When I signed up for the Jewish Teen Foundation of Greater Boston (JTFGB) last year, I only knew one thing about site visits: I had to attend two of them in the springtime (a seemingly unnecessary addition to my already perpetually busy high school schedule). As the year unfolded, I learned that just as their name suggests, site visits are a chance for funders to meet face-to-face with a nonprofit organization and their staff. Contrary to my initial judgment, the two site visits I attended, both in person and virtual, were the most memorable aspects of my experience with JTFGB and extremely important to my relationship with philanthropy.
What changed? I became more invested in the philanthropic process. After deciding on our board’s cause for the year—mental health with a focus on substance abuse—sending out RFPs (request for proposals), looking over grant proposals and doing our own fundraising, I wanted to know where all of my board’s effort was going. While you can easily evaluate an organization’s budget, mission and sometimes credibility on paper, it is nearly impossible to do so for things such as their environment and dedication. Further, because organizations try to relate their mission to a funder’s objective in their grant proposals, making sure each program aligns with our specific cause is another goal of site visits. While we wished we could support all of the nonprofit organizations we were learning about, as a board we had to make sure each program we supported dealt with both mental health and substance abuse in some way. Looking back, site visits gave me a stronger understanding of each organization, boosted my motivation to fundraise and fueled my desire to get involved in the nonprofit sector.
As I mentioned, I found it hard to grasp all aspects of each organization solely through what they sent us on paper. Maybe it’s because I am more of a visual person, but I got the sense that the majority of my board felt the same way. As first-year philanthropists, we were still learning how to evaluate grant proposals, so differentiating between what felt like quite similar organizations proved difficult.
What was even more impressive than visiting the nonprofit itself was meeting the people who ran it. You can have a brilliant program, project or idea, but if the people running it aren’t dedicated and passionate about what they do, their work is less likely to succeed. In my two site visits, the staff and volunteers were incredible. I was determined for our board to fund those two nonprofits that I visited because of the people I met there. In addition to answering all of our questions, they treated us like adults and made us feel important, in turn highlighting their passion and certainty in their work.
Beyond their importance in our decision-making process, site visits motivated me to fundraise. The fundraising process for JTFGB is crunched into a less than one-year timeline: We begin raising money before we even decide on which organizations to fund, and then allocate grants based on our final sum of donations. Toward the start of fundraising, I was pumped; I had a list of everyone I was going to write to or call, pre-written emails, back-up facts and a full bio on my fundraising page. Yet this initial motivation began to wear off. Because our work was becoming less about the cause and more about learning about nonprofits (part of JTFGB’s unique program), I lost sight of why I was asking people for money at all. Support from my other friends within the program was helpful, but site visits were the true heroes.
I have always had trouble asking people for donations, but having the experience from my site visits in my back pocket gave me a sense of purpose rather than plea when talking to potential donors. After seeing the physical office space, meeting the staff and learning about the reach of each program, I knew each organization was one I would support. Furthermore, I gained a sense of credibility when I mentioned the site visits and in-depth work my board was doing. For most of the people I emailed, I was the same girl who went door-to-door selling cookie dough in fifth grade and held five bake sales to support her eighth-grade New York trip, so I needed to communicate the difference and significance in what I was now doing. I didn’t want people to support me because I was a kid (not to mention I was no longer a kid and lacked the sheer cuteness to solicit funds), but because they saw that I really believed their donation would help others and deserved their support.
While my board ended up supporting both of the nonprofits I visited, for most of the other teens, this was not the case. We only had so much money to work with in our total grant-making pool, and not every organization fit with our mission. I knew that some of my friends felt pressured to choose the organization(s) they visited and bad when they, in the end, did not. It’s easy to feel that way when their staff takes time out of their day to meet with and get to know you; however, I reminded myself that we were meeting with them as well and that no matter which organizations we chose, our money would go to a good cause. Also, because site visits provide teens in JTFGB a chance to connect with nonprofits, even if our board didn’t choose to fund an organization I liked, I learned that I could volunteer there or donate myself.
After last year’s successful site visits, I went into the program for a second year as a Leadership Council member in the fall knowing much more about what to expect and, more important, what to look forward to once springtime came around and we hit that part of the JTFGB program arc. Looking back on my initial experience of site visits as a first-year board member and now as I reflect on my most recent ones from last month, I have realized the important role that they play in my understanding of the nonprofit sector. They allow me to visualize an organization in a way I couldn’t on paper, motivate me toward my cause and give me a glimpse into the entire world of philanthropy. Maybe one day I’ll end up working for one of the organizations I’ve visited over the last few years, or maybe my life will take me in a completely different direction, but at least I had the opportunity to (literally) open the door to a new possibility by learning through these incredible experiences.
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