March 12, 2018

Developing a strategic project budget

Preparing a project budget begins with capturing the correct numbers. Simpler, straightforward projects are typically fine just focusing on creating a clear and accurate budget.

For organizations with large, complex or multiyear projects, more advanced budgeting techniques can be helpful. Numbers have meaning in themselves, but the budget framing tell a larger story about the organization's values and how it is approaching the project. It requires strategic thinking. Without some strategy, the budget for a complex project may fall flat or raise more questions than it answers.

Here are some practical considerations as you prepare budgets for larger, complicated projects.

Understand the funder's guidelines

The crucial and often overlooked first step in the grant process is to orient to the funders' requirements. Is it willing to be the only funder on a project? Does it require matching funds from other sources? Is it only willing to fund a certain percentage of the project budget or the organization's operating budget? Does it like to see an organization's own investment in a new project before seeking outside support? Getting that clarity up front will guide both your thinking about fit with the funder and also strategy about how to frame the budget.

At Meyer, we are rarely the first or the only funder of a project. Beyond that, there are few generalizations. We look at proposals differently based on the type and size of the project and the type of funding requested. More nuanced explanations can be found in funding guidelines for each portfolio.

Locate your proposal on the project timeline

Timing is a crucial aspect of a proposal, and capturing timing in a budget can be a little tricky. It may be helpful to think about the larger project and the steps that build on each other for a larger vision. We often see projects that build on some prior work or pilot effort and want to bring to bear the data, understanding, connections and vision to scale up the project or new business line. In these types of proposals, the narrative sections of the application will describe this pilot step and how it informed the larger vision.

The budget can mirror that progression by reflecting the work that has gone on up to the point an applicant applies and capturing it in the budget. Put another way, your project budget doesn't need to start at the time of application. Your project may be a four-year effort, starting with the year before the application, including a two-year grant period and also a year after the grant ends. Being clear about how the proposed grant period fits into the larger project timeline helps to ground your efforts and orient the reader.

If you are using Meyer's sample budget templates to describe a multi-year project, the project or capacity-building formats can be adjusted to show multiple years.

Consider your framing – wide-angle or close-up?

Related to timing, we often see that a project is defined discretely, as a finite piece of a larger effort. With this kind of close-up framing, it often appears that Meyer is being asked to fund 100 percent of the project, and this bumps up against the notion that Meyer is rarely a first or only funder of a project. To get around that issue, you might consider putting a wider angle on the project framing by showing the work that has come before it or the work expected after the grant, as long as it is reasonably connected. This wider angle can show a more diverse range of financial support for the proposal, and consequently, it does not appear that Meyer is being asked for 100 percent of the project budget. Panning out so far that the project is framed as a 10-year effort, however, loses a lot of detail and punch. Balance is prudent.

Describe the role that Meyer funding can play

We understand that, for many projects, any funding will help. For others, a Meyer grant represents something different, and it is often larger or more flexible than many other sources of grants or revenue. If the Meyer funds can play a certain role in the support of your project, describe that in your project budget and narrative. Some examples of the roles we are often asked to play:

  • Experiment with new approach or prototype.
  • Evaluate a demonstration project.
  • Support efforts to build diversity, equity and inclusion in your work.
  • Leverage or matching grant for public funders.
  • Fill a key funding gap.
  • Complement more restricted grants and contracts.
  • Share funds with partners in a collaborative effort.
  • Provide support during a critical transition.
  • Augment advocacy and systems change efforts.
  • Build a new or strengthen an existing skill base in the organization.
  • Achieve a level of work that unlocks funding from other, larger sources.

Describing the role of Meyer funds, if appropriate for your project, can build a more compelling case for your grant proposal.

Reflect your organization's commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion

Every organization Meyer partners with is expected to share our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). As such, project budgets can also be a good place to reflect your organization's commitment to DEI in your external or program delivery as well as in internal work of the organization. When DEI is centered in a proposal, it can raise some additional costs for the organization, such as training consultation, compensating community partners, collaboratively sharing grant funds, or data management and evaluation to track DEI outcomes, to name just a few. You are encouraged to include these important costs in the project budget.

The bottom line? For complex or multiyear projects, don't overlook budgets as an opportunity to amplify the application narrative, strategically frame the project, build the case for Meyer funding and reflect your organizational values. Budgets are an integral part of the application and more than a mechanical exercise.

Theresa