GrantsMagic U

Put On Your Magic Grantmaker Goggles … and Let’s Look at Proposal Budgets!

Ever wish you had x-ray vision into the mind of grant reviewers and grant decision-makers, so you could see your proposal the way they see it? Good news – now you do!

Please put on your GrantsMagic U Magic Grantmaker Goggles! We’re going to zoom in on one perpetually perplexing proposal section – the budget – and examine it as if you were the typical grant reviewer/decision-maker.

Here’s what you’re likely to see.

1. First, as a grant reviewer/decision-maker you’ll probably turn to the budget before looking at the proposal body.

According to many grant reviewers, the fastest way to get a good sense of the proposal as a whole – its purpose, its scope, its planning framework – is to scan the budget first. Why? The budget’s tight, non-texty outline structure, organized by categories, makes it easy to glean a lot of information quickly and in an orderly way – versus needing to “read” (decode/process) straight text.

Plus, the budget is, simply put, nothing more than the resource plan for the work you propose to do. Having that resource-plan framework in mind from the start helps the reviewer make sense of the narrative detail. And that’s why …

2. As a grant reviewer/decision-maker, you’ll probably use Bottom-Up Logic Model thinking as you assess the budget.

What’s the Bottom-Up Logic Model? Imagine the traditional left-to-right Logic Model, turned on its side. Now the “Resources” column usually on the left becomes the bottom row of a pyramid, and the overall “Goal” – formerly the far-right column – becomes the pyramid’s peak.

In other words, “Resources” form the base of the pyramid. Everything else is supported by and built on that base.

What are “resources”? The things you need to do your planned work successfully. And what is the budget? Your resources plan, of course.

Whether they realize it or not, adept grant reviewers adopt a mental Bottom-Up Logic Model framework when reviewing a proposal. They’re constantly asking: “Does everything line up? Does everything support everything else? Is anything missing? Does it all hold together?”

That means the reviewer looks at the bottom line of your entire plan – your budget – to make sure:

  • The budget is rock-solid, lean, and muscular;
  • It supports the work you plan to do; 
  • And – in true Logic Model fashion – it supports the impact you expect that work to have.

And speaking of impact …

3. As a grant reviewer/decision-maker, you’ll be thinking about “portfolio ROI” as well as “proposal ROI.”

Okay, we’re going to get a bit techy here. But hang on, this is important:

ROI = “return on investment.” Grant decision-makers are always calculating the ROI of what your proposal proposes: “If we invest X dollars in this project, what can we expect will happen as a result?”

But remember, your proposal isn’t the only one in the mix – and that makes all the difference.

True, grant decision-makers analyze your project plan and your budget from the standpoint of the “proposal ROI” – the impact your project could have, given the amount you’re asking for. But here’s the part most grantseekers don’t understand: Grant decision-makers are also assessing your proposal and budget in combination with all the other qualified proposals, in terms of maximizing the impact of the portfolio as a whole.

In other words, in terms of “portfolio ROI.”

The ROI of any individual proposal and the collective ROI of a funded portfolio take many forms from the grantmaker’s perspective – as do the ways we measure and report on that ROI. Basically, it’s your job to make sure your proposal is as clear as possible about  the results you’re driving for with your proposed work. That’s the “proposal ROI.” The clearer your proposal ROI, the clearer the decision-makers can be about how your proposal furthers the the collective impact they want to achieve with their funding – their “portfolio ROI.”

Whew! Got that? Now down to the nitty-gritty …

4. As a grant reviewer/decision-maker, you’ll be annoyed – if not downright put off – by math errors.

More reviewers than you think whip out their calculators to rework every single number in your budget. They just do. And trust me, numbers that don’t add up raise yellow flags for sure (“Gosh, a bit careless here – not the best first impression!”) and quite possibly disqualifying red flags too (“Given that we have other proposals to choose from, can we trust this team to manage our grant award conscientiously if their own budget doesn’t line up?”).

I’ve run dozens of mock proposal review exercises in our grants trainings over the years – and managed many real-life grant review panels. Often I’ll ask: “How many of you – if it were up to you solely – would withhold funding from proposals with math errors?” Half of the respondents look perplexed: Why on earth would we do that?

But half say yes, they would.

Always assume there’s at least one “yes they would” on every grant review panel. This should be a no-brainer. Whatever else you spend time on before pushing SUBMIT … make sure your budget numbers are spot-on accurate. Just do it.

And speaking about the details …

5. As a grant reviewer/decision-maker, you’ll play match-up with the proposal’s ABCs and 123s.

At GrantsMagic U we call this the “A-B-C=1-2-3” of proposal budgets – and it harks back to point #2 about the Bottom-Up Logic Model. Reviewers look for a clear, easy-to-identify one-to-one A-B-C=1-2-3 match-up between each item in the budget (the 1, the 2, the 3) and each element of the proposal narrative (the A, B, and C). The budget and the narrative should be mirror images of each other. Everything in the budget must be reflected in the narrative, and vice versa.

Another way of saying this is:

  • “If the narrative says you’re planning to do A, the budget better show me the 1 you’ll need to do A successfully.”
  • “And conversely, if in the budget you’re asking for resources 2 and 3, the narrative better show me a clear corresponding B-and-C explanation of how those resources contribute to the success of the project.”

Anything that doesn’t have an A-B-C=1-2-3 match-up will, again, at the very least raise yellow flags about the planning, if not serious and potentially disqualifying questions about honesty. As in, “Why are they asking for money for this but not telling me in the narrative why they want it? Are they trying to slip something through?” Eeek! Not a suspicion you want your grant reviewer to entertain.

Of course there’s much more to budget-building than the five points we’ve covered here. And a lot more goes on when a grant reviewer is facing a stack of proposals and the challenge of choosing which ones to recommend. But hopefully this quick peek at that stack of proposals through our GrantsMagic U Magic Grantmaker Goggles has given you one or two “aha!”s, maybe a couple “hmm”s – and a few ideas for making sure your own proposal budgets stand out in all the good ways.

Happy grantseeking!


Want to learn exactly how to build an A+ budget – one that shows the total value of everything it will take to succeed? There’s a whole toolbox full of budget-building tips and hacks you can put to work right away in our five-star mini-course, Budget-Building for Grantwriters: The “Total Value” Framework for Crafting an Unbeatable Project Budget – Every Time! (Use the coupon code TVB7 to enroll for just $7 – a saving of $30.) For more great grants tips and training from GrantsMagic U, please visit us at And as always, we love it when you share!



  1. Patricia on March 14, 2019 at 11:00 am

    The ABC 123 concept works! At least in Time Management! I’m looking forward to applying in real life money-making. Our first grant proposal is with a large Foundation that states they just want to see “initial fit,” so a complete budget is not required. Still, I think it’s a good idea to have an idea of a few years out what a realistic budget might look like. You make even money stuff look like it could be FUN! NOW where are those dang goggles?

  2. Joan Williams on March 26, 2019 at 6:07 am

    As we are getting ready to build a women’s center and schoo and site for those in domestic crisis in Guatemala this is so very helpful! Thank you

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