The Site Visit
So, you got the call. The foundation you went to for that big grant wants to come see your organization at work. This is great news. Although it is no guarantee of funding -- something the program officer is likely to tell you -- it means you have survived several levels of weeding out and are on the precipice of funding. Foundation program officers and trustees are busy people and do not waste their time on courtesy calls. If they come to perform a site visit, chances are they want to fund you. Can you blow it? Sure. But here are a few pointers that can help you seal the deal:
- Carefully review everything you have sent to the foundation. By the time a site visit occurs, it may be months since the original proposal was submitted. Reread it closely. Are the assumptions that went into it still the same? Have key personnel changed? What has happened with other funding requests? Has the project moved forward? Have other priorities usurped this project's importance? Also, don't forget to take a look at the financial statements and other supporting documents you submitted. You may need to answer questions about them.
- Get the right people to be part of the visit. Who should be included? My approach is to include the fewest people it takes to answer all aspects of the project. For instance, the project director can speak to program design and implementation issues. The Executive Director can speak to the project's importance within the organization's mission. A development officer or "grant person" can speak to administration of the funds and also serve as the coordinator of the visit -- making introductions and keeping things on track. Avoid symbolic gestures like including the Chairman of the Board or clients unless you believe they genuinely bring information that cannot be provided by someone else. Make sure everyone participating has read the proposal!
- Prepare an agenda. You may not stick to it, but being prepared with an agenda will keep you from returning the program officer's expectant gaze with a blank stare. Keep it simple: a tour of the facility and some time in a quite conference area with the principals. To avoid talking over each other, you should have a "pre-game huddle" with the principals to outline who will speak to which issues. It's okay to ask the foundation in advance what areas they are most interested in or want to see (but don't be surprised if the answer is vague.) Be sure to provide foundation reps with clear directions to your site, along with maps and special instructions if necessary (e.g. construction site, wear sturdy shoes.)
- Be open and honest. There will inevitably be a moment when the program officer pries into your organization's shortcomings (i.e., shrinking clientele, shaky financials, staff turnover.) Do not be evasive. Unless one has Oscar-worthy acting chops, it is impossible to hide the fact that you are hiding something. Rather, turn the situation into an opportunity to demonstrate your ability to recognize and overcome your weaknesses. No organization is perfect and having the guts and resources to attack your problems is about all a funder could want. That, and, of course, the knowledge that you are an honest and forthcoming partner.
- Gain from their experience. It is important to remember that foundation program officers are very often experts in your field. They may be former practitioners, even Executive Directors, and have likely seen dozens of organizations like yours trying to do what you have proposed. You may never have as much of their attention again as you do during the site visit. Get the most out of it. I had one site visit where the foundation representative pointed out several hundred thousand dollars of costs we had not figured into our capital budget. His input was invaluable in moving the project forward wisely. (It also gave us a good reason to increase our request on the spot, which they honored.)
We talk a lot about building relationships in the grant biz. The site visit is a time when they can really gel. Remember, as one foundation Executive Director said to me, "we do exactly the same thing." Grantmakers and grantseekers are part of a single effort to improve the human condition. We need each other. So, when foundation staff come to call, use this time to really connect with an honest exchange.