Take Oprah’s visit to a slum in Mumbai. One can assume that Oprah had positive intentions in her visit, yet, when the piece aired, a palpable tone of judgment and comparison to her reality offended many. When she asked a family about its small home—“I don’t mean to be offensive, but does it feel crowded?”—she was judging the people she visited by the yardstick of her (very different) experience.
No matter how difficult are the living situations of the grantees you visit, undoubtedly you—and they—want to end the site visit with their pride and dignity intact.
How can you avoid such a cross-cultural faux pas?
Know your purpose, and communicate it
To get the most out of a site visit—international or otherwise—it is critical that you define why you are doing the site visit in the first place. Are you visiting simply for the experience of getting to know the grantee and learning about its work? Or does it serve a monitoring purpose? Are you aiming to build trust? Or is it simply a nice thing to do while you are in the country?
What will the site visit do for you? And how will it serve your grantee?
Once you have clarified its purpose, be sure to communicate it to the grantee. If you just want to drop in to say hello, but the grantee thinks it is being monitored, it is unlikely that you will have an enjoyable and productive site visit, and you could damage the relationship with the group significantly. Unless it clearly serves your intended purpose, consider asking your grantee to forgo the usual “dog and pony show.”
Instead, find ways to have unscripted and authentic conversations with staff and, ideally, beneficiaries. On the site visits I’ve conducted, invariably it was the time simply talking with people rather than the formal presentations that gave me a true sense of the organization.
Sasha Rabsey from The HOW Fund makes a point not just to ask the people she meets about their work but to listen to their life stories and to learn about their culture. This simple human connection not only provides important insight into the organization, but makes for a personally meaningful and fulfilling experience.
Be a gracious guest
Being a gracious guest when visiting grantees in other cultural contexts is particularly important. Yet, given how challenging communication can be across cultures and languages, even the most well-intentioned people can unintentionally disrespect or offend others. The best site visits occur when you make every effort to be respectful and learn about the grantees’ context, culture, and customs, and not view them exclusively from your own experience and perspective.
Learn as much as you can about the local culture and customs, and remember that, in that context, the grantees are typical and you are different.
Being a gracious guest also entails being willing to be uncomfortable and to accept the gifts offered to you, even if you are not so inclined. Travel can be exhausting and unpredictable, but, no matter how tired you are or how long the bus ride has been, show up ready to engage.
Partner with other funders
Partnering with other funders who support the same group or work in the same field can be particularly useful when making site visits.
Angelika Arutyunova-Needham of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development suggests that foundations planning to visit a grantee offer to do a joint site visit with other funders who also support the group. You not only decrease the burden on the grantee of having to host multiple donors, but you also open up opportunity for learning and collaboration.
Partnering is also a great way to gain the benefits of site visits if you aren’t able to do them. If you are able to talk to other funders who are visiting your grantees, you may be able to hear what they learned. Sasha described a time when, thanks to such coordination, the Global Fund for Children was able to meet in Islamabad with a HOW Fund grantee from a Taliban-controlled region.
If international site visits are not an option for your foundation, you may also take advantage of the ease of connecting using Skype or other technology to make a personal connection and to build a trusting relationship with grantees around the world.
Rachel Humphrey, MNA, PCC, joined TCC Group in September 2012 as a consultant focusing on strategy and capacity building for foundations and nonprofits. She earned a master of nonprofit administration degree from the University of San Francisco in 2003 and is a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) through the International Coach Federation. Prior to working as a coach and consultant full time, Rachel served as the Director of Philanthropic Partnerships at the Global Fund for Women. Follow Rachel on Twitter @rachelzh.