The Do’s & Don’ts of Site Visits

By Laurence A. Pagnoni, MPA

Site visits are not inspections.  Inspections occur in the military, and if you’ve never served, you have no idea of the horrors inflicted by the very thought of them.  Barracks have to be turned upside-down and inside-out to shake out the tiniest grains of soot, and everything from floors to boots to belt buckles have to gleam like the dawn.

Site visits are more like first dates.  The boots only have to be on the right feet, and the buckles need only be fastened.  Funders don’t usually request site meetings unless they’re interested in the organization that has been pitched to them.  They’re already sold.  They want to look around, meet the CEO and/or program director, chat with the clients if possible and bring back positive impressions to share with the members of the foundation’s review panel or Board of Directors. Above all, let them do that.

Here are some tips to ensure that your engagement with the funder proceeds smoothly from the site visit to a check:

  • Preparation – Think of a couple of shining programmatic details you can point out on your tour: The volunteers, for example, working in the kitchen.  The journals, diaries, or inspirational poetry written by current or former clients.  The artwork created by the children in your program, if you serve youth.  The spacious, cheerful reception area, or the confining quarters utilized with uncommon efficiency.  Be sure also to have a copy of the grant proposal and program and/or organizational budget in hand so that you can provide an in-depth answer.
  • Be Hospitable – Make them feel welcome, show them around, introduce them to the staff and, if possible and if appropriate, a few of the clients. Smile, be genuinely interested in them and their work and thank them for coming.  Have something for them to take away, even if it’s only a brochure, an annual report, and your business card.
  • Listen – The heart of the visit will consist of a conversation between the funder and the fundraiser and/or CEO. The key staff members are the stars, and this is their time to shine.  Your job as the fundraiser is to listen.  Listen especially to the funder and take notes on the clues they give as to what’s important to them.  Let the funder lead the dance and let the program director or the CEO join in.  You are likely to hear the staff people drop tidbits about the program they haven’t previously mentioned to you.  Yes, you, the fundraiser/grant writer, should be prepared to communicate the organization’s strong points, but only do so to supplement the answers of the CEO or program director.  Be brief, succinct, and on point. Otherwise remain in the background and see what you can learn about the funder through its representatives.
  • Follow-up – If there’s any question you can’t answer or written material they need, provide them with the desired information as soon as possible after the visit. Send an e-mail thanking them for taking time to visit the agency.  Re-state in the e-mail the salient details you learned about them during the visit—the time to submit the full proposal, if that hasn’t been done already; the date to apply for a renewal; upcoming changes in the funding cycle or funding priorities.

Funders don’t necessarily respond to expensive trappings or an antiseptic atmosphere, but a warm welcome, an informed guide, and some emotionally resonant exhibits will go a long way to turning their interest into an award. These words from Gloria Kemp, Community Benefit Manager for Kaiser Permanente sum up a successful site visit best:

“A site visit is successful if we’ve learned things about the organization and the project that weren’t required or presented or apparent in the proposal.” “I want to walk away from a site visit knowing that the group is a good steward of its current resources (human resources, revenue including prior grants). A red flag could be if there doesn’t appear to be enough staff, or if there is lots of turnover in the organization. Plans for sustainability are key, as well as strong relationships with other funders.”

We welcome your comments about this post on the LAPA blog.

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