Volunteer Leader Education and the Merry-Go-Round

cai-il volunteers working together

By Cyndi Rempert & Timothy J. Haviland

Do you sometimes feel like your Community Association is going around in circles? CAI’s Common Interest spent some time talking with Jerry McNamara, CMCA, board president of his condominium association and new board member to the Illinois Chapter of Community Associations Institute. He first joined his suburban association’s board around five years ago, and wanted to share his experiences and advice with our readers.

Common Interest (CI): How did you first become a board member for your Association’s board? Were you nominated or did you volunteer?
JM: A board member passed away, and the management company solicited volunteers. No one was stepping forward. I had some interaction with management, and they suggested I run. I was interviewed by the board, and I either prevailed or failed, depending on how you look at it!

CI: What persuaded you to join your Association’s board; what made you want to be a board member?
JM: I had been a resident for 21 years, and over that period of time there were some rule changes that upset me. At times, I attended board meetings to complain about those changes. I became generally unhappy with the lack of responsiveness from the board, with them not listening to complaints. When the opportunity came along to be on the board, I thought it was time to put up or shut up. I also wanted to learn more about what’s going on in the association. Having benefitted [from the association’s amenities and board decisions] for many years, I felt some obligation to give back to the community.

CI: What was your first position on the board?
JM: I started off as just a director: Life was serendipity then! I came from the business world and noticed that the other board members had a casual way of handling things. I wanted to learn more about the board’s responsibilities, the association’s responsibilities, and homeowners’ responsibilities. In pursuit of this, I turned to the educational programs CAI offered and started going to seminars. When I was just a director, I took basic courses for the CMCA and achieved my certification. I admit to becoming outspoken as a board member about various issues or troubles I perceived in the association. Since “No good deed goes unpunished,” when the board president resigned, I was asked to become president. I still didn’t fully understand what I was getting into, but I accepted it. The rest is history.

CI: What were some of your first impressions and thoughts when you attended the first few board meetings for your Association?
JM: I was the deer in the headlights! I had gone to a few board meetings in the past, but I had never been up at the front table before. No one told me what was expected of me. I was pretty quiet at first but I quickly decided I didn’t want to just “rubber stamp” everything. The first time I was looking at board packets, at financial statements and reports, I had a lot of questions. I probably drove the other board members at the time nuts because most of my questions may have been addressed in the past. But I wanted to understand what was going on. When I understand things, I can contribute more. They will rue the day they asked me to join the board, because I am not a rubber stamper!

CI: The experience of serving as a board member is sometimes analogous to being on a merry-go-round. How would you compare your experience serving on your association’s board to being on a merry-go-round?
JM: When I first got on the merry-go-round, I was taken in by the music and the colorful horses that I was riding! I didn’t really understand a lot of it, and when you don’t understand, everything seems ok. Though the more the ride went on, the more I didn’t feel comfortable with some of the board decisions, and I decided to do something: I went out and got more education. I was critical of board members at first, but then I realized the point isn’t how to dictate how things are going to be, but to work together towards a common goal. I went full cycle, 360 degrees; just like a merry-go-round. Now the merry-go-round still goes around but I’ve seen an improvement in the board’s relationship with management and with the homeowners as a result of having CAI-educated people on the board. We’re able to grab the brass ring once in a while! As an individual board member, I can have more influence by directing people to reading materials and other educational resources than just speaking out loud. If we can get other board members trained through educational components, it makes for a healthier environment and leads to an ability to communicate better with the homeowners.

CI: What do you like about serving on your Association’s board?
JM: The educational process never ends! It is kind of exciting in that the educating process keeps changing and information doesn’t get stale. There are always legal changes, rule changes, etc. Dealing with other board members and unique personalities can sometimes be a challenge, but an exciting one at that.

CI: What’s one of the “toughest” actions or decisions you’ve had to make as an Association board member?
JM: The toughest action was probably a major project that the Association was doing. It was difficult because there were a lot of original owners who lived there and who were on a fixed income. Obviously, any increase in assessments has an impact on them. The age of the building was starting to drain the Association with costs: wood replacement, painting. It was a trying experience to go thru accumulating all of the various details for the project, expressing the necessity and benefits of the project to the ownership, and the board members didn’t always get along when it came to making some of the decisions. It was scary and difficult at first, but it turned out to be a wonderful experience.

The building project had a lot of criticism, concerns, and nervousness. As board president, I had a few sleepless nights over it. You’re spending other people’s money, and the project was being done at the worst time of the economic situation. The Association called a general meeting to allow homeowners who had questions the opportunity to address their concerns. We had architects, construction contractors, material supply representatives, bankers, etc. present to answer questions and put to rest some fears. This was a perfect example of exercising good communication. The board was never criticized after that for not communicating to people what was going on, and received very little push-back from membership, at least with regards to financial aspects of the project. “Seeing was believing” in this case. Once the owners saw the finished product, there were no more complaints.

CI: Was there a time or experience when you felt that you had turned a corner or achieved a “victory” of sorts on the board?
JM: Some small brass rings have been grabbed. We’ve made progress with the lessons we’ve learned. We’re still involved in the balancing act with how the board and management company interact. Sometimes the board micro-manages and seems to overstep, and other times they may not be able to do everything the board wants. However, when the board and management periodically meet informally with our little lists of “pebbles in our shoes,” that has proven to be very healthy and educational. The addition of some board members has been an improvement, dealing with things on an intellectual basis and less of an emotional basis.

CI: How did you first hear of CAI?
JM: Through our management company: they offered the association the opportunity for membership in CAI. I wasn’t president at the time, but thought the association should join and we did. I want to encourage board members to take these CAI courses and have them sponsored by the association, if possible. You know, if you don’t do anything with your CAI membership, it’s useless. It’s like having a library card. If you don’t go to the library, you’re not going to learn anything.

CI: How long have you been involved with CAI?
JM: I just got on the Illinois Chapter board in January of this year. The first meeting I attended was in February: I was sworn in at the February meeting, and probably sworn at in the March meeting!

CI: What are some of the benefits you’ve realized from being involved with CAI (taking courses, etc.)?
JM: When my association was undertaking a major project, CAI had a lot of material out there with advice [on the subject] that was enormously helpful. Now I’m writing a list of forewarnings and notes of advice I’ve learned to help others from my experience!

A version of this article first appeared in the Summer 2013 edition of Common Interest Magazine.

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