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Reality TV: When Site Visits don’t Match the Script

The “confessional” has been an element of reality television since its inception. Cast members talk directly to the camera and explain their thinking regarding situations that happened earlier in the show. Characters on “The Office” responded straight to the camera, using words or just facial expressions. Sometimes, I find myself making similar expressions when something unexpected happens during a site visit.

These responses can be entertaining, but with a bit of preparation, they can add to the main story as well. Here are a few ideas to keep in mind when you have a “direct-to-camera” moment:
Staff will articulate your organization's mission and services differently. Regardless of how much time you spend educating staff on the mission, vision, and values of your organization, they will internalize it based on their own experience and values. That's a good thing! When staff aligns their values with those of the organization, they will be more committed to the mission.
However, this also means that staff may emphasize things that aren't the crux of the funding request. Prepare staff in advance by letting them know what program, project, or emphasis the funder is most interested in, and help them understand how their role affects those elements of the mission.
Partnerships involve give and take.
When services are better understood at an off-site program, you may end up having a site visit that isn't at your site. For example, a workforce development program might rely on a partnership with a food bank. If the funder walks away thinking that it was a great food service program but is unable to connect your client's work with how your organization helps reach his/her goals, then the purpose of the site visit wasn't met.
In these situations, you'll need to interpret what the funder sees. Describe the skills your client had prior to being part of your program, and then point out the job and social skills that your client is developing. Make sure you are familiar with how the partnership advances both organizations' missions so that you can help the funder understand how what they are seeing plays into the goals of each organization.
Sometimes even the people aren't there.
We can all picture our ideal site visit. The funder arrives, and all the staff and clients articulate their goals and how the organization helps them reach those goals. People are smiling, grateful, and we all leave with “warm fuzzies” and a sense that we are accomplishing something together. And then there are the times when what you see doesn't have the desired impact. Clients are sick. Programs run late. Attendance is low. Activities are hard to connect to the end goal. In these moments, the confessional becomes a key part of your site visit.
In a reality show, the confessional lets viewers understand what is going on behind the scenes. Though we don't have a camera, we do have opportunities to lend more context to the site visit. You can send a follow-up email expressing gratitude, answering questions that came up, and providing additional details as necessary. Make sure to take notes on the questions that were asked, and reference them the next time you approach that funder.
The site visit is one opportunity to let your organization shine. As Helen Keller said, “a happy life [and perhaps site visit] consists not in the absence, but in the mastery, of hardships.”
Brainstorm some details that would make up your ideal site visit. What would it look like if those details weren't in place? How might those elements' absence be evidence of the success of your program?

Jen Hurst, M.A. has developed programs and strategies for nonprofits since middle school, when she and a few friends started their philanthropic work by raising $150 for the local animal shelter.



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