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Strengthening Site Visits: 6 Tips for Sanity and Success

Ah, site visits. These two words can elicit trepidation and worry, but that need not be the case. At the United Way where I work, we run a traditional citizen review process (often known as Allocations) where a program submits a grant that is read by a panel of volunteers. Then, the panel conducts a site visit before making its funding recommendations. In the course of the year, I see anywhere from 35-45 site visits. Based on that experience, I created the following list of five recommendations that I hope will help you plan your next site visit in a way that is more successful for your organization (and helps you retain some of your sanity).

When setting up the site visit, ask the funder questions. Who do they want to meet, and what do they wish to learn? Ask what information those attending the site visit have, or had access to, prior to the visit.
It sounds elementary, but take the time to review this information before the site visit in-house with the main staff who will be at the visit. A common error we see frequently is confusion about the request, as grant writers or program staff are often involved in many requests for their programs and may confuse who they asked for what. For instance, we often get to site visits and staff start talking about their capital request, yet we do not fund capital projects. This kind of confusion can lead to a lack of confidence in the organization by reviewers who question the competency of the program and staff.
Decide who from your staff should be at the site visit. Compose an agenda.
An agenda is an excellent tool to focus the visit and to put your staff members at ease. It also helps everyone be mindful and respectful of the group's time.
-          When possible, do backup planning. A key player could miss the site visit for a variety of reasons (client emergency, illness, family emergency, etc.). Who do you have waiting in the wings to serve as the backup for this key player?
-          Talking about budgets can be tricky. If you cannot speak to the numbers, make sure someone else on your team is available to participate in the site visit.
-          If you have a board member present, give them a role to play. That is just good volunteer management, but it can also be hard to watch a board member who does not have something to do sit quiety in the meeting.
-          Client speakers can be a powerful asset. Meet with them before the visit and help guide them through the process. Speaking to a room full of strangers about their vulnerability and need for help can be daunting. Before they talk to the group during the site visit, remind everyone that the testimony is confidential. This can be of great comfort to the speaker and may put that at ease.
At the site visit, stick to the program for which you requested funds.
If you requested general operating support, stick to what results you can achieve with funding for operations. It is easy to spin off and talk about something new and exciting that is about to occur, but that is not what your visitors are there to discuss. It could send the wrong message that funding is needed for items beyond (or more important than) what was highlighted in your proposal.
If the grant maker has not shared their time line, ask for it.
It can be easy to forget the funder is a nonprofit as well and thus is guided by a board—just like your organization. It may be that recommendations for funding have to be finalized and approved by the board, or that there is another process in place with the site visit only one step in that process towards making funding decisions. Ask the visitors what you can expect after the site visit is completed. Do not make assumptions about the process, even if it is one of your historic funders. Funders change their processes all the time.
Send a thank you card after the visit.
Yep. Sounds so simple. However this piece is often neglected. Thank people for their time and feedback. Be authentic. When I receive thank you notes after site visits, I share them with our board. Remember: handwritten notes go a long way!
Learn from the inside.
If the funder is running a citizen review process, ask if you can volunteer to be on a panel. At United Way, we actively encourage those who are at funded programs to take part, and we place them where there is not a conflict of interest. Sometimes the best way to learn more about grants and funding is to be a part of the process.