Key Takeaways from Stan Goldman's Webinar on "Site Visits: How to Do Them Well"


On August 14, Stan Goldman, PhD, Program Director, The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, led an informative webinar on "Site Visits: How to Do them Well." 

For grantmakers, one of the most important ways for you to learn about a nonprofit or charitable project is to make a site visit. This in-person visit allows you to get a feel for the group, how it’s run, see its work in action, and begin to develop a relationship with staff. It also gives the nonprofit organization the opportunity to learn about you and your grantmaking philosophies. Transparency on both sides is the ultimate goal. Stan is a veteran of over 700 site visits, and spoke about the "do's and don't's" on how to make a productive and effective site visit. Below is a summary of his recommendations.

Stan Goldman’s Rules for Site Visits: 

Be prepared.

1. Paper first, visit second. Read the proposal, the audited financial statement, and the website before your visit. A site visit is an act of respect and courtesy, and a validation of the organization’s work.  Show you care and that do you due diligence. Do your research before the visit. Come fully prepared. You shouldn’t be asking on the visit how many people served, cost per person, etc. You should know that before you arrive. If you come to the visit and clearly know the details of the organization, they are likely to be more open with you.

2. Look at other sources and uses of funds. Look into where their money comes from and where it is going. Call people who gave, find out how much they gave, and don’t accept anonymous donors. Email project budgets to government funders and other funders to look at if applicant is presenting the same budget. Applicants must explain discrepancies in different versions of budgets sent to different funders. As a due diligence investigator, you need to know this.

3. Send questions ahead of a visit. Many questions take a lot of time to answer.

4. Peer review system. Who is a true peer? Not another foundation. They are not a true peer as they want leverage and support of their programs. You want professionals in the field who know everything. Find an academic or retired CEO or CEO from another state who has managed a similar provider. Pay an honorarium. Get several written reviews of the proposal from true peer reviewers before you visit. Must be armed with questions from experts to be on top of your work. 

5. Remember: We are not that smart. We are dazzled by our own intelligence we are voyeurs looking into another business. Remember, it is really hard to manage a nonprofit. Be humble and respectful of the work the agency staff does.

The visit:

6. Don’t go to alone. Bring consultants who know the area you are looking at (i.e. construction person for capital grants)

7. Who should be at the site visit? CEO, front line staff, managers in different sets of meetings. Do not let the development person control the meaning nor the introductions. Beware of manipulative, emotional “spin” movies and PowerPoint presentations. You should not be sitting in a room the entire visit. Walk around, see the place, and talk to front-line staff.

8. Meet with people who receive services. Talk to them, without the management joining in. “Ask ME, FIRST” is the mantra of people with disabilities!

9. Notice the little things. (Are the board members arguing about the color of furniture or about how they missed a fundraising target and need help moving forward?) On a site visit, you need eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart that feels and understands (Isaiah and Coleridge, both of whom made many site visits, including to Jerusalem!)

10. Listen to the voices in your head. Keep asking yourself how this program meets your foundation’s goals and moves the field forward. Does the program improve services and change a person’s life for the better?

11. Ask them to define success and how to measure that success: what outcomes and measurements do they use?

12. Ask one key question at end of visit. Do you want to hear about other similar agencies I have seen?

13. Less is more. Go to a few places, spend a chunk of time there, and talk to everyone. Don’t go everywhere. Ask your driver to stand at the door and talk to everyone, too.  S/he may find out some interesting perspectives, too.

14. Don’t take notes. On a site visit, use all your mental power to make eye contact, speak in the language of the field, and push people more deeply.

15. Ask for a recommendation for the single best article or book to read in the field to determine if people read current literature. (You should be up on it too!)

16. Be sensitive of other cultures.

17. Give feedback to grantee and other donors, especially if they are declined by the Board. How else can they improve? A declination without reasons harms your relationship with grantees and holds the entire field back. You can do this by phone if you don’t want extra work of letters, and then protest letters, and on and on.

18. Don’t go somewhere where you don’t speak the language. Things get lost when a visit is done through a translator.

19. Do not accept gifts or meals. Pay for meals. Don’t accept invitations to homes of the CEO or fundraiser for dinner. The entire field will know about it soon and will interpret that dinner as favoritism on your part. Owe no one anything. Maintain your distance so if you have to recommend a declination, you don’t suffer.

20.   RED FLAGS:

    1. Ask if others do what they do? Everyone should be able to say yes in some way. Or tell you how their services differ from the competition. Beware of the immense duplication and waste of money in the social service fields. Lack of awareness of the bigger field on their part is a huge red flag.

    2. Be sure that the therapies you see are evidence-based and are not doing harm to people. Many home-brewed therapies out there are given to vulnerable populations—DANGER.

    3. Cannot define what success is or how to measure it.

    4. Do not ask client what they want: organization no concern for choice and control on the part of clients—people served.

    5. In Disabilities, any type of enclave, sheltered workshop, congregate setting, segregated setting –all alarms.

    6. Financials: Be sure you know exactly how much the organization has in expendable net assets (operating cushion), if there are operating deficits, enough cash on hand, and beware of the most recent tendency of nonprofits taking financial risks by accepting loans instead of grants and donations. Even loans without interest are a burden—need to see pro forma to know if organization can handle the debt, the payments, even if only principal. Loans are forgiven? You want written proof from lender.

    7. Ask where else they are applying for funding? Everyone should be applying for funds from several different places. If they applied only to you and there is no ongoing prospect research, they are lazy or don’t know how to do prospect research. Teach them.

21. Crying is allowed, but after the visit. Depending on your field you may be an emotional wreck from site visits. Crying or being emotional at a site visit confuses everyone, but you do need to maintain your humanity to be effective.

22. Even with catered lunch, ask for bill to be sent to you.

23. Don’t go for Shabbat meal at the CEO’s or development person’s home. You are not there to be their friend. They don’t like you, they like your money.

24.   If an applicant is declined, always call and give specifics.  

Why Site Visits Matter