Are you listening to me?

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?

Maintenance and Construction. Fact or Benefit?

By Bob Gourley

Did your community get a new roof this year? Was your parking lot repaved? Was the pool filtration system overhauled? Were your decks replaced? Chances are pretty good that your community either underwent or will soon undergo a major construction or maintenance project. Don’t miss this opportunity to tell the story of your project or you may just be leaving money on the table!

I am often asked about the difference between a fact and a benefit as it pertains to preparing a community newsletter. As a former sales and marketing guy, you can bet I know the difference between a fact and a benefit. In construction and maintenance issues, the facts often describe the tangible details of the project such as the cost, the materials used, the contractor chosen to perform the work, how long the project will take and things of that nature. While those items are newsworthy, they won’t help you win over critics or skeptics. For that task, you will need benefits.

Benefits, quite simply, will help you tell your maintenance and construction story in such a way as to show your residents what is in it for them. Benefits are far less tangible but far more effective in explaining the need for a project and the reason to spend the association’s money. If you think about the last major purchase you made, you will most likely remember that why you bought the item is more important than what you paid for it or what you even bought. The same mentality applies to maintenance and construction projects. Here are a few examples:

Item – New Roof Installed
Fact – Shingles carry a 30 year warranty
Benefit – Interior of home stays drier

Item – Blacktop Sealing
Fact – Creates a waterproof barrier
Benefit – Underlying pavement lasts longer

Item – New Pool Filtration
Fact – More fuel efficient
Benefit – Saves money

Item – New Decks Installed
Fact – Made of Artificial Material
Benefit – Lasts longer, looks better

In many instances, money spent on today’s maintenance and construction project benefits all members of an association with lower costs in the future. Any time you maintain, protect, or enhance common elements of your association, you should do so for the benefit of your members. People want to “know” the facts but they “buy” the benefits. Use the power of benefits to keep your residents happy and informed about all of your construction and maintenance projects. You won’t just build a better property. You’ll build a better community!

"A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever"

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.

Capital Reserves and the Future of Your Community

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.

Communications and Community Governance

By Bob Gourley

“That government is best which governs least” – Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and dubbed “Father of the American Revolution” by historians. He was born in 1737 and lived a remarkable life that spanned the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and life in France under Napoleon’s rule. His communication skills were legendary and he largely influenced many Americans to take up the cause that became the American Revolution. So important were his writings, we still talk about him today.

Community Association Volunteer Leaders (CAVLs as they are designated by CAI) would do well to heed the words of Thomas Paine. In too many community associations, the cry for revolution can be heard. Has your community ever faced a massive turnover or group resignation from its Board of Directors? Does your Board of Directors govern too little or too much?

Community Association Volunteer Leaders are the lifeblood of community association governance. They serve on the Board, they serve on the Committees, and they participate in their communities. But as volunteers, they are not necessarily skilled in politics or communications which can lead to big problems in communities.

Thomas Paine went on to say: “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”

In his day, Paine had the power of the printing press on his side. None of today’s communication marvels were available to him. Can you imagine how many friends he would have on his Facebook page or how many Twitter fans would be following him? Facetiousness aside, it is fair to say that most Community Association Volunteer Leaders can communicate far better with their community members today than Thomas Paine could back in his day. Is your association using its communication tools to govern best? Have you created a government that is a necessary evil or have you created an intolerable one? In other words, is your community a better place for your leadership?

I have long held that a community that sheds as much light as possible on its governance is a community that is far more likely to thrive than one that operates in secrecy. Lack of transparency in how their association is being run is the chief complaint I hear from disgruntled residents of associations from around the country. Communities that fail to communicate fail to create harmonious, prosperous living conditions for their residents. The lack of effective communications has made the very people that elected them to see their leaders as an intolerable evil. The irony is that in most cases, those who are governing the association are doing their level best to serve their members.

I hope you will take the words of Thomas Paine to heart when you consider how you will govern your community. The promise of America was little more than a dream when he was a young man. He understood that the challenges facing the fledgling country around him would be met by men and women of great conviction and virtue. He was a master at rallying support for his ideas and building a consensus upon which to proceed. He wrote “the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph” in describing what lie ahead for the Colonies as they prepared to declare their independence from England. While governing our associations may not be as great a challenge, we can certainly draw inspiration from his heroic words. Combine your communication skills with well-intentioned community governance and create a successful community.