What makes a winning budget?

How do you build a winning budget? Rule number one: listen to Aiden Byrne. He runs the Australian Research Council (ARC). He knows what he is talking about. He says,

He knows (way better than I do) what makes a winning budget. After all, he is the one that gives out the money.

Tseen has already written a brilliant post on the benefits of early budget planning. I thought that I would talk about how I, as a research whisperer, can help you when you are building your application. Like Tseen, I want to help you when you are planning your project. The budget is a big part of that.

So, what do I look for?

Abacus (Photo by Jenny Downing: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jenny-pics)
Abacus (Photo by Jenny Downing: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jenny-pics)

Well, first and most obviously, do you have a budget yet? This may seem obvious, given the aim of the exercise is to ask for money, but it isn’t obvious to everybody.

I’ve had someone send me a draft application called something like “research-plan-v15.doc”. They had done 15 versions of their project plan, and zero versions of their budget. That doesn’t work.

Your budget is where the rubber hits the road in your application. Without a budget, you can waffle on forever about how brilliant your project will be. Within your budget, you need to decide how many interviews you are going to do, how many days you are going to spend in the field, how many participants you expect to attend your workshops. You need to put dollars against activities, which means you need to be specific.

Your budget is a proxy for project planning.

When I look at your budget, there are a couple of questions that I will ask.

Is it too small?

Some researchers (particularly inexperienced researchers) ask for less than researchers from more established teams. They are so used to doing so much with so little that they don’t feel confident asking for the big numbers.

Asking for too much is a bad idea because you may not get the grant, but asking for too little is suicidal for exactly the opposite reason – you might get the grant. If that happens, you are going to end up having a heart-breaking conversation with your finance officer. Your finance officer is going to explain, using very small words, that you don’t have enough money to do this research. You will discuss, in excruciating detail, exactly what you are going to cut out of your project to make it work. No one is going to be happy, least of all you.

Is it too big?

There might be two different problems with a budget that is too big. The first problem is padding. Do you really need all that travel? Is it really that expensive to stay in Vladivostok? A padded budget provides a critical reviewer with a big fat target to attack.

The bigger issue is one of risk. Is this budget (this project) too big for your team? Funding agencies essentially have to decide if they should risk this much money with your group. If you are asking for $50,000, I’ll be doing a quick check to see that you’ve had a funded project before. If you are asking for $500,000, I’ll be checking to see whether someone in your team has handled big projects before, what your project management processes are, and how successful you’ve been in acquitting past grants. The level of risk is higher, so the level of scrutiny is higher, too.

Where is your budget justification?

The budget itself is just a bunch of numbers – somewhat useful. The budget justification explains those numbers and links them back to the methodology.

I see a lot of budgets that do one or other of those two things, but not both. That is, they explain where the numbers come from (“5x nights in Vladivostok, 3 star accommodation. Quotes sourced from Trip Advisor website, 24 April 2014”), but they don’t explain why the project needs someone in Vladivostok for five nights.

Or they explain why the research associate needs to be in Vladivostok in June (with links back to the relevant bit of the methodology), why this is vital to the project and the impact on the project if this item isn’t funded. But they don’t say where they got the figure from, which leaves them open to accusations of having made up their figures. You don’t want people thinking that you are making stuff up as you go along – that never goes well.

Of the two issues, failing to link back to the methodology is more common and damaging. Ideally, someone reading your application should be able to flip between your methodology, budget, and budget justification, and easily see what goes with what.

  • You are going to do field work in Vladivostok – how much does that cost? [Flips to budget] And how important is it to the project? [Flips to justification].
  • This is a big number for travel –what’s that about? [Flips to methodology] Oh yes, I remember – fieldwork interviews.

Having looked at all that, I’ll step back and think about the project as a whole. Is anything missing? Does it make sense? Does it seem reasonable? What’s the value proposition?

Have you talked to your finance officer?

Finally, I’ll ask if you’ve discussed your budget with your finance officer. Remember that painful conversation we talked about a couple of paragraphs ago? That can all be avoided by making an appointment with your finance officer as soon as you have drafted your budget.

I can’t (and won’t) advise you to pad your budget. It is unethical and counter-productive. Your finance officer, on the other hand, is a trained accountant. They know exactly how much wriggle-room you have within the boundaries of the laws of the land and the rules of financial probity. So, not only can they tell you things that you might have missed in your budget (like salary on-costs), they can also advise you about things that you might want to add.

Experienced research finance officers are like experienced research whisperers. They have seen a lot of grant applications, and they have a good feel for what will and won’t work. So, talk to your finance officer early in the process. Listen hard.

How can I help you with your budget?

I don’t have all the answers, but I can usually help in a couple of ways.

If you’ve never done this before, we might start with a structured conversation: you would describe your methodology and I would ask some pointed questions. When you say “I’ll need to go to Russia for this project”, I’ll ask “What city? For how long? How many people? High season or low?” You need this level of detail to plan your project properly. Your budget is a proxy for project planning. At the end of the conversation, you will probably have enough information to rough out your budget, as well as a better sense of what your project is about.

I can suggest things that you might not have thought of. This might come through a conversation, or I might just be able to review your budget and send you some ideas directly.

I can point out things that are not allowed, under the rules of the funding scheme. Some schemes allow teaching relief and others don’t. Some will only allow staff salary costs. Others won’t allow any staffing costs. Most importantly, some will allow institutional overheads and others won’t.

Once you have written a budget and a budget justification, I can help you to make the justification stronger. I can tweak and tighten the wording, and can point out missing text or weak areas.

Finally, I can point you to tools that might be useful and other people who might be helpful. Like I said, I don’t have all the answers.

This post started life as a talk I gave on a Research Whisperer’s view of the budget. Thanks to @ResearchRMIT for organising a great budget seminar.

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