set goals for the next twelve months. The last week of the year often slows down enough for reflection and planning, and I can chart my course for things like client relations activities, changes to internal business practices, and training for that three-day bike ride I want to complete in July.
How does your community association plan for the year ahead? If you're a new board member, perhaps you're eager to begin addressing concerns that led you to volunteer in the first place. If you're a seasoned director, you may have a project underway that you intend to see to completion. But what are your goals as a board? Is your board approaching the New Year with a unified vision and voice?
I attend many HOA meetings throughout the calendar year and 2012 was no exception. It was a bit of a rough year in terms of civility (or lack thereof) at association meetings. In the midst of all the voices of concern and dissent, I heard many board members commit, sincerely and earnestly, to improving communication with owners. If your board is also committed to improving communication in 2013, here are some tips to help you achieve that goal:
Identify what you need to communicate. When I attend community meetings, a problem is usually brewing or has already escalated into a conflict. All too often, the conflict arises from miscommunication or inadequate communication. Community members don't have all the facts. Board members don't have sufficient time in board meetings to communicate all the details, and, sometimes, confusion exists among board members. Certain subjects, like money matters, are just plain hard to discuss and don't always involve strictly right or wrong answers. In many of the meetings I attend, the topics that would most benefit from better communication efforts involve:
Financial decisions that impact the association (and individual owners), including budgets, special assessments, contracts for vendor services, and lawsuits. The decision with a financial impact may have occurred prior to the conflict but may not manifest itself until much later, as may be the case with an insurance policy that includes a high deductible that the owners must pay. Whenever questions arise, seek to address owner concerns sooner rather than later and consider how up-front communication may help owners plan for financial impacts of future decisions.
How the association operates and how the board governs. So much of the confusion in community associations stems from lack of policies to guide board business or failure to follow policies already on the books. Have you read your association's mandatory responsible governance policies recently? Is your board following the policies? If your board has not yet adopted the nine required policies that cover matters ranging from covenant enforcement procedures to how new policies are adopted, it should do so as soon as possible. Not only does the law require these policies, they also make a lot of sense and can help set clear expectations for board members and owners alike.
Changes that affect the daily lives of members and the appearance of the neighborhood. In my experience, professionally managed communities typically do a pretty good job of letting owners know about things like new trash days, management transitions, and major construction projects that will impact the property. Owners, too, voice their concerns and give constructive input on these logistical matters. Sure, members may express differing opinions, but the effective communication of these day-to-day matters may provide good guidance for how to communicate the more difficult issues.
Seek expert assistance with communicating financial, legal, insurance, construction, and other technical matters. Your association's professionals want to provide assistance to help owners understand the circumstances and available options. If the board is struggling with communicating the technical details, invite the experts to a meeting and advertise the meeting to owners in advance. My attendance at association meetings does not usually involve giving good news, but I can help take the heat off of board members who are faced with difficult decisions that impact their neighbors and shift the conversation to information-sharing and input from homeowners. By attending and hearing owner concerns, I can better advise the board on how to achieve goals within the parameters of the law and the best interest of the community.
Form a communication committee for continuous or ad hoc purposes. Many communities use websites and newsletters to provide regular updates to owners. If your community is struggling with disconnect between the board and the members, consider making more information available more regularly to owners. But don't just push information out to owners. Use a communication committee to gather feedback from members and provide relevant education to owners on their rights and responsibilities within their community association. Committee members can do the homework by reading blogs about association matters, tracking key legislation, and joining professional organizations to get the inside scoop on community association living. Don't forget to model good communication from the start by creating clear mandates that define expectations and the scope of authority for the communication committee members. Remember (and remind the committee) that the board oversees the committee's activities. If the board has set a goal of improved communication, make sure the committee knows what outcomes will meet that goal.
What has your community done to improve communication with owners? What are you planning to do in 2013 to improve communication in your association?