I was recently interviewed for an article published in Education Grants Alert, published by LRP Publications. When Editor Krista Birkeland White told me the topic was about “Using the Budget to Tell the Story” I paused – am I the right person to offer advice concerning a budget? Ugh, this truly is my least favorite piece of the grant puzzle. With that thought, I asked Krista to send me her questions in advance and soon appreciated that I am perfectly practiced on this financial story-telling topic. After all, my favorite piece of the grant puzzle is crafting the case for support and the research required to back it up with stats and facts.
When writing the budget “story” your organization’s finance manager and program officer will make the difference of winning or losing the grant. Your relationship with these individuals is crucial – you must write the grant as a team. Why? It is simple. This is the only manner in which you can create an authentic budget. A budget that does not under or over estimate the cost of the program you are required to fund.
A budget is all about numbers, right? Wrong. This is where your program officer tells you a story. You see, a successful budget isn’t just about the numbers; it is also about quantifying the numbers by including a budget narrative. A budget narrative backs up your case for support; it lets the prospective funder know how you arrived at that cost (research) and why this cost is essential to your programs success and sustainability (story). So how does this work? Here is an example. You have your excel spreadsheet budget or their (the funder) budget template finalized to perfection because these numbers came from the program officers needs for program implementation and the finance officers ability to attach a justifiable cost to this programs needs.
Now let’s take one of the itemized costs and create a narrative for it. Imagine that the program which requires funding is for a team of plastic surgeons to travel to Haiti and care for the earth quake victims (true story). Clearly this budget will include travel, lodging and meals. So how do you find out the cost of a hotel in Haiti? Research and phone calls. In the budget narrative you tell your funder what hotels you contacted, who you spoke with and then take an average of the accommodation costs based on contacting a few hotels in Haiti. Next, Haiti at that time was not safe – it wasn’t secure, these surgeons needed security to navigate the area and ensure their safety. How did I know the country was very unsafe – one of the surgeons told me in a conversation; after that conversation I placed security in the budget and then spent a significant amount of time researching and finding those who offer security in Haiti. When you dig deep, you end up with an authentic budget and a savvy funder will know you are sincerely fiscally smart and responsible. Keep your budget and budget narrative to one page, two at the most. How is this possible? Not all items in your budget require explanation. For example, you could lump airfare, lodging, and meals into one sentence. It’s unnecessary to explain supplies unless its cost is outside the norm.
Now let’s be clear, if the prospective funder has a very specific template you fill out and they do not ask for a narrative to your budget – do not put a narrative in the grant. This simply goes back to the golden rule of grant writing. If a funder asks you specific questions and only wants those questions answered – you do exactly that.
What I’ve really given you here is a grant writing process for budget generation. Sit down with those people that need the stuff and those people who work the numbers. When this happens you have a full understanding of the project and can identify gaps (like a security team to escort surgeons in Haiti). Foundations are making an investment in your project – they want to know and understand where the money is being spent and if it is within reason. Trust me, funders will know if your budget is a hunch and those grants attached to it may become confetti.