Committee Volunteers are Hard to Find
Most Associations depend on the homeowners who volunteer their time and knowledge to make it a better place. If the board is the brain of the community and the residents are its heart, committees are its lifeblood. They represent the future of the association, because it’s usually from the committees that tomorrow’s board members and officers are developed.
Therefore, it’s crucial that we recognize, respect, and utilize the abilities and potential of a good committee structure. Make discovering new volunteers a priority and use your committees to train the next generation of community leaders.
First, it helps if you can calculate why people would want to serve on a committee, because then you can appeal to whatever it is that makes them step forward. Some volunteers are looking to implement their particular talent, whether it’s for organization, negotiation, ideas, planning, or something else. Others are naturally social – they enjoy meeting their neighbors, making friends, and exchanging opinions. Others are sincerely looking to help their community. And finally there is the very small minority whose true motives are questionable-they require attention, for example, or have an agenda of their own.
Once you have used these traits to identify and recruit your volunteers, your board must thoroughly define and limit the objectives, size, and duration of the committee (or committees) on which they’ll be serving. The successful committee is typically mission-directed, meaning it survives for a specific reason. Sometimes that means a standing committee that handles recurring association business, such as recreation, finance, or architectural review. Other times it means an ad hoc committee that dissolves after the completion of a particular project, such as a bylaws revision or strategic-planning process. However, while you should restrict each committee’s scope, it is prudent not to impose too much arrangement or too many rules. If a committee isn’t allowed some space to plan and debate, and the opportunity to make some decisions on it sown, the initiative of its members can be stifled or even shattered.
Often this involves something of a balancing act. One Architectural Review Committee (ARC) was given the responsibility of examining every application for exterior modifications to a home within the community. The five members include a board liaison who tried to ensure that the board’s and the committee’s priorities are similar. Thanks to this two-way communication, for example, the committees’ idea to procure the services of a certified arborist who could review complicated tree issues was passed along to the board and enacted.
This gets at perhaps the most important lesson of all. Mutual respect is always preferable, but in the end, the committee acts on the board’s directives, because final authority always rests with the board. Simply put, committees serve at the pleasure of the board.
How do you walk the line between firmness and flexibility? By treating your committee members as colleagues-as important contributors to our noble common endeavor.
It helps to encourage goodwill among your volunteers. Reward committee members with regular updates and mentions in your newsletter. Invite them to a board meeting to give a status report, share their thoughts on a particular issue, or just stand and be recognized. Some Associations have a party at the end of every year for the board members and committee members.
Set a good example. Your board needs to provide support and exhibit leadership, because if you can’t act cordially but decisively, why should your committees? As a board member, do your job thoroughly, keep the association in sound financial condition, and be positive and optimistic. Similarly emphasize to committee members the use of common sense within a distinct set of guidelines, and make sure they feel empowered to make decisions. In such an environment, natural-born leaders will surface.
To prevent a committee breakdown, the board should have reasonable expectations. If a project is enormously ambitious or sweeping, it might be simply too much for a committee of untrained volunteers. Be attentive to signs that people are in over their heads, and give what support you can, including personnel, money, and political backing.
Encourage committee members to express concerns and share ideas with the board. Better still, take the initiative and contact them yourself. When it comes to pep talks, bright ideas, and reality checks, a one-on-one discussion is unsurpassed.
What if a committee project isn’t successful? How do you terminate a volunteer who isn’t making the grade? Remember, it takes as much effort to have tried and failed as it does to have been successful. Still, it happens, and when it does, the board president or committee chair should handle it privately – person-to-person, truthfully, and plainly. There’s also the case of the ideal committee member who loses interest, moves away, or has a health or family problem and must be replaced. Again, board leadership and experience come into play. One of a leader’s most important functions is to groom a successor, so you can deal with the possibility of a vacancy in advance by mentoring committee chairs and members.
Written by Joe Vella for Common Ground Magazine (March 2005)