Site Visits: Good Due Diligence or Organizational Intrusion? A Philanthro-ethical Perspective

site visitA site visit is an example where the power imbalance can come into play too easily.

By Richard Marker

Site visits? How is that an ethical issue?

Every “how-to” manual on grantmaking due diligence talks about how useful a site visit can be. After all, 990’s, annual reports, and proposal narratives can tell us only so much – a lot, but sometimes we really want to get the full flavor of a potential grantee. Meeting with the development officer or even the executive director in our office can help elaborate on the submitted narrative, and, depending on the proposal, may give enough information for a funder to make a decision.

But sometimes we very much want to see the program or organization in situ. Is the new space really a cutting edge environment for preschoolers? Are the secondary school participants really more engaged than we have seen in comparable programs? Is the atmosphere for at-risk homeless really more conducive to more effective re-integration into the community? Are the senior citizens visibly more alert than at other drop-in centers? Is the proposed site for the relocation really going to serve their demographic better?

In these situations, and others like them, seeing is convincing – or not. Our decision probably does hinge on what we see, how we feel about it, and how the questions are answered. Our meetings with those providing the service will give us a more dynamic sense of what is actually happening, what is still aspirational, and what may be, at best, well-intentioned hype.

But what if the site visit isn’t relevant to our decision? We have already made up our mind about whether or not to fund the proposal but figure no harm in taking a look-see. Or our guidelines are very clear – this organization or project or facility will never get funded, but it looks like an interesting organization, so why not? Is that legitimate? Is there anything wrong with that?

Let’s look at this from the other side… For a nonprofit organization, a visit from a potential funder gets it salivating. A dollar sign is about to walk in the door. And would they be there if they weren’t committed? That visit, though, comes at a cost. An announced site visit is an intervention. There is a good chance that someone, most likely the CEO in a smaller organization, has passed along a message to “clean your desk,” “dress up,” be on good behavior because a funder is coming! A funder is coming! That interruption may merely be a bit of a nuisance for those in offices, but can be outright disruptive for a direct service provider. Talking to the aforementioned early childhood teacher can be extraordinarily interesting, but it also means taking her [usually it is a “her”] away from her charges. If our potential decision will hinge on this visit, and if the amount of our potential grant justifies it, then that kind of interruption will be worth it for all. But if we are just there as a visitor or voyeur – for our general edification, we may want to think twice about whether it is the right time or place.

What about an unannounced visit? There are places and times where such make a lot of sense. Do we want to decide whether to support a theatre company? Buy a ticket and sit unobtrusively in the audience first. Do we want to decide if we are interested in supporting a program of a multi-service center? Stop in, as any other potential constituent might, and see how we are welcomed and what information is easily available.

In these cases, if we are positively inclined, it will make sense to follow up to schedule the “announced” site visit. But it is a bit unfair to simply show up somewhere and assume that the staff will drop everything to show us around, unless, of course, there is someone whose job it is to do exactly that for all visitors.

Some of you will say: But what if I want to consider a revised funding focus or priority? or we want to consider expanding our funding to a new community? One of the ways of helping to decide that would be to visit places even though we are nowhere near ready to consider funding any of them.

The key phrase in the question is “helping to decide.” There is indeed a decision to be made and there could be a strong case that a series of site visits can bring us up to speed. To be completely fair to the sites, though, articulate in writing why we are coming, that we are not currently – and may never be – open to a proposal, but that they represent a field of service or expertise of importance to us, the funder. Discuss ahead of time who should be visited, and ask when is the least disruptive time. And perhaps it would be useful to send along a series of bullet point questions so it is clear what we want to discuss. [My experience is that, if we don’t do that, an organization assumes that we are interested in them as an entire organization and they will be prepared with their best sales pitches; if we only care about their after school activities, our advance questions will make it clear that their senior citizen center is not on our agenda.]

Why is this discussion a philanthro-ethical one? A site visit is an example where the power imbalance can come into play too easily. How many organizations will have the courage to say to funders, potential or existing, that it is really a bad time? Or that we are abusing our assumed access for no value to the organization when we expect them to mobilize all staff to be available to talk to us? Any time that the power imbalance can influence behavior, it is a philanthro-ethical issue, and all funders need to be sensitive to whether that particular fact finding process is the correct one.

In the case of a site visit, when a decision genuinely depends on it, it can add great value. Other times, think about it carefully.

Richard Marker teaches and advises funders from around the world through both the NYU Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education and the Wise Philanthropy Institute, both of which he founded. His blog can be found at Wise Philanthropy.