Humor: The Uncomfortable, Terrifying Site Visit

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.

Whew.

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.

Comments (17)

  • I love that I am 27% more attractive than you are!

    Aug 14, 2012
  • Anonymous

    So true, so funny, so sad. Will we ever, ever get to that dreamed-for day of funders being partners?

    Aug 15, 2012
  • Anonymous

    Brilliant column, Vu. Makes me want to do a site visit :-)

    Aug 15, 2012
  • Anonymous

    Thank you for making me laugh and relax! Now on to the next proposal....

    Aug 15, 2012
  • Anonymous

    Great stuff! What I really want now is.....yes, that secret millionaire visit!

    Aug 15, 2012
  • Anonymous

    Loved this!

    Aug 16, 2012
  • Maybe I should have been sober when I chose the picture that would accompany this piece...Vu

    Aug 16, 2012
  • Anonymous

    This is hilarious and so true! More columns from Vu Le!

    Aug 16, 2012
  • Anonymous

    It's easy to forget to remember we're all human. At the end of the day, yes impressions matter. But so does being authentic. Me personally, I want to work with people who take the work seriously, but not themselves. {fist bump} to you for the bunny ears, and keeping things in perspective ;)

    Aug 17, 2012
  • Anonymous

    LOVE this column, Vu - please keep 'em coming!

    Aug 17, 2012
  • Anonymous

    Fun article! Please write more. I loved doing site visits when I was a program officer, especially if the people at the agency I was visiting weren't completely clueless about why I was there. I have to admit that I was inspired enough to leave a personaldonation at a number of places I visited over the 8 years I did site visits. It was really fun to visit an executive director who was really passionate about the mission and programs. Heck, I got my job as a program officer in the first place because the Executive Director of a small local community foundation visited my clinic and remembered me.(Guess I was pretty enthusiastic.) He called me months later to tell me about a job opening. I'm still working in the community foundation sector 16 years later...

    Aug 17, 2012
  • Anonymous

    Great article! HA HA Hung over ED at a site visit! WOW!

    Aug 17, 2012
  • Anonymous

    Loved it- thank you for the many chuckles of recognition. As my yoga teacher says, laughter is the best yoga. More from Vu, Blue Avocado!

    Aug 18, 2012
  • Vu, Thank you for writing this - I loved this piece and appreciate both its humor and poignancy... and the opportunity it provides for perspective! In my own personal case, neither botox nor a fashion consultant would make much of a difference, but a haircut couldn't hurt (oh, wait, maybe it could?). Thanks again, Don Crocker Support Center for Nonprofit Management, (NYC)

    Aug 21, 2012
  • Anonymous

    Ah, how I aspire to be a member of the ED Happy Hour one day!

    Aug 22, 2012
  • Anonymous

    Hi, Vu, Your article was SO funny, I still laugh out loud when I read it. I sent it to some of my foundation clients (I do evaluations for them) and I have been told by both the Hewlett and Packard Foundations that they posted it to their intranets and their staff have been howling for days -- and preening a little about their attractiveness! Cheers, and thank for your wonderful humor. Ruth

    Aug 23, 2012
  • Anonymous

    This reminded me of the e-mail I would typically send around when I was DD at a particularly scrappy organization: "Donors coming Tuesday. Please remember NOT to wear your 'Eat the Rich' T-shirt."

    Oct 18, 2013

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