Why is communication important?

Lack of communication or ineffective communication can damage any relationship.  If I fail to communicate at all then I lose credibility, create suspicion or mistrust, and potentially cause or perpetuate conflict. On the other hand if I communicate ineffectively, then it makes no difference what I say as it will either be misunderstood, disregarded or, again, cause or perpetuate conflict.  Poor communication or no communication at all will be a barrier to any goal and a hindrance to any relationship.

Effective communication, on the other hand, opens many a door. It strengthens relationships, aids in achieving goals, reduces conflict, helps people better accept ideas, saves time…the list of benefits goes on and on.

Why is board communication with owners important in a community association?

When homeowners accept the position of being on the board, all too often an invisible wall of “us vs. them” is constructed. That homeowner is no longer seen as a homeowner but, instead, as a person in a position of power. The relationship has changed. No longer are you and I peers, now you have some form of control over me.

But while board members may, correctly, be in a position of power, they are also, absolutely, in a position of trust.  If homeowners had not trusted the candidates they would not have elected them to the board.  Homeowners trust the directors to take action in good faith, prudently and in the best interests of the association. However, without effective communication with the homeowners, that trust is lost.  Without effective communication, the board members will lose credibility and the homeowners’ support.

Ultimately, the better the communication, the easier it is to manage the association.  If a board communicates effectively, it will significantly increase its chances of getting what it wants, whether that goal is to obtain buy-in for a particular decision, or approval for a significant upcoming expense, or simply to keep homeowners informed and involved.

In addition, if a board communicates effectively it will avoid misunderstandings and surprises from the get-go, prepare the membership for potentially unpleasant news (and hopefully decrease the possibility of naysayers), and paper trail its efforts at being both proactive and transparent in the process.

What are some effective tools for communication?

There are many tools for communication, but using the right channels to communicate is critical to achieving success.  For example, the more important the message, the more reason for the association to use as many communication tools as possible to ensure the broadest reach.  Or, if your goal is to build consensus on a proposal, sending a single community-wide letter is not the best way to achieve this goal as it is a one-way tool; it does not allow homeowners to ask questions or provide input, both of which is necessary for consensus-building.

Here is a list of potential goals and suggested tools of communication to achieve those goals:

 1. Goal: Keeping Homeowners Generally Informed Throughout the Year
     Tools: Newsletter; Website; Social Media; Bulletin Board

Newsletter
The newsletter is one of the best ways to provide ongoing general communication to the homeowners on a full range of topics throughout the year. You can spotlight board and committee member activity, provide articles on community projects, highlight events and social activities, and include reminders of upcoming board and annual meetings.  This is also a good tool for notifying homeowners of major repair work being done, or pool and other amenity closures.

Furthermore, you can use the newsletter as a reminder of certain restrictions that tend to be violated on a regular basis.  Prior to summer vacation season, use the newsletter to remind homeowners that RVs cannot be parked in the community for more than 48 consecutive hours.  Before landscaping season starts, include a friendly reminder that homeowners need to submit architectural review applications for approval.

Lastly this is a great way to collaborate with homeowners, as you can recruit them to draft articles.

Website
The website is another effective tool for communicating general information to the membership. In addition to posting the same type of information that you might include in a newsletter, it is also the perfect repository for association documents.  Minutes of meetings, newly adopted rules and policies, copies of the Declaration and Bylaws, all can be housed and accessible on the website.  And, remember that Colorado law requires an association to disclose a laundry list of documents and other information to the homeowners on an annual basis.  Posting such information on the website is one way to satisfy this Colorado requirement.

Not only can the association use a website to keep homeowners generally informed, but the Board can also manage and track requests through the website, and communicate progress through the website. Many management company websites include portals for their individual associations, which allow homeowners access to their accounts and the ability to pay invoices online.

Social Media
Let’s not forget that social media is, to some, the preferred method of communication.  Through Facebook, for example, the board has an opportunity to communicate with and engage that segment of the population that would still like to be informed and involved, but that does not want to attend meetings.

Many homeowners would rather read short snapshots of community news, view pictures of recent social events, or quickly glean the information most interesting to them through the association’s Facebook, Twitter or other social media site.  The social media sites should include links to the website and to other pages of community interest, such as local government websites, animal control, etc.

And, social media is not just a one-way tool for communicating information to the homeowners; it’s a channel for connection between and among all homeowners. Social media has an element of conversation that is missing in a static website.  Homeowners not only read the information, but they can reply to it, share it with other homeowners, and foster community-building in general. Because homeowners can leave feedback and share their opinions, they can still be active participants in the community.

Bulletin Board
Finally, you may want to invest in a bulletin board if you have a convenient location in the community. This is a great place to post announcements, such as upcoming social events. Association meeting notices can be posted on a bulletin board, which satisfies the Colorado legal requirement to physically post notice in a conspicuous place in the community.  And, like social media it is a way for homeowners to communicate with other homeowners by posting approved flyers, upcoming social events, garage sale information, etc.

2.  Goal: Keeping Homeowners Informed of Board Action
      Tools: Board Meetings; Posting Minutes on Website

Many boards shy away from inviting homeowners to board meetings for various reasons.  Maybe it’s because the board wants to avoid certain controversial topics.  Maybe the typical one hour board meeting stretches to three hours whenever homeowners attend.  Plus, Colorado law does not require associations to post notice of board meetings, so boards are not compelled to do so.  However, Colorado law does require board meetings (other than when in executive session) to be open to homeowners who wish to attend.

Proactively inviting homeowners to attend board meetings is a great way to communicate the progress of ongoing board business.  A little transparency on the front end through such invitations could serve to eliminate or at least minimize negative response to difficult and controversial board decisions on the back end. Homeowners who attend board meetings have a better appreciation of the decision-making process of the board and all the hard work that goes into it, and can further communicate their observations to other homeowners.

Once board meeting minutes are approved, the board should make them available on a timely basis.  In addition to making minutes available in response to homeowner request, the board should upload them to the association’s website and include them as a link on social media.

3. Goal: Recaps for the Year
     Tools: Annual Meeting; Newsletter

Generally, the annual meeting is held to comply with specific governing document requirements, such as electing directors, reviewing and ratifying the budget, approving the minutes of last year, etc.  However, many boards forget that this is the perfect opportunity to showcase the successes of the association. Use the annual meeting to recap the many accomplishments throughout the years, and to spotlight individual successes and overall board and committee contributions.  The board can highlight which goals were achieved, report progress on those projects that are still ongoing, and jump-start communications on the upcoming year’s activities and objectives.

4. Goal: Seeking Homeowner Approval / Gaining Consensus
     Tools: Community-wide letters; Surveys; Combination of all of the above

I have often observed boards that clearly demonstrate prudence in the decision-making process by asking a lot of questions, speaking with several experts, and conducting extensive due diligence.  Ultimately, however, they fail to get the required number of homeowners to approve a project due to ineffective communication.  Often the homeowners only see the huge price tag at the end such as with a proposed special assessment, or perceive that the true goal of the project is to obtain more power, such as with a proposed amendment of the governing documents.

Critical to gaining consensus and ultimately getting a proposal approved by the homeowners is clear communication on a widespread basis.  The Association needs to lay the foundation prior to asking for formal approval, and use a variety of communication tools in doing so.  A single article in the newsletter, with nothing more, is a one-way form of communication.  It does not allow the homeowners to ask questions, provide feedback and identify concerns, all of which are necessary for consensus-building and ultimate approval.

A community-wide letter is a great starting point.  The letter can clarify the specific proposal and its benefits, provide options or alternatives, establish the board’s duty to address the matter and its commitment to resolving the matter, and solicit input and questions from the homeowners.

As a separate communication, the board can seek input through a survey (which can be provided several different ways such as on the website, social media, via email blast/community-wide letter, etc.), through word-of-mouth, through the newsletter, website and social media.

In addition, the board should set aside time at its board meetings and/or hold an informational meeting to field questions and address concerns.  The written word can certainly be useful in succinctly communicating information, but engaging in a face-to-face dialogue often seals the deal. A board that effectively articulates its message in person, and that is clearly prepared to answer questions and present numbers, pictures or whatever support is necessary to back up its proposal, will demonstrate credibility more effectively than a well-written letter.

Finally, it is critical that the board speak with one voice.  If the board is not on the same page and presenting a united front, or worse yet giving different answers to the same questions, this will lead to confusion, distrust and ultimately disapproval.

5.  Goal: Keeping Homeowners Informed of Specific Project Updates
     Tools: Combination of all

Will you be removing and replacing all the windows this summer? Are you about to enter into a complicated renovation project that requires homeowners to vacate for a certain period of time?  If you don’t regularly communicate scheduling, progress, and other such updates, you may be left with a mutiny on your hands.

Providing ample notice prior to the project is critical.  It is in response to this notice that you will see the red flags, find the supporters (and potentially use them later as the project progresses) and the naysayers, and forecast (and be able to plan for) potential barriers or problems that may be heading your way. Notice of the upcoming project should be communicated using a variety of the tools discussed above.

Social media is a great way to provide ongoing updates of the project, as you can post pictures of the progress, respond to common questions that regularly come up, and include updated schedules.  These quick snippets of information on a regular basis will minimize calls to the manager or board members, as you will be proactively posting the information homeowners would typically seek.

Finally, remember to communicate and celebrate the completion of the project. I heard someone once say that the key to having a vision and successfully executing it is as follows: “The vision has to be transparent; the results need to be seen and felt.

The better the communication, the easier it is to manage the association and achieve its goals.  But remember that an important counterpart to the communication tool is the communication style of the board and manager.  The way one communicates is just as important as the methods of communication.

We will follow up this article with another that focuses on styles of communication, understanding your style, and how communication style can help or hinder your goals.

Should you want more tips and tools for effective communication in your community association, please do not hesitate to contact one of our attorneys at 303-432-9999.