(This is the complete article developed for my monthly newsletter.)
So you’ve completed the LOI and application process for a grant, and now a funder has asked to come and visit your site to learn more about your work and meet the people involved. Congratulations! You’ve made it far in the process towards getting funded, but you’re not there yet.
If you’ve ever hired someone, you know the difference between a candidate on paper and a candidate in real life. Lots of people sound great on paper but just aren’t what you’d hoped for when you have that in-person interview. Site visits are an important time for funders to observe if you really are doing the good work you say you’re doing. It can impact how much the foundation decides to give you, or if you get funded at all.
So use these ten tips to prepare for your visit and show funders that you are the real deal when it comes to serving your community and/or cause.
1. Know thy Foundation! Otherwise put, do your research. This step comes without saying, and should have been done long before you began developing your written LOI or application. But oftentimes that first step of research is so far removed from the site visit (often times 6 months or more) that it is critical to reorient ourselves with this specific funder and the work they do. Read up on what they care most about. Who else do they fund? What kind of language do they use to talk about the work? While always avoiding mission creep, frame your work (and prep everyone else at the site visit to do the same) in terms that the funder will understand and resonate with. Many of our organizations have missions that could appeal to different types of funders. For example, one organization I’ve worked with could apply for grants that focus on immigrant issues, health issues, or elderly issues. Make sure you tell your story in a way that emphasizes the issue that funder cares most about.
2. Choose Your Participants Carefully. Strategically identify who will be in the room. Your site visit may only be an hour or two, but this is the best chance you have to show off your work. You want a team who knows your work well, can eloquently speak to it, and can be flexible on their feet to respond to questions. Whether your team consists of staff, Board members or clients/residents who benefit, be very intentional in who you choose.
3.Power to the People. Bring in someone who directly benefits from your work! The most powerful voices are your clients/constituents and funders love to hear from people who are most directly impacted by your community work. There can be challenges to this option for some organizations, especially if you have privacy issues in protecting your clients. Others may feel they don’t serve individuals but a cause. But get creative – there is always someone who can speak directly to the impact your work is having on the community (and who is not paid staff or a board member). It may take more time to prep this person, but these personal stories can make the difference in pushing home how your work is making an impact.
4. Create an ‘script.’ Don’t just grab a group of people and throw them in a room with the funder, hoping they’ll say the right things. As the person coordinating the site visit, you must thoughtfully create a guideline for your team. A ‘script’ may sound too specific, because it really should just be an outline of the points you want your team to cover and emphasize. Get insight from the funder on the issues they will want to discuss in the site visit and lay out bullet points on each topic while assigning one of the participants to cover those points. Even the people who are your most committed volunteers don’t know all the numbers and can’t remember all you’ve done in the last year. An outline will help ensure they cover the points you want to emphasize.
5. Develop Leadership! Use this as an opportunity for leadership development of your staff, Board and clients. I said above to be strategic about who you choose, right? Well, that doesn’t mean to choose the same people every time just because they are the trusted few. Use site visits to build new leaders. People deepen their ownership over the organization when they are asking someone to fund it, so use this as an opportunity to identify emerging leaders in your organization. New folks may need a bit more time for prep, but it will be well worth it. Funders love to see new faces impacted by your work. New participants will feel honored to be invited, and will learn about aspects of the organization that they may not have known before.
6. It’s All About Relationships. This isn’t just a time to wow the funder – it’s also a time for people from across your organization to connect and celebrate your work. Oftentimes Board members are disconnected from staff or clients, and vice versa. In your prep session, let everyone share a bit about why they care about the work or how they’ve been impacted, and give some space for them to learn about each other. The feeling of connectedness will set the tone for the meeting, and will hopefully lead to long-term opportunities for deepened relationships and new ideas within your organization.
7. Comfort is Key. Make the space appropriate for the visit. You know your site better than anyone, so find the room that will be quiet, comfortable, and if possible, showcases your work. What does the room feel like? Are the seats comfortable? Do you have snacks or water? Are there loud events nearby? There is nothing like a great site visit being interrupted by the Zumba class going on next door (believe me, I know).
8. Be yourself. If you are a small grassroots organization, let that down-to-earth vibe shine through. If you are radical or conservative, show them the personality of your team and your work. Don’t pretend to be something you are not, but always be professional. They want to see who your organization is and how you do your work, but at the same time know that you have it together and can run the organization appropriately.
9. Practice Makes Prepared. Once you have your team, discuss who the funder is and your history with them – this is an important place to start! Then review the outline you created, role play (you can pretend to be the funder), discuss, debrief and practice again. Take time to prepare!! If possible, have your site visit team meet days before to go through the notes so they can practice what they will say. You want them to feel confident in the points they will be covering and come off as natural and not scripted. If you can’t meet before, send them the documents to review (this includes everyone reviewing the website of the funder as well) and meet at least two hours early to prep. If that sounds like too much, think about the money that is on the line. That money could bring on a new staff person, help with a new program or buy new computers for your clients. There is a lot at stake, and you need to put in sufficient preparation – both you as the leader and with your team. Once you’ve done sufficient prep, even if something goes wrong, you’ll be ready.
10. Hands Off (Well, Almost)! You’ve done the prep; now step back, and watch your team do the good work. Yes, you are the leader, and sure, they want to hear from you, but most likely they already have (are you the one who wrote the proposal or has been talking to them on the phone?) They want to see the others in your organization – especially those who aren’t paid – express why they care, or how they’ve been impacted. Step in when needed, but showcase that your organization is built not just by the highest paid staff person, but by all the people who care about the work and keep it moving forward. There is little more impressive in a site visit than when you have Board, staff, volunteers and clients all speaking about the impact of your work.
11. Debrief. Yes, this was only supposed to be ten points, but debrief is always an afterthought, and just can’t be left out here. After all the hours you put in to prepping your team, you’ll want to debrief and see how folks felt. This is a great time for you to learn where the gaps were to better prepare for future visits, but it’s also an opportunity for participants to share stories of how they felt, what they learned, and maybe even what inspired them to get more involved in your work.