The Importance of Volunteering

Why Everyone Should Consider Serving on an Association Board or Committee

I received a summons for jury duty the other day. My first instinct was to say, “Ugh, what a waste of time and money — let someone else do it.” My mind raced with ideas about how to get out of it. But then I realized: I am that “someone else.” Who am I to pass on what is essentially my civic obligation? I live in this country, I partake in its benefits, and now with this summons, I must accept the obligations (yes, sometimes, aggravations). So what if it means losing some time from work? At least I will learn how a jury works from the inside. As an attorney, I am used to being on the outside of the jury box, persuading, and sometimes pleading with juries. It would be fun to be inside the box. More than likely, I would not be picked to serve, but who knows? The point is, I owe it to myself to show up willing and able to serve.

Association Obligation to Serve

I would hope that most people reach the same conclusion about the obligation to serve on an association’s governing board or subcommittees. Since each unit owner that lives within a community association partakes of its benefits, so too must each accept its obligations — perhaps by serving on a board or committee or in some voluntary capacity.

To be sure, those unit owners reading this magazine and article are more than likely already on a governing board or have been in the past. Thank you for your service, and there is no need to show you the importance of volunteering. You feel it already. My point here instead is to urge you to cast a wide net within your community to bring other unit owners into the mix, whether it would be to fill a vacancy on the board or to join a subcommittee.

For those reluctant to take on a big role, use baby steps. That is, encourage people to first serve on, say, a landscaping committee or a committee to search for contractors to do a major capital improvement. This would serve a dual purpose: It would more fully educate a unit owner as to the inner workings of the association while at the same time instilling a sense of confidence so that next time, he or she would feel comfortable seeking a position on the board itself.

Is your association having issues with covenant enforcement? Do your unit owners believe that the governing documents are outdated? Why not seek out and solicit unit owners to serve on a document review committee? What to do about the infamous “backbenchers” who complain all the time at meetings? (We all know the type: “Why are the fees going up? Who picked this contractor? Why is this contract so onerous?” Now, if these backbenchers were to be encouraged to join a contractor search committee or even a finance committee, more than likely at the next meeting, they would become “front benchers” — answering questions rather than asking them.) And what about those who complain that there is little or no com­munication within the community? Why not get someone to volunteer to write a monthly or quarterly newsletter?

Committee Appointments

Most documents permit boards to appoint committees. The authority is typically found in the bylaws with wording to the effect that “The Ex­ecutive Board shall have the authority to do anything and everything else necessary and proper for the sound management of the association.” Or, “The Executive Board shall have all the powers granted to it by the R.I. Condominium Act.” For instance, section 3.02 (a)(16) of the Act states that “an Association, by and through its Board, may exercise all other pow­ers that may be exercised in this state by legal entities of the same type as the association,” i.e. unincorporated associations or incorporated associations. In Rhode Island, both types of organizations are given specific authority to have their governing boards appoint committees to serve under them. Keep in mind that an association committee appointed by the governing board cannot (nor should it) be a substitute policy and enforcement arm of the executive board. As President Harry S. Truman said, “The Buck stops here.” That is, ultimate authority and responsibility must rest with the board, not the committee.

Most governing documents contain indemnification clauses protecting volunteer board members. I hesitate to mention liability exposure and insurance issues as they can raise a number of questions better suited for another article, and besides, my intent is to get more people to volunteer and not to scare them. To be sure, insuring board members and committee members is a relatively easy task, and regardless, the point of today’s article is simply to get more unit owners involved.

Sure, it’s great to have things done for you. There was a guy at the Castle Spa in Providence that made what I think was the best baked ham on the planet. I can taste the fresh roll and smell the mustard even today. But sometimes, you have to make the sandwich yourself to appreciate just how good it is. One could get used to “someone else” always running for the board or sitting on committees, but ultimately, it’s better to encourage more people to join in, to see and appreciate how it’s done. And finally, for those wanting to know about my jury summons, yes, I did send it in and indicated I would be happy to serve. If I get picked, no doubt there will be some attorney or his client who will not be as thrilled.