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Six Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Field Visit as a Donor

One of the more colorful aspects of my work at Geneva Global is planning client trips to the field. It’s exciting. And terrifying.

People who hear my stories about malaria precautions, civil aviation permits, and Ministry of Information requests tend to think I’m exaggerating. (I’m not.) Visiting projects is an important way our clients connect to programs we manage on their behalf. But as you can imagine, coordinating large groups traveling to unfamiliar places in order to see sensitive, complex work is nerve-wracking. (My coping mechanisms for trip planning include donuts, kitten videos, and staring blankly at my email inbox.)

But I wouldn’t change a thing. Donor travel to the field is a rare opportunity to see real impact. As such, it’s incredibly valuable, and, in my opinion, an important part of one’s philanthropic journey. If you’re planning a project visit as a donor, here are six tips to get the best out of it.

1. Have a purpose.

You’ve decided to visit development projects in person. Why? Have you considered at a deep level why you want to do this, and what you hope to accomplish? Why do you want to visit this place, these projects, these communities? How will you know whether you’ve accomplished what you’d hoped?

Trips are a significant investment and involve substantial preparation by everyone involved, including the people and organizations you’re visiting. Having a clear purpose will help you make a good investment of time and money. Knowing your objectives will bring focus and structure to your planning, and help you make smart decisions with limited resources. It will also demonstrate respect for the communities you’re meeting—while probably delighted to receive you, they are undertaking a lot of work to prepare for you.

Our clients visit the field for a variety of reasons:
  • Most simply want the opportunity to visit projects they’re supporting, and to share that experience with their colleagues, fellow donors, and family.
  • Often, they want to educate themselves about an issue that’s new to them or has emerged as a key concern in their philanthropy.
  • Sometimes they want to understand a familiar issue more deeply by seeing the local context, engaging with practitioners, or meeting with the people who are most directly affected.
  • Many clients want assurance that their philanthropy is having the intended effect—is money being used properly? Is work proceeding as expected? Are we on the right course? How is impact being measured?

International development is complex, so the potential questions are endless. Consider which ones are important to you.

Got your purpose firmly in mind? Good.

2. Now throw it out the window.

If there’s one piece of wisdom I can impart from experience, it’s that life in the field is unpredictable.

Your best-laid plans will inevitably take a sharp turn down a weird path. An itinerary that took months to build will crumble in the face of uncooperative weather, misplaced entry visas, traffic jams, political elections, religious festivals, bad mobile phone coverage, and the occasional unfortunate reaction to exotic cuisine.

Some of your most prescient, thoughtful questions—painstakingly prepared for face-to-face meetings—will get lost in translation. Your arrival could spark curiosity that brings dozens of spectators to what was meant to be a private, informal conversation. Conversely, community members you want to hear from directly may be reticent to discuss their experiences with you out of a sense of privacy, safety, or simply perceived courtesy towards visitors.

Welcome to field trips.

And yet, without fail, every donor visit I’ve organized has created a profound, heartfelt moment that was completely unplanned. Our travelers—board members, foundation officers, major donors, and worker bees alike—consistently use words like “emotional,” “indescribable,” and “transformative” about their experiences. If you insist on sticking to an exact timetable or hierarchy in the face of evolving conditions, you’ll miss out on all serendipity that awaits. It is critical to do the thinking outlined in #1 if you’re serious about investing in a field trip. It’s equally critical to flex with the moment as it arises.

Meeting with implementing partners provides a more well-rounded view of the work happening on the ground.

Meeting with implementing partners provides a more well-rounded view of the work happening on the ground.

 

3. Keep an open mind.

Be mindful of your own biases. Do you have fixed ideas about what works in philanthropy or development? Of course you do. We all have opinions about how things ought to be done or which problems are the most pressing. But these biases can blind you to the realities of the field.

Take the time to pre-assess your itinerary with a critical eye to avoid creating your very own Potemkin village which leaves you with a false sense of the work.

  • Planning visits to mostly urban or suburban locations? Add some rural sites for balance.
  • Re-visiting favorite practitioners or partners? Leave space for skeptic and contrarian opinions.
  • Meeting with direct beneficiaries? Don’t forget about the rest of the community—family members, neighbors, service providers.
  • Interested in deep-dive discussions with technical experts? Seek out grassroots activists for a different perspective.

4. But not so open your brains fall out.

Donor visits are a great opportunity to see what’s working and what’s not, and to hear from a variety of people. This can, and should, challenge your existing thinking. Perhaps you met someone who made a big personal impression, or saw a new approach that radically altered your awareness. Maybe you feel inspired to take on new projects or practices, or launch an ambitious new enterprise.

How will you put this into practice?

I don’t want to discourage anyone from harnessing the immense energy of a transformative experience. I do want to caution you about destructive disruption—suddenly shifting good work already in progress, radically changing the playing field for those already participating in good faith, or abruptly shifting a long-term strategy in a new direction.

Change is good, but it’s also costly. Approach it deliberately:
  • Make a plan for synthesizing new ideas into your current philanthropy before you visit.
  • Earmark funds, in advance, for exploring new ideas and priorities that may emerge in the field.
  • Keep a trip journal to record your thinking, and review it later with fresh eyes.
  • Debrief with fellow travelers during and after a trip to hear their perspectives, and reflect.

Visiting projects in the field can, and should, change your thinking. Just be sure to approach it as a strategic improvement, not a knee-jerk reaction.

5. Leave room to breathe.

Travelers often overestimate their ability to mentally and emotionally absorb site visits. It can be intensely difficult to hear harrowing survivor stories or encounter repeated instances of profound suffering, even when you’re focused on solutions.

When planning an itinerary, I schedule free time and cultural activities into the mix. This provides a change of pace and lets visitors process intense experiences. It may seem counterintuitive to spend valuable time visiting a local music venue or shopping in the local marketplace, but these metaphorical spaces offer balance. Consider broadening your perspective on a country or region by seeing all the great things it has to offer visitors, even if it diverges a little from your core focus.

6. Make it count.

My team at Geneva Global planned 17 trips last year. They involved anywhere from five to 30 travelers, two to ten days in country, and a dazzling array of goals and objectives. Each and every one was a chance for visitors to actively engage and collaborate with local communities. A field visit is your chance to meet the front line heroes, the hard-working people who are transforming their communities in some of the most difficult parts of the world.

Listen to them.

At Geneva Global, we talk about “doing good great,” which is the idea that philanthropy needs to work smarter to make the world a better place.

A donor field visit is your front-row seat in the social transformation classroom—a chance to really dig in and understand how the pieces fit together.

It’s a chance to see the impact for yourself. And it’s powerful.

A recent visitor to an education program said: “I am absolutely blown away by the work that is being done. There literally is no better way to spend and maximize those dollars. The entire trip was an amazing experience… one of the most emotional trips I have ever done.”

Personally, I couldn’t ask for a more rewarding outcome.

Every donor travel project I’m involved with is a chance to reach that same level of personal impact for a client, helping them move forward in their own philanthropy. Offering a chance for someone to become personally invested in social transformation makes any incidental challenges worth it.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have another trip to plan.