By Tom Brandes and Pamela Babcock©2020 Community Associations Institute
AN ESTIMATED 2.5 MILLION board and committee members in the U.S. volunteer to govern their community associations, sharing their time, opinions, ideas, talents, and more. The best govern fairly, responsibly, and selflessly to increase harmony, reduce conflict, and build stronger, more prosperous communities.
Few get the recognition they deserve. That's why Common Ground recently asked readers to recommend volunteers who have done exceptional work in their communities.
Here, you'll meet board and committee members who have updated rules, addressed budget and reserves deficiencies, completed critical projects, protected their community's interests, built connections, improved communications, and more.
WHEN PAT BOOK'S neighbors encouraged her to volunteer in the Willow Springs Community Association in Fort Collins, Colo., it didn't take much convincing. The retired academic administrator wanted to be involved to help ensure her community maintained its wonderful attributes, including a recreational pond and 33 acres of green space.
She soon realized, however, that the 460-home community didn't have enough money. It could barely make ends meet in the operating budget, and reserves were only 24% funded.
“I learned what the covenants would allow, helped develop a budget forecast, and began educating my neighbors about the need to increase assessments so we could maintain our many amenities and avoid a special assessment," says Book. “In conversations, I surveyed how residents felt about living here and discovered what was important to them so I could make good decisions."
According to the covenants, assessments can only increase as much as 6% annually. With Book's encouragement and support, residents overwhelmingly agreed to a one-time 20% assessment increase and 6% annual increases for four years. After four years of increases, reserves are now 50% funded.
"I've always been committed to volunteerism. I grew up an iron ore miner's daughter. In hard times, I learned the importance of supporting each other and giving back, not just focusing on ourselves."
As board president for the past four years, Book continues working to bring people together for the common good and engage the community because she believes members who get to know each other make good neighbors.
“Pat is all about representing homeowners in a positive manner. She listens to different perspectives and asks questions before making a decision," adds Bridget Nichols, executive director of CAI's Rocky Mountain Chapter. “Pat represents why CAI exists—determining how we can make a community better for all the people living in shared spaces, not just some of us. She is all about community associations."
In addition to her fiscal accomplishments, Book's other achievements include establishing a pond management committee for ongoing enhancements and maintenance; completing an inventory of more than 500 trees that details species, condition, fertilization, and treatment; and upgrading the playground to current safety standards with new equipment and ground resurfacing.
“I'm most proud of expanding participation of community members on the board and committees to build human leadership capacity," adds Book. “I've always been committed to volunteerism. I grew up an iron ore miner's daughter. In hard times, I learned the importance of supporting each other and giving back, not just focusing on ourselves."
Tom Brandes is a freelance writer in Minnesota.
SINCE MOVING TO Hampton Lake Community Association in Bluffton, S.C., six years ago, Patricia Licata has drawn on her experience in corporate America and later with her own consulting firm to make the community a better place.
The native of Brooklyn, N.Y., who spent three decades working in human resources and marketing communications for JPMorgan Chase & Co. In New York City and later was head of marketing and product development for a consulting company, has chaired the community's board of advisors for four years, guiding several committees: member events, food and beverage, fitness and recreation, and grounds and facilities.
She has developed and conducted several comprehensive, 50-question member surveys to help guide management and the board. She also created and manages a weekly online forum for members to submit questions, concerns, or suggestions.
“I do these thing in my community because I live here and have an opportunity to help out and to make things better," Licata says, adding that volunteering gives her satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment.
Hampton Lake is a gated community with just over 1,200 owners.
Fred Chitty, a former president and longstanding board member, says Licata is positive, effective, and has a way of keeping committees under her purview “focused on the tasks at hand and from straying off onto personal agendas."
Licata's first volunteer effort was working with management to develop a survey in 2014 to collect data to help set priorities and make decisions, as well as to determine what the broader membership felt was important as opposed to what was being said by a vocal few. For example, a few members routinely posted on social media that they thought assessments were too high. But Licata says the first survey, as well as subsequent surveys every two years, showed that the majority felt that they were “about right" or “somewhat low."
As chair of the board of advisors, Licata and her charges consider member feedback and get big ideas to the board and community manager. Licata says the committees have a business-like approach where, instead of throwing ideas at the board and manager, they define a problem, research potential solutions and costs, and come up with an implementation plan.
Licata also created and manages LakeViews, the website tool launched four years ago where owners can get factual answers from community experts. Licata monitors the site, answers the questions she can, and forwards others to those who might have the answers. Questions and answers are published each Sunday. To date, more than 650 questions have been fielded.
Chitty says what impresses him most about Licata is her professional expertise and fairness: “She always treats everybody with respect and is able to politely steer them in the right direction if they're going off on a tangent."
Licata, who has a doctorate in psychology, says she can't imagine not volunteering. “I like to feel I know what's going on, and the best way to know what's going on is to be involved. Even if you're making small improvements, it adds up."
"I do these things in my community because I live here and have an opportunity to help out and to make things better."
Pamela Babcock is a writer and editor in the New York City area.
WHEN TERRY WEISZ retired from Marriott International in 2015 after more three decades with the company, she traded a long weekly commute from Bethesda, Md., for full-time life at Ford's Colony in Williamsburg, Va. But she put the skills she learned as Marriott's vice president of global internal communications to good use in her new life.
When she applied as a volunteer for the Ford's Colony Homeowners Association Communications Committee, Weisz figured she'd write a few articles for the newsletter but ended up doing far more. She first served on the digital team, despite having no hands-on web publishing experience, and later led that team. Before long, she was named vice chair and, ultimately, chair.
Weisz's tenure as chair ended recently, but along the way, she has worked to enhance Ford's Colony communications by transitioning the longstanding Talk of the Colony newsletter to a four-color monthly magazine; making the website easier to navigate; and streamlining the editorial process for the weekly What's Happening in Ford's Colony e-newsletter.
The committee also introduced the role of associate contributor to give volunteers flexible assignments that fit their interests and schedules without feeling pressure to attend committee meetings. For example, one resident helps manage the association's social media presence on Facebook. The committee also has built a growing archive of photographs from community shutterbugs and, because recognition is key to encouraging people to get involved, makes a concerted effort to incorporate photographer credits.
“We want to let them know that their efforts are valued and appreciated," Weisz says.
Ford's Colony has about 2,700 homes. Weisz has owned a home there since 2004 and lived there part-time while she commuted to her job in Bethesda.
“Two of the finest attributes a volunteer can have are a willingness to serve and a desire to learn. And if they have those, we can really create a wonderful partnership."
The association transitioned the newsletter to a glossy magazine to distinguish it as the official publication of the community. The magazine features articles from members of the board, community services, and standing committees. Residents also are invited to submit articles and images that promote the lifestyle and character of the community, including events and activities, volunteerism, and human-interest stories.
“It has a different editorial style from other local magazines," Weisz notes. Advertising revenue helps offset production costs and goes back to the HOA.
Weisz also finds time to share her expertise. In 2018, she and Ford's Colony General Manager Drew R. Mulhare, CMCA, AMS, LSM, PCAM, president of Realtec Community Services, presented a CAI webinar on how to connect, communicate, and enhance community spirit using print and online channels. Mulhare is a CAI faculty member and chair of the Community Association Managers International Certification Board (CAMICB).
Ford's Colony has 13 standing volunteer committees, so there's something for everyone. Weisz says volunteering is a great way to network, become informed, and see firsthand how a community operates. “You're in the know," Weisz says, adding that it feels good to know “you have a voice in shaping the direction of the community."
Owners at Ford's Colony have a variety of backgrounds, talents, and expertise to share, but Weisz says volunteering also can provide an opportunity to explore areas they may not have considered while learning valuable skills. From time to time, Weisz says a resident would approach her wanting to help but cautioned that they didn't have communications experience. Her advice?
"Two of the finest attributes a volunteer can have are a willingness to serve and a desire to learn. And if they have those, we can really create a wonderful partnership." —P.B.
FOLLOWING A CAREER working in human resources and store management, Carolyn Haack moved into Orchard Glen Condominiums in Glenview, Ill.
She soon discovered the master board had been essentially inactive and hadn't increased assessments in seven years. As a service-oriented person with a good understanding of corporate governance, this was a call to action.
“I grew up with the idea that we volunteer and do what we can to make our communities better," says Haack. “I feel if I can help, I should help, and turnover in long-serving leadership presented an opportunity to get involved."
Her goals in volunteering were to address governance by updating rules, addressing budget and reserves deficiencies, and to facilitate a spirit of cooperation between Orchard Glen's three buildings. The master board lacked a realistic budget to address current and future maintenance needs, and rules differed from building to building.
"Many points of view help us make good decisions. It's been an interesting ride between educating owners and the opportunity to change the way we operate. It's been a lot of fun."
The concrete, post-tensioned buildings dated from the 1970s and were beginning to show their age. The site had poor drainage, and large garden boxes further hampered proper drainage, causing staircases to shift and creating other problems that needed to be addressed.
Haack set about building trust among residents of the three buildings and worked to complete a budget study and a building study. After three years of work and persuasion, the owners agreed to support a very substantial special assessment to complete needed repairs in one phase at a total cost of $650,000 for 34 units—with some contribution from reserves.
“We've been able to get residents of all our buildings to think, 'How can we work together?' Now we get bids and budgets early. People understand working together is the way to go," adds Haack, who currently serves as president of her building's board and the master board.
Now, the community conducts a reserve study and a building condition study annually, and carefully budgets for water, electric, and arbor care. “Many points of view help us make good decisions. It's been an interesting ride between educating owners and the opportunity to change the way we operate. It's been a lot of fun."
Paul Nelson, a board member in one of Orchard Glen's buildings, lauds Haack's ability to build support.
“Carolyn has been able to harness the trust she has built to move our community ahead financially by setting a clear plan with expectation and unit owner support," he says. “This transparency has been the cornerstone. Folks know Carolyn will give it to them straight and is always open to alternative ideas to achieve the final result." —T.B.
ABOUT 10 YEARS AGO, membership at the country club and golf course at the Ballantyne Country Club Community in Charlotte, N.C., was struggling. An organization that acquires clubs offered to buy it. There was no requirement that anyone living in the community had to be members of the golf club, but the community would have lost half of its 400 acres.
Marc Bickler, the community's board president, and the Ballantyne board thought it was an unacceptable risk to have a private owner own half the land in the community.
“We were afraid the golf portion would decline and the land would be redeveloped to the detriment of property values and the 825 homeowners," he says.
The board started an information campaign to oppose the sale by club members, many of whom were members of the homeowners association. Bickler also brought in a consultant who worked with developers, and he described how they often neglect maintenance and groundskeeping—essentially ruining a golf course to claim the property needs to be redeveloped.
"People should consider volunteering because, in a participatory democracy, things only function when people do their duty to get involved."
“Marc has been very involved, working to do what was right for the community and dedicating himself to the club's best interests," says Anne Greak, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, Ballantyne's community manager. “It was a stressful 2018 from the initial proposal until the final vote, and Marc was unpopular, but his efforts were highly valuable and, without those efforts, the club likely would have been sold."
Bickler believes that it's the American way to participate in governance and doesn't think the stigma of homeowners associations being known as “enforcement police" is justified. He believes rules ensure things happen to benefit the many and not the few.
“We live in divided, fractious times, and we'll never get people to be unanimous, but different viewpoints are beneficial and compromises can be made," adds Bickler, who has lived in the community for more than 20 years. “People should consider volunteering because, in a participatory democracy, things only function when people do their duty to get involved. In a homeowners association, you have a duty to be involved, or you have no right to complain." —T.B.
SHARON FISHER didn't waste much time after she and her husband moved from Dallas to The Conservatory Homeowners Association in Aurora, Colo., before making her mark as a volunteer.
For the past four years, Fisher has chaired or co-chaired The Conservatory's social committee, leading a team of volunteers to pull off an impressive roster of events that includes an Easter egg hunt, pool opening barbeque, “pooch plunge," breakfast with Santa, yard sale, annual spring and fall cleanups, and more. The committee also supports a weekly coffee klatch for informal conversations, a sewing club, monthly book club, and a theater outing group.
“I really think it's important that people have a sense of community, and you build that sense of community by having things where you can bring people together," says Fisher, a retired corporate trainer and native of Goshen, Ind.
Soon after moving to the community of 1,405 single-family homes east of Denver, Fisher decided to volunteer on the design review board and social committee as a way to get to know neighbors.
“I met a lot of nice people and made a lot of friends," recalls Fisher, whose husband, Bill, previously served as board vice president. Before long, Fisher says she was “roped into" running the social committee. But she's not complaining.
"Volunteering is a great way to help you feel a part of the community, and it just pulls the community together."
Fisher also chairs an active welcome committee, which delivers bags of information on the neighborhood and city to new owners.
The annual holiday pancake and sausage breakfast is so popular there are three or four seatings. The event typically draws about 250 children, parents, and grandparents.
In 2018, Fisher hatched the idea for an annual Fourth of July bicycle parade where neighborhood kids decorate their bicycles and zoom up and down a designated section of streets, followed by an ice cream social.
She also came up with the idea for the annual “pooch plunge" in September when four-legged friends can swim in The Conservatory pool after it closes to residents for the season. Treats are served to dogs and their owners.
The committee meets monthly and has about a dozen members, but Fisher says spouses often end up helping, making the cadre working any event around 20 to 25.
“Volunteering is a great way to help you feel a part of the community, and it just pulls the community together," Fisher says. “It makes me feel better too."
Helen Hardin, vice president of the board, calls Fisher's dedication awesome.
“She just sees the value in getting people together, and she's always thinking of different ways to do that and to do that better than before," Hardin says. “Sharon knows everyone. She knows their names and gets to know their families. She has the gift of including people and makes them feel welcome. She's quite a go-getter." —P.B.
WHEN WARREN GELLER accepted a buyout and retired after a long career with Eastman Kodak in Rochester, N.Y., his wife suggested moving to a 55+ community in a warm location. They eventually settled in Sun City Aliante in North Las Vegas, Nev., a community with 2,028 homes and 3,500 residents. They've lived there for nearly 22 years now.
Geller began volunteering in his community because he saw people who complained yet took no action to make any changes. Geller felt the only way to make a positive difference was to run for a board position. He has now served two years as a director and five years as president.
“I knew as a volunteer I'd get back more than I gave. All the board members pull the same way, and many votes receive unanimous approval," says Geller. “We have a very dedicated community association."
Geller says he's particularly proud that every Sun City Aliante board member has received the Dedicated Community Association Leader certificate from the CAI Nevada Chapter. He believes Sun City Aliante is the only community association out of the state's 3,000 that can claim that distinction.
"Leaving a positive mark and making someone's life or an organization better by volunteering is a great feeling."
About a year and a half ago, as Geller watched new homes being built all around his community, he realized that Sun City Aliante needed to be competitive so residents' home values would be maintained or enhanced.
He recognized the community center could use some updates and improvements. After much study, the board decided to enclose and expand the breezeway that connects the community center's two buildings, create a new main entrance, and add a 4,000-square-foot addition.
“Our community has very good finances, and no special assessment was required for this nearly $1 million expansion project because we have a unique … funding source," adds Geller. “The (association) receives one-third of 1 percent of the sale price of every home—not just the first time, but every time it sells."
The community center project is expected to be completed in March.
“Leaving a positive mark and making someone's life or an organization better by volunteering is a great feeling," says Geller. “When I see someone who has a quality we need in the community, I encourage them to come to a meeting, find out more, and get involved." —T.B.
Common Ground wants to continue to hear about the community association volunteers who go above and beyond. Share their stories with us. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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