Defining a project’s budget is like preparing a delicate soufflé: you need to mix different ingredients to build it up, follow specific rules and procedures to cook it perfectly and prevent it from collapsing straight after baking it. If done well, the result is important: a sound budget provides a bullet-proof structure that enhances the feasibility of your proposal and is a clear indication of its success.
In this article, divided in two parts, we will focus on:
- The suggested approach to put together a budget
- Allocating a budget for activities
- The main types of costs
- The definition of “best value for money”
The budget should not be approached immediately when writing the proposal.
Understanding the playground is a key first step.
Study the Call for proposals and its financial guidelines: all the rules and details about eligible and non-eligible costs, categories (actual costs, unit costs, flat rates, lump sums), calculation methods (annual or monthly hourly rates for personnel, average travel costs, etc.) allocation rates, cofounding contributions and all other necessary information.
Once the context is very clear, you can focus on the hardest part: defining all activities, estimating their costs and negotiating with partners.
If you are the Coordinator, it is your responsibility to assess the specific weight of each partner and involve them to define tasks, activities and WPs you want to achieve and draft a first provisional GANTT chart.
Once you have reached a clear picture of the required resources, you as Coordinator can adopt one of these methods to draft the first version of the budget:
- Estimate the overall costs for the entire project and divide the it among all the partners according to your estimations (top-down approach)
- Give free hand to partners, they define their own budget and report it to you, that will summarize all expenses in the overall budget (bottom-up approach) ⇧
Both systems have their strengths and weaknesses: the top-down approach is faster and easier for Coordinators, but risks creating an unbalanced and unrealistic budget, the second approach would be more realistic but probably result in overestimated costs and an inflated budget.
The best option is to integrate both approaches:
- Ask all your partners for specific data about costs, namely:
- Personnel costs
- Travel and events
- Equipment, services and infrastructure to be used
- National policies
- Assign each partner a portion of the budget according to the information you gather.
- Sum up all the contributions you receive and balance the final budget, avoiding overlaps or uncovered tasks.
Flexibility and negotiation are core in this final phase; you can assign a share of the budget to each partner but be ready to fine-tune the proportions according to their feedback and the rules of the call.
We will cover how to allot the budget according to the type of costs in the part II of this article, but as a general rule, avoid allocating more than 1/3 of the overall budget to a single partner (even if you are the Coordinator) or more than 40% to a single country.
A specific mention should be dedicated to the coordination and project management.
As this is a pillar of the project structure, 5-6% of the budget should be dedicated to this activity. The Coordinator is the main responsible party, but all the partners should dedicate a small amount of their budget (and at last 1 person-month per WP) to the project management.
If you are an external project writer to the partnership, providing technical assistance to prepare the proposal, you might be invited as an external expert to support the coordination and project management while the project is implemented, stipulating a contract with the Coordinator.
Either way, it can be useful to know that there are some programmes like Interreg or Erasmus + which also dedicate a specific voice in the budget for preparation costs as a lump sum.
Explain budget decisions
Generally, application forms contain specific prefilled tables where you should state the requested amount for each type of cost and the person-month needed to carry out the operations.
Then you should “narrate” your budget in the part of the form usually dedicated to “Resources to be committed”. This part is really important because here you can integrate the cold numbers provided in the budget with clear explanations to make employing resources intuitive and easy to understand and add new graphics and tables if necessary.
Evaluation reports often highlight that the role and weight of partners in project activities is unclear. It is therefore also essential to stress partners’ contributions to each task and at the end of the Work Package description.
In this first part we analysed the best approach for budget preparation and the most-efficient way for allocation among partners.
In the second part we will analyse the type of costs, the most common pitfalls and doubts affecting budget preparation and will analyse what “best value for money” really means.