A divergence of grantmaking practices among foundations is especially evident in the area of site visits. Some foundations don’t conduct them at all, others rarely, others often.
At the King Foundation, we make site visits to about 70% of the agencies we fund each cycle. A site visit is not a signal that your proposal will be funded, and the absence of a visit does not mean your proposal will fail. Geographic, time, and staff limitations prevent us from visiting every agency each cycle. For similar reasons, we do not conduct pre-proposal site visits.
A typical site visit takes between one and two hours, sometimes a little longer (not including travel time to the site). A few preparations can make site visits go more smoothly for both your agency and the Foundation, and show your agency to its best advantage.
Find the best time.
We want to get a real picture of what is going on at your agency, so help us find a time when we can see your programs in operation. For example, if you run an afterschool program, a visit in the late afternoon when the kids are around might be best.
Read the proposal.
The reviewer will ask questions raised by the narrative of your proposal and supporting materials, and everyone present at the visit will give a better impression if they have at least read the proposal. The reviewer will have analyzed your submission thoroughly before the site visit, so don’t waste time during the visit restating the basics of the proposal.
Make the guest list carefully.
Think about who should be present. Make sure they understand the importance of the visit and are prepared for it. We will tell you when we set up the visit if there is anyone in particular we want to see. But you should also think this issue through, as we may not know who is in the best position to answer questions. That said, don’t overdo it. Keep the guest list as small as practicable. Having a single program officer and ten agency representatives in the same room is very awkward.
Reschedule if necessary.
Don’t be afraid to reschedule if the needed people are not available or they have to cancel at the last minute. An apologetic call to reschedule is much better than having the poor lonely soul who is left to conduct the visit say, “I don’t know” repeatedly in response to questions.
The reviewer will want to talk to you about a range of matters, such as the
project details and questions suggested by your supporting materials. It is not
necessarily a bad idea to have a schedule for the visit in mind. But be ready
to set it aside. If you try to overschedule the reviewer’s time at your agency,
or insist on spending a large segment of time on a video or PowerPoint
presentation, the reviewer will not have time to get the information she needs.
Allow her to get a full picture of your organization.
Be careful of sending messages inadvertently.
For example, an executive director who doesn’t participate in a site visit can convey the impression that she thinks fundraising is someone else’s job. Just as a good site visit can improve the prospects of a request that doesn’t shine on paper, a site visit “gone wrong” can hurt your request’s chances very badly.
At the end of the visit, confirm any actions or items you need to address: “You want me to send our 2012 audit and ask our facilities manager to call you. Is there anything else?” Then write down any follow-up items and deal with them promptly—within a day or two, not a week or two.
Questions Asked During a Site Visit
You will find below a comprehensive list of questions the grants reviewer might ask when deciding whether to recommend a grant. But in reading this list, rest assured we do consider the agency’s age and maturity in formulating appropriate questions and weighing answers. We have different expectations for a 20-year old agency with a multimillion dollar budget, than we do for a two-year old agency with a $200,000 budget.
- How well does the board of directors function?
- Is the board truly independent?
- How well does the board exercise its oversight responsibility?
- How do the board committees function?
- How is the board involved in fundraising?
- Do individual board members contribute to the agency?
- What is the relationship between the board and the CEO?
- Does the agency have a strong, clear sense of agency mission and direction?
- Is there a long-range plan? If so, how was it developed? How is it being implemented?
- Are there any particular challenges on the horizon, such as a disruption in revenue sources, a need to relocate, or an executive transition? If so, how is the agency planning for those events?
- How qualified are the key agency staff members?
- Do key staff members appear to have the qualifications necessary to their work?
- Has there been significant staff turnover? If so, why?
- What is the role of volunteers in the organization? If they are directly working with clients, how are the volunteers trained and screened?
- How does the agency demonstrate that it is fulfilling its mission?
- How is the agency keeping up with best practices and emerging trends in its field of service?
- Does the agency rely solely on service counts (e.g., the number of students enrolled in a program), or does it also examine outcomes (e.g., student gains in learning resulting from the program)?
- Is there any long-term aspect to the agency’s evaluations?
- How do the agency’s results compare to those of similar agencies working in the same field?
- Are there special challenges to garnering successful outcomes in the agency’s field of service? If so, what are they, and how does the agency address them?
- What is the agency’s funding history with the King Foundation?
- Has the agency received funding recently?
- Have they received a number of grants in the more distant past?
- Did the agency handle the past grant relationships appropriately, such as providing grant reports on a timely basis?
- What are the agency’s various revenue sources?
- How secure are those revenue streams?
- What have revenue trends been recently?
- Are any of those streams likely to change in the near future?
- Does the agency generally operate within its resources?
- How accurately does the agency budget for its operations?
- Do budget assumptions appear reasonable?
- Does the agency repeatedly generate operating deficits or negative fund balances? If so, why, and how does the agency plan to improve its financial condition?
- How has the board responded to the situation?
- Does it seem likely the agency will be able to sustain the project after a King Foundation grant?
- In the case of capital projects, has the agency adequately planned for additional expenses that new facilities will likely generate?
- If the agency plans to sustain the project or program through additional fundraising, how robust is the agency’s fundraising operation?
- How do the agency’s overhead expenses, including executive compensation, compare with similar agencies?
- If an agency’s overhead seems high on its face, is there a valid reason for it, such as the agency’s stage of growth?
- Is the agency following best practices in setting executive compensation?
- What are the overall financial trends at the agency?
- Is it maintaining steady growth, or are revenues and services shrinking over time?
- If trends are negative, how long have they been negative, and how is the agency responding?
- Does the agency have a natural constituency that would be a more appropriate funding source?
- If the agency already has a large, stable base of individual donors, why would a King Foundation grant be important to the success of the project?
Program or Project
- How well does the request mesh with the Foundation’s mission?
- How would a grant serve the Foundation’s funding priorities, including specific geographical areas and populations?
- Does the project or program seem feasible overall?
- If a new program, what was the impetus for implementing the program
- Why does the agency believe the program will be effective?
- Does the program seem likely to bring about the desired results?
- If an existing program, how well has the program performed in the past?
- Have there been any outside evaluations or national studies of similar programs or program models? If so, how does the applicant’s program reflect those findings?
- Does the project budget appear sound?
- Is the project cost effective?
- What assumptions has the agency made in developing the budget?
- Do any elements of the budget need more explanation?
- If the agency is banking in an administrative allocation, is the level reasonable?
- How strong is the need for the project?
- Is it duplicating what other agencies are already doing?
- How compelling is the request in comparison to others in the same grant cycle?
- Would there be any multiplier effect to a grant approval?
- Would a grant help the agency satisfy a challenge grant awarded by another funder?
- Would the project or program address a root problem that, unchecked, could grow and spread into larger ones (or conversely, a problem that, if remedied, would have manifold benefits)?
- Is there any collaborative or innovative aspect to the request?
- Are there complementary programs at similar agencies that are being ignored because of “turf” issues?
- Does the program or project have any potential of developing into a model that can be used elsewhere?