The Five Biggest Mistakes PIs Make on Their Proposal Budgets

Ugh…budget crunching and adding countless cells in Microsoft Excel – and you have better things to do! As a university professor, community organization leader, or president of a non-profit, you are always pulled in a thousand different directions. You may be tempted to rush your proposal budget.

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But take it from me – this is not a great way to cut corners! Mistakes on that spreadsheet or web form might lead to wrangling with sponsors at a later date – emails and phone calls back and forth, countless hours spent trying to sort things out. And your proposal may be docked in review – or even thrown out entirely – if you crunched your numbers incorrectly.

So take your time, and make sure to run your budget by your organization’s fiscal officer, a representative from a sponsored programs office, and/or someone who understands the grant world. Before you get started, here are five major mistakes I see PIs make on their budgets. Avoiding these will save you headaches in the long run!

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  • The fringe benefits rates are missing or incorrect. In all likelihood – particularly if you work for a university – your institution has a fringe benefit rate. If you have personnel on a project, or are including some of your own salary, confirm that you add the correct percentage to the salary rate. If you skip this important step, you will most likely have to reduce the requested salary. Think about it this way – your institution will take out funds for fringe benefits, whether you like it or not. And if your department does not agree to cover these unexpected costs, they will come from a slice of your award.
  • The “Materials and Supplies” numbers do not add up. Few budget categories seem to disorient PIs like this broad category. Though this seems like a simple addition problem, at least 25% of proposals I see do not add these correctly. Think about it: You are probably adding and detracting supplies as you write the narrative, and before you know it, the numbers do not add up. Make sure you double-check these figures before sending them along to the sponsor.

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  • The salary being requested is excessive. Though I see this happen rarely, salary inflating is a serious problem. Regardless of how much the sponsor awards for personnel salary, your organizations will not – and should not – give you or your graduate student a huge raise. If you honestly want to start paying one of the people working on the project a bit more, create a new position with a new salary, and suggest them for it (leave it “TBD” on the proposal). Applying to the NIH? Don’t forget the salary cap!
  • There are unallowable costs on the projects. These unallowable costs vary from sponsor to sponsor, but there are a few standard “no-nos” as far as federal funding goes. (FYI – the new Uniform Guidance may change some of these slightly – a post on UGG coming soon!) The top offenders: Administrative costs and personnel outside of federally-negotiated indirects, food and drink, receptions, and common-use supplies.
  • The Facilities and Administrative base is Incorrect. If you work at a university or large organization, you probably have to include a standard F&A rate. In all likelihood, your “Total Direct Costs” (everything you are asking for outside of F&A) is not the number you work from to calculate that percentage. You most likely have to subtract specific costs like tuition, subcontracts, patient costs, and equipment. Check with your research foundation to make sure you are asking for the correct amount of F&A. Like fringes, it will probably be taken from your award whether you like it or not, so better to get it right at proposal time, instead of having to go back to the sponsor to ask for rebudgeting authority.
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