Don’t Let Policy Get In The Way Of Good Practice

I’m working from my laptop in a Panera restaurant near Cleveland, Ohio, one of my many “offices away from home.” I’m desperately trying to focus on work but am continually distracted by the music piped in above my head, because the station they have turned it to is skipping. What is supposed to be relaxing symphonic sounds are quite irritating and painful to hear. I’ve asked two Panera employees what is wrong and suggested ways to solve the problem. Both agreed that it sounds horrible, explained that they “tried turning it off and on” and nothing happens. When I asked if they could simply turn it off, they said they weren’t able to.  Panera would rather play music that is skipping and irritating its customers than empower their employees to make decisions in the best interest of their customers because it’s their policy to play music.  I’m ready to leave and take my business elsewhere, but they don’t seem to care.

can't stand the noise!

Foundations do this too. I know of one foundation that has a policy that all staff must obtain proposals from three evaluators every time they want to conduct an evaluation. It doesn’t matter if the program officer has already worked with a fabulous evaluator who she knows will be great for this project, always delivers quality work, and is available to start immediately. She must waste her time and the time of two other evaluators in order to meet this policy requirement.

Think about how much staff time this involves: She has to identify and communicate with perhaps 5-10 other evaluators in order to identify 3-4 who are qualified, in hopes that 2 of them (plus the one she actually wants to hire) are interested, available and will submit proposals. She then has to talk with each of them long enough to explain her evaluation needs and answer their questions. Next she has to review their proposals and ultimately tell them that they are not being selected. Is this an example of a foundation being a good steward of its resources, or one that is wasting them? I’m pretty sure that this program officer has plenty of other more important things that she should be doing with her time.  (This doesn’t even take into account the time spent by the evaluators — not knowing they are doomed to fail — to learn about the foundation and project, talk with the program officer, write the proposal, and get their staffing and schedules in place so that they can start right away if chosen.).

Is it possible that by obtaining proposals from two other evaluators the program officer might find one who is even better, faster and cheaper? Sure. But I think organizations – foundations and restaurants alike – should empower their employees to make smart decisions that they feel will make the best use of their time and are in the best interests of their customers, grantees, and partners.  The goals are fine: provide a relaxing atmosphere for customers through music and find the best evaluator. But don’t create and enforce policies that result in poor customer service and waste time.

Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a philanthropy expert and consultant. If you found this blog post useful, please subscribe. On Twitter? Follow me @Philanthropy411.

© Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2013.

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