I’ve got bad news and more bad news… delivering unpopular messages to the members

At the Washington State Community Association Institute’s annual CA Day I presented a seminar called “Don’t Shoot the Messenger.”  I’m told that  more people signed up for this session than any other.  As much as I’d like to believe that it’s because I’m extremely popular and entertaining, I’m pretty sure that the real reason is that in the current economic climate, there’s plenty of bad news being delivered.

As we approach budget season and annual elections, the volunteer Board position may seem more like a full-time job.  In this market, where the typical story is higher delinquencies and lower property values, the dread of homeowners’ reactions to more bad news makes that job even tougher.  In addition, as reserve study laws have become more stringent, Associations are increasingly finding themselves with reserve studies that suggest that increased assessments may be a foregone conclusion.

So how should a Board approach this season, and how can a manager help them through it?  There’s no perfect approach, but some general guidelines may help.

Improve Communication

One of the biggest complaints in community association is poor communication.  Owners may feel uninformed and issues such as increased assessments, major repair projects or changes in policies may be unexpected burdens in an already uncertain and stressful environment for homeowners.

Those of us familiar with Board meetings know that the Board would love to have more participation and attendance.  As a Board member, you may be tempted to meet criticism about communication with, “Well, if you’d come to the meetings you’d know what’s going on.”  This may be true, but it won’t solve any problems or make your job as a Board member or manager any easier.

Communicating information in a regular and timely manner can help to avoid backlash when the Board needs support in passing a budget, amending a set of governing documents, or another difficult vote.  Newsletters, websites, blogs, discussion groups, town-hall meetings and neighborhood barbecues can all help improve communication in a community.

Get Out in Front

 When an association needs to provide approval of an action, the meeting at which it is being considered should not be the first time that owners get an explanation of the issue or an opportunity to ask questions.  Consider scheduling town-hall meetings, at which no formal business is conducted, to allow owners to ask questions and get answers.  A letter in the format of Questions and Answers explaining the issue, the reasoning for the Board’s recommendations, and the impact of the action can help ease owner concerns in advance.  Forming committees to consider changes and make recommendations to the Board gets more owners involved at earlier stages in the process.

Use Your Experts

As a Board or manager, you have no doubt consulted with your experts—reserve consultants, accountants, lawyers, contractors—before reaching an important decision.  Rather than try to explain the issue yourselves, consider inviting the appropriate expert to a meeting, where owners can ask questions directly.  As a Board member, this type of meeting may only come up once or twice during your term of office.  As general counsel to dozens of community associations, I attend these type of meetings once or twice a month.  I’m used to taking the heat, fielding the tough questions, explaining the details and helping owners understand why one approach may be more advantageous than the alternatives.  Move that target off of you, and onto your consultants.  After all, they get paid for it.

You may still be forced to be the bearer of bad news, but with these general guidelines, you can reinforce a sense of commitment, transparency and community even in difficult situations.

As another resource on this topic, I came across this Forbes article called “The Ten Commandments of Delivering Bad News.”  You can read it here.       I thought it was helpful, and hope you do as well.

Your questions and comments are always welcome.

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