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Lori Fabian in U.S. 1

Fishing for Funding? Have Good Data
by Bart Jackson

What’s the difference between a thief and a non-profit? When you hand over your money to the latter, they have convinced you that it will be used for something worthwhile. In fact, the charitable organizations that are good can actually offer proof of their beneficial works and the precise impact your contribution will have. The non-profits that are just as well meaning, but not organized enough to show you how your cash can help, are very likely to get treated like the thief. You run from them as fast as your feet can beat. 

Professional non-profit evaluator, grant writer, and self-professed data junkie Lori Fabian is the woman charitable institutions hire to get their organizations straightened up and attractive to funders. At the Mid-Jersey Chamber of Commerce breakfast on Wednesday, August 7, 2013 at 8 a.m., Fabian presents her talk “From Data to Dollars,” in which she explains how non-profits may use program evaluation to secure funds via grants. 

Fabian currently heads Hightstown-based Fabian Consulting Inc., where she and her team have written precisely 428 grants in the past decade. (The data maven knows her numbers.) Additionally, she has consulted for and evaluated hundreds of charitable institutions. While the firm aids in securing donations from the government, institutions, corporations, and individuals, its current emphasis lies in obtaining federal funding — a source known for ever-tightening purse strings and exponentially increasing demands for evidence.

“I backed into this whole business,” says Fabian. Raised in southern Louisiana, just outside New Orleans, her homemaker mom and chemical worker father sparked their daughter’s interest in music. After she earned a bachelor’s in vocal music education from Loyola University in 1979 and a master’s in educational administration from the University of New Orleans, Fabian turned to opera production. Classical music offered a great training for grant writing,” says Fabian. “In both cases, you are composing within extremely prescribed parameters, yet you have to make it all come alive.”

She moved to the west coast, where her writing and organization skills landed her a job as foundation funding coordinator at the Los Angeles United Way. It was a move that would guide her next 30 years. Fabian launched Fabian Consulting in 1994 and moved to Hightstown in 2000. In its history, her firm has netted clients $46 million in funds. 

“The hard fact is,” says Fabian, “funders have become infinitely more sophisticated and are demanding to see measurable impact of the dollars they spend.” This is where solid, meticulous records and creative data gathering come into play.

Quantifying results: Too often, the folks who lovingly labor at the non-profit’s various programs say they are doing good things. They even know they are doing a fine job. Alas, when some Missouri-style funder says “show me objective evidence,” they draw a blank. In the end, the money will go to the institution that has collected data showing:

• How many users received service;
• The cost of that service;
• The level of service;
• The change the service made in the clients’ lives, and their families’ lives.

To display the progress of an individual client, the non-profit must track and document its beneficiaries before, during, and after the rendered service. Most charities keep excellent initial qualifying records, and fairly good accounts of the programs and aid they dole out. But once the client gets employed, educated, fed, or helped in whatever way, most non-profits neglect to maintain follow-up records of their successful conclusion.

Further, such recording is not always easy. If a woman receives employment guidance from a charity and lands a steady job, the data is easy. List how much she makes and how long she has held her position. But if she has received counseling that has reportedly led to a more productive attitude, then it gets trickier. Will a questionnaire suffice? Perhaps. One of the errors many organizations make, Fabian says, is conducting the follow-up satisfaction survey and trying to pass it off to funders as actual data. Unfortunately, James may have been thrilled with his tutor who came to spend time and concentrate solely on him and his needs, even if James is still scraping along with an F average.

Sometimes a questionnaire or interview can determine the pre-and post conditions, yet designing it is not always simple. The Princeton HUB non-profit offers a social gathering place for the developmentally challenged. Your instincts tell you that this is an excellent service. So how would a program director go about showing the individual progress resulting from these weekly meetings at the Methodist church?

Data warms twice: Much of the statistical and financial data Fabian suggests gathering helps not only reassure and attract funders, it also guides the non-profit in its own governance. For the leadership to know its own organization, it is vital to monitor progress from the client’s first contact through the final outcome report. The organization should know the total program cost, the per-unit cost, and the amount that goes directly to the client. Such data allows programs to be tweaked and the ship to run more tightly, which in itself is a lure to funders.

In the human resource area, federal funders’ demands for evidence have helped many firms keep better track of where their staff is spending its time. If employee Jane is assigned to manage a new program that the non-profit hopes to get federally funded, the inspectors want to see who is now doing the work Jane did before taking over this new program. Funders do not want to see Jane’s salary as just another donation pail into which everybody contributes.

Collection caveat: Fabian always says, “Don’t kill it if you ain’t gonna eat it.” There is a recent tendency among aggressive fund-seeking non-profits to collect and display every fact and statistic. Fabian suggests that organizations should, rather, walk a golden mean. Determine those operational costs and client trackings that would best guide you as CEO, and convince you as a funder. Don’t waste time on collecting beyond that point. In short, more stuff is not always more convincing.

Our world is mightily enriched by the thousands of caring, serving organizations with hearts as big as all outdoors. And they themselves are enriched by individuals like Fabian, who help add a little head to that heart.

Reprinted from the July 24, 2013, issue of U.S. 1.
http://princetoninfo.com/index.php?option=com_us1more&Itemid=6&key=7-24-13data