BY DAVID L. BURMAN, AMS, PCAM
In the years from World War II until the turn of the century, homeownership in America expanded reliably and exponentially. During most of the era, free market principles maintained (with a few regional and temporary exceptions) a reasonably healthy balance of supply and demand. Increasingly over the last 30 years, well-intended social experimentation began to diminish not only the inherent pride attending homeownership, but also the responsibilities that accompany it and the value of the currency supporting it. Homes began to be treated as paper securities. Law eased lending criteria significantly, often, as if homeownership alone is any metric of genuine prosperity. Mortgages were aggregated into complex bonds and other assets and further fueled the demand. Americans were buying and builders were building homes that they never intended to lay eyes on, let alone live in. Communities full of empty homes and streets sprang up from Miami to Sacramento.
Like the California gold rush, dot-com stocks and the metric system, the rage inevitably ended. Eager investors who once anxiously anticipated triple-digit returns were now riding a runaway Conestoga straight downhill. The rambling wagon seized most other segments of the economy along the way. Community associations around the country were left with mounting receivables, vacant overgrown homes, moldy condos and very unhappy residents. Proposed solutions such as additional assessments often become the tipping point, sending even more owners into delinquency. How often have you had to explain to an owner who reliably pays assessments that the reward for his or her commitment is yet another assessment to defray the costs of those who do not?
This crisis created an entirely new paradigm for community association managers. What was once a rare necessity, such as paying the power bill for a vacant condo or researching endless court records (and the intentionally confusing government websites), is commonplace today. Managers and their communities are spending inordinate amounts of time trimming expenses, increasing revenue and researching the latest in the line of inventive collection concepts. What can be forgotten are the many fundamental pathways to achieving community objectives. Among these is the need to communicate effectively with the members.
Nitin Nohria is a professor at Harvard Business School. His research focuses on sustainable performance and leadership within the business community, and he believes that communication is the real work of leadership. The initiatives an entity uses to communicate with its customers, partners, employees and outsiders builds the historical record of the entity and is just as important as the message itself. This is true within Fortune 500 companies, mom-and-pop stores and community associations. Today there is a rare convergence of new things to say, new ways to say it and new parties who want to say something. As usual, music offers an apt analogy as community managers and board members create an efficient vehicle for distributing information.
A communication calendar is like a 1979 Volvo: dependable and safe but not very inspiring. Communication should be an organic process where information is not dispersed simply for the exercise of doing so, but when meaningful or important information is available. Modern electronic venues can make this a reality. Weekly e-blasts, while trendy, stale every bit as much as an unchanging website or a monthly newsletter with only pumpkin pie recipes. Altering the tempo of your initiatives will perk the interests of the reader.
Timbre is the quality of tone distinctive of a musical instrument. It is equally important, then, that communication initiatives contain varying resources and various topics. Newsletters, website content, and e-mails written by one person will ultimately become humdrum and lead to the writer quitting in frustration. The only way to ensure that initiatives are kept appealing is input from varying parties. Encourage content from owners. Reprint (be sure to cite) articles from various media sources. Consider soliciting the views of kids in the community, as you may be surprised of their perceptions.
What has really been depressing over the past several years is the tone of the news cycle. Struggling families are exploited by the media, which portrays an inaccurate picture. Despite the bad news, there are uplifting and encouraging events at every level. Kids still graduate high school or college with honors. We still have 75th wedding anniversaries. While some business is necessarily dire, be sure to include positive stories about the members of the community. Try to avoid letting the association’s financial troubles stain the balance of our everyday lives and that of our community.
Like the businesses that survive this economy, community associations will emerge a stronger, more disciplined entity. It is incumbent on the association and its leaders to ensure that the wisdom gained from the experience is not lost for future generations. Where corporations have comparably little turnover, community associations can see new leaders every year. So the challenge becomes making the affairs of the association as ubiquitous as possible so that succeeding leaders do not do so without knowledge of the past.
One of the many intractable truths in this world is that human beings are intrinsically suspicious, if not outright distrustful, of matters and people about which they have not been educated or informed. Left to our own devices and absent of clear contradictory information, we are all prone to use negative assumptions to fill in the missing information. This is particularly true in a setting like a community association, where the majority of the participants can feel detached and even isolated from the governing process. In the economic climate of today, there are many opportunities for these information voids to occur. It is a distinct and comprehensible plan for communicating with the owners that will help fill those voids and allow members to see the noble and productive work that most volunteer board members perform.
David L. Burman, AMS, PCAM, is the president of Aegis Community Management Solutions Inc. in Championsgate, Fla. For more information, visit www.aegiscms.com. Mr. Burman may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 863-256-5052 x226.