September 22, 2011

You Never Get a Second Chance: Nailing the Site Visit

As the newest member of the TGP team and someone who spends a considerable amount of time writing grants each week, I am not ashamed to admit I gain a great sense of relief each time one of my proposals is submitted, or as we like to say at The Grant Plant… “Planted.”

I assume most of our clients feel the same way. They have sent us as much information as they can, they answer our questions, and they review, review, review – they also must breathe a sigh of hope and relief as they too watch the proposal being planted. For some, this may not be the last step. For some of our clients, the relief may soon turn to nervous excitement when they receive the call that the funder would like to schedule a site visit.

Clients often associate a site visit with a white-glove inspection. At TGP, we try to encourage our clients to think of the visit as an opportunity to showcase their talents and programs. Site visits provide funders with a feeling and understanding about an organization that a grant application cannot. It is one thing for the funder to receive a well-written, carefully crafted proposal that describes a meaningful program with perfectly planned measurable outcomes. It is a totally different matter for them to visit the potential grantee and to see those impacted by the funding, see the planning, structure, and potential outcomes for themselves, and to know if the program is a good fit for their support.

What can you expect from a site visit?

For many, a site visit might be as simple as a visit from a local foundation program officer. The program officer may stay an hour or two meeting staff, speaking with the organization’s executive director, asking questions, observing the programs, and possibly visiting with program clients.

For others, a site visit may be made by a program officer from the federal government or a large national foundation. The visit might be from one or more representatives who have a specific agenda, a specific list of people to talk to, and a specific list of questions that must be addressed. They may also require a formal presentation or meeting.

Regardless of the type of funder or the amount of the request, the visits are likely to have similar agenda items. It is part of the funder’s due diligence to see what your physical space is like, meet your program’s leadership, see the program in operation, and meet any program partners. If they have visited you before, they will want to see what has changed since their last visit.

How can you prepare for the visit?

It is important to find out what the funder’s expectations are for the visit. When the program officer calls to schedule the visit, ask the caller what they want to see, who they would like to visit with, and how long they plan to stay. Part of the visit will be the discussion about the agency, the proposal, and questions the program officer has about these things. But he or she may also expect to be shown around your place and have an opportunity to observe what is going on. Find out exactly what would be of interest, and schedule accordingly.

Set the visit for a day in which you know your program activities will be in progress. Be sure to schedule the visit during optimal program times to showcase the program highlights that will most interest the funder. It is also ideal for the program officer to see and/or meet with those whom the program is impacting.

Make sure the individuals that the program officer wishes to meet will be available. The funder will certainly want to meet with the executive director, key managers, and the program director. Their availability will demonstrate the team’s commitment to this potential funder.

If the proposal is for a collaborative effort, ask the funder if they would like to meet some of your partners. Invite a few key players who are available to a portion of the visit to help demonstrate the relationship and the partner’s involvement.

Be prepared to act as an expert on your organization and on the program. Be prepared to answer any and all questions about your organization. Make sure you have a full understanding of your organization’s programs and finances. Make sure to re-read the proposal again before the visit. Be sure you know exactly how the program will work, who is involved, what the budget will support, what the expected outcomes are, and how the outcomes will be measured. Allow for necessary project members to be available during the visit for additional information in the event you feel someone else may be able to discuss a topic more clearly or in greater depth, such as the budget.

Be yourself and communicate honestly about your program. Don’t cloud the information about the program with an elaborate presentation, entertainment, or a hard sales pitch. Your funder is there to get to know your program firsthand. Share honest and clear information on the program and use your common sense. Be sure to share your challenges as well as successes.

Show your enthusiasm and passion for your organization and program. By demonstrating your commitment to the project and your capacity to successfully carry it out, the program officer will have a sense of confidence in knowing you are going to follow through on your proposed measures listed in your submission.

Take a moment at the end of the site visit for follow-up. Make a checklist of any issues the funder asked you to follow up on. If a funder requests additional items, make sure to ask when the deadline for the items will be. Finally, jot a thank you note to the people who conducted the site visit that expresses appreciation for their interest in your program.

Final Thought

The phone call for a site visit is an exciting one. Although a site visit is not a guarantee of a grant, it does mean the funder is thinking seriously about supporting your program. It provides your organization with an additional opportunity to give the funder a clear picture of your organization and programs and to establish that your program is a good fit for their support. As the saying goes, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” so the best you can do is to know what to expect, be prepared, and convey your passion about your program. Although I get that great sense of relief when one of my proposals is “planted,” it is even more relieving to receive a call telling me we’re not done yet… due to a site visit!

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