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Crunching the Numbers: Experiences in the World of Federal Grant Budgeting


I have been writing applications in response to federal grant RFPs for over 13 years. This is an interesting and chaotic world, especially for those with limited experience in this space. Before I get too far in the weeds, I wanted to offer up some case studies that exemplify challenges and best practices, which can provide others with some useful tips and tricks, as well as pitfalls to avoid.

 

Case Study #1: The Eager Beaver
I was working with a client who was new to federal budgeting, but fully prepared to jump into the process. The organization had prepared detailed budgets for the entire organization and specific programs, however, the budgeting process for them was quite different. Essentially, they were not prepared for the federal budget requirements. The categories in the SF-424 were quite different from those in their operating budgets, and they had never completed a budget narrative. Here are some steps that we took to remediate the situation:
  1. Working with their CFO, we mapped out the budget categories to align with their existing budget categories to the greatest extent possible. This required a review of the federal guidance regarding allowable and allocable costs.
  2. I prepared a template for the budget narrative and we walked through the information required for each section. In terms of the budget narrative, organization is key. You want to ensure that the reviewer can access all details necessary to provide a picture of the grant request from a financial standpoint.
 
Case Study #2: We'll Just Wing It
Unfortunately, as is the case for a number of my clients, they do not have a formal budgeting process. Some have prepared budgets for each new opportunity (I know, yikes!). One particular situation involved a multi-year federal grant with a request in excess of $5 million. The client did not have a clear sense of costs or plan ahead to determine how the funds would specifically be used within the organization. While they did not end up receiving the grant (they scored second to an incumbent, though), we did create a process to pull together a decent budget:
  1. Assigned an individual to obtain vendor quotes and project salaries for those whose time would be charged to the grant.
  2. Reviewed awarded applications (as provided by the program office) to determine successful allocations of costs.
  3. Used templates to guide process and stay focused.
 
Case Study #3: To Be or Not to Be Detail Oriented
Within the federal budgeting space, you typically do not want to provide more than what is requested. Your budget justification, to this end, should provide the details needed to offer context and explanation for each cost, without offering too much. I have seen budget justifications that are quite lengthy and actually detract the reviewer. While working with clients I offer the following suggestions with regard to the budget justification:
  1. Use tables, charts and headers for each of the federal budget categories as much as possible to ensure clarity.
  2. Identify direct and non-direct charges through the justification.
  3. Include a summary table at the end (especially if you are required to submit a budget for a multi-year grant).
 
The preparation of federal budgets for grant applications can be daunting and challenging. I always learn something new, especially since each agency can request different information (and in different forms). Do yourself a favor and participate in any professional development sessions and plan ahead as much as possible. This will help you in the long run.

Comments

 
By: Dana Drummond
On: 07/27/2016 13:08:58
You refer to reviewing awarded applications as provided by the program office. Can you provide more detail on how you request/access those? This is something I have struggled to get and I may not be doing it right!

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