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Structuring a project budget in the absence of guidelines

When it comes to budgets, some funders take an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach, requiring grant seekers to list and justify the minutest of expenses. Other funders employ a more “impressionist” strategy, asking for a broad-stroke overview of expenses and funding sources. What is a grant seeker to do when there are no budget guidelines at all?

“The budget is your project plan expressed in dollars,” said Holly Thompson, contributing editor for the Grantsmanship Center in Los Angeles, Calif. Thompson said every project budget should show two basic elements: (1) Revenue: how much money you expect to receive for the project; and, (2) Expenses: how much you plan to spend on the project and in what categories.

The budget should also show which expenses you’re asking the funder to support and which expenses will receive support from other sources (indicating those additional sources that still need to be secured). You might choose to list other funders and prospects in a budget footnote, or in the budget narrative.

Start by listing revenue sources by type (e.g., government, foundations, individuals). On the expense side, present personnel expenses first (salaries and fringe benefits), followed by non-personnel expenses, which are known as “Other Than Personnel” expenses, or “OTPS.” Common items include supplies, equipment, travel, professional development, facility costs, and more.

Be sure expense estimates are reasonable and justifiable. Be ready to explain how you arrived at a number — grantmakers do ask. Most importantly, check and then double check the numbers. Everything must add up (and across and down). An error shows carelessness and could ruin your chances of winning the grant.

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