Leadership Basics Series: Budgeting – Blog

Confidence is Key: Budgeting for Program Success

No margin, no mission!  In other words, without the funds to do our work in chronic disease, we cannot do our work.  There is a lot that those of us who rely on federal or private grants do not have control over with regard to funding, but there is a lot we can do to prepare for and respond to funding opportunities, especially with regard to budgeting.  In this posting, we discuss the context and consideration for program budgets; resources and ideas for creating a professional and well-thought out budget; and how to build and demonstrate confidence in this skill. 

First, let’s talk about context. There are many different contexts in which you might be budgeting for a chronic disease program.  The major ones are creating a state budget, creating a budget for a private grant or contract, and responding to a federal funding request.  Each one of these types of budgets requires a different format, which you can usually find online or by asking your grants management or budget office, or by reading the funding announcement.  Usually state budgets and private grants or contract applications are solicited, meaning you are told privately that they are being sought. For federal grants, notices of funding opportunities (NOFOs) are posted on www.grants.gov to correspond with Congressional appropriations or expected appropriations.  

When you are thinking about a program need for funding or responding to a NOFO, it is important to think about the scope and scale of what you need versus what a funder might support. Which funders’ interests are aligned with your programs interests?  Who might fund at the scale you need in order to keep your work moving forward?  And, which sources of funding are most sustainable or likely to lead to self-sustaining funding models?  These are all important considerations before you begin to budget. Your application will be more believable and your budget more realistic if you and your team are clear on what you want to accomplish before you begin to write because, odds are, you have more needs than you do funding available.  Especially if you are applying for federal funds, you’ll want to think carefully about whether the required measures and strategies in the NOFO align with where your state, territory, tribe or local jurisdiction is in terms of needed work.

Now that you are clear on the context and considerations for your budgeting exercise, you’ll want to reach for some resources that will make your job easier.  You are going to need some key information from your organization—the employee fringe and retirement rates, and the indirect rate that applies to the specific funder to which you are applying (some organizations have different rates for the federal government versus private funders, and some states have rates they apply to state-funded projects).  You are also going to need the salary information for the staff you think you might bid on the project. 

You will also want to locate the appropriate budget template to use.  The reason this is important is because most funders require you to use their templates. For CDC grants and cooperative agreements, the Office of Financial Resources has information on its website if your organization does not already have a standard federal grants budget template.  Other organizations, such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, also have their own templates.  These templates usually have a great deal in common, but vary in the object classes they use to group together and categorize expenses. For example, in one template you might put your computer costs under “other operating expenses” and in another template, you might be required to separate this number out.  It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the template before you start preparing your budget.  Some want a narrative description of the budget items separate from the budget itself, and some funders want this combined.

Sitting down to create the budget is often the easiest part of the budgeting exercise.  You begin plugging in your personnel, fringe benefits, likely contracts or sub-awards, travel, and other direct operating expenses and things you will buy like office supplies.  It really shows in this step of the budgeting process if you are clear about your programmatic objectives and desired use of the funding. In this step of the process, it is a best practice to engage others to check your formatting, completeness, and addition.  If you need realistic cost estimates for unique services, this is also the step where you obtain them.  And, be sure to look at historical budgets to see if you can borrow information without having to recollect it. This is also the step in your budgeting exercise where you need to factor in your organization’s indirect rate and also sometimes make cuts to your proposed budget to avoid exceeding the funder’s award ceiling. 

Budgeting is not difficult, but it is a process. With some pre-planning and confidence, it is a task all of us can and should budget for our programs. You can build your confidence in budgeting by practicing, drawing on resources, and by asking thoughtful questions during the budgeting process.  Happy budgeting! 


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