The power to approve a grant can be an intelligence booster: everything one says is suddenly sharp and witty, especially when one visits a program seeking a grant. A site visit, in other words, requires skepticism, but that’s not sufficient. A funder must ask, “What, exactly, am I trying to learn, and how should I look for it?” The best site visit requires intellectual engagement before, during, and after.
For three years I’ve served as director of the Manhattan Institute’s Social Entrepreneurship Initiative awards program, established with support from the J.M. Kaplan Fund. I’ve grappled with these questions as I make ten site visits annually for a program that gives, at most, five awards each year. To win an award, a group must meet several criteria:
It must have at its center a bona fide entrepreneur—someone who’s started up the organization in the past few years; it must provide a tangible service, not just advocacy, that helps the disadvantaged; and it must receive minimal (at most) government funding. Nominations are invited from donors throughout the country. In each of the past three years, among the 80 to 100 nominees we have found at least twice as many worthy semi-finalists as there were $10,000 awards. How to judge?
Other traps besides flattery await anyone answering that question. A site visitor can, for instance, see himself as no more than the audience for a performance. Or one may see oneself as an auditor, charged with looking through financial reports to ensure a program is managed on the up-and-up and to see how much money goes to programming versus overhead. Or one can search for results, also preferably quantified in some “outcome-related” way, as many United Way chapters have begun to demand.
Such approaches are not wrong, just too limited. Charities should not be judged simply on some standardized rating sheet. Because these programs are products of the intellectual reflection of their founders, a site visitor who knows the larger context of the group he’s visiting will have a different, more revealing experience than one who does not.
On my site visits, I meet entrepreneurs who have not only set out to fill unmet needs but have also learned their fields and acquired strong professional views. When I ask them to discuss those views, after first learning what questions will engage them, I greatly increase the likelihood they will go beyond a standard show for visitors and reveal what matters to them, and what frustrations they’ve encountered, including mistakes they may be making. Informed empathy encourages candor.
The interview, then, is the heart of an effective site visit based on intellectual engagement. You must not only come with questions but be prepared to draw out those you meet, based on what you hear. When a knowledgeable observer asks someone about the concerns closest to his heart, much can be revealed. But drawing someone out requires inquiry and challenge: If that is true, why would you not also believe X? How do you respond to criticisms Y and Z?
The conversation that develops during this sort of intellectual exchange helps a visitor to see whether the donor’s and the grantseeker’s beliefs overlap sufficiently. The Manhattan Institute, for instance, is looking for social entrepreneurs who function largely without government funding, because its ultimate goal is identifying which social services are best provided privately. Only through conversation can I discern whether a revenue statement’s lack of government monies merely reflects the past or indicates real aversion to government funding.
The intellectually engaged site visit can also reveal inconsistencies. The director of a group serving the formerly homeless, for example, assured me his self-help philosophy sees federal housing programs as counter-productive; so I was surprised to see the organization note—in fine print in its annual report—that it was involved with publicly subsidized housing. Similarly, I noticed the contrast between the emphasis, in conversation, which the founder of a tutoring program for disadvantaged students placed on long-term results, and the lack of such results in the group’s annual report. These interviews enhanced my reading of the group’s annual reports.
Much can also be learned by talking to people outside the organization whom the group’s leaders cite as intellectual influences. I ask organization heads, “Who has influenced or mentored you?” The suggestions alone can be revealing, much less conversation with the persons cited.
This approach to a site visit can be reduced to a series of steps:
Preparation before the visit. Telephone discussion with group’s director, review of the organization’s literature (brochures, website, annual report, audited financial statement—if no current versions of the last two exist, one has learned something right away).
Self-directed inquiry. The most difficult step, this involves searching for materials—contemporary, historical, cross-cultural—that will let you place a program in the broadest possible context. For instance, before visiting an African-American self-help group, one may want to review W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington’s debate over black self-help a century ago. Conversations with knowledgeable persons in the field can suggest the best literature to study and also give a sense of the organization’s reputation. I’m assuming the site visitor is an intellectually curious person who regularly reads a range of “thought magazines” (from the Public Interest and First Things to American Prospect and the New Republic) and op-ed pages. The online Social Science Research Network (www.ssrn.com) is a good source, as are course syllabi, now widely available online on university websites. Frequently quoted academic experts have often assembled reading lists that can serve as great primers.
Site visit itself. It’s important not only to have the opportunity for extended conversation with an organization’s leaders but also to see the actual programs in progress. I found, for instance, that some classroom-based programs that looked attractive on paper suffered from poor teaching. Casual conversations with staff members can be revealing, too.
Post-visit “due diligence.” A review of audited financial statements and annual reports should compare the vision and reach of the organization with its quantifiable results, as well as scrutinizing the nature of income and expenditure, and the types of outside directors on the board. Boards made up of advocates for the cause are normally less helpful than those whose members bring specific skills and community ties, as well as outside perspective.
“Outside” conversation. At this point, having learned much about both the field and the organization, it’s good to talk to others, perhaps persons who are recommended by the organization and familiar with it or members of its board.
In the end, the key to a successful site visit lies less in following a checklist of do’s and don’ts than in adopting the psychology of intellectual engagement. This approach makes site visiting a hard job. A generalist site visitor may have to learn a field from scratch; seek to understand its historical context; read key new writing that has shaped it and current political debate that surrounds it. The standard for such preparation is the ability, after the visit, to write something knowledgeable about the project in a way that goes beyond sheer observation. But the payoff for all this work is great: the prospect of more discerning judgment about which programs deserve support, and informed advice for those one chooses to support. And not least, the intellectually engaged site visitor should never be bored.
This piece originally appeared in Philanthropy Roundtable