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Help for Understanding Grant Budgets

Get these 10 tips for creating grant budgets that are tightly aligned with grant narratives.


Grant budgets are a nightmare for many. Although I sometimes cringe inside at the thought of them, my husband says my eyes light up every time I am crunching numbers or working on a spreadsheet. The old saying is true, “Numbers don’t lie, people do.” That is why there is so much fraud, waste and abuse in the grant world. While I’m not an accountant, I feel safe with numbers and see beauty in a finished grant budget aligned correctly with the grant narrative.

Here are 10 steps to help you navigate the convoluted waters of grant budgets.

  1. Read some great articles about budgets from my peers on the Grant Professionals Association (GPA) website. Discover whether to write the grant narrative or prepare the budget first. Then do what works best for you and your organization during grant preparation.
  2. Find some reference books for your professional library that will help you understand grant budgets, such as: Grant Writing for Dummies by Dr. Beverly Browning, The Wise Guide to Winning Grants by Waddy Thompson, Accounting All-in-One for Dummies by Kenneth Boyd and Accounting Made Simple by Mike Piper. 
  3. Work with accounting, finance, or business office staff on the grant budget early and throughout the grant preparation process. They don’t want surprises such as an incorrect salary amount or an unnecessary purchase any more than you or the funder does.
  4. Always call or email the program officer or funder with grant budget questions if it is not clear in the application instructions. It is their job to support applicants. 
  5. Be prudent and understand the terms reasonable, allowable and allocable. Check out this Diane Leonard article on what's reasonable and allowable. Allocable costs are those allowable costs that benefit the grant to which they are being charged.
  6. Be specific when describing budget line items. For example, when describing salaries, include the job title, Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) or number of hours worked, salary amount or hourly rate, number of employees for that line item and a summary of the job responsibilities related to grant project objectives. Depending on the type of grant, this may need to go in the grant budget narrative section.
  7. Learn more about federal grant budgets and how to manage them, see Myfedtrainer.com for in training camps, online trainings, templates and resources.
  8. Create or find a grant budget template, or Excel spreadsheet, to create draft budgets before the actual final grant application. Create this budget by analyzing each grant project objective/activity. A Budget Builder Worksheet from Waddy Thompson is available for download on GrantAdviser.com.
  9. Ask an experienced grant professional, who may be willing to mentor you, for help in learning the ins and outs of grant budgets.
  10. Participate in prerecorded or live GPA webinars about budgets and grant management.

In summary, when working with grant budgets, learn to love the numbers instead of fighting them, ask for help, work with the grant team and continue to educate yourself. Try this mindfulness tip before tackling that budget, called the STOP routine: S-Stop, T-Take a breath, O-Observe what’s happening, P-Proceed.

Keep smiling and good luck!

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