August 14, 2012

When and How to Conduct a Site Visit During Your Nonprofit Due Diligence

Your visit will allow you to flesh out your understanding, confirm your assumptions, and answer many specific questions about the organization.

By: The Bridgespan Group
If you are at the point where you're serious about funding a nonprofit, you may want to consider taking the time to visit the organization for yourself. Site visits offer opportunities to inform questions that can be hard to answer otherwise: How do the programs operate on the ground? Does the staff seem committed and talented? Does the physical space appear up to the task of delivering the results promised?

Your visit will allow you to flesh out your understanding, confirm your assumptions, and answer many specific questions about the organization. That's because little can rival the direct experience of visiting a nonprofit to get a feel for the work that the nonprofit does and the people or causes it supports. The activities you observe during your visit—whether of scientists hard at work on the next big vaccine, eager students with their arms raised, or a bevy of job seekers receiving training in needed skills—will likely inform your thinking long after you have left the grounds.

However, there are two important issues you'll want to keep in mind: First, be aware of the unavoidable dynamics of being a potential funder—the organization will be putting its best foot forward. Second, keep in mind that requesting a site visit often raises expectations on the part of the nonprofit and can be time consuming and even disruptive, so it is wise to visit only if you are truly serious about funding the organization. Even if the grant you’re considering is large, you will likely still want to start with research you can do on your own—information you can get from public records, for example. In other words, you'll want to avoid taking on high-involvement activities (such as site visits) unless they will aid in decision-making. (For more on customizing your approach, see here.)
  To make the most of your time—and the organization’s—here are four rules of thumb:
  • Share your goals in advance: If you know there are certain people you’d like to meet (say, the director of the program you are most passionate about), or programs you would like to see in action (like the youth poetry class you read about in the paper), make sure this will be possible at the time of your visit.
  • Bring other decision makers: If there are people whose opinions you are counting on to make your decision, bring them. Recognize, though, that the more people you bring, the more formal the conversations, so resist the urge to bring an entourage.
  • Be prepared: Bring any remaining questions you have and be ready to ask them if the situation arises (or try to answer them through observation).
  • Know how close you are to a decision: You may be asked specifics about your decision-making process. Because site visits do raise expectations, be ready to share where you are and the likely timing of your decision.
If you think you’re ready to conduct a site visit or already have one scheduled, consider reviewing our “Quick Guide to Conducting a Nonprofit Site Visit,” which includes example agenda items for your visit. If, on the other hand, you’re not quite ready to raise expectations and request a visit, you may find it helpful to go through some of the materials in our “Donor Decision Tool,” which will provide you with customized support for your due diligence, or you can read other posts in this series on nonprofit due diligence (see below for complete list).

For those of you who have conducted a site visit, when did you decide to request a visit? What worked well during the visit? What didn’t work as well?

This is the latest post in our Nonprofit Due Diligence series. Click on the links below to read previous posts. Join the conversation by commenting below or on Twitter at #NonprofitDueDiligence. You can follow Give Smart updates at @BridgespanGroup.

Creative Commons License logo
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license are available in our Terms and Conditions.