Site Visits: Community Engagement for Better Grantmaking

For community foundations, the importance of making connections to nonprofits and other community partners cannot be understated. Getting to know Alaskan organizations allows The Alaska Community Foundation (ACF) to improve its work, especially when it comes to components of ACF such as funding and grantmaking.

But how do community foundations go about getting to know local nonprofits, especially when “local” means an area as large as the state of Alaska?

Site visits are one way for a foundation to get to know an organization in-person and in-depth. They are a best practice among foundations globally, and present valuable opportunities for both foundation staff and the organizations at the focus of the visit to share each other’s work. A typical site visit involves a tour of the organization’s facility, as well conversation about the organization’s mission and activities. ACF staff also provide time for the nonprofit’s staff to learn more about ACF, which includes general knowledge about the community foundation, but also more specific information such as availability of grants at ACF.

My own experience with site visits has been a valuable one. For the past several weeks Program Officer Penny Gage and I have made site visits to several organizations. To name a few, we visited the Alaska Literacy Program in Anchorage, the Denali Arts Council in Talkeetna, and the Girdwood Health Clinic. At each organization we gathered information about the nonprofit that would have been more difficult to realize via electronic communications. For instance, we found that at the Alaska Literacy Program, “literacy” is broadly defined to include financial literacy, health literacy, and others, especially focusing in Alaska’s refugee and immigrant communities. By visiting multiple organizations in Talkeetna, we learned that Talkeetna has a thriving community of nonprofits that are increasingly collaborating with one another. And in Girdwood, we saw firsthand the impact that ACF funding can have on communities along the Turnagain Arm, where last winter’s lack of snowfall presented significant economic challenges for many organizations.

ACF Board Chair Alex Slivka speaks at the Girdwood Health Clinic on Alaska Day.

ACF Board Chair Alex Slivka speaks at the Girdwood Health Clinic on Alaska Day.

The digital age presents lots of options, some of which are more desirable than others. While a Google search, an email, or a phone call may seem like easy and efficient ways of connecting with local organizations, they’re not always as meaningful as seeing a nonprofit with two eyes, and hearing about a nonprofit’s work with two ears.

The site visits Penny and I conducted weren’t just beneficial for ACF, however; they also presented learning opportunities for the organizations we visited. Each one had a wide range of experience working with ACF, and so each gained different kinds of knowledge from the visits. Some organizations had never heard about our grant programs and are now considering applying. Other organizations had heard about our competitive grants, but had never applied; for these organizations, the site visits provided appropriate support and encouragement. They now can put a face to the name when they approach ACF to partner in their investments, which is something that is so important in a state with a population as small as Alaska.

"Wild Youngers" at the Northern Susitna Institute in Talkeetna having fun!

“Wild Youngers” at the Northern Susitna Institute in Talkeetna having fun!

While site visits are not always convenient, ACF staff members makes their best efforts to incorporate site visits into their travels and day-to-day activities. ACF recognizes that site visits are important resources that allow our foundation to make personal connections to community organizations. With time and opportunity, I can only hope that more and more Alaskan nonprofits may also come to understand the purpose and value of site visits.