Executive director Vu Le writes with verve and humor about that peculiar, nerve-wracking nonprofit ritual known as the foundation site visit:
This week, Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA) had a site visit: We're always telling people how cool our programs are, but to have funders actually come down and visit is affirming. And terrifying. It's a weird contradiction, like it’s your birthday — yay! — but you're also getting a colonoscopy.
Before a visit, we try to prep as much as we can. Making a good impression is important. This includes tidying up the place and putting away our fold-out cot, which staff use for naps during particularly long days — and some weekends. I also gather up all the papers on my desk and shove them into the overhead bin.
The staff's personal appearance is also taken into consideration. The more funding is at stake, the better we dress:
- < $10,000: we dress a little better than our usual shabby
- $10,000 to $19,000: we wear button-down shirts and tuck them into our jeans
- $20,000 to $49,000: we wear slacks and a nice shirt, maybe a tie
- $50,000 or over: I might require some of the staff to get Botox
Last year when the staff asked me which level a site was at, I responded, "$80,000." "Ooh," they said, "you had better get a haircut." Normally I look like a movie star, an Asian Steve Buscemi if you will, but on that particular day I had a greenish complexion overshadowed by unruly cowlicks. I ran quickly to a barber for a trim. I made it back to our office in time, but was horrified to see that my face, neck, and shoulders were covered with bits of hair. For the next ten minutes, two staff members used masking tape to remove the offending pieces of hair. We got that grant, but staff have never let me live that down.
Be inspiring or else!
When funder visits go well, everyone leaves with a good feeling. The staff members feel affirmed; the funders feel warm and fuzzy.
Once in a while, though, visits coincide with a crappy day — kids may have low energy or the ED is hungover. Funders are usually pretty sympathetic, but I have yet to see a bad site visit that has resulted in a grant or even a second-chance visit.
It's a horrible feeling watching a group of funders leave after an uninspiring tour. It's like when you’re a kid and you practice a yo-yo trick for hours and it's awesome. You're excited to show your older brother, but then the trick doesn't go right. He tousles your hair and says, "Nice try, I’m sure you’ll get it eventually."
On the day of a recent site visit, I was at a training. During a break I texted James, our Director of Youth and Community Engagement: "Tidy up office, prepare slideshow." This was only an office site visit, not a program site visit. At program visits we want funders to see our programs in their natural state, so we don't prep our students too much, except to tell them that a few people might be visiting.
Office site visits, on the other hand, are challenging because funders don't viscerally experience our programs; they don't have a chance to meet our kids and stare into their big, liquid eyes brimming with hope and potential. So we create a slideshow to convey this image. Two hours before the site visit, I texted James: "Make sure only cute kids with big eyes are in slideshow."
On my way back, I got a text from James: "They are here 30 mins early! They are in conference room relaxing!" "Crap," I thought, "I don't have time to clean up my desk!" The previous evening, I had eaten some Morningstar vegan barbecue ribs and left the plate out on the desk. They’re going to think I’m disorganized and sloppy! How could they invest in an organization when the ED can't even clean up his mess?!
I arrived at the office with 20 minutes to spare, but still felt late and anxious. I ran up the stairs and burst into the conference room to greet the four visitors. This was $80,000 on the line and I was blinded by their radiance. Program officers are on average 27% more attractive than civilians. Like Galadriel, the Elven Queen from Lord of the Rings when she nearly held the One Ring of Power, they can be both beautiful and terrible to behold.
"I'm so sorry for being . . . early," I said, blurted out, breathless. They cracked up.
Vu Le is the Executive Director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association, a nonprofit in Seattle that provides academic, youth leadership, and community engagement programs for immigrants and refugees, Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese. Like any other ED, he comes home exhausted from hours of telling staff what to do and taking credit for their work. To de-stress, he writes humor columns about nonprofit stuff. Vu can be reached at vu.le@ vfaseattle.org.