What Funders Get Wrong About Site Visits

Site visits play an important role in helping funders determine which organizations and causes to allocate resources to, but unfortunately these engagements are also ripe for exploitation. Staff in nonprofits often spend undue time preparing for and facilitating site visits from funders, much of it to the detriment of their programs. Nonprofit clients are sometimes paraded around in inauthentic and even re-traumatizing ways. Despite the intention to both inform funders and deepen relationships, site visits often exploit overworked staff and further marginalize communities.

There is a better way.

By challenging three common misconceptions of site visits, funders become clearer about their role as partners.

In this article, I take on the voice of the funder, using “we” and “our.” In aligning with funder interests in this way, my goal is to open up new ways of engaging grantees during site visits and to make those visits more effective, more powerful, and more transformative.   

More Engagement, Less Reporting

Site visits should “educate and engage” not “report and repeat.” We have very few opportunities to come face-to-face with our grantees, and site visits are often brief—sometimes only one hour. To that end, here are three changes we should make immediately.

Don’t waste time on yes-and-no questions

Many people believe the purpose of a site visit is to acquire more information, but we can find facts in the grant application, on the internet, or in documentation that can be sent over email or clarified over the phone. We shouldn’t use this valuable in-person time for simple Q&A—that is a waste of an opportunity. Instead, we need to seek an experience from engagement and dialogue during the visit.

Focus on participation, not passive learning

Decades of research in social psychology has shown us that prejudice does not lessen if people merely acquire new knowledge. Facts and statistics alone do not change opinions and behaviors. That’s because a crucial ingredient is missing from stats: empathy, and empathy cannot be achieved through passive learning. There must be participation.

If we really want a deeper understating of a nonprofit’s work and of the challenges they are tackling, we need to volunteer for one hour, not sit in a meeting or watch a presentation. Or, can we participate as guests in one of their trainings? Tour the clinic as if we were patients? Shadow one of their program staff while they work?

If none of these suggestions are realistic for us or the nonprofit we are visiting, at the very least, we can use our meeting with the staff to have a nuanced discussion. This time should not be a fact query or interview; it should be a two-way dialogue that addresses the biggest challenges or barriers the nonprofit faces (besides funding).

Admit that we can’t observe without influencing

Any site visit, even a one-hour meeting, is a form of intervention. Just the act of going into the space, being present, taking time, and asking questions is an act of intervention that influences the people and dynamics of the site. If we ignore the power of our disruption, we miss a critical opportunity to make the disruption meaningful and valuable to the nonprofit.

We make it meaningful by participating, not passively receiving information.

We make it meaningful by asking to be engaged, not receiving a report.

We make it meaningful by doing our homework in advance, so we are not asking fact-based questions but instead having challenging dialogues that advance thought in our sector.

Seeking to minimize disruption

A Better Way:
Making our disruption meaningful

More Collaboration, Less Dictation

Don’t fall into the trap of dictating the entire site visit agenda to your grantee or assuming that rebalancing power means handing off all the planning to them. In this process, we strive for collaboration among funders, nonprofits, and their clients.

Avoid a rigid funder-led process

Many funders have a uniform process for site visits. The checklist and standardized script are meant to serve as an “unbiased” review process and ensure that all applicants are treated equally. First, let’s be honest, no process can be unbiased because the people conducting that process cannot be unbiased. Second, the checklist and questionnaire are more of a barrier to effective dialogues than they are a tool of learning. Often the site-visit questions merely reframe the questions in the grant application, which is a total waste of time. No, we can’t go to a site visit with a blank slate—we need parameters—but we also need to allow for unique site-appropriate engagement. To begin, let’s ask the nonprofit what site-visit processes have and have not worked in the past.

Ensure all client engagement is client-led

The highlight of many site visits is our opportunity to engage with the people whose lives have been impacted by the nonprofit. But not just any encounter will suffice—it must be ethical, appropriate, and beneficial to funder, nonprofit, and client.

In international aid, I’ve seen groups of well-intentioned funders wanting to meet with survivors of sexual violence, human trafficking, and domestic abuse. Such encounters are impossible in the U.S. and U.K., where survivors’ identities are protected for safety and dignity, yet in other countries such “survivor tours” are common. In addition to re-traumatizing and humiliating the survivors they claim to help, these tours often pay those survivors very little or nothing at all—which further exploits them.

Instead, we can ask the nonprofit, What kind of client engagement is meaningful, if any?” All client engagement should be in the best interest of the client, not the funder or nonprofit.

Don’t just leave it up to the nonprofit

To rebalance the power dynamics inherent in site visits, some funders leave it up to the nonprofit entirely to plan the visit. While this appears generous, it actually often leaves the nonprofit scrambling to determine what to do and how to do it with resources already stretched thin. Furthermore, expecting the nonprofit to anticipate our needs on a site visit and to provide us with everything in advance is a large request.

Instead of leaving all the preparation and planning to them, we can co-create the agenda and ask what they need help with. One of the best ways to show up as a true partner during the site visit is to do all our homework in advance. We can reread the grant application, visit the nonprofit’s website, and do some internet research to get savvy on the issue and the people involved, especially if the topic and the community’s values, beliefs, and norms are outside our expertise.

Leaving up to us (or them)…

A Better Way:
Inviting collaboration


More Exploration, Less Evaluation

Many funders approach site visits as part of the evaluation process. Grant applications or even basic web research reveal whether or not an organization is a good fit for a funder’s philanthropic interests, so the site visit provides an opportunity to both get clarity on the work of the nonprofit (what are they really doing?) and evaluate the nonprofit (are they really doing what they say they are doing?).

Explore our own process

We spend a lot of time thinking about and tweaking our grant applications and review processes to make the more equitable. How does that equity translate into a site visit? We don’t really know until we go on one. We can use site visits to explore—not evaluate—our own grantmaking process. Did our application provide us with enough information on the nonprofit to conduct an effective site visit? Was too much time spent on clarifying facts and requesting additional documentation?

The pitfalls of the site visit can illuminate important changes that need to happen in other parts of the review process. After the visit, we must spend time debriefing and exploring how our overall grantmaking process can improve, based on what we learned.

Explore our own theories of change

One problem with the narrow view of merely evaluating the nonprofit on a site visit is that it assumes we funders already have the solutions. It assumes we understand the full complexity of the work and that what we are investing in is proven to have the desired impact. But the challenges being tackled by the nonprofit sector are incredibly complex. Solutions and theories change not infrequently, as more interventions are tested and measured.

We can keep an open mind about our theory of change and, while on the site visit, strive to question rather than judge. Instead of thinking, “That process is so inefficient,” or, “They’re doing it all wrong,” we can ask questions in the spirit of curiosity. We can assume that there is good reason why things are being done the current way and inquire about the process so that we learn more.

Explore ourselves

Suspending judgment does not mean suppressing it. If we find ourselves forming such an opinion—for example, “All the staff are wearing denim shorts; how unprofessional”—we can consider first if it is productive to address it with the staff. Assuming it is not, we can keep the judgment in our back pocket to reflect on later. “Why did I think wearing denim shorts to work is unprofessional? What am I basing my view of profession attire on? What does this say about my values and the assumptions I make of others?”

This is the last element we want to explore on a site visit: ourselves. What values, biases, and beliefs do we hold going into this site visit? What do we know about the challenges our grantees face? What don’t we know? There is often more we don’t know about a situation than we do know. Site visits are an opportunity to evaluate ourselves, examine our beliefs and assumptions, and put our own theories of change to the test. If we approach a site visit with open minds, with curiosity instead of scrutiny, and with a willingness to be changed by what we learn, we will better able to serve our grantees as partners.

Evaluating the nonprofit only

A Better Way:
Exploring the nonprofit, the theory, the process, and ourselves