7 Steps for Planning a Successful Virtual Site Visit with Your Funder

July 27, 2020

In the era of social distancing, nonprofits across the sector are having to act quickly to move in-person events online — and for better or for worse, it’s likely that this will be our new normal for the foreseeable future.

Some of the types of events impacted by this are immediately obvious; things like fundraising events, galas, and in-person programs have demanded quick pivots and adjustments in order to make up for potential losses in earned revenue in response to COVID.

But as we’re seeing, site visits are another example of a once-standard practice that now require some flexibility and creative adjustments. And regardless of how long the effects of this pandemic last, knowing how to plan and execute a successful virtual site visit could still be an asset even when things return to normal.

Before we get too far, let’s establish exactly what we mean when we talk about site visits.

What is a site visit?

According to Exponent Philanthropy, a site visit is defined as a meeting with one or more staff, board members, or clients of a nonprofit organization, with the goal of understanding more about what they do and how well they do it. Site visits are often part of a funder’s vetting or decision-making process for a grant, or they may be used to help monitor a current grantee at the midpoint or end of a grant cycle.

At Elevate, we also leverage site visits in our work with nonprofit clients that are based outside of the DC Metro region. The primary purpose for these visits is to enhance our services to our clients by understanding their programs in more depth, seeing their programs up close, and building rapport and goodwill with our points of contact.

A virtual site visit has very similar goals, and may even look quite similar to an in-person site visit, with one obvious exception: the meeting takes place in a virtual forum.

As you think about how to make this shift for your organization and begin planning for upcoming virtual site visits with your funders, here are some ideas you might consider:

1. Start from scratch

Tempting as it might be, we do not recommend simply converting a previously-planned site visit into a virtual one. Instead, take some time to consider which aspects of your programs are easiest to showcase virtually, and how best to do so. For example: if you typically do a tour of your office or campus, will you try to do something similar via phone? Or does it make more sense to offer a tour via PowerPoint presentation?

2. Prepare an agenda

We strongly suggest you spend time putting together an appropriate agenda for the site visit ahead of time. We often think it’s best to ask funders if they have a standard agenda they’d like to use, or any questions they’d like to go over first; if they say no, that’s a great opportunity to share an agenda of your own.

When you do share your agenda, that’s a great time to ask your funder if there’s anything missing, or anything else they’d like to go over. This helps them to prepare a little on their end, and gives them an opportunity to offer more meaningful feedback about how they’d like to spend their time.

3. Bring in your participants’ voices

We always like for funders to hear directly from our clients’ program participants, volunteers, and/or recipients whenever possible. Depending on the options available to you, it may be fine to use a video or video excerpt if you have that prepared. However, if you’re able, you may want to invite a few volunteers or participants who are also working from home to join you. Not everyone needs to attend the full duration, but including others can lend more structure to the site visit and help make the tone less meeting-like.

If you do decide to include others, be sure to offer them a good range of topics or talking points ahead of time, to help clarify expectations. We recommend scheduling a meeting or prep call with everyone who will be in attendance, to walk through all the details together ahead of time.

Want this list in the form of a downloadable checklist?

We’ve turned this blog post into a downloadable checklist you can use as you start planning out your next virtual site visit, to make sure you’ve covered all your bases. Download the checklist below!

4. Consider inviting a Board member

Having a Board member join your site visit is an excellent way to demonstrate that the Board is engaged, and that they find it important enough to carve out time from their day to meet with a funder. When selecting a board member to invite, choose someone you can trust to stick to the agenda and talking points, and who is in-the-loop enough to answer questions that might be asked of them.

If inviting a Board member isn’t an option — or even if it is! — you can also have a staff member join you. If you end up having both a Board member and a member of your staff, it’s a good idea to prep them in advance, so everyone is clear about who should field which types of questions. Typically, staff will take on the more detailed questions, while a Board member’s role is more about lending support and credibility.

5. Find ways to break up the monotony

Without having something to do or to look at, virtual site visits run the risk of feeling like a long drawn-out meeting. To help break up the monotony, think about introducing elements like a slideshow of photos to introduce your programs, or give a virtual tour of your space.

At a typical in-person site visit, we sometimes worry about focusing too much on having a PowerPoint prepared since we think it’s more important for people to have a conversation. While this is still true in principle, we also think having some prepared content to walk through can offer a welcome sense of structure and dynamism in a virtual setting. For example, you might break up a 60-90 minute site visit into a few phases, like:

  • Introductions
  • A virtual tour via PowerPoint/screen share
  • A volunteer or participant joins and speaks about their experience for 10-15 minutes
  • Q&A with the funder
6. Prepare thoughtful questions

This applies to a ‘normal’ site visit too, but the point stands: make sure you take time to prepare insightful questions to ask your funders as well. During the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, we’d recommend asking them about their future funding strategies and what is top-of-mind for them, if you haven’t already had that conversation.

7. Have a solid game plan for (and TEST) your technology

Hosting a site visit in a virtual environment is likely a new experience for you, so you’ll want to make sure you have a clear and thorough plan for how things are going to run from start to finish. Start by thinking through any apps and/or equipment you’ll need, and who on your team will be responsible for what components of the day. From there, we recommend doing at least one internal test run to make sure things run smooth, and nothing was overlooked.

We all know technology can be fickle, so having a contingency plan is key. What will you do if a team member loses their internet connection, or if that video doesn’t load properly? Once you’ve decided on what your backup plans look like for various scenarios, discuss them with your team and make sure you’re all on the same page. You’ll also want to make sure you have email addresses from all parties involved, in case you need to quickly share any documents or materials that fail to load properly. Finally, we recommend sharing a phone number with everyone who will be attending, that they can call in case of any unanticipated interruptions or hiccups.

Download the Virtual Site Visit Planning Checklist

We’ve turned this blog post into a downloadable checklist you can use as you start planning out your next virtual site visit, to make sure you’ve covered all your bases. Download the checklist below!

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