Conducting a Meaningful Site Visit
A site visit can be one of the most important tools you use, as a grantmaker, in determining your ultimate funding decisions. For example, an in-person look at a potential grantee’s activities can complement a grantee’s written proposal and give you a clearer picture of their request. In fact, site visits can be one of the most interesting parts of the grantmaking process.
What makes a site visit meaningful? Careful preparation, mutually understood goals, a willingness to see the event as part of an ongoing relationship. So how can you be a "good guest" while conducting a structured, but not stifling, site visit? Here grantmakers offer some helpful advice for:
"It's not surprising to feel a little nervous about site visits. One way to orient yourself is to put yourself in the shoes of the applicant and imagine how you'd like to be treated. Often, puzzles about what to say or how to say it will become immediately clear."
— A grantmaker recalling a first experience with site visits
Managing Your Role
Since the business of making grants primarily involves establishing a relationship between the grantor and the grantee, grantmakers often conduct site visits precisely to develop firsthand relationships with leaders and organizations in the communities and fields on which they focus. As such, a site visit can serve as an open-ended interview that allows you to ask pressing questions you may have and let potential grantees discuss the things they love to do. Talking at length and in depth with applicants about their work, and making certain they understand the fundamental purposes of your grant-making program, can also sometimes lead to exciting new ideas.
It can be a mistake, though, to think of a site visit as a discrete, one-time-only event. Site visits and one-to-one conversations are more likely to be continuing activities — at least with organizations directly involved in your program areas. Consequently, you may decide to make your first site visit to some organizations before you circulate a request for proposals, as a get-acquainted step, or as an element of your overall reconnaissance. Later, another visit may be part of your consideration of the group’s proposal. If you decide to award a grant, there are likely to be other visits — within reason — down the road, either to monitor the grant or maintain good relations.
Bear in mind that few organizations turn down a funder’s request for a meeting. They may be in the midst of their busiest season, rushing to prepare a proposal for another funder, or simply overwhelmed with work — they’ll probably still set aside two hours for you. As valuable as site visits can be, therefore, it’s important to make sure you’re not imposing on the organization’s time or distracting its staff. Remember: the organization is not likely to tell you — at least at first — that your request for a meeting comes at a bad time. You need to be alert and sensitive, and hope that at some point the group feels free to be more candid with you about its schedule.
Before You Visit
If the site visit is a first contact, do some homework. If you have not yet received a proposal from the organization, visit its Web site, if one exists, or research its area of work. This preparation allows you to use the time you spend with potential grantees efficiently, to ask pertinent, informed questions, and to understand what they’re trying to accomplish.
Even if the contact isn’t a new one, prepare yourself and the grantee before the visit. Be thoughtful and clear. For example, you might explain that you want to learn more about a particular aspect of the organization’s work. In any case, let them know how much time you have, and whether there are particular people or activities you would like to see.
Formulate some preliminary questions — but be careful of coming up with a long list. Narrow it down to the three most important ones, so as not to overwhelm your host. Notify the potential grantee of your questions ahead of time. You might also suggest that the organization send you an agenda of its own for the visit.
If possible, schedule site visits at times when you can observe some type of program activity. It helps to experience the work of the potential grantee firsthand.
While it can be helpful to conduct your visit with other staff from your foundation — the added perspective may be valuable — remember that having too many additional people can make it hard to have an informative, relaxed conversation.
Be aware that a site visit is a very important event to potential grantees. They will quite likely put a lot of energy into planning it and will hope to have your full attention. Difficulties in scheduling can create a misleading impression, as one grantmaker learned: "I remember a time when one of our team had to leave after half an hour. It wasn’t disrespectful; it was just someone juggling a tough working schedule. But it seemed as though perhaps we weren’t really that interested."
During the Visit
Begin by reminding people of the reason for your visit and about your role. You may have explained these points already, but nonprofits often play host to visitors, and may not remember what you told them. Be sure they understand that you’re there not only as an interested individual, but as your organization’s representative.
Since everyone's time is scarce, you may want to focus on what you most need to know to make a good grant, and on matters that call for the prospective grantee's impressions, interpretations, and personal reflection. In other words, the site visit is not usually the best time to bring up small, detailed matters that may require the applicant to do research or analysis. It is an opportunity to get to know the organization in a more personal way than is possible on paper
As the Visit Concludes
Don't forget to use the visit as an opportunity to expand your knowledge of the broader community or field. Ask applicants for suggestions about other organizations or activities that you should be looking at, or other people you should get to know.
Leave room for excitement: surprisingly good things can happen during a site visit. "I remember one visit," notes an experienced grantmaker, "when, after about an hour-and-a-half of talk and examination of the premises, the prospective grantee deferred going to another meeting so he could fill us in on his ideas for several different possible grants. It was a lively discussion, and I think curtailing it would have curtailed the making of the grant. You have to leave room for excitement."
And a final note. If the first one or two visits start off stiffly, don't worry. It takes more than an hour or two, and often more than a single visit, to establish the kind of trusting, open relationship in which a real exchange of ideas — the "excitement" — can take place.
Takeaways are critical, bite-sized resources either excerpted from our guides or written by Candid Learning for Funders using the guide's research data or themes post-publication. Attribution is given if the takeaway is a quotation.
This takeaway was derived from Building Community Inside and Out.