Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Life Gets in the Way

In a business start-up, an entrepreneur must be able to wear many different hats. There is the sales hat, the marketing hat, the bookkeeping hat and more. In a faith venture, where you are seeking to accomplish both good business and ministry on behalf of disadvantaged communities, the number of roles explodes and rarely diminishes over time as the enterprise grows. A faith venture has two bottom lines: profits and life change. These two aims are not always positively related and sometimes impose costs on each other.

At Bud’s Warehouse, we attempt to support our operation through the sale of donated building materials at the same time employing individuals starting over again from prison or addiction. That creates a very interesting dynamic. When you hire someone who is rebuilding a life from addiction or prison, there are labor premium costs that hit your bottom line. Bud’s employees are dealing with significant problems and need extra support in order to succeed on the job. As a result, we are always operating on the edge of what a business can handle in terms of staffing because we choose to invest resources in people with added labor costs. The tradeoff becomes hiring a healthy (for lack of a better word) manager verses hiring additional individuals rebuilding lives.

Today at Bud’s, life got in the way, as it tends to do from time to time. And the organization was stretched to its limits. One of our program staff members, who filled an essential manager role, had to unexpectedly leave work. This happened on a day when other backup managers were taking needed days off. To add to the perfect storm, we were slammed with customers attempting to purchase items for last minute summer projects. We were suddenly understaffed and “over-customered” during the month when we inventory everything in the warehouse.

We plan for days like this by attempting to cross-train everyone for those fill-in times when others aren’t available. But sometimes the best-laid plans don’t always work. You just try to get through the day and hope customers understand.

Both for-profit businesses and non-profit businesses deal with a scarcity of resources, but it seems that the not-for-profit world deals with more accentuated trade-offs. The temptation is to blame poor service on a lack of resources because “we are a nonprofit and we’re doing great things for the world.” The great challenge is to balance the double bottom line: staff so you can take care of both your business customer and your program staff member without having to make excuses. But then you work hard to create an environment of grace so that your customers understand and allow you to serve your employees emergency needs. It’s a tall order.

No comments: