Category Archives: Budgets

More on developing federal grant budgets: Stay in the proposal world, not the operations world

This is an update to our popular post “Seliger’s Quick Guide to Developing Federal Grant Budgets.” While that post provides a step-by-step description of how to develop a federal grant proposal budget, it assumes that the budget preparer understands the difference between the real world and the proposal world. Experts in real-world budgets are often too sophisticated for the proposal world.

When we’re hired to complete a federal proposal, we send our client an Excel template that models the SF-424 budget form found in all grants.gov WorkSpace applications. Recently, we’ve been working for a series of large nonprofits and public agencies that have skilled Chief Financial Officers (CFOs). Most of these CFOs, however, have little or no understanding of proposal budgeting, as they’re accustomed to detailed operational budgets. Yet they’re often charged with filling out a proposal budget.

Even if we discuss the proposal world with the CFO first, the completed template we receive back is usually way too detailed, because it reflects actual program operations, not the idealized proposal world. This not only makes preparing the associated budget narrative/justification far too complex, but also means the budget presentation won’t display well when saved as the required .pdf for attachment to the kit file. The budget will also confuse proposal reviewers (which is never a good idea while being very easy to do), as most of them are not accountants, CFOs, etc.

So how do you keep your budget anchored in the proposal world?

  • Keep the number the number of line items short—around, say, 20. If you use 40 line items, the spreadsheet bloat will be very difficult to format in a way that is readable and meets RFP formatting requirements (unless you’re a wiz at Excel, which almost no one—including us and the CFOs we encounter—is).
  • Only include staff and line items that will be charged to the grant (and match, if required).
  • Personnel line items must match the staffing plan in the narrative. Resist the urge to load up the budget with small FTEs (2% to 20%) of lots of existing administrators/managers, as this will make your agency look bureaucratic (not a good idea, even if it is) and clog the budget narrative. Large numbers of small FTEs are what a federally approved Indirect Cost Rate is for. If your agency has at least one existing federal grant, get an approved Indirect Cost Rate, which is not that difficult, and many of your proposal budgeting woes will be solved.
  • Unless the RFP requires it, don’t line-item fringe benefits. These can usually be lumped together as a the percent of salaries your fringe benefit package equates to. For most nonprofits, this will be in the 18% to 30% range. Anything above 30% will probably generate unwanted attention from grant reviewers, even if that is what you pay. If the fringe benefit rate is relatively high, this should be explained in the budget narrative (e.g. lower salaries, high local costs, need to retain staff, etc.).
  • For multi-year budgets, don’t include expected yearly salary increases or annual inflators; this is too detailed and will, again, result in a very complicated budget justification. Inflation in the current environment is low. In a high-inflation environment like the ’70s, this advice would be different.
  • Regarding the “Other” Object Cost Category on the SF-424A, it’s unnecessary to break down line items too far. For example, lump together facility costs (e.g., rent, utilities, security, janitorial, maintenance, etc.), or communications (e.g., landline and cell phones, mailings, etc.) into single line items. Try to consolidate.
  • If feasible, try to make the total annual budget level for each project year. This can be a bit challenging, if, for example, the project involves start-up costs (e.g., buying staff furniture, hiring a web designer/social media consultant, etc.) in year one. The way to do this is to increase some other line item(s) in the out years to keep the budget level. Level annual budgets will make the budget easier to write and understand.
  • Make one line item your plug number to enable reconciliation to the maximum allowed grant and/or level annual amounts in multi-year grants. The plug number should be in the Other Object Cost Category and could be advertising, communications, or similar line items that look OK with an odd number in different years. Reviewers are aware of plug numbers and won’t hold reasonable plug numbers against you.

The proposal budget is just a financial plan that supports the proposed project activities, not a detailed expression of an operational situation. Following the notice of grant award, your agency will have to negotiate the actual budget in the contract anyway.

In most cases, the grantee can move 10% of the total grant among line items by notifying the federal program officer or requesting larger budget changes to reflect operations in the real world as the project is implemented. Unless you ask to swap an Outreach Worker for a lease on a Tesla for the Executive Director, the program officer will likely go along with your plan, as most simply don’t care what you do so long as the grant doesn’t end up in BuzzFeed, Politico, or the New York Times. Program officers want to make sure you are reasonable implementing a proposed project, but they don’t care about relatively small changes in operations-level detail. Fighting over small details in a proposal budget is a foolish thing to do, as is including small line items. Get the big picture right and the details will shake out during implementation.

Yours is not the only organization that isn’t worried about long-term grant evaluations

Ten years ago, in “Studying Programs is Hard to Do: Why It’s Difficult to Write a Compelling Evaluation,” we explained why real program evaluations are hard and why the overwhelming majority of grant-funded programs don’t demand them; instead, they want cargo cult evaluations. Sometimes, real, true evaluations or follow-up data for programs like YouthBuild are actively punished:

As long as we’re talking about data, I can also surmise that the Dept. of Labor is implicitly encouraging applicants to massage data. For example, existing applicants have to report on the reports they’ve previously submitted to the DOL, and they get points for hitting various kinds of targets. In the “Placement in Education or Employment” target, “Applicants with placement rates of 89.51% or higher will receive 8 points for this subsection,” and for “Retention in Education or Employment,” Applicants with retention rates of 89.51% or higher will receive 8 points for this subsection.” Attaining these rates with a very difficult-to-reach population is, well, highly improbable.

That means a lot of previously funded applicants have also been. . . rather optimistic with their self-reported data.

To be blunt, no one working with the hard-to-serve YouthBuild population is going to get 90% of their graduates in training or employment. That’s just not possible. But DOL wants it to be possible, which means applicants need to find a way to make it seem possible / true.

So. That brings us to a much more serious topic, in the form of “The Engineer vs. the Border Patrol: One man’s quest to outlaw Customs and Border Protection’s internal, possibly unconstitutional immigration checkpoints,” which is a compelling, beautiful, and totally outrageous read. It is almost impossible to read that story and not come away fuming at the predations of the Border Patrol. Leaving that aspect aside, however, this stood out to me:

Regarding Operation Stonegarden, the DHS IG issued a report in late 2017 that was blunt in its assessment: “FEMA and CBP have not collected reliable program data or developed measures to demonstrate program performance resulting from the use of more than $531.5 million awarded under Stonegarden since FY 2008.”

Even in parts of government where outcomes really matter, it’s possible to have half a billion dollars disappear, and, basically, no one cares. If FEMA can lose all that money and not even attempt to measure whether the money is being spent semi-effectively, what does that communicate to average grant-funded organizations that get a couple of hundred thousand dollars per year?

We’re not telling you to lie in evaluation sections of your proposal. But we are reminding you, as we often do, about the difference between the real world and the proposal world. What you do with that information is up to you.

Bad news in new tax bill for nonprofits that depend on small- to medium-sized donations

I recently wrote about Bad and good news for FQHCs in the latest Republican tax bill, and last week, the Republican tax bill passed under its official title, “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” (TCJA). Like it or not, the TCJA is now law and I’m continuing to look at its implications for nonprofits and grant seeking. As reported by the Washington Post, “Charities fear tax bill could turn philanthropy into a pursuit only for the rich.”

Why? The combination of doubling the standard deduction and limiting the deductibility state/local taxes and mortgage interest will likely significantly reduce charitable donations by middle and upper middle income Americans. Those people would need very high deductions to bother itemizing, so many won’t. That’s very bad news for smaller to mid-size nonprofits that depend on donations.

Unlike businesses, which can enter new markets and develop new products, nonprofits have relatively few revenue possibilities (the main ones they do have are listed at the link). In addition to grants and fee-for-service contracts (e.g., foster care, substance abuse treatment, homeless shelter beds, etc.), these are limited to membership dues (for member organizations like Boys & Girls Clubs, animal rescues, etc.), fundraisers, and donations. The latter three will be impacted by the TCJA.

While every nonprofit executive director dreams of landing a donor “whale,” mega-donors are not only rare but tend to give to larger and well-connected nonprofits (the rarely acknowledged “swamp” of philanthropy, if you will). The booming stock market and lowered corporate tax rate will likely to produce more whales, but many of these will donate to corporate or family foundations—not garden variety human services nonprofits toiling away in relative obscurity. We’ve had many conversations with executive directors whose nonprofits are doing good work but find it hard to translate “good work” into “increased donations.”

Nonprofit executive directors will have to make a choice that will become more acute in 2018: cast off in the whale boat to search for Moby-Dick or chase schools of small donation fish. The former strategy is usually pointless and the later is time consuming work that will become harder as many Americans realize that there won’t be a tax deduction reward because they won’t itemize.

The silver lining is that foundation portfolios are being engorged by the historically high bull market. They’ll also receive huge donations from corporations and the upper-income people, who will get much of the direct benefits from the TCJA. No matter what, foundations must distribute 5% of their assets every year, and we offer foundation appeals in part with that in mind to clients.

Also, federal spending on discretionary grant programs continues to rise and most states should see increased tax revenue, some of which will be allocated to grant programs. As budgetary chaos subsides, federal agencies will resume normal RFP patterns.

Is a good idea to “Kiss and Tell” in grant writing?

Most of us have had the experience of deciding if you should tell the new girlfriend about the old girlfriend or the old girlfriend about the new girlfriend, or tell neither and shower frequently instead. While I can’t help you with those dilemmas, I can tell you when you should kiss and tell in grant writing and when you should keep it on the down low.

Let me explain. In pursuing foundation grants for a new project, it’s always a good idea to tell the new foundation about the old foundation that has already committed funding. The old foundation’s commitment makes the proposal a “matching grant” request. Like having more than one date offer for the senior prom, this will make you much more intriguing to the new foundation—all foundations want to give the last dollar to a project, but it’s harder to get a foundation to commit the first dollar. Foundations are like lemmings and they prefer to jump off the cliff in groups. Still, they know that they’ll have to  go first in most cases.

Telling the new foundation about the old is particularly potent in capital campaigns. Say the Waconia Cyclops Youth Recreation Association want to build a new facility. It’s not a bad idea to start by getting the Waconia Community Foundation to commit a $100K grant toward your $1 million capital goal before seeking grants from other foundations. When the project is pitched to new foundations, you can trumpet that you’re one-tenth of the way there; if you want to really go old school, erect a 10 foot tall “capital campaign thermometer” in front of your building.

The new foundations may think that the Waconia Community Foundation knows what they’re doing and will want to get on train before it’s too late. NRP stations, like KCRW in LA, have honed this approach over the years for what seems like bimonthly pledge drives. KCRW knows that the closer the breathless announcer says the station is to that hour’s $10K matching grant from Himmelfarb Industries, the more likely it is that you’ll finally give in and call. Plus, there’s that “handsome” tote bag they keep dangling.

For most nonprofits, captive audiences lured by tote bags are not an option, as they have to hunt down that first foundation grant. Keep in mind, however, that you never want to seem like you have too much money, as foundations want to feel special, just like girlfriend analogy above. Enough money for momentum is good; so much that you seem like you don’t need the money is bad.

The situation is more complex for government grants. Some federal funding agencies like EDA or Rural Development more or less force applicant to demonstrate hard money matching grants,* since they mostly fund large capital projects and almost never provide 100% of the funding. The vast majority of government funders that require a match for human services projects, however, are perfectly happy with an in-kind match, an ephemeral beast I wrote about in “The Secrets of Matching Funds Exposed: Release the Hounds and Let the Scavenger Hunt Begin.”

Most government grant proposals we write use variations on the “but for” argument to demonstrate need: “But for the grant being requested, at-risk young adult Waconian cyclops will not have access to job training with wraparound supportive services and will be doomed to intergenerational poverty.” If you tell the new funder that you already have funding, they may conclude that you don’t need the grant as much as other applicants, who are all screaming poverty. Also, boasting about other funding in a federal grant proposal is likely to raise the dreaded specter of supplantation, which must be avoided at all costs. The Feds usually want to be the first dollar on projects that wouldn’t exist without them.

While contemplating this kiss and tell conundrum, keep in that the funder usually only knows what you tell them in the proposal. While we always advise our clients to be truthful in proposals, proposals can be like writing a match.com profile. It’s not necessary to list your seven previous failed relationships until you’ve gotten past the Starbucks meet & greet.


* We describe stacking several government grants for a capital project as a “layer cake” approach. The grant we’re writing about is invariably the top layer.

Grant Proposal Staffing Plans: Payroll Titles vs Proposal Titles vs Real-World Duties

We’ve written about proposal staffing plans before, but staffing plans seem to confuse many of our clients and, presumably, many others. As we’ve explained previously, staffing plans are intertwined with other proposal elements (e.g., project description, budget, budget narrative, organization chart, job descriptions, etc.). Like all aspects of proposal writing, these elements—which are in a state of flux as the proposal moves from conceptualization to final draft—must be internally consistent in the submission package.

This makes the basic staffing plan the backbone of the entire proposal, which is frequently overlooked in the pressure-cooker days leading up to the submission deadline. One issue that often creates a strong potential for internal inconsistencies is the difference between payroll job titles and proposal job titles. All public agencies, and many larger nonprofits, have standardized job titles that are linked to salary steps and formal job descriptions. But those job titles may not match proposal job titles—and they don’t need to match.

For example, I was hired to work for Mayor Tom Bradley as a 22-year old long haired acolyte of Saul Alinsky* in 1974. I actually had two titles, neither of which had anything to do with my actual duties. My payroll title was “Administrative Assistant,” which didn’t impress me until I learned that “Administrative Assistant” was actually a fairly high level pre-management position in the LA City personnel system—not a coffee fetcher, as I’d first imagined. It turned out that many LA City lifers toiled for years before finally rising from Junior Admin Assistant to Admin Assistant to the ne plus ultra of Senior Admin Assistant. A friend worked for the City of LA for 33 years, starting as a Junior Admin Assistant, but never made to Senior Admin Assistant.

In LA I was actually being paid under a large federal Office of Community Services (OCS) grant. The OCS grant was being used in part to fund a visionary but ultimately pointless program called the LA Volunteer Corps, which was housed in Mayor Bradley’s office. My working title, “Evaluation Specialist,” was included in the original OCS proposal, and I was hired to supposedly evaluate the Volunteer Corps.

In reality, I got the job through a connection who wired the interview for me (I know you’re shocked to find corruption in a big city mayor’s office), even thought I know nothing about evaluation. No one actually wanted the Volunteer Corps evaluated, however, so that didn’t matter. The Evaluation Specialist position was included in the proposal to impress grant readers, and someone had to be tagged with it.

Suddenly I was the Evaluation Specialist, with a payroll title of Admin Assistant. But I din’t do either on the job. Instead, once my boss, Deputy Mayor Grace Montañez Davis, learned I knew how to write grants, I mostly wrote proposals for nonprofits interested in City of LA funding. I’d get a call from Grace and we’d go to see Mayor Bradley, who would introduce me to some nonprofit Executive Director. I’d interview them and write their proposal, which the City would then fund. It wasn’t all that different from our approach at Seliger + Associate, except that our proposals aren’t usually wired.**

When you develop proposals, don’t worry about your organization’s formal job titles—just pick titles that more or less match the imagined job duties in the proposal and that have the right salary ranges for the grant budget. Then dream up proposal job titles that match the project concept. Make sure the proposal job titles are consistent in all proposal elements but that the budget reflects the actual salaries tied to real organization job titles. After funding, none of this really matters, since the nominal Outreach Coordinator might end up doing case management in the real world.


* My training in Saul Alinsky community organizing is the only thing that connects me to Hillary Clinton, who is quite a bit older than me, and President Obama, who is quite a bit younger.

** Some proposals we write are wired, like the reprogrammed funds proposals Jake recently wrote about.

First HRSA, Now DOL: Simpler Forms and Reasonable Templates in the FY ’16 YouthBuild FOA

A few weeks ago we noticed that “HRSA made it harder for NAP applicants to shoot themselves in the foot;” now it appears that DOL is getting in the game. In this year’s YouthBuild SGA, DOL includes a form called “WORKSHEET_weighted_average.xlsx,” which models what previous YouthBuild SGAs have only instructed applicants to do regarding unemployment rates. Years ago applicants could do pretty much whatever they wanted regarding unemployment rates, using any data sources, but over time DOL has gotten more and more specific, presumably so that they’re comparing homogeneous numbers.

Today, calculating weighted average unemployment rates isn’t hard, exactly, but we’d bet that DOL got all kinds of interesting, incompatible responses to these instructions, from the 2015 YouthBuild FOA:

The applicant must provide weighted average unemployment rate (rounded to one decimal place) of the combined cities or towns identified as part of the target community(ies) compared to the national unemployment rate as of the latest available comparable data. This data is broken into two youth age subsets: 16 – 19 and 20 – 24. Applicants will have to average the unemployment rate for these two age groups by adding the populations together and then dividing by the total population.

We know how to model this in Excel, but we shouldn’t have had to: DOL should’ve included a template long ago. Last year we wrote a post about how “Funders Could Provide Proposal Templates in Word,” and doing so would likely raise the quality of the average proposal submitted while simultaneously reducing the busy work of applicants. Funders aren’t incentivized to do this, save by the knowledge of what they’ll get if they don’t provide templates, and consequently they don’t.*

Still, there are downsides to the the DOL approach. Applicants must now collect and aggregate specific data points for all the zip codes they’re serving, rather than choosing a different geographical unit, like a city or county, that ordinary humans understand. Few people say, “I really love living in zip code 66666.” But they might say, “Austin is great!”

Those of us who’ve done data work on large numbers of zip codes know how irritating that can be. I’m thinking of a particular project I worked on a couple months ago that had dozens of zip codes in the target area, and I never could figure out how to really expedite the process via the Census’s powerful, yet maddeningly Byzantine, website. There was (and is) probably an efficient way of doing what I was doing, but I never figured it out. The Census website is hardly the first piece of software with fantastically sophisticated abilities that most users never learn because the learning curve itself is so steep.

Overall, though, the simple, included form in this year’s YouthBuild SGA will probably lead to better proposals. We’re a little sad to see it, though, because conforming to the form makes it harder for crafty grant writers like us to weave threads of cherry picked and obfuscated data into an elegant, but sometimes specious, needs assessment tapestry that is coin of our realm.


* Given the unstated role of signaling in proposals, which we write about at the link, funders might be incentivized to make the grant process harder, not easier.

More on Federally Approved Indirect Cost Rates in Developing Federal Grant Proposal Budgets: De Minimus has Arrived

We’ve written about federally approved indirect cost rates before in developing federal grant proposal budgets; I thought there was nothing more to say of this bit of grant writing arcana, but I was wrong.

In general, indirect costs are an agglomeration of “keeping the lights on” costs that are lumped together is a single line item, below the total direct costs in a Federal SF-424A budget form. Since I began writing proposals during Nixon administration,* it was generally necessary for the nonprofit or public agency applicant’s CFO to prepare a “cost allocation plan,” separating the organization’s operating budget into direct costs (e.g., program service staff, client/participant services costs, etc.) and indirect costs (e.g., administrative staff, facility maintenance, etc.).

To claim an indirect cost rate in a federal grant budget, this cost allocation plan must be submitted to the cognizant federal agency, which is the federal department/agency that provides the greatest amount of grant funding to the organization. For example, the cognizant agency for a job training provider would likely be the Department of Labor (DOL), while for an FQHC it would be HRSA.

There’s a Catch-22, however: the organization had to have a federal grant to have a cognizant federal agency to apply to for approval of a cost allocation plan. Thus, non-federal grantees, or ones who never bothered to get an approved cost allocation plan, were basically out of luck regarding indirect costs. There was a workaround: additional line items for administrative costs could broken out. Still, it’s easier to blob a single, indirect-cost line item than it is to include numerous administrative costs, which complicate the budget and narrative while raising uncomfortable questions.

It seems that, while I wasn’t looking, the Feds, and in particular the DOL, has introduced the concept of de minimus into indirect costs. “De minimus” is a Latin expression often used in legal matters to denote something that is too trivial to consider.

We recently completed a DOL proposal for a large nonprofit in a big midwestern city. The client, who we’ve worked for for years, has had lots of federal grants but never applied for an approved indirect cost rate. Since I knew this, I left out indirect costs in the draft budget, putting in a slew of direct cost line items instead. A closer reading of the RFP, however, revealed this nugget:

If you meet the requirements to use the 10 percent de minimis rate as described in 2 CFR 200.414(f), then include a description of the modified total direct costs base.

Apparently the CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) was changed in 2014, allowing a 10% de minimus indirect rate in lieu of an approved rate. Amazing! This old dog has learned a new trick.

Federally approved indirect costs rates can vary from 15% for a small human services nonprofit up to 80% for a university or hospital (think of all the building upkeep, squadrons of deans and hospital administrators, free lunches, etc.). In my experience, however, most Federal agencies will not approve an indirect cost line item more than about 15% for most human services programs, no matter the approved rate. We’ve worked for a large East Cost substance abuse treatment provider that has a Federally approved indirect of 42%, but they never got more than 15% on their federal grants. So the 10% de minimus rate mirrors reality, which is always a surprise in matters relating to the Feds.


* Yes, I’m a geezer.

Seliger’s Quick Guide to Developing Grant Proposal Staffing Plans

The staffing plan is usually one of the easier and shorter parts of the grant proposals. That’s because the project description will usually imply the staffing plan. For example, a project that conducts “outreach” or health navigation is going to consist of a director or supervisor or some sort, possibly an marketing specialist to create and execute ads, and some number of navigators or outreach specialists.* There may also be an administrative assistant or data clerk.

For healthcare projects run by a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), though, a staffing plan might consist primarily of healthcare providers: two doctors, three physicians assistants, two nurses, a patient care assistant (PCA), a case manager, and front office staff.

It’s a almost always a good idea to propose a full-time Project Manager or Project Coordinator or Program Director or some similar position, unless the budget is too small. Many federal RFPs require a full-time manager or an explanation of why this is not considered necessary.

Most staffing plans follow a generic bulleted format in which a position is listed (like a Program Director), a percentage of time devoted to the project is listed (like 100%), a description is offered (like “Will oversee day-to-day activities”) and minimum qualifications established (like “must have at least three years of relevant management experience, along with at least a B.A. (M.A. preferred) in an appropriate field”). In many staffing plans for new programs, most staff members will be unknown, with the possible exception of the Program Manager. Consequently, you should put in a line that says something like, “Staff members will be hired following an open and fair recruitment process, in keeping with the organization’s Personnel Policy.”

That may not strictly be true—we’re well aware that many organizations have candidates in mind for particular positions—but it should be part of the proposal anyway. If it sounds like you’ve already hired and are already paying your potential staff members, you raise the dreaded specter of supplantation.

Most staff positions in most proposals should have three to four short sentences about what the staff person will do. In many cases, the explanation will be obvious even by the standards of doltish federal grant reviewers. For example, if you’re running an after school education program, you might have a listing like “Teachers (300%): At least three full-time, state-certified teachers will be hired to provide educational enhancement to at-risk youth. Teachers will cover reading, math, cuneiform, Python, and art, as noted in the project description. Teachers will have at least one year of relevant experience, as well as a bachelor’s degree in an appropriate field.” You can also say that all staff will have at least 20 hours of pre-service training, and in that training they will learn effective teaching techniques, why they should not sext with students, and how to handle disciplinary issues.

As noted above, shorter is generally better. Also, the staffing level should be large enough to cover the plausible range of activities but small enough to not go over the budget. For particularly small programs, like those with less than $100,000 per year, 1.5 or 2 Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) staff might be appropriate. In most social and human service programs, personnel costs will be largest cost category, since each warm body is going to cost a minimum of $30,000 per year, plus benefits, which can exceed 30% for some nonprofits and most public agencies. Each body adds up to lots of costs fast. A good rule of thumb is to assume about 80% of the budget for salaries and benefits, with 20% for everything else. There are exceptions—many job training proposals like YouthBuild include participant stipends, which can easily consume 25% of the budget—but relatively few proposed projects have this kind of large, non-personnel budget cost.

It’s also a good idea to have avoid oddball percentages in your staffing plan. Don’t say someone is going to have 17% or 4% of their time devoted to the project. Most positions are full-time (100%), half-time (50%), or, in rare cases, quarter-time (25%). If you have to calculate positions on an hourly basis, keep in mind that the federal standard is 2,080 person hours in a person year. Thus, a .5 FTE = 1,040 hours.

Evaluators and other consultants (e.g. social media consultants, curriculum consultants, etc.) can be listed in the staffing plan in the proposal narrative but generally are not included in the Personnel Object Cost Category in the budget, as they will usually be hired on an hourly basis or via a subcontract. In federal budgets, these are included in the Contractual or Other Object Cost Categories.

Finally, remember that in federal budgeting, the most important part of proposal staffing plans/budgets is that the proposed services discussed in the project description be plausible. Staffing plans and budgets don’t have to be exactly match reality and will likely change, as the grantee will have to negotiate a detailed budget after the notice grant award is received. Still, they have to meet the plausibility test that reviews will apply.


* Always check the acronyms for proposed positions. For example, it would not be a good idea to list Community Outreach Workers for a women’s health outreach project, as you would be proposing hiring COWs. Another unintentionally funny position name we see fairly often is Peer Outreach Workers (POWs).

More on Developing Federal Grant Budgets: Stay in the Proposal World, Not the Operations World

This is an update to our popular post “Seliger’s Quick Guide to Developing Federal Grant Budgets.” While that post provides a step-by-step description of how to develop a federal grant proposal budget, it assumes that the budget preparer understands the difference between the real world and the proposal world. In preparing proposal budgets, experts in real-world budgets are often too sophisticated for the proposal world.

When Seliger + Associates is hired to write a federal proposal, we send our client an Excel template that models the SF-424 budget form found in all grants.gov application kit files. Recently, we’ve been working for a series of large nonprofits and public agencies that have skilled Chief Financial Officers (CFOs). The challenge, however, is that most of these CFOs have little or no understanding of proposal budgeting, as they’re accustomed to detailed operational budgets.

Even if we discuss the proposal world with the CFO first, the completed template we receive back is usually way too detailed, because it reflects actual program operations, not the idealized proposal world. This not only makes it unnecessarily difficult to prepare the associated budget narrative/justification, but also makes it hard to get the budget presentation to display well when saved at the required .pdf for attachment to the kit file. It will confuse proposal reviewers (which is never a good idea while being very easy to do).

Here are some additional tips to keep your federal budget anchored in the proposal world, where it belongs:

  • Minimize the number the number of line items—around, say, 20. If you use 40 line items, the spreadsheet bloat will be very difficult to format in a way that is readable and meets RFP formatting requirements (unless you’re a wiz at Excel, which almost no one, including us and the CFOs we encounter, is).
  • Only include staff and line items that will be charged to the grant (or match, if required).
  • Personnel line items must match the staffing plan in the narrative. Resist the urge to load up the budget with small FTEs (2% to 5%) of lots of existing administrators/managers. This will make your agency look bureaucratic (not a good idea, even if it is) and clog the budget narrative. Large numbers of small FTEs are what a federally approved Indirect Cost Rate is for. If your agency has at least one existing federal grant, get an approved Indirect Cost Rate, which is not that difficult, and many of your proposal budgeting woes will be solved.
  • Unless the RFP requires it, don’t line-item fringe benefits. These can usually be lumped together as the percent of salaries your fringe benefit package equates to. For most nonprofits, this will be in the 18% to 30% range. Anything above 30% will probably generate unwanted attention from grant reviewers, even if that is what you pay. If the fringe benefit rate is relatively high, this should be explained in the budget narrative (e.g. lower salaries, high local costs, need to retain staff, etc.).
  • For multi-year budgets, don’t include expected yearly salary increases or annual inflators; this is too detailed and will again result in a very complicated budget justification. Inflation in the current environment is low. In a high-inflation environment like the ’70s, this advice would be different.
  • Regarding the “Other” Object Cost Category on the SF-424A, it’s unnecessary to break down line items too far. For example, lump together facility costs (e.g., rent, utilities, security, janitorial, maintenance, etc.), or communications (e.g., landline and cell phones, mailings, etc.) in single line items.
  • If feasible, try to make the total annual budget level for each project year. This can be a bit challenging, if, for example, the project involves start-up costs (e.g., buying staff furniture, hiring a web designer/social media consultant, etc.) in year one. The way to do this is to increase some other line item(s) in the out years to keep the budget level. Level annual budgets will make the budget narrative easier to write and understand.
  • Make one line item your plug number to enable reconciliation to the maximum allowed grant and/or level annual amounts in multi-year grants. The plug number should be in the Other Object Cost Category and could be advertising, communications, or similar line items that look OK with an odd number in different years. Reviewers are aware of plug numbers and won’t hold reasonable plug numbers against you.

Always remember that the proposal budget is just a financial plan that supports the proposed project activities, not a detailed expression of an operational situation. Following notice of grant award, your agency will have to negotiate the actual budget in the contract anyway.

Also, in most cases, the grantee can move 10% of the total grant among line items by notifying the federal program officer or requesting larger budget changes to reflect operations in the real world as the project is implemented. Unless you ask to swap an Outreach Worker for a lease on a Tesla for the Executive Director, the program officer will likely go along with your plan, as most simply don’t care what you do so long as the grant doesn’t end up in BuzzFeed, Politico, or the New York Times.

Seliger’s Quick Guide to Developing Facility Grant Proposals and Budgets

Developing proposals and budgets for facility grants is fairly easy, even though, as we’ve written before, getting a facility grant is often really hard (but not impossible).

Facility proposals and budgets are usually simple to develop because they contain the same elements. Once the basic needs argument is established–for example, a HRSA Health Infrastructure Investment Program (HIIP) grant will enable the Waconia Community Health Center to expand, increasing the number of patients served–the proposal action steps are:

  • The applicant must demonstrate site control in the form of a title, lease or lease-option. If leased, the term of the lease should be longer than the useful life of the capital improvements. Federal proposals often specify this length of time.
  • Hire an architect or contractor (e.g., design/build).
  • Due to concerns over climate change and sustainability, select an architect, who will design to meet LEED “green building” standards.
  • The architect then goes to the local jurisdiction’s planning department and/or building department counters to understand the land use and zoning constraints on the site, along with required hearings/permits and the anticipated timing.
  • The architect prepares a conceptual site plan for agency review and eventually a second trip the planning/building counters for a reality check.
  • Pre-building permit hearings are scheduled and held, as needed. In some jurisdictions, this may be where cranky, angry local NIMBYs complain.
  • The architect prepares detailed working drawings, based on the conceptual plan (as revised) and applies for a building permit.
  • The building permit is obtained.
  • Construction bids are requested (unless the design/build approach is used).
  • Construction is undertaken. It’s likely that the contractor will request change orders during construction, which will have to be resolved. Periodic city inspections will occur during construction, which may generate additional change orders.
  • Specified equipment is ordered and installed near the end of construction.
  • When construction is nominally complete, a walk-through will be conducted with the contractor and a punch list of remaining items will be developed and addressed.
  • The final city inspection will take place, leading to the issuance of a Certificate of Occupancy.
  • You’re done. Let the services and champagne flow!

In the laundry list above, the most critical, and often overlooked, step is checking with the jurisdiction to make sure you can build what you want to build, as well as the sometimes exhausting interim steps between a good idea and an actual building permit. It’s also essential that these steps be clearly explained in your proposal, with realistic timeframes.

About ten years ago we wrote a HUD Section 202 proposal for senior housing on behalf of a large faith-based organization in a big Midwestern city. Their architect prepared a conceptual plan but failed to fully grasp the steps that would be needed to obtain a building permit. The issue involved consolidating a number of small parcels owned by our client. We wrote the proposal based on the information provided by the architect.

HUD deemed the proposal “fundable” and reserved Section 202 financing of about $3 million for the project. When the HUD regional office back-checked the permitting process described in the proposal, however, it turned out that the project couldn’t be built. Our client lost the grant but perhaps learned a valuable lesson about grant writing for facilities: there’s not much point seeking grants for an infeasible project, no matter how great the need.

To draft your facility proposal, explain the preceding set of bullets in narrative form and following the pattern in the RFP. You should also include the key milestones in a timeline, as we’ve written before. Leave out references to champagne.

Here are the key line items in a facility budget:

  • Plan check and other fees for public hearings, permits, etc. Your architect will be able to figure this out for you.
  • Architectural/engineering (A/E) costs, which are usually about 7% of the estimated total project cost but may vary in your region.
  • General conditions, which includes staging, materials/equipment storage and miscellaneous other costs that facilitate construction activities.
  • Demolition costs and/or site grading / preparation costs.
  • Construction costs, which will probably be about 70% of the total project costs. One way to calculate estimated construction costs is to multiply the total square feet by local construction costs/square foot. This can be tricky: the cost to build a Community Health Center or UPK classrooms is going to be much higher than general office space because of life/safety code requirements.
  • Fixed and moveable equipment.
  • Legal fees.
  • A prudent contingency, which is usually about 10% of the total project costs but higher for renovation projects.