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Using the Grant Budget to Your Advantage

When I was a program officer at the Michigan Women's Foundation, one of the review habits that I adopted early on was to review the budget before I read any other component of the proposal. It is a practice that I still stick with today, whether reviewing government proposals or local United Way applications. In talking with other grant makers and peer reviewers, I am not alone in this practice.

Why do we do it, you ask? We read the grant application budget before any narrative or any executive summary because the grant budget provides a story all by itself. It is a clear snapshot of what your program or project will look like. It provides a story to consider for consistency and further detail as you read through the narrative. It helps you as the reviewer to understand what the short-term funding sustainability looks like.

Whether or not you are applying to a grant maker that will read your proposal out of order as I do, it is critical that your budget is a rock solid component of your application that could tell the story on its own if needed. It is my unfortunate belief after fifteen years of reviewing proposals that the grant budget is often an afterthought in the process rather than a key component used to each applicant's advantage to tell their story.

Here are some common yet avoidable errors I see frequently in budgets:
  • Inconsistency between work plans/logic models/activity charts and the budget form;
  • A lack of formula/details in the budget form itself or budget narrative;
  • Lack of detail for travel expenses;
  • Lack of detail for large supply line items.
Rather than a final component to address, or a last minute addition to the application, a grant budget needs significant discussion and attention early in the application process. A grant budget form and any related justification/narrative is a key piece of the application for grant team member involvement from the beginning of the application conversation. This work should not come at the end of the process. You should not provide your colleagues responsible for program budgeting with a finished narrative application and ask them to design the grant budget form. The creation of the application narrative and supporting components should be done in concert with the budget for each application.

A grant budget that is going to clearly tell your story to your grant makers has the following characteristics:
  • Includes only expenses that are related to the proposed work and are allowed by the grant maker;
  • Tells your story regardless of the format required by the grant maker;
  • Tells the story of how else the program or project will be funded beyond the requested grant funds; and
  • Contains budget justifications/narratives when allowable within the grant maker's format.

The next time that you write a grant application and finalize the budget component, use the following steps to confirm that your grant budget is indeed helping to tell a complete and competitive story to your potential funder:
  1. Review your proposal: What aspect of your organization's story are you trying to communicate to the grant maker?
  2. Review your budget: If a funder only reads your budget, or reads your budget first in the application packet, will they see and understand the same story, values, and goals?
  3. Realign as necessary: If the story of your proposal and budget are misaligned upon review, go back to the editing phase. Look at consistency in headings, staff titles, project name, and expense categories. Bring in a trusted colleague to assist with providing constructive feedback to ensure alignment between the stories the two sections of the proposal tell.

As grant professionals, we are often not the individual responsible for providing the detail that is used within each grant application budget. Staff from other departments, whether program managers, executive directors, or financial officers, are intimately engaged with these projects and their internal budgets. Our job as grant professional to ensure we use budgets to our advantage in each proposal is to help these colleagues become a central part to the work of the grant team.



By: Arthur Davis
On: 07/12/2016 15:45:16
We were lucky to have Susan Howlett present at our local GPA conference, and she ran a session on budgets. Telling the story was one of the topics. I mentioned listing "Bilingual, bicultural childcare providers" instead of just "Contractor." Of course we'd list it under contractors or similar designation. In the description field or budget narrative, I like to [B]briefly[b] point the reader to what each employee will actually do, so that when you read the budget or narrative, you can understand the project without even seeing the application text. Like you, I've found that building an internal, working budget on the front end makes for a stronger project and a stronger application. Finally, I keep everything in Excel with formulas for all the totals until the final posting. I'm pretty sure that every single time I've worked with a budget where it arrive in Word (or in Excel but without working formulas), there were errors. Thanks for bringing up these good points.
By: Michael Moore
On: 07/12/2016 17:19:45
Absolutely the correct thing to do. I learned this technique writing business plans when I was Director of a Small Business Development Center. Being in touch with the budget opens up a whole new dialogue about the project. The budget, unless completed by an experienced person, almost never remains unchanged. Budgets are the bones of a project!
By: Marylee Boales
On: 07/15/2016 16:28:08
To help provide links between budget items and the proposal narrative, I often identify Goals and/or Objectives by the number I've assigned in the text - on the budget form and/or in the Budget Narrative. Initially, this provides another check for me - did I cover everything and/or did I overspend or underspend relative to project focus and outcomes.

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