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Five Tips for a Great Site Visit

From Clear Thinking Communications and Susan Parker
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Article: Five Tips for a Great Site Visit


Early one morning, a former priest is scouting around the loading dock of the South San Francisco produce market, looking for damaged fruits and vegetables. Before sunrise, he drives up in a truck to search for food too bruised or discolored to be sold. He uses that food for a local soup kitchen.

Bill Somerville, the chief executive officer at Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, is tagging along to learn more.  Somerville's organization funded the truck that the former priest drives. On this day, like many others, Somerville has gone out to see what kind of difference his foundation's money is making to the people it seeks to help.  In his book, Grassroots Philanthropy: Field Notes of a Maverick Grantmaker, Somerville is passionate about the importance of nonprofit and foundation staff getting out from behind their desks and into the field to learn how their funding is being translated into real world work.

Somerville estimates that foundation staff spends less than 10 percent of their time out in the field. That is unfortunate.

There is really no better way to understand the problems and issues that your organization is trying to help solve than to get out and see the work that your grantees are doing. No amount of white papers, evaluations or even conferences will give you that same intimate knowledge and feel for your work.

I often go on site visits for my writing projects. Almost always, they are well worth my time. They not only help me get a better understanding of the issues, they help me get a better feeling for them. And in communications, the feeling that we convey can be as important as the knowledge.

I encourage you to make a plan to get out--soon--and see the work your grantees are doing. It will help you do a better job and keep you energized and engaged in your work.

Here are some things I've learned that can help you have a successful site visit.

1. Prepare. Ask yourself why you want to visit a particular grantee. Are they doing work that is an example of a key new direction that your foundation is going? Or, are you ending your funding in an area and you want to capture lessons learned before you leave the field? Think about the bigger theme that you want to explore. Then make sure that this grantee can give you a real world example of that theme. You only have a short time with the grantee--typically, a day at the most--so it is vital to be as focused as possible on what you want to accomplish.

Read background information on your organization's work in this area and on the organization that you are visiting. Write down the key questions that you want to make sure and ask.

2. Get there early. If you are flying to the visit, arrive as early as possible the day before.  It can be tempting to take the last flight out in order to get a full day's work done. But that is a big mistake. You have no backup plan if your flight is cancelled.  If your plane is delayed, you risk getting in late at night and starting the site visit tired and unfocused. On the other hand, if you arrive early the day before, you can always work at your hotel.

I once had a site visit in Puerto Rico and took one of the last flights out. My plane was delayed because of severe thunderstorms and I did not arrive at my hotel until 3am. My site visit started at 8am. I began my day exhausted, which made the visit challenging from the beginning.

It's important and polite to be rested and ready to fully engage with the people who are taking time out of their schedule to meet with you.

3. Start your day at the grantee's office. It makes sense to start your day meeting with key people and learning more about the work. This is a time to talk to the executive director and others to get the big picture of the work they are doing.  During this time, try to cover these key areas:

  • Get the context. Every project is grounded in a local context. It's important to understand the context in which the organization is doing its work.  For example, if you are visiting a program that provides early childhood services to young mothers, ask about the issues that these mothers face in that particular community.

  • Ask dumb questions. The dumb questions almost always get the best answers, like, why is pre-school education important? Why can't kids just play and have fun until they go off to school?

  • Ask follow-up questions. No matter what you have said to the grantees to the contrary, you will likely get a bit of a dog and pony show with prepared generic questions. You are the funder, or someone who represents a funder, and therefore the grantee will likely see you as a potential funding source. You might have to keep asking follow-up questions until you get the information you need.

  • Ask for one story that illustrates the area of their work that you are interested in. Throughout the day, you will hear a lot of facts, figures and other information. A story will help anchor that information for you. Keep probing for details that bring the story to life. Rely on the journalist's questions of who, why, where, when, what and how.  For example, if you are visiting a program on early childhood education, you might want to ask for the story of one mother and how the project helped her. Make sure to ask the grantee to tell you a story about a person who reflects the real life ups and downs that people face in overcoming obstacles. You don't want to hear about one of the "stars" who marched through the program and did everything right. 

4. Get out and see something. Site visits are most valuable when you can actually see what the grantees are doing. Make sure that they've set aside time to show you their work in action. This should be an informal time rather than having recipients lined up to tell you how great the organization is. Walk around a neighborhood where the organization is working, poke your head into that pre-school program they are running, and get a feel for the environment where they are trying to make a difference.

In my trip to Puerto Rico, I was learning about a project that sought to reduce underage drinking. It was one thing to hear about the problem of 15 and 16 year olds easily getting into bars and buying as much alcohol as they wanted. It was a much different experience when I walked around a popular section of San Juan with the project director and randomly chose a bar to go into. There, no more than five minutes later, I watched three girls who looked to be no older than 16 years old confidently walk in and order drinks. The bartender served them without ever asking for identification.

Try to have the project director, rather than the executive director take you around. The project director is the one who really knows how the project works on the front lines And you may get more honest answers about how the work is going when the project director is away from his or her boss.

5. Make time for informal chats. If you can, go out for lunch or grab a cup of coffee with someone from the grantee organization. Put away your notebook or computer and just chat. In those informal settings, when people have gotten to know you a bit and are more relaxed, you often find out some of the best, most useful information. On the Puerto Rico visit, I learned some great "insider" background when the project director took me to his favorite neighborhood restaurant for lunch.

Take a page from Bill Somerville and get out and see the work that your grantees are doing.  As he puts it: "I like to imagine a philanthropic sector where foundation executives get out of their offices and into the field at least 30 percent of their work time. Frankly, that would mark a revolutionary change in philanthropy. And it's a change that's entirely possible for all of us."


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