How to Wow with a Budget
Fifty proposals before lunch. That’s what I imagine a program officer tackles after a funding deadline. Fifty might be an exaggeration, but the idea stresses that your application must stand out above many others. That includes the dreary list of numbers we call the budget.
So, there sits your program officer, sprinting through the morning’s 50. In the middle of your narrative masterpiece, she is interrupted by a 20-minute phone call. When the call ends, she has forgotten several key details by the time she finishes the text and gets to the budget.
You can jog her memory if your spreadsheet reiterates the narrative’s key points.
Countless grant professionals have confided in me that they are not numbers people. They dread building budgets. We can’t excel at everything, but we can adapt our mindsets. You do need a grasp of financials, but generally, you can view your numbers as details in your narrative storytelling.
Below is the approach I have developed from working with clients over 20 years. It comes out of reviewing thousands of proposals myself and speaking with foundation staff who judge them every day.
I’ve seen some beautifully written applications with sleek infographics whose budgets dragged down the whole package. So, when I take a first pass at a budget, I’m looking to make sure that it meets some standards:
Credibility. I first ask myself whether a budget shows an understanding of what it will take to accomplish the stated goals. The last thing you want is for a funder to bail because the finances look like they were a last-minute effort. You only help yourself when the format and, yes, the math, come across as professional.
Priorities. I focus next on the priorities that the budget conveys. Do the largest line items parallel the most central parts of the text? Are they described in a “detail” or “notes” section to emphasize their importance? It’s true that staffing is often the heftiest line item and is taboo in many foundation-funded projects. Consider aligning the job descriptions in the notes column of your budget with activities mentioned in the narrative.
Sustainability. The savviest nonprofits demonstrate sustainability with their budgets. If the full costs are higher than the request at hand, are you listing other anticipated revenue sources? If the project is a multi-year effort, are you including other years’ expenses, even if they’re not part of the current request? Each of these strategies shows that you are thinking beyond the present.
We are going beyond the basics here. As is the case with so much in major grants, you want to leave your reviewer feeling confident in your nonprofit’s ability to execute.
Many applications don’t ask budget-related questions. If you’re lucky enough to have some freedom in your formatting, highlight the most enticing parts of your proposal. Your options include maximizing the notes column, adding footnotes, and breaking some line items in two to create more clarity. These are some of my favorite prompts:
What can we do to further tell this story?
Are we highlighting the pieces that make this a good investment?
Are there line items that warrant further explanation because they are unusually large, small, inventive, or just plain unusual?
Can we add anything that makes the application clearer?
On a second look, the budget serves as a check on the narrative, too. Every significant line item should appear in both words and numbers.
The best budgets go a step further than merely quantifying and clarifying your proposal. They tell the story of the work you plan to do.
They become a central tool especially when the word count on the narrative side is limited. When the text feels restrictive, consider the budget a true extension of your storytelling. Before you submit, scrutinize the two alongside each other.
Think about the most recent budget you put together. Can someone else tell what the project is about from the budget alone? It works wonders to ask a colleague to review your work and explain to you what they see. I often find this step more useful than asking a peer to review the narrative because it can be so easy to take the numbers for granted.
It’s like a grocery list. Imagine if someone read your shopping list and could detect what you planned to make for dinner—main course, sides, and dessert. You have an added advantage when it comes to your budget in that you get to include detailed notes alongside each item.
If you’ve got an in-house reviewer, consider asking that person to answer these open-ended questions:
What kind of initiative do you see?
Is the need for each line item apparent?
Does this seem like an inspired way to spend an investor’s money?
If you can tell your story, convey your priorities, and show why it’s worth investing in this journey—one filled with colleagues, experts, and the like—you are painting a picture of a sustainable future.
The Wow Factor
The above principles apply whether you’re seeking a restricted or an unrestricted grant. In my experience, they become even more powerful when focused on general operating support. For the latter, it’s easy to rely on your organization’s standard fiscal year budget. Jazz that template up with the kind of detail, notes, and critical eye described here, and you will provide more insight than most other applicants.
It's all about standing out. The next time your writerly self is tempted to admit, “I’m not a numbers person,” perhaps you’ll get some delight out of knowing that budget success is not all about the data. It comes in bringing together the narrative and the numbers, the story and the spreadsheet.