Getting the Numbers Right in Your Grants

August 9, 2019


When it comes to winning grants, getting down to the numbers and making the ask is where the rubber truly meets the road.

But there are plenty of mistakes that even the most experienced executive directors, development directors, and grant writers can make when it comes to asks and budgets—mistakes that can cost their organizations significant grant funds.

Below are four strategies for getting the numbers right and making a winning ask. These strategies are based on survey responses from dozens of funders around the country who were willing to share their insights and experiences as grantmakers.

1. Do Your Research
  • Avoid asking for an amount outside a funder’s giving range.
    To determine an appropriate ask amount, learn as much as you can about the funder’s previous giving. Use all available resources: websites, nonprofit/professional networks, foundation staff presentations/panels, Google News Search, IRS Form 990s, etc.
  • Never ask for budget items that are not eligible.
    Foundation’s typically include funding parameters on their website or application guidelines. Typically, direct program expenses are safe bets (exceptions for staff, rent, equipment). If considering requests for indirect costs, check if there are restrictions. For example, some funders explicitly state that they will only fund 10 to 15 percent of a project’s indirect expenses When in doubt (and if you’ve made every effort to find out for yourself) ask the funder directly.If your program requires a cost that is explicitly restricted (like scholarships for a college access program, or computers for a robotics team), consider briefly mentioning in the funding request or budget narrative that your budgeted expenses include this item and how your org funds it (e.g. “Because tuition costs prevent so many students from pursuing a degree, we raise 100% of scholarship funds through our annual luncheon and dedicated individual donors”). This demonstrates your commitment to this specific intervention/expense while simultaneously assuring the reviewer that their dollars won’t be spent here. (Make sure this aligns with your program budget/request column as well.)
  • Do not present an ask for 100% of project costs.
    Funders are not monolithic, so this point will vary on a case-by-case basis. But generally, you should demonstrate the sustainability of your program to reassure funders that your program isn’t wholly dependent on their gift. Similarly, funders also want to see community buy-in (everyone wants to be on the winning team), and multiple funding commitments demonstrate a broad base of support.
    As a general rule, requesting funders to support 10% of a project’s overall costs is a safe bet. If you plan to exceed 30-50%, proceed with caution. You might even consider reaching out to funder for guidance. Avoid asking for 100% unless you are confident that the funder is open to it—whether you heard that information directly from funder staff, through the “grapevine”, or by looking at recent grantees. (e.g. a $60K gift to purchase 3 vans seems like a possible 100% gift.)
2. Be Transparent & Consistent

Reviewers look at dozens or hundreds of proposals/budgets every application period, so it’s unlikely you will successfully pull a fast one.

  • Don’t disguise an operating ask as a project ask (i.e. staff member salary). Or, relatedly, stay away from trying to include something like computers in a “Supply” line item, just because the funder explicitly prohibits requests for “Equipment.”
  • Don’t include things in the budget that are not referenced in the narrative. At best, a reviewer may assume incompetence—at worst, deceitfulness. Neither will set your proposal up for success.
3. Be Realistic

Again, funders review tons of proposals. Even if they have never led a particular program (and many of them will have), they have a broad perspective of the resources required to successfully run a similar program.

Cost-per-participant is not the only tool a reviewer may use, but it is a basic way to compare proposed programs that may appear apples-to-oranges. Depending on their org values, some funders may wish to stretch their charitable dollars to support the greatest number of people, period. Others will understand that deeper/longer interventions require more intensive resources. Either approach has pros & cons.

Regardless of which route your program takes, take time to explain WHY your afterschool program costs $2,000/student vs. a peer program that costs $1,000/student (year-round vs. school-year only; meal vs. snacks; transportation provided vs. using school/metro bus system; highly-qualified staff/MSW/clinical staff/Special Education accreditation vs. volunteers;  etc.)

With this in mind:

  • Don’t ask for a large amount if you serve a small number of people without providing context.
  • Relatedly, use caution when asking for the maximum of a foundation’s funding range. If you have explained your program well, reviewers will have a pretty good idea of what it costs. While it might be tempting, never inflate your budgets to get to the maximum amount.


4. Check Your Math

This might seem like an obvious tip, but details can get lost in a complicated proposal with a lot of authors or sources of input. Double-check your work using a calculator or spreadsheet—and don’t forget to update/confirm Excel formulas if you’re using them.

Your budget and budget narrative present another opportunity to justify the appropriate costs of your intervention.

  • Never submit a budget that doesn’t match the proposal (a reviewer may think it was a mistake or will have questions about cost allocations).
  • Similarly, don’t submit a budget that doesn’t balance for a program. Don’t leave room for assumptions—if your program operates at a loss that’s made up with General Operating dollars, show those General Operating funds in the revenue portion of the budget.

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