So last month I was at the doctor’s office, and as I was making small talk with the nurse she asked “So what do you do?” I responded “I’m an HOA attorney.”

She actually grimaced. It was a clear knee-jerk reaction. And then she laughed, said sorry, and made some comment about her friend’s trash can being left out for too long.

I mentioned this story at a CAI event and got a number of comments in response. Other HOA attorneys replied with their own funny stories. A community association manager congratulated me for receiving only one such reaction, since she encountered it on a regular basis. Board members commiserated. The point is that we all share this common experience – the perception that our situation in life is an undesirable one. To receive an automatic grimace from saying what you do for a living….that says a lot.

So why the negative image? For one thing, the media’s portrayal of HOAs, and all those who work in the industry, is not helpful. One rarely reads a positive news story about the “goods” of HOAs because they’re simply not exciting or sexy enough. Like many of the reality TV shows today, HOA stories fixate on the negative, showcasing aggression rather than grace, and inappropriate behavior vs. positive governance. But a continual focus on the negative carries a lot of weight, influence, and ultimately damage. The nurse I mentioned a moment ago? She didn’t even live in a community association, but swore never to do so because of the horror stories.

The HOA industry can be a difficult one for all involved. Whether you’re a board member trying to make the best of a community, or a manager who regularly serves as the buffer between angry homeowners and the board, or an attorney who sometimes has to juggle the role of legal advisor and HOA meeting referee, we are all faced with the underlying challenge that our industry is seen as a bad one.

You know what? I don’t buy it. And if you’re in this industry, you shouldn’t either.

So what should we do about it? How do we change and ultimately rehabilitate our industry?

First, Take Pride in You.

I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggone it….people like me!

I used to love watching Stuart Smalley and his laughable, lovable, and positive daily affirmations. No more stinkin thinkin! You can’t rehabilitate an image if you’re looking down your nose at it.

The first step is to take pride in your job, what you contribute to society in general, and to the HOA industry specifically. Our time, commitment, and energy relates to one of the most important things in people’s lives – their homes, their home-life, and the communities surrounding them. This is significant stuff, and we have the ability to create, shape, and showcase successful communities and through that restore the HOA image.

Additionally, take pride in the people with whom you work. Not just people at your place of employment, but community association managers, board members, and other professionals in the industry. We seem to focus much too heavily on competition rather than comradery, and in my opinion that’s a mistake. We are all in this together, in both the struggles and successes. So let’s celebrate our partnerships, our diversities, and what we all contribute to the table.

Also, ixnay on the negative water cooler talk. I’m not saying there aren’t times when you are entitled to be frustrated. We all know this can be a hard industry. However, when internal frustrations are spoken aloud through harmful comments on a regular basis, this only perpetuates the pessimism.

Be Aware of, and Promote, the Positive in the Community.

The next step is to have a heightened sense of the good happening around you, and to promote the positive whenever the opportunity arises.

One thing I’ve noticed that is lacking in the numerous annual meetings I attend is the failure to showcase the successes of the past year. The focus appears to be on the budget, and concerns with both financing the upcoming year’s goals, as well as avoiding some of the mishaps of the prior year. 

While it is always helpful to show the membership that you are a good money manager, it is also important to highlight the significant achievements of the year, and to underscore both the leadership and the support in doing so. Nothing does this like anecdotes about real people and their accomplishments. Highlight the beautiful grounds, the fun social events, and the leadership efforts with pictures, not just figures, so that the benefits of home ownership in an HOA become more obvious. Always acknowledge the board, committee members, and volunteers in their efforts, so hopefully you can secure more involvement in the coming year.

And don’t just be aware of positive occurrences, try to build them. Community associations are perfect vehicles for transforming neighbors into friends and for creating community loyalty, responsibility, and empowerment. Use your newsletter to generate community spirit. How about installing a “meet your neighbor” column? Throw a block party, and make it a pot-luck so some of the cooks in your community have a chance to show off their favorite dishes. Consider giving out lighthearted community awards. Cultivating a healthy community spirit will lead to strong, cohesive, and ultimately happier community.

Also, building a more positive community shouldn’t just happen at community association meetings or events. If you work in the HOA industry, you are in a position to promote change.

The other day I watched a video shared by Upworthy, a website that shares videos and conversations that connect us, elevate us, and sometimes change the world. Upworthy is “on a mission to change what the world pays attention to.” The video is entitled “20 Good News Stories You Didn’t Know About.” Why didn’t you know about them? Again, because the media seldom focuses on the good. But this video reveals that in spite of the bad that surrounds us, there are still people pushing forward to better our world. And the lightning effect of watching that video? It made me feel good and inspired me.

As an HOA professional, you are in a position to influence what the community pays attention to. Use your website, newsletters, and social media to publish stories and happenings that encourage positive behavior and inspire change. If your company provides education, incorporate at least one class on building community, or curing the dysfunctional board, or eliminating unethical behavior in the HOA, all topics that could advance the industry as a whole, while helping one community at a time. And if you’re going to share a HOA horror story, make sure it comes with a lesson so your boards and managers can learn from the incident, rather than just be disgusted by it.

Tackle the Negative.

Finally, in the same vein as having a heightened awareness of, and trying to create more, positive happenings in your community, do not ignore the negative ones that foster a destructive environment.

What gives HOAs a bad name? Lack of transparency, bullying behavior, and abuse of power to name a few. However, regardless of what you may hear “on the outside”, in my nearly 20 years of experience I’d say these characteristics are not the norm in most communities. Rather, they are the exceptions and the ones that have the most ability to get noticed.

If your board is being accused of lack of transparency, then tackle transparency. Board members should never cut corners when it comes to keeping the owners informed about association business. Get educated on the laws that mandate transparency in the opportunity to attend meetings, conflict of interest disclosures, and availability of records. Create a transparency checklist and adopt an attitude of transparency.

If there’s a bully on the board who is driving other board members or the manager to quit, then tackle that bully. Learn about the types of bullies that are prominent in the HOA setting, and how to tame them. Define the unacceptable behavior, and take steps to both tackle it now and prevent it in the future.

The point is that if you see bad behavior, don’t ignore it. Tackle it.

Yes, this is a tough industry. But there is strength in numbers, and we are all in this together. We have the ability to improve our industry; not just how it’s seen but how it’s lived. I, for one, will continue to champion my industry and those in it, and hope you will too!

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