A few weeks ago, I returned to Chicago — the city of my birth and where I spent my first half-century (optimistic, aren’t I?) — for a family wedding. I also had the fun of being a tourist since I was accompanied by two friends who were visiting the Windy City for the first time. So no more avoiding the places written up in the tour guides and mumbling under my breath about the people who stopped on the sidewalk, oblivious to hurried commuters, to take a photo of the tall buildings — I became one of them for a few days.
Sometimes it is good to step back and look at our organizations through the eyes of a “tourist” — the person who loves what we do but isn’t familiar with every nuance and certainly not the “dirt” we have shoved into the corners. When donors or prospects arrive at our offices or field sites — expectedly or unexpectedly — what is the impression they take away?
After a while, the paint chip on the wall that is shaped like the state of Vermont and the window that’s been cracked almost forever become familiar, even endearing. The messy bookcases say “creative” to us, but is that the message a casual visitor receives? We may not have a “Welcome — come on in!” sign hanging at the door, but from time to time, donors do stop by — often unexpectedly. The prepared fundraiser makes sure in advance that the organization is ready at a moment’s notice to present itself and its work in a positive light.
Put up photos that represent the work you do
Have a contest among staff, volunteers and the board to submit photos of your work for your walls. (Be mindful of releases if photos are of people, and give the photographer credit.) It is fairly inexpensive to enlarge and mount them, and you achieve two things with this: interesting, mission-focused art for your walls and proud, engaged employees and volunteers.
In addition to the photos, include a few things that encourage conversation. Some visitors have a difficult time making small talk, but if you can point to a sculpture made by one of the students in your program or even your logo made out of matchsticks, you can engage them as you tell the lively tale behind this or that piece.
A side benefit is that these photos and objects give a great impression to prospective employees, too. Your hiring staffers can extoll the work you do as they point out particular photos, and the candidate gets a glimpse of the heart of the organization, not just the benefits package.
Have people identified who can help tell your organization’s story
Putting someone on the spot is never a good idea. Even if employees are comfortable talking to strangers, it may not be the best time for them to stop what they are doing and answer your questions. Instead, identify a few people, and partner with them to select a story or factoid to share “on demand.” Invite them to choose something that resonates with them and makes their faces light up with every retelling.
While you’re identifying your potential “tour guides” throughout the building, make sure you know what everyone does so you can intelligently explain the work of your organization (in the office or at a program site). I still remember what a human resources person said about me when taking someone around the offices: “This is Pamela. I have no idea what she does, but I think it’s important.” I was not impressed — and I doubt the guest was, either. (Believe me, this is the truth — I couldn’t make this up if I tried.)
Make sure your signage is current and consistent
When we go through a logo change or a name change, no matter how minor, there are myriads of places that need to be updated. Sometimes our offices are overlooked since it’s “just us.” But when a guest arrives, you want to present the organization in the best light. So make sure your signage is up-to-date and your brand is evident throughout the facility.
Also, look around for signage that should be updated or replaced to be visitor-friendly. If the sign saying “Women” has fallen off the door, get someone to put it back up or do it yourself. (“Fundraising as handyman” is often the case — let’s just get it done!) The impression for your visitors is that you are an organization that pays attention to details — in your offices and program sites, and with how you steward your donor’s money.
These may seem like silly things for a fundraiser to worry about. But too often, no one worries about them. And then a prospective donor stops in unexpectedly (or even scheduled), and we are embarrassed by small things that seem to multiply when a guest is present. We want our donors to focus on the wonderful things being accomplished because people like them entrust the organization with their money, so we need to be sure any distractions from this message — no matter how minor they seem — are removed.
While your offices or program sites may not be on the town’s Top 10 Tourist Sites list, people stop in from time to time. Seeing a well-run nonprofit that appears to be doing interesting work can turn that visit into a cultivation opportunity. This old dog has had to escort unexpected guests around many times over the years, and trust me on this — pointing out filing cabinets and extolling your wonderful alphabetical filing system are not what build lasting relationships with donors. Instead, it’s the passion of your work that they experience with every step they take on your impromptu tour.
Originally published in NonProfit Pro.