Site Visit Success Tips

By: Jayson Morris


Having just returned from the Peery Foundation’s first extensive international site visit – a three country, nine organization trip to Africa, it is an apt time to reflect on grantee centric practices for site visits.

This was my first site visit on the funder side of the table, having helped to organize over 20 visits and co-host at least half a dozen during my time at Room to Read and READ Global.

My hope going in was that my nonprofit experience would allow me to fully embody the Peery Foundation’s grantee centric values of respecting nonprofits time and leveling the playing field. Based on my own reflections, some candid feedback, and a Survey Monkey to the orgs I visited, I can say that I got some of it right, and some of it wrong, despite my best intentions.

Below are 10, no, 11 best practices / lessons learned that I will take going forward – along with some direct feedback from the nonprofits in quotes.

I. Request Early – From my days at Room to Read, I remember one of the most challenging pieces of a site visit was having to accommodate last minute requests from funders, putting us in an awkward dance with the local communities who ultimately are the ones most inconvenienced. While it’s not always possible to give two months notice, as much advanced warning as possible makes the nonprofits’ lives easier and is more respectful of the community.

“One of the biggest challenges for us is visits that happen at the last minute, or that are planned way in advance but without clear info about constraints on time or location. We're really flexible, but it's nice to avoid scheduling hiccups that are avoidable since so many of them aren't - and the more we know in advance, the easier it is for us to work around [community] schedules.”

II. Get on the Phone Early On – While it can be used for simple planning, email lacks the ability to have a fluid and candid conversation about what’s realistic for both the visitor and the host. For one of my trickier visits, I jumped on the phone with the nonprofit to hash out an early morning arrival to Nairobi and subsequent site visit, and through that came to realize that it would’ve been grossly inefficient and unpredictable to try to battle downtown Nairobi traffic first thing in the morning. Instead we figured out a way for me to freshen up at their office, allowing me to be efficient with my time and to minimize any risk of delays or inconvenience for the staff. Juxtaposed against this successful example, I definitely muffed one of my Uganda visits by relying on email, resulting in a slew of back-and-forth emails, lack of clear expectations for the nonprofit, and a less than ideal schedule for me (which I stuck to because of Section IV).

Going forward, I will now make it a best practice to jump on a 20 minute call early on to agree on mutual expectations and iron out any potential confusion – a practice a number of NGOs said they would be in support of going forward.

III. Facilitate NGO Communication – One success worth replicating was asking a couple of Ugandan organizations I visited back-to-back to work together on transport logistics. Because they knew the locations, traffic conditions, and my time constraints, they were able to ensure a smooth hand off between visits in a more efficient way than if I had tried to remain involved. Both affirmed that facilitating this type of communication where there are multiple organizations is a best practice worth replicating.

IV. Paying Attention to Agenda Ahead of Time or Grin & Bear It – Many funders are guilty of not focusing on this until the end and then wanting to change the itinerary, and I am no exception. With full inboxes and urgent responses needed, it can be hard to focus on a visit several weeks out. However, it’s disrespectful to the nonprofit and the local communities to change the schedule last minute. So either speak up early on to make changes or just go with the flow. As I alluded to earlier, I discovered a less than ideal departure time (5am!) for my second to last visit. At that point I was pretty run down and had no desire to get up at 4:30am to drive 4 hours – but I had waited until the last minute to think about this –so I sucked it up and did the visit (and it proved to be a great day).

In the same vein, please don’t try to do a surprise visit to a project or a community. Just like you would feel disrespected / defensive if someone came to your house or office and demanded to be let in, so too do local communities. They may not have the same level of economic wealth, but they have their dignity. Please respect it.

V. Honor Local Staff – During this trip, I heard some horror stories of donors being dismissive of local staff – both treating them with a lack of respect and/or not engaging with them during the visit. This is both unacceptable and nonsensical to me. Local staff are the ones on the ground executing the work – they work the hardest, get the least amount of recognition, and often sacrifice the most in terms of relative pay/quality of life. Moreover, they know the program nuances far better than senior management. So why not spend time with them, ask them their opinion on program design and room for improvement, and why they are passionate about the work.

“Please be culturally sensitive. Show interest in local people. They work hard every day and are trying hard to make visits [special].”

VI. Be Flexible – Stuff happens while on the road in developing countries. We got lost, our car got stuck, we missed lunch, and there were more speeches than expected. None are ideal, and sometimes there are teaching points imbedded in these challenges for sure. But it’s better for all to just roll with it and know you will likely laugh about it later.

VII. Pay for lunch – This seems obvious but I was surprised that many organizations said that funders don’t do this. While you’re at it, pay for gas... and request an invoice of incidental expenses when you get home. Nonprofits shouldn’t have to pay out of pocket to host a visit.

VIII. Be Prepared to Use Different Approaches to Get the Information You Want – Not everyone is going to respond well to interview style questions. In one particularly shy women’s saving group, after minutes of shy silence, I asked the women to recount their most memorable stories from the cooperative; after one woman got the ball rolling, there were numerous stories that elucidated impact as well as their opinion on program design and potential improvements – all questions I had asked but received little response. However, asking them to tell a story unlocked all the latent information. At another site visit I decided to role-play as a pregnant mother (of which I am neither) to get at the heart of the program.

Having a few ways to approach beneficiaries (stories, before and after examples, show of hands, role plays, etc.) yielded really good content results.

At the same time, temper your expectations on getting hard numbers from end beneficiaries.

“Don’t expect to get metrics out of the end beneficiaries. Sometimes the questions are lost in translation or misunderstood…  so take it with a grain of salt.”

IX. Talk to other funders to get their insights – A few weeks before my trip, I asked a few funders who had visited for some tips and they were instrumental in helping me guide the nonprofits on what to showcase and what not to. It helped me hone in on what to questions to ask and save me from wasting time.

X. A PTO refresh in the middle – Jessamyn and I made a strategic call to schedule my vacation in the middle of the trip, and it was a lifesaver. It allowed me to be fresh and engaged for the last 4 organizations. If you are taking some vacation, I highly recommend this approach, and I am sure the last few organizations you visit will appreciate your renewed energy and focus.

XI. Follow Up – Close the loop with the organization you met with and give honest feedback on what you liked or didn’t like. It gives them a chance to clear up anything you may have misperceived and/or learn for future visit.

“I always hope that visitors will be really honest about anything they wanted to see or learn and didn't (because then there's an opportunity to fill in that information or plan for it next time), and that they'll give feedback that can help us in the future - showing someone our program in a few hours or sometimes even a few days can be really challenging, and getting honest feedback is the best way to keep improving.”

Kevin Starr from Mulago Foundation consistently stresses the value of site visits as one of the best ways to really understand an organization and an issue area. After a couple of weeks in the field, I could not agree more.

I hope to get out to the field more and would love to see my peers do so too – just please be mindful of the cost to the host organization – both tangible and hidden – and do what you can to mitigate them. And note the aforementioned best practices are not unique to international visits – I am sure they would add value to local visits and the organizations that host them too.

I would love to hear other ideas on best practices, lessons learned along the way, etc. so that the Peery Foundation can get better at visits, and we can help our grantees and our peer funders continue to improve as well.