“Protecting Your Legacy,” Philanthropy Roundtable’s guidebook on donor intent, advises donors to “know your grant recipients.” To do this effectively, the Roundtable advises making site visits, among other things.
Many foundations and individual funders regard a site visit as a critical element of due diligence before awarding a grant, particularly when the applicant or the program to be funded is not familiar to the grant maker. On some occasions, however, site visits may be helpful in enriching existing relationships, particularly when there are leadership transitions on either side. In-person site visits were typically abandoned in 2020, given the COVID-19 pandemic, and even in 2021 were more likely to be made virtually, if at all.
With the emergence of new nonprofits in response to the pandemic, to the disruption of K-12 education and to other social issues – along with an increase in nonprofit mergers, dissolutions and staff shortages – donors may decide site visits are again not only desirable, but necessary. What then are the optimal circumstances for in-person visits and how should donors ensure such visits are beneficial to both parties involved?
Funders typically make site visits to see a program in action, so schools, museums, day care facilities, food pantries and youth and community centers are common candidates. There are times, however, when it is preferable for donors to visit a nonprofit organization’s office, particularly to protect the health or confidentiality of vulnerable clients – in a domestic violence shelter, for example – and funders should be sensitive to those situations.
Because a grant maker’s request for a site visit inevitably raises expectations at the nonprofit in question, it is wise to limit such requests to organizations from which you have already received a grant application and in which you have a genuine interest. For a potential grantee, a site visit – despite the potential benefits – will be time-consuming. Donors can help ensure a more productive site visit in a number of ways:
- Make the executive director or CEO of the organization your first point of contact. That person will likely choose to be present for the site visit and can also help you identify other key individuals who should be present, including board members. In addition, you should identify those who will be attending on behalf of the grant maker and keep this group small.
- Provide a brief outline of your mission and why you are drawn to the work of the organization and, if relevant, what specific program or project appeals to you.
- Where appropriate, ask for an opportunity to see service delivery in action. Classrooms and job training programs, museums and libraries, some health care and research facilities and community centers are among the venues where this may be possible.
- Work with the nonprofit to plan the site visit agenda to understand each other’s priorities.
- Read the grant application thoroughly before you visit so you can avoid asking for information that has already been provided. Instead, use this opportunity to understand the values and personal passions that drive the organization as well as the challenges it is facing.
- Do ask about financial sustainability, staffing needs, overall capacity to deliver programs and increases or decreases in community need for services.
- Do ask why things are done the way they are and what sort of changes the organization sees ahead.
- Do ask questions about board engagement and any needs the organization has in this area.
- Do ask questions about the organization’s impact – how evaluation is done and how it affects future service delivery.
- Do ask about client feedback – how it is gathered and utilized.
- Invite questions about your philanthropy and how and when funding decisions are made. The nonprofit folks may hesitate to ask, but they certainly would like to know.
- Be honest if asked for feedback about what you have learned during your site visit. Beyond the more immediate grant decision, you are beginning to build a relationship with an organization that sparked your interest, and your feedback – both positive and negative – will be valuable.
Although a site visit is only one aspect of the due diligence you should perform as a regular part of grant making, it is invaluable in giving a close-up look at a potential or existing grantee. It also reinforces the many other safeguards you employ to protect donor intent and ensure grant compliance. As Keith Whitaker of Wise Counsel Research noted in “Protecting Your Legacy,” “Grant compliance happens best when you have done the work upfront to make sure you’re partnering with an organization that really believes in what you’re trying to do and isn’t just trying to game your system in order to get money. The best compliance is the investigatory work, the due diligence, the time commitment needed to get to know a grantee.”