Our Policy and Innovation Manager, Eamonn Fitzgerald, looks at the importance of site visits to the SEI selection process, and why all funders should look beyond application forms and pitches to inform their investment decisions.
People have a tendency to assume that all funding decisions these days are made as per the Dragon’s Den formula. High pressure, time constrained, all-or-nothing pitching sessions. After all, you learn a lot about people in situations like that right? Wrong. There’s a reason less than half of the successful entrepreneurs on the show actually receive a penny!
Pitches are great, but they only tell you a part of the story. For the past couple of years, as part of the SEI selection process, we’ve decided to conduct site visits with the finalists competing for a place on our Impact Programme. We do this for the same reason we do anything in our selection process, and that’s the fact that it improves our decision making capabilities. It allows us to make more informed and effective investments.
The team at SEI is currently in the middle of our 2015 site visits, and so I wanted to take this opportunity to look at the information that these visits provide us with, and to build a case for why all funders, whether they be commercial or social, need to be doing this as part of their decision making process.
1. Due Diligence
Application forms are a useful way to enforce eligibility criteria, and to obtain key pieces of information about a project, but they’re not fool proof. There’s only so much you can articulate on paper. Site visits provide funders with a chance to literally see a programme in action, to observe the development of products or the delivery of services, and to fact check some of the information already provided. It can also inform whether or not the level of investment being requested is realistic, often proving a good indicator as to a project’s readiness for the level of funding involved. This increased level of understanding is crucial to funders – who are often unfamiliar with the nuances of particular social/environmental challenges.
2. Entrepreneur Engagement
Investments are about more than just the money. For it to be successful there needs to be a good working relationship between the entrepreneur and the funder. While pitching sessions are useful for meeting entrepreneurs face to face, site visits allow you to interact with an entrepreneur in a more traditional and real world environment. It allows you to discuss aspects of their project in a location they feel comfortable, and to see how they interact with other members of their team. All of this is far more representative of what a working relationship with them might look like, rather than the interrogation like pitches that we’re so used to seeing on TV.
3. Support Network
When we’re talking about growing and scaling an organisation, you need more than just the right entrepreneur behind the project. That entrepreneur needs a support network, and those individuals need to be valued as part of any selection process. Site visits give funding bodies a chance to meet and talk with staff members in charge of various aspects of the project, and to meet with board members overseeing the organisation to get their sense on the future direction of the project. It’s one thing to hear about the plans for an organisation from the entrepreneur themselves, but it’s another thing entirely to hear from the people tasked with delivering those plans.
4. Social Impact
We all love quantitative data when we talk about social impact, and application forms are a great place to articulate and display all those numbers and graphs, but in most cases the qualitative data is where the real game-changing impact is best demonstrated. Site visits are often a great chance to meet and interact with the beneficiaries of the projects in question. Hearing first hand their experience of an organisation, what’s worked well for them and what hasn’t, and the difference they’ve seen in their lives due to a particular intervention, can be the most powerful way to understand the impact potential of any early-stage project.
While site visits alone are not the answer, they do massively complement traditional selection process elements like application forms and pitches. So if you’re looking to improve your funding decisions I’d recommend getting out from behind that desk and hitting the road. You, and your fund, will be better for it!
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