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Keeping It Legal – The Story of Your Community Association’s Attorney

Posted by Bob Gourley on July 28, 2014 in Communication, Newsletter |

By Bob Gourley

Comedian Milton Berle is quoted as saying “Attorneys practice law because it gives them a grand and glorious feeling. You give them a grand and they feel glorious”.

While attorneys may be on the receiving end of many jokes, the contribution they make to your community is no laughing matter. Depending on the size of your association and the challenges you are facing, chances are you have one or more attorneys performing crucial work on behalf of your association. Telling the story of the important work these professionals perform on behalf of your association is crucial to helping your community cope and thrive in the face of legal challenges.

Attorneys that specialize in the legal issues and challenges facing community associations are relatively abundant. The attorney you have chosen to represent your community is an important member of your team and a vital asset to promoting a healthy and harmonious community for your residents to enjoy. If you’ve ever taken the time to read through your community’s covenant, declaration, by-laws, and rule and regulations documentation, you have a first-hand appreciation of how complex those documents can be. In the litigious society in which we live, can you imagine having to stand by your own interpretation of those documents in a court of law?

Since 1993, Community Associations Institute has recognized excellence in the practice of Community Association Law. That is when the College of Community Association Lawyers, more commonly known as CCAL, was founded. Membership in CCAL is quite exclusive. Of the thousands of attorneys that practice community association law, less than 150 have been granted membership.You can learn more about the College of Community Association Lawyers at the CAI website – http://www.caionline.org/career/designations/ccal/Pages/default.aspx

What will your typical homeowner want to know about the attorney you have chosen to do the important legal work of the Board? Ideally, you will want to provide a biography from the attorney that details his or her involvement in the world of community association law. Many of these attorneys will be happy to provide articles of legal interest that can be included in your newsletters or posted on your website. Quite often, it is beneficial to have the attorney appear before the membership at an HOA meeting to address legal concerns held by members of the association.

In describing lawyers, John Quincy Adams said “Whoever tells the best story wins”. I couldn’t agree more. Choose your community association attorney wisely if you want to be the winner when your community’s story is told.

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Producing an Effective Community Newsletter

Posted by Bob Gourley on July 27, 2014 in Communication, Newsletter |

By Bob Gourley

I fielded a question recently about the effectiveness of community newsletters. It came from a property manager who claimed he spent many hours every month preparing a newsletter for his community that “no one ever reads”. After reviewing the newsletter, which was little more than a collection of rants about trash, dog waste, and parking violations, I agreed with his summation of the newsletter’s effectiveness. I certainly wouldn’t read this newsletter or look forward to the next issue. He asked what he could do to improve his ability to communicate with association members in future issues. Here is a checklist we developed to help steer him toward producing an effective newsletter.

The Refrigerator Magnet Test
I use a phrase to describe the appeal a community newsletter should carry. When a child brings home a great grade on a spelling or math test, it usually gets stuck on the refrigerator door with a kitchen magnet. A great community newsletter should have the same appeal. It should look good enough to be worthy of the honor and the content should be relevant enough that a community member should want to keep it close at hand.

The Golden Rule
First, and foremost, remember the Golden Rule of Community Communications – “Speak Unto Others as You Would Like to be Spoken to Yourself”. If you are going to use your newsletter to simply admonish and threaten those who violate the rules, you can expect a highly ineffective result. Every community has rules broken from time to time. The rule breakers usually represent a very small portion of the community. Why not celebrate the actions of those that follow the rules and thank them for being such good citizens? A pat on the back feels better and is more enjoyable to read about.

Positive versus Negative
Think about some of the great communicators of our time. They know that a positive message is better received than a negative message. Use positive energy throughout your publication and you will end up with a newsletter that is both highly read and enjoyed by the community. Use negative energy and you will end up with a largely unread newsletter that does little more than waste resources both in its production and its effectiveness.

Content is King
If you want to draw readers in to your newsletter, you must provide something that they want. My experience with communities has taught me that its members want to know what is going on, especially those items that effect their pocketbook. If the Board of Directors is discussing plans for a major capital improvement project, association members want to know how the improvement will benefit them and how much it will cost. Nothing draws readers in like learning about the new swimming pool they will be enjoying in one year’s time or the new parking lot pavement project that will get rid of the potholes they drive through every day. The more interesting your content is, the more your readers will look forward to learning more in the next issue.

Human Interest
Facts and figures aside, community members like to feel as though they are part of something more than a housing system. Don’t be afraid to add some human interest by sharing knowledge that will intrigue your readers. Who is new in the community? Who just celebrated their 50th anniversary? Who has a new baby in their home? These news items may seem a little trivial at first but they can become a very interesting topic to community members who are more social in nature.

Looks are Important
Making your newsletter look its best is critical to making it effective. If it looks like the person preparing the newsletter doesn’t care about how it looks, it is likely to be received in the same manner. Spelling, grammar, and design are all elements that require attention. If your community can afford color printing for its newsletter, it will carry a higher value by your audience.

Creating an effective newsletter requires attention to detail and knowledge of how to create a winning publication. If your publication highlights only negative items about the community and does nothing more than provide a platform to admonish readers about rules violations, don’t be surprised if no one ever reads it. If you take the time and effort to create a positive experience for your reader, you will be rewarded with an effective tool for communicating with your community members and they will actually look forward to each new issue.

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Are you listening to me?

Posted by Bob Gourley on July 27, 2014 in Communication |

By Bob Gourley

How many times have you tried to get an important message across to your community members only to find yourself frustrated with the feeling that nobody is listening?

I hear many listening-related complaints from condominium management professionals. These are the items that ail them. Do you suffer from any of the following symptoms?

The community website is rarely accessed.

The association newsletters aren’t very well read.

Mailed notices are going unnoticed.

Posted signs are being ignored.

Meetings are poorly attended.

Apathy is a sure sign that your community is not listening.

There are more sources of information bombarding your audience then ever before. TV, radio, billboard, newspapers, internet – our society is filled with a seemingly endless supply of banter aimed at getting the attention of your community members. You are competing with all those distractions when you try to get your message across. To be effective you must be creative.

What can you do?

Take a cue from the world of corporate advertising. Your message needs to stand out. Differentiate yourself from the crowd. Tell your story well and tell it often. Make your messages fun or dramatic. Develop a flare for promotion. Get help if you need it.

Think about some of the more successful communication stories in the world today and learn from them. “The Apprentice” has become a top-rated TV phenomenon. Even if you’ve never watched the show, you probably know who Donald Trump is and have you heard the show’s catchphrase “You’re fired!” way too often. Bad hairdo and oversized ego aside, Mr. Trump is a master of self-promotion. Yet you have something over him when it comes to communicating with your homeowners. You know where they live, how to reach them, and the specific items that they will find interesting. It’s time to put on your game face and show “The Donald” whose really got the right stuff.

I am not suggesting that you invoke the wrath of homeowners in your communities by firing anyone. What I am suggesting is that you learn how to compete with their other interests and speak to them in ways that they will take to heart. If you have not already done so, this would be a great time to take a look at branding your message. Branding is the concept of message consistency in all of your communications. Can you imagine any Donald Trump project without his name all over it? He wouldn’t stand for it because he knows the images invoked by his name help sell his products. Your branding efforts should be just as strong and consistent. Advertising agencies base entire campaigns around this concept and corporations pay millions of dollars for it. You can do it for free! Take that, Donald!

No one wants to be lectured to. Make sure your communications are upbeat. Take your cue from the political “spin doctors” out there who turn lemons into lemonade for a living. Let’s take that age-old problem topic for community associations everywhere – pet waste. Sure you can lecture until you’re blue in the face about fines and pooper-scoopers but it may not solve your problem. One association I work with recently addressed its pet waste problem with a friendly reminder mailed to home owners. The letter reads, “We love your pets but not their waste. Please clean up after your pet. The best way to have good neighbors is to be a good neighbor.” That’s a much nicer way to ask pet owners to behave responsibly than the stern warning of “Pick it up or pay a fine!”

The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter what you are saying if nobody is listening. If nobody is listening, you should reconsider your message and your message delivery methods. You can make a difference and your message will be heard. Are you listening to me?

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Condominium Newsletters are Useful and Necessary Communication Tools

Posted by Bob Gourley on July 25, 2014 in Communication, Newsletter |

By Bob Gourley

Condominium newsletters are useful and necessary communication tools for condominiums everywhere. Condominium unit owners require they be kept informed and aware. With a great condominium newsletter, a condominium association Board of Directors will spend more time governing and less time explaining.

Creating a good-looking and effective condominium newsletter is no simple task and should not be left to a condominium association volunteer. In addition to writing, editing, and graphic design skills, a successful newsletter editor must be adept at ferreting out the important news of the condominium and then have the time to compile that news into an effective newsletter. In my many years of producing condominium newsletters, I have seen some beautifully produced newsletters produced by volunteers. However, the beauty of that newsletter fades quickly when the volunteer leaves the community or decides that the time required to produce the newsletter is not worth the reward.

MyEZCondo is the correct choice for expert production of your condominium association’s newsletter. Our skilled writing staff and talented graphic designers work together to produce great-looking condominium association newsletters for condominium association all across the country. Contact us today to see how much better we can make your condominium newsletter.

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Failure to Communicate Can Lead to a Manager’s Failure

Posted by Bob Gourley on July 25, 2014 in Communication, Governance |

By Bob Gourley

Since I work closely with management professionals, one of the more difficult questions I routinely face from community association leaders is how the community should go about the process of selecting a new community association manager. It causes me great concern when I first hear that a community is thinking of changing managers as most of them I know are conscientious and hard-working individuals who truly give their all for their clients. My first reaction is to ask the board members why they are even considering changing managers. Among the more common answers I hear are:

Too many residents complain of the manager not getting back to them after an issue is reported

 

Projects aren’t getting done on time

 

This manager is charging us too much for the service provided

 

It just isn’t working out.

 

The follow-up comment I usually get is to “please do not tell the manager” that we are looking to replace him. While I understand this sentiment, the secrecy between board and community association manager highlights the much larger problem to me. Quite simply, there has been a failure of communication between all parties involved. Unfortunately, it is often the association manager who becomes the scapegoat for this communication failure and will lose not only a client but also valuable income for years to come. That is why it is in every association manager’s best interest to be proactive in his managed communities’ communication efforts. A well-informed client is a happy client.

Communicating with board members is simple enough. Association managers already attend numerous board meetings, annual meetings and even committee meetings. However, with the exception of those homeowners who attend the annual meeting, most residents are largely unaware of the professional who manages their association. Worse still is that the only communication some residents ever receive from their association manager is a notice of a rules violation or a fine. That is why communication tools such as letters, e-mails, newsletters, community websites and even social media are vital to helping association managers properly communicate with the vast numbers of residents whose communities they manage.

Of course, there are numerous other advantages to establishing and maintaining great communications within the communities you manage. Better informed residents tend to be better behaved residents. You can use your communication efforts to build civic pride and create a better sense of community. Perhaps, most importantly, successful communication efforts create loyal clients. Wouldn’t you rather have the board come to you to discuss management shortcomings such as those listed above instead of going out shopping for a new manager behind your back? Of course, you would!

Taking the time to produce great communications is not always at the top of a busy manager’s “To Do” list. Understandably, there are numerous distractions and emergent matters to deal with. However, if you neglect a community’s communication needs, don’t be surprised to learn your clients have been secretly looking to replace you. You can avoid that disappointment by making communications a top priority. If you need help telling your story, don’t be afraid to seek out an expert. Communicating with your clients is the best way to assure they will stay loyal to you for years to come.

Bob Gourley is founder of MyEZCondo, a communications firm that produces newsletter and website content material for condominiums and homeowner associations throughout the USA. He also serves as board president of his local HOA.

As originally appeared in CondoManagement Magazine

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Condo Residents Demand – Show Me The Money!

Posted by Bob Gourley on July 24, 2014 in Communication, Newsletter |

By Bob Gourley

The image of Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Rod Tidwell screaming at Tom Cruise as the titular character in the 1996 movie “Jerry McGuire” is a powerful cinematic moment that launched the catchphrase, “Show Me The Money”! Thirteen years later, I barely remember the movie but the catchphrase lingers as virtually everyone I know has said “Show Me The Money” at one time or another. While it is taken entirely out of context here, you had better believe that condominium residents expect you to show them where their money is going. How well you tell that story can be the difference between ending your story with “…and they all lived happily ever after” and “… and so the hull of theTitanic lies sunken on the ocean floor”!

Let’s begin with the state your community’s finances are currently in. Hopefully, they are in good order with all of your residents paying their fees and assessments, all of your vendors being paid on time, a healthy reserve fund, and no lingering financial clouds of doom. That is an easy story to tell – everything is just fine – happy beginning, very little drama in the middle, and a happy ending. While I wish such an ending for each and every community, the reality of hard times has jumped from the national headlines and landed in many communities across the country. If your community is experiencing financial challenges like so many, may I suggest that you get in front of the story and use your communication skills to keep residents informed and avoid adding to the problems by not telling your financial story.

The good news is that there is light at the end of the tunnel. The bad news is that light may be further away than most of us would care for. Many economists are convinced that the days of bailouts, Bernie Madoff scandals, high unemployment, etc. are set to scale back, meaning a lull in the bad news which may allow the economy to stabilize before rebounding. Many associations find themselves facing the unenviable task of taking action against residents – late fees, liens against property, even foreclosure. While these actions may seem harsh or drastic, many BODs find they are bound by their governing documents to take these actions in order to protect the rest of the citizenry. This is a great time to explain to residents how the system works. They can read the full details in the condominium documents but it is a great idea to reiterate the basic concepts so they can fully appreciate what actions are taken against their neighbors. This can go a long way to alleviate fears that the association finances are about to collapse or that some homeowners are being unfairly targeted by the Board.

Many associations are opting to borrow money to meet their financial responsibilities. Again, there is a very positive story to tell about such action. Borrowed monies ensure that the business of the association continues, even though the current economy appears sluggish. Borrowed monies are repaid over a period of years. Surely, all of us have lived through the ups and downs of the American economy before. There is no reason to think that things are not going to get better. A loan is simply an investment in tomorrow being a better day.

Finally, it is a great time to talk about your community’s accounting efforts. Bookkeepers, auditors, CPAs and others are constantly working to assess and manage your association’s finances. Choose a few selected items from your balance sheet and see if there isn’t a positive story to be told. In my community, our insurance premiums DIDN’T go up this year. After several years of increases, I thought this was a story worth telling. We locked in a two year agreement with our property management company so those fees won’t be going up this year either. These may not seem like big deals but for me they were the difference between ending our last newsletter with a listing of delinquent commons fees (where we sink to the ocean floor) and a happy ending (where we all live happily ever after). Look for your happy ending when telling your community’s financial story. And don’t be afraid when they say “Show Me The Money”. Offer them your thanks for continuing to pay their fees and assessments and look forward to your own happy ending.

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Capital Reserves and the Future of Your Community

Posted by Bob Gourley on July 23, 2014 in Communication, Newsletter |

By Bob Gourley

I went to see a fortune teller recently. She took me into her reading room and asked me to gaze into her crystal ball. She then predicted my future. “I see wear and tear on your buildings. I see a new roof will be needed. I see aging windows that need replacing. I see… a depleted reserve fund!”

Silliness aside, it really doesn’t take a fortune teller to predict that common elements in any community are going to age and need replacing. It also doesn’t take any magic to predict that communities with more amenities are likely to incur greater expense when maintaining and preserving their community’s assets. So, why is it that so many communities are so far behind in their goals for achieving a sound reserve fund for tomorrow’s expenses?

There are many reasons that reserve funds are not at their proper levels. First and foremost, in my opinion, is the fact that the “here and now” expenses are far easier to comprehend than tomorrow’s expenses. Has your community undergone an assessment recently? Was it for an emergency or one-time expense or was it for a routine expense that could have been easily predicted 5, 10, or even 15 years ago? The term “deferred maintenance” has become all too familiar in the language of community associations. Simply put, when a community doesn’t have the funds available to handle a routine maintenance item, they defer the maintenance until such time as the funds are available. Provided a plan to raise those funds is executed, that may or may not be a problem. More times than not, the path of deferred maintenance leads to the slippery slope of unfunded capital reserves.

How do you steer your community away from the path of depleted reserves and heavy assessments for routine items? The first step is to develop or review your association’s reserve study. Ideally, this job will be handled by a professional reserve study analyst. If your association does not have or cannot afford a reserve study, the Board of Directors should appoint a committee to take inventory of those items which the community holds in common. These items include common elements like grounds, paved roads, amenities (pools, tennis courts, club houses, etc.) and items routinely handled by the association (i.e. – roofs, building exteriors, windows). These items will vary by community so there is not a “one size fits all” approach to this. Once all of the items are inventories, the committee should evaluate each of those items to determine the element’s useful life. A roof that lasts fifteen years that has been in place for five years, still has ten years left. Roads that were paved 25 years ago may need replacement sooner rather than later. This list will ultimately yield the items that a reserve should be able to fund. For communities that have never done this exercise, the results can be a real eye opener.

The next step is to begin to estimate replacement costs for the common items. Inflation will have taken a toll over original costs so be prepared to factor that in. At the conclusion of this process, a realistic budget for a reserve will begin to emerge. At first glance, many of these numbers may seem too large or unmanageable. My advice is to use a technique called “reduce to the ridiculous” to help make the accounting a little easier to swallow. A reserve study that calls for $20,000 per unit to be raised over the next five years may sound better at $4,000 per unit per year or better yet at $333 per unit per month or $77 per unit per week.

The final step is to sell the concept to your fellow homeowners. None of them want to live in a rundown, outdated community. Poorly funded capital reserves will not only affect the quality of their lives but it will very likely damage their ability to attract buyers should they decide to sell their home. Community members need to be “told and sold” the value of a healthy capital reserve and a long range plan of how those reserves will be used. Tell them about the plans for how the money will be used and sell them on the idea of how it is in their best interests to keep the reserve fund healthy. You will be rewarded with a fiscally vibrant community that is never caught off guard without the funds it will need to flourish.

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"A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever"

Posted by Bob Gourley on July 22, 2014 in Communication |

By Bob Gourley

You may recognize the above quote from the English poet, John Keats. Condominiums weren’t around in the early 19th century, so it is fair to say that he wasn’t referring to your community’s newsletter or communication efforts. Nonetheless, I hope you will let his words inspire you as you contemplate transforming your communication message into “a thing of beauty” that will be “a joy forever”.

Take a look at the communications you’ve delivered to your community members and how you chose to get that message out. Were your notices delivered on professional stationary? Did your newsletters have the look of polish and professionalism your community deserves? Was your website maintained, kept current, and made beautiful? Were your communication efforts a thing of beauty? Or would Keats take you to task and challenge you to do better?

Are your communication efforts consistent? Have you committed to telling your story often and telling it well? At the heart of any successful communication strategy is a commitment to excellence and consistency. Image and message are both important. Always use professional stationary for notices. Always use a professional-looking newsletter to deliver your news. For the average community member who does not serve on the Board of Directors, the communications they receive are the only official contact they have with the association. Poorly written or delivered messages don’t carry the same impact as a professional presentation.

Have you developed a budget for your communication needs? A casual attitude towards your community’s communication needs will come back to haunt you. Newsletters, websites, etc. cost real money and should be addressed in your annual budget. If your property management company does not expressly offer communication services, you should develop a plan to handle the communication needs of the community in another way. Don’t leave it to chance.

Finally, avail yourself of the tools that Keats didn’t have in his day. Parchment paper and quill pens have been replaced with keyboards, ink jets, and web pages. Modern software conveniences, like word processors and desktop publishers, make communicating far easier today than it was in Keats’ time.

The poems of John Keats have left us much beauty to enjoy forever. It is hard to believe that he lost his father when he was 8 and his mother when he was 15. He wrote three books of poems before his death at age 25. Almost 200 years later, he is still considered a literary great. You may not have the same fortune as the poet but surely you can draw some inspiration from him the next time you set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Once you have mastered the tools, creating beauty is simply a matter of effort. Craft your message well and you will be rewarded with a thing of beauty that will be a joy forever.

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