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Seliger’s Quick Guide to Developing Foundation Grant Budgets

Faithful readers will remember our post “Seliger’s Quick Guide to Developing Federal Grant Budgets.” This is a companion post for developing foundation budgets.

Unlike federal budgets, foundations rarely provide budget forms, or, if they do, the form is usually fairly simple and most grant writers, even novices, should be able to figure out how to complete it. The challenge is deciding what to present to the foundation and what format to use when a budget form is not provided. We opt for a simple Excel spreadsheet. If the concept of using Excel makes you break into a cold sweat, stop reading and learn how to use Excel immediately. I could place an illustration of a typical foundation proposal spreadsheet here, but we never post sample work products. For our reasoning, see “If You Want Free Samples, Go To Costco; If You Actually Want Proposal Writing, Go To A Grant Writer.” You’ll have to use your imagination to visualize what the spreadsheet should look like, but you’re grant writers and should have at least a soupçon of imagination.

Most of the foundation proposals we write are for project concepts involving operating support, a human services delivery project, start-up costs for a new nonprofit, or a capital campaign. The following applies to the first three (I’ll write a future post discussing capital campaign foundation budgets, which are structured differently):

  • Place a descriptive title at the top of the spreadsheet, such as “Project NUTRIA Three-Year Line Budget Spreadsheet and Justification.” Don’t forget to add your agency name above the title.* I like the look of the Center Across Selection tool in Excel, but choose your own actual formatting.
  • We use two broad line item categories: “Personnel” and “Other” in column A, which is usually titled “Line Items” or similar.
  • Starting with a “Personnel” header, list each administrative or project position as a line item row in descending order from the Executive Director down. Provide a subtotal row, then a row for fringe benefits. It is not necessary to itemize fringe benefits. Instead, express them as a percentage of the personnel subtotal in the first calculation column. Finally, provide a Personnel Total row.
  • Everything else goes into “Other” header. Provide enough line items to cover the activities noted in the proposal, but not so many as to make the spreadsheet print on two pages or be otherwise difficult to read. Typical “Other” line items include local travel, professional development, equipment, printing, communications, insurance, hourly staff (e.g., tutors for an after school program) expressed as hours (there are 2,080 hours in a person year, so two FTE tutors = 4,160 hours) in the first calculation column times an hourly rate in the second calculation column, and so on. Provide an Other Total row.
  • Provide a Total Cost row, which is the sum of the Personnel and Other Totals. If your agency uses an indirect rate, the Total row will be called Total Direct Costs, followed by an Indirect Costs row (expressed as a percentage of Total Direct Costs in the first calculation column) and a Total Project Costs row.
  • Moving across the spreadsheet from column A (line item names), the next two or three columns should be for calculations (e.g., numbers, months, percentages, etc., so the readers can figure out how your formulas are derived). The next three columns will be Year One, Year Two and Year Three yearly totals. The formulas in these cells will be multiplications of the calculation cells for each line. The next column will be the project period total for each line.
  • The last column should be larger and be titled, “Narrative Explanation” or similar. Place a brief description of the line item (“10 iPhones @ $200 ea. to enable Outreach Workers to connect with participating at-risk youth through social media, as detailed in the attached project narrative”). As I discussed in my post on federal budgeting, I see no reason to have long-winded budget narratives that regurgitate the proposal like Jon Voight by the eponymous snake in Anaconda.
  • Provide a bottom sum row for each project year and the project budget year total, perhaps with a cost/participant total, and you’re done.
  • Actually, you’re not quite done, as you will have to struggle with font sizes, row heights and such to get Excel to print the spreadsheet on a single, readable page. But grant writers love struggle, so this should be the fun part of the exercise.

It is OK to estimate most line items. As with all budgets, however, the most important aspect is to make sure that the budget is consistent with the narrative. For example, if the narrative discusses having Outreach Workers using social media to engage at-risk youth, there should be a line item in the budget for the cost of buying the phones and/or computers, as well as a separate line item for phone service charges. Also, I like round number budgets—say $250,000/year for a $750,000 project total. The round number can be easily achieved by making one row (e.g. participant incentives or advertising) a “plug number” (guessed flat per year number for a particular line item), rather than a calculated total. Keep adjusting the plug number in each year until you achieve the round number.

Although this kind of spreadsheet may seem too simple, it will provide enough detail for the foundation to understand your budget request. If the foundation gets interested in funding the project, you’ll know because, in most cases, the foundation will request additional budget details.

* “The Name Above the Title” is the title of a 1991 CD by the somewhat forgotten folk-rocker John Wesley Harding. I’ve been asked many times about the music I listen to while writing proposals. One of these days, I compile a playlist or two and post them. J.W. Harding might be on one of them.

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Nonprofits should make better use of social media in grant applications

We try hard to keep our proposals fresh by making our project concepts reflect what is going on in communities today—not what the world was like decades ago. For example, several years ago we began including references to emerging social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) in proposals, mostly in describing the outreach component. The reality, unfortunately, is that we write in the Proposal World, while our clients live in the real world. I talk to nonprofit Executive Directors all the time and most don’t use social media in any meaningful way, other than perhaps for fund raising or PR. I’ve yet to come across one that is using new tools in their programming.*

This is not surprising, as nonprofits are always slow to adopt new technology, due to budget constraints, lack of imagination, and/or overall fuddy-duddyness. Although we used email and had a website in 1993, nonprofit clients didn’t routinely use email until about 2005. Though most of our youth services clients don’t know it, virtually all of their teenage and young adults clients have smartphones, no matter how low-income they may be.** Social media permeates American youth culture.

In my post last week, I briefly mentioned the troubling emerging problem of big city “flash mobs.” I’m not referring to the original “Thriller” flash mobs that suddenly did zombie dancing, but to the Philadelphia and Milwaukee youth mobs that have recently rampaged. It seems that the mobs formed and de-formed by using Twitter, Facebooking and texting to coordinate their activities, confounding police and potential victims alike (see this video depicting the Milwaukee situation).

A potential flash mob was defused in the Oakland BART subway system last week when the cell phone system was disabled in underground stations. While this raises First Amendment issues that are beyond the scope of this post (for a free proposal phrase, substitute “proposal” for “post”), it shows that public sector administrators and police are getting hip to social media. If a BART bureaucrat can figure this out, as can the State Department, nonprofit executive directors should be able to. For example, we recently completed a federal job training proposal for a large nonprofit in South Central LA. While the executive director told me that virtually all of her very low-income youth clients had smartphones, she wanted to stick with traditional outreach strategies and removed all of my first draft references to utilizing social media.

Consider a project concept for an enterprising nonprofit in any city that has experienced the flash mob phenomenon or might. Let’s call this Project YEAH (Youth Electronic Action Helpers), proposed by Youth Engagement Services (YES), a fictional United Way agency. Project YEAH could work this way:

  • The basic concept is that all community youth are not angry and disaffected. Lots of good kids can be mobilized through social media to produce peer pressure to prevent violent, flash mob behavior. The target population includes middle and high school age youth, as well as out-of-school, unemployed youth and young adults—say, age 14 – 22—of whatever ethnic population predominates in the target area.
  • YES forms a Project Advisory Committee (PAC), including representatives of other services providers, law enforcement, the local Workforce Investment Board (WIB), elected officials, the chamber of commerce, employers, faith-based organizations, etc. The PAC meets virtually, using on-line meeting software and members communicate with one another through a secure web portal, texting, and private tweets. No travel, no donuts, and no wasted time should = better organizational participation. Public access is assured by publicizing the on-line meetings and allowing anyone with a web connection to watch.
  • A Social Media Consultant (a tech-savvy local nerd) is hired to set up the project social media sites and develop training protocols for staff and the target population, who are engaged through the outreach effort (see below).
  • Several Peer Helpers are recruited as outreach and engagement staff. PHs are 18 – 25 or so and are former gang members, star athletes, American Idol contestants, junior preachers, or have some other affiliation or background that provides them with natural connections and street cred with the target population. PHs are trained in community organizing techniques and skills, along with use of social media, using on-line training to the maximum feasible extent. Smart phones, iPads, Internet service, and similar gear are provided. The PHs mostly connect with each other through virtual methods, rather than gathering at the YES office. Once again, no donut eating. Time and activity logs are keep through a secure database, developed by the Social Media Consultant.
  • PHs conduct outreach and education, primarily using social media, rather than the traditional mailings, presentations, street-based outreach, etc. The outreach is based on the ever popular “train-the-trainers” model, updated for the social media world. The trained PHs recruit a cadre of Youth Ambassadors (YAs), who are paid a monthly stipend and are trained by the PHs in community organizing techniques and, to the extent necessary, the use of social media. The YAs use the project-developed social media tools to engage the target population, encouraging them to avoid flash mob/violent anti-social behavior while accessing supportive services (e.g., pre-employment skills training, after school enrichment, GED preparation, job searches, emergency food and clothing, etc.) from YES and PAC members. In effect, each YA will develop a YEAH Follower Cadre, using the Twitter model. Should info begin to circulate on social media channels about potential flash mobs, the YEAH Follower Cadres will react by using social media to discourage participation. In some cases, YEAH Follower Cadres, wearing brightly colored Project YEAH t-shirts and hats will physically meet at potential flash mobs sites, forming a human peer pressure blockade before violence develops. This could include well understood nonviolent protest techniques (e.g., going limp and lying down, etc.). PHs will video the blockades, immediately uploading to YouTube to build awareness and peer pressure.
  • All activities, services, follow-up and client satisfaction feedback will be tracked with user-input databases developed by the Social Media Consultant.

I think a project concept like the above would be great interest to large community foundations and national foundations, particularly those associated with technology companies. Go try it. A version of this social media-based youth engagement model will make much more compelling reading to a funder than the traditional approaches out clients typically want us to use.

EDIT: The New York Times reports: “Phone Messages Improve [Health] Care, Study Finds.”

* I know one emergency medicine resident who observed that her patients routinely had nicer phones than she did.

** If I’m wrong and you know of a nonprofit that is using social media in its programming, post a comment, as I (and readers) would love to know about it.