Site visits: uncomfortable, yet terrifying


officeThis week, VFA had a site visit. Whenever we apply for a grant, the second-best outcome is a site visit (the best outcome would be a funder saying, “We’re funding you, and in fact, doubling your request and sending the kids in your after-school program a laptop and a bunny each!”)

I always get excited about site visits. We write these grants telling people about 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 the 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, or just weekdays. 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. “What kind of site visit is this?” one of them asked, “how should we dress?” The more funding is at stake, the better we dress. Less than $10,000, we dress a little better than normal, but are still generally shabby. At $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.

“$80,000,” I responded. “Ooh,” they said, “you better get a haircut.” A year ago, an hour from a visit with a major foundation, I checked myself in the mirror. Normally I look like a movie star, an Asian Steve Buscemi if you will, but this time I had a greenish complexion overshadowed by cowlicks so unruly, they were really goatlicks. Quickly I ran downstairs to a barber shop and got a trim. I made it to our program on time but was horrified to see that my face, neck, and shoulders were covered with bits of hair. “Quick, grab some tape,” I said, and for the next ten minutes, two staff used masking tape to remove offending pieces of hair. We got that grant, but the staff have never let me live that down.

On the day of this recent site visit, I was at a Leadership Tomorrow training. “Tidy up office, prepare slideshow,” I texted James, our Director of Youth and Community Engagement, who would be managing the project if we received this grant. This was only an office visit, not a program visit. Program visits have special challenges. We want our 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 and that if they don’t behave, Justin Bieber will stop singing forever.

When these visits go well, everyone leaves with a good feeling. The staff feel affirmed; the funders feel warm and fuzzy. Once in a while, though, they coincide with a crappy day, when kids have low energy, or some staff are absent, or the ED is hungover. Funders are usually pretty understanding and sympathetic when that happens, but I haven’t yet seen 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’re practicing for hours at a yo-yo trick and it’s awesome and you’re excited to show your older brother, but then the trick doesn’t go right, and he tousles your hair and says “That was a nice try, Vu, I’m sure you’ll get it eventually,” and you’re mad at yourself because you already got it, dozens of time, so then you hide his car keys under the couch cushions.

Office visits are challenging in that funders don’t have the visceral experience of our programs, a chance to meet our kids and stare into their big, liquid eyes brimming with hope and potential. So we create a slideshow to give them an impression. Two hours before the site visit, I texted James to “make sure only cute kids w big eyes are in slideshow.”

On my way back, I got a text from James. “They are here thirty mins early! They in conf 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. The office had been cleaned, so my cubicle would be the only messy area. 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 after eating vegan BBQ ribs?!

I arrived at the office with twenty minutes to spare, but somehow 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, and 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, breathless. They cracked up. Maybe they’re just humans, too, after all.

  • Dell

    It is nice to know that I’m not the only one that feels awkward about site visits. Although, since I work for a foundation I’m usually the one doing the visiting. The one thing the office visit has going for it is that I don’t have to worry about trying to distinguish which person is my blind coffee ‘date’ along with the always uncomfortable ‘who’s going to pay for the coffee dance’.

    • Vu

      Dell, you just gave me a great idea for a blog post. Thanks!

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  • rh2

    I laughed out loud reading your blog. You inspire me to find my voice and to tell it like it is.