How to charm your program officer and have the best site visit ever!


the-screamThere are few things in the nonprofit world as exciting and nerve-wracking as the site visit, the final step before getting a piece of that sweet, sweet funding. It is kind of like a date, a date where if you fail to impress, you may have to lay off staff and possibly not be able to help hundreds of clients who need the services, leaving you to weep alone in your office bathroom, consoling yourself with an entire bar of Trader Joe’s Pound Plus dark chocolate with almonds.

Program officers are special people. Smart and good-looking—in fact, scientifically 27% better looking than civilians—they can be intimidating. However, despite their great complexion and impeccable sense of style, they are also human. So if you are fortunate enough to get a site visit, there are things you can do to increase your chance of it being a successful one. Just follow these tips below:

  1. Leading up to the day, make sure to remind your staff that there is a site visit. Everyone should act naturally, but it doesn’t hurt to have one or two staff unexpectedly say something like, “It’s nice to meet you. I would stay to chat, but I am helping one of our kids with her college essay. Shucks, I love this job.”
  2. Refresh your knowledge of the foundation by exploring its website, focusing specifically on its investment priorities/jargon. This will allow you to say impressive things like: “I understand that one of your strategic priorities is shifting the paradigm to enhance collective impact efforts focused on the sustainability of thriving place-based urban-agrarian developments. This is why our Unicycle for Guns program is such a great fit. In addition to reducing violence through allowing youth to trade guns in for unicycles, we have also started organizing both gun control advocates and the acrobatics community to work together to change policies at the state level.” See how impressive that sounds?
  3. Refresh your knowledge of your narrative and budget. After such a long time, you may forget all the details, which may be very embarrassing, since your program officer’s job is to thoroughly go through your application line by line and budget item by budget item and get clarification during the site visit. They will be extremely specific with their questions, such as “On page six, paragraph three of your narrative, you state that you will be providing workshops in the evenings four days per week, but on line 29A of the budget, there is only funding for a part-time staff to do three days per week. Also, looking at your staff bios on your website, I know that Jorge, the staff in charge of this project, will be taking night courses to earn his MSW while simultaneously planning his wedding. Who will be in charge of these workshops in the evening then, and what will you do when Mercury is in retrograde in November?”
  4. If the site visit requires the presence of a board member, meet beforehand to refresh your board member on the program and how it aligns with your organization’s mission, values, and strategic plan. Depending on your board member, you may also have to do a refresher on your organization’s mission, values, and strategic plan.
  5. If the site visit is at a program, tell the clients ahead of time to expect some people, so that they don’t freak out. You want everyone to act natural, so consider whether or not you should tell clients that a funder is visiting. Also consider whether it is a good idea to have one or more clients walk by casually and say things like, “I don’t know where my life would be if it weren’t for this program. Shucks, I love this program and the organization that runs it.”
  6. On the day of, dress appropriately, depending on the size of the grant. The bigger the grant, the more professional you and your staff should look. Grants under $5,000 you can pretty much do what I do and just roll out of bed and pop a peppermint into your mouth. $5,000 to $25,000 smart casual is best. $25,000 to $75,000 business casual. $75,000 to $150,000 semi-formal. $150,000 to $1million, business attire. Anything over $1million: coat, tails, top hat, cane.
  7. Have a pad of paper and a pen ready, and jot down notes once every few minutes. It’s good to remember all the stuff your program officer tells you, but even if you don’t need to take notes, pretending to do so will make it seem like you’re engaged. It is also good to have a copy of your grant application printed out. If you forgot to have your grant application printed out, just gather whatever random but official-looking papers into a stack and keep it in front of you.
  8. Your program officer unconsciously senses the power dynamics, so they will try to make you comfortable with light-hearted chatter and jokes. Make sure your laughter is appropriately hearty. Practice in front of a mirror.
  9. Have an agenda prepared. The program officer usually already has their agenda set, but it is good for you to have something down also. It makes you look competent and invested when you can open strong during the introduction, like “I know you have a list of things to go over, but if we have time, I also want to touch base on these items I jot down while thoroughly reviewing the Foundation’s funding priorities. These items include evaluation, sustainability, and how our mentorship program aims to be carbon neutral by 2020.”
  10. Be calm and don’t try to BS. Program officers are trained to sense fear and deception. You should know your program and organization well, but there will be moments where you do not know the answer to something. If that happens, it is best to say something like “I’m sorry, but I do not know how many of our clients are actually gluten intolerant due to Celiac Disease and how many are just jumping on the bandwagon. I’ll double-check and get back to you.”
  11. Be transparent yet optimistic and solution-focused about your challenges. Your program officer will point out major weaknesses in your program and organization. Admit to those weaknesses and discuss what you will be doing to address it: “Yes, a major challenge for our organization is that we were founded as a doomsday cult. It will take many years for us to move past this image. However, the board and staff have created a communication plan around this issue, and we all strongly believe that we can move forward while providing high-quality non-doomsday services to our clients.”
  12. Watch your body language. I’ll elaborate later about body language in nonprofit work. For now, just remember try to mimic what your program officer does. Mimicking of body language, when done right, makes you a lot more relatable and approachable. Do it subtly, though, or you’ll creep people out. For instance, if your program officer crosses his legs, wait ten seconds, then cross your legs also. If they lean forward, wait ten seconds, then lean forward. If they cough hysterically, wait ten seconds, then cough hysterically.
  13. At the end of the meeting, you will be given a chance to ask questions. You will not impress if you don’t have any questions to ask, so think of a few in advance. Here are some examples of good, relevant questions to ask: “So what about our program in particular that interests the Foundation?” “Do you see your strategic priorities changing in the next few years?” “What are the next steps? When can we expect a decision from the Foundation?” Refrain from asking non-relevant questions like “So, I’m developing a musical about nonprofit work, would the Foundation be interested in funding that as well?” or “Are you single?”
  14. Send a short and sweet thank-you email. It may be helpful to reiterate in a sentence or two about how your program is so awesome and how it aligns with the foundation’s strategies, but don’t go overboard. In a paragraph, express your thanks for the program officer’s visit, apologize for any mishaps that occurred—”my apologies for the terrible compost smell that lingered over our conversation”—continue on any inside jokes that developed during the site visit—”next time, we’ll definitely have weasels as a line item in our budget!”—confirm any action items that you will be taking, along with concrete deadlines—”we’ll revise the budget and get it to you by 5pm Friday”—and express some hopeful vulnerability—”We’ll keep our fingers crossed until we hear from the Foundation.”

There you go, just follow the above tips and you should have a swell site visit. Please add other tips you can think of in the comment section, and forward this to all your friends and relatives.

Related post: Site Visits, Uncomfortable, Yet Terrifying

  • Loved this! I was a program officer for 10 years with a private foundation, and the strategy of my foundation was to have long site visits – all day, maybe 12 hours including dinner. That way we broke down the organization’s leadership and they were really truthful. Sort of like a prison interrogation, huh? Sometimes, we even did good cop, bad cop. To be fair to us – we were expecting to fund as the site visit was a final step in our process, having already fully vetted the group prior to the visit. And we offered the holy grail of grants – decent sized, GENERAL SUPPORT, renewable for 4 years.

    • Vu

      Thanks, Kathy! That does sound like the holy grail of grants, and I wish more funders would follow in that footstep. THAT would create sustainability.

  • …leaving you to weep alone in your office bathroom, consoling yourself with an entire bar of Trader Joe’s Pound Plus dark chocolate with almonds.

    See, this is why I now have my own private office. OK, it was the storage area where we keep the server, but I managed to wedge a small desk. With the server fans going, and the door shut, I don’t have to retreat to the bank of toilet stalls. I can quietly weep all by myself and nobody will hear me in here. Or eat that entire one pound bar of chocolate.

    • Vu

      You are an inspiration, Claire, just in your own little space, eating a bar of chocolate.

  • Michelle Cares

    Celiac disease foreshadowing… love it.

    • Vu

      Thanks, Michelle. Symbolism, allegories, I like to think that there are literary values in these blog posts.

  • LiveLaughLove

    #3 is my all time favorite

    • Sometimes we are so busy that we completely forget which grants we wrote for what. This can be embarrassing during site visits.