We’ve all heard, probably more than once, that it would help if our not-for-profits, schools, and even government were run more like businesses. 

I recently volunteered for a charity that was run somewhat like a business: they had rules, they had procedures, and I bet there was even some inkling of accountability.

My heart still aches.

It was that bad.

I don’t know what vision of “business” the people who ran this particular charitable effort thought they were emulating, but it’s worth taking a close look at your goals, your processes, your employees, and even yourself, to make sure it’s not one that you share. 

Plenty for all?

In a local church, tables were piled high with donated clothing and gifts for needy people in our community. My family and I were there to help any way we could.

In the final minutes of the gift pick-up event, my daughter helped a man looking for size 3T Dora the Explorer clothing. When there was none, she helped him pick out another tiny outfit. He moved to the next table looking for a gift for a teen boy and we heard the organizers tell him he couldn’t get a bike helmet and a football. He had to choose one.

My daughter looked at the boxes full of footballs. Then she looked at me. The man lingered, trying to choose. The weight of his decision pierced our hearts. The organizers were unemotional, impatient. We were too intimidated to say anything, either. 

When the event was over, we packed piles of remaining items into 30 or 40 large bins for storage until next year. A woman arrived with two young teens in tow and sheepishly asked if it was too late to get an item. Organizers matter-of-factly told her the event was over. The children’s faces were a mix of embarrassment and disappointment as they slowly walked back to their car.

Another woman breathlessly approached us as we loaded the containers onto a rental truck. She had missed her appointment because her car wouldn’t start and begged for just one item. Any item. Again, the organizers turned her away. Volunteers stood mute and frozen in disbelief.

Finally, my dear husband couldn’t take it any longer. He handed the woman a sizeable bill.

We all understand the purpose of rules. Events can’t go on forever. Resources can run scarce. Some people take advantage of generosity. Exceptions can ruin efficiency.

That said, there comes a time when your own rules don’t necessarily apply--and if you do enforce them, they can defeat your purpose, and frankly, your reason for being. Yes, rules are important--and so is knowing when to break them.