Most site visits we hosted for prospective donors began in the Executive Director's office. She would take a few minutes to share the gut-wrenching story about the founding of the mission; a personal story recounting her family's own journey serving adults with special needs. After hearing her testimonial, I came to expect various reactions. Some guests would lean in, drawn into the pathos of the story. Others were curious, asking her a follow-up question or two. Wanting to know more details. Or they would sit in silence, taking it in. Fighting hard to hold back tears.
But today's visitor, a successful entrepreneur, stared blankly ahead. Seemingly unmoved. Showing no emotion. Certainly no tears.
This was odd. I glanced at our Executive Director for a brief moment. Was she sensing his unresponsiveness as well? Surely the walking tour of our state-of-the-art facilities would impress him.
We left the administrative offices and began the survey of the main building on campus. A vast complex designed to enhance the lives of our program participants. We pointed out the function of the rooms, explaining how these environments were designed in a pro-active and adaptive manner. To encourage learning across a spectrum of special needs.
It really was a showcase of a building. But the visitor remained silent. Stone faced. Almost stoic. How unusual. What was going on?
We were now two strikes on this site visit. Evidently the Executive Director's story and the spectacular main building with its bells and whistles did not register with our guest. Would the next stop on the tour make an inroad? Or would it be three strikes and we're out?
Right ahead was the indisputable heart and soul of our mission---a renowned work program employing adults with special needs. A fascinating arrangement of social enterprise venues humming with the energy and enthusiasm of participants busy with meaningful jobs.
The highlight on this stop was always the subtle but profound interaction between visitors and the proud workers. Invariably, the lights would go on. The conceptual dots would start connecting. Most everyone who had taken the tour would be thoroughly smitten at this juncture in the site visit. In fact, you could sum up the magic and mystery of our entire mission right there.
Except on today's tour. With this visitor. Not even the warmth and wonder of the work program was provoking him. No feedback. No comments. Nothing was cracking the code. He had spoken not a word. And then, as we were about to leave the enterprise venue, he turned and asked us where the nearest restroom was. We pointed down the hall, to the one our program participants used.
A few minutes later he emerged and, looking straight at us, declared, "That's the cleanest restroom I've ever seen." He continued, with an added emphasis, "I just didn't expect it in a place like this."
So there. Now it made sense. Today we were hosting a skeptic. An individual who processed experiences through evidence-based criteria, albeit the criteria he deemed essential. From the introductory testimony by the Executive Director, throughout the tour of the main building, and even in the social enterprise venues, our skeptical visitor was scrutinizing. Searching for empirical evidence that what we were saying, showing and summarizing was true. That what we stood for was real. That even in the restroom less frequented by visitors and used almost exclusively by our program participants, our ethos was genuine. Our ethic was gold.
Nonprofits hosting skeptics need to embrace a certain pragmatism. Your testimony, your view of the facilities and your program advocacy is "your" exclusive reality. But the perception of a skeptic is equally true. To them, at least. Until their questions are answered in a satisfactory manner, until the evidence they require proves otherwise, the verdict on "your" truth is still out.
And a certain risk is required as nonprofits engage with skeptics. While we take great care to define the cause and defend our convictions, we rarely give ourselves permission to be vulnerable with visitors. Especially those listening between the lines. Those peering underneath the veneer. We're hesitant to admit we're not quite sure which component or element of our mission is fundamentally under their microscope. To relinquish our control and participate in the skeptic's quest. To allow the site visit to go in another direction. Wherever they may lead.
As the site visit ended and before our skeptical visitor got in his car, he wrote out a check. A very generous donation to our mission. We thanked him profusely, and bid him farewell. Then we summoned the team member in charge of facility maintenance to the Executive Director's office. She sat on the couch, not quite sure why she was there. We held up the check.
"Great job Emma. You are the reason this generous donation was given today." On the site visit that went in another direction.
Follow @JoeMazzu3 on Twitter and Instagram. To learn more about his consulting business serving nonprofits visit intentionalconsulting.com.