Smarter Site Visits
A former colleague and friend at a small education nonprofit recently called to pick my brain about the role of site visits from a foundation perspective. She was in the midst of planning a visit with a local program officer. A $10,000 grant was on the line, and she wanted everything to go off without a hitch. Her thoughtfully prepared agenda for a day-long visit included stops at staff offices as well as program facilities, viewing education programs in action, and hearing directly from several beneficiaries. Key program and development staff were also well-prepped on talking points regarding the grant request. “Should I be doing more?” she asked.
I was a bit taken aback; her plan sounded great, but between the preparation and the actual visit it also seemed to be a very time-intensive endeavor for her small team, especially considering the modest grant size.
This conversation was an excellent reminder that most site visits are highly planned by nonprofits and can take significant effort, staff time, and resources for organizations to implement. For small organizations in particular, that might actually mean time away from directing programs or operations.
As a program officer at a small, private foundation, I strive to make site visits an efficient and productive platform for mutual learning and relationship-building. But, I began to wonder – were grantees putting in overtime to prepare for meetings with me? If so, were there simple steps I could take to minimize unnecessary stress or work on their behalf?
While I feel a firm responsibility to conduct thorough diligence and hold myself and grantees to high standards, I also want to respect their limited time and resources. In this spirit, I had a candid discussion with grantee Steve Schwartz, the co-founder of Upaya Social Ventures to explore the benefits and challenges of funder visits from the nonprofit perspective. During my conversation with Steve, and through my own site visit experiences, four practices emerged as critical for effective site visits:.
1. Identify your purpose in advance.
As a general best practice, communicate at least one goal for the site visit to nonprofits at least two weeks in advance. If you have an ideal agenda or very specific questions, emailing those before the visit is also very helpful.
While some flexibility in an agenda is useful, open-ended site visits without a clearly stated goal are often stressful and unproductive for everyone involved. Personally, I find that having a clear purpose helps me develop more focused questions and therefore leads to deeper insights to report back to my board. Even a broad objective such as “learning more about your program model” can be a good starting point.
For Steve, it comes down to effective time management as a busy executive. He notes: “If I’m not sure why a funder wants a meeting, I’ll take extra time pulling together all the information I think they might want to know based on my own assumptions about their interests. But when I know the goal in advance, it saves me time and guesswork. I can focus on answering the questions they’re really interested in.”
2. Ask insightful questions.
I once received great advice to “go tough on issues, but easy on people” during site visits. As funders, the questions we ask and particularly how we ask them can dramatically shift the overall tone of a meeting. Steve finds that when donors assume a learning, rather than oppositional, approach to questions it helps ease tension and builds more authentic dialogue.
Leading with open-ended questions is one approach to garner valuable information. Some of my favorite open-ended questions to ask include:
- "Did anything unexpected happen since we last spoke?”
- “What does your organization really need right now?”
- “Outside of funding, what are some challenges you are currently facing?”
At the West Foundation, we offer strategic administrative or capacity-building grants to propel organizations forward past some of the challenges they share with us. For example, if an organization has weak marketing materials we might provide pro-bono technical support or fund marketing consultant fees. As a result –and due to our long-term relationship with organizations – when I ask about challenges, they are less afraid to admit imperfections.
In preparation for a meeting, create a list of at least five questions to explore what you want to learn based on the goal of your visit. Then, before the meeting, ask yourself how your questions will be perceived by the nonprofit. Could they be misinterpreted? Should they be re-framed from a more solution-oriented perspective? Would it be helpful to provide any particular background information on your foundation before posing the questions?
Be prepared to throw some of your questions out the window if the conversation evolves in a different direction, but have them available to move the meeting forward when necessary. Finally, make sure to save time during the meeting to hear if the organization has any questions for you!
3. Have the right people in the room.
Who you meet with should reflect the goals and questions you select for the visit. Well before a meeting, look over the list of questions you wrote, and then consider whose job description best aligns with your questions. Those are the people you should speak with, so ask in advance if they are available.
You may not actually need to meet the executive director each time you visit. If you want to more deeply understand the program model, then meeting with the program director instead will give you better insights into about how programs truly operate.
Being clear about who you need to meet with and why is not only a sign of respect for the time of an organization’s staff and volunteers, but it will also make meetings more productive and informative.
Once you conduct your stellar site visit, now your real work has begun! The site visit is only the start, while great follow-up is equally if not more important to the funding relationship. Both during and after meetings be as transparent as possible about the decision-making process, next steps and, if appropriate, provide specific and constructive feedback when a grant is denied.
Ultimately, when site visits are just one component of ongoing, transparent communication between a funder and a nonprofit it improves relationship dynamics, due diligence efforts, and helps achieve the end results we are all working towards.