The ability to manage a grant successfully is set during the pre-award phase, when the research administrator works with the PI to understand the grant mechanism and guidelines, budget the award, and write the budget justification.
The budget justification is a narrative explanation of the budget that is designed to help the sponsor evaluate the expenses proposed for the project. It is designed to explain and even defend the major expenses proposed for the proposal, especially the administrative costs. The budget justification should always:
- follow sponsor proposal instructions as closely as possible, providing as much detail as necessary
- be organized in the order of the detailed budget page
- give additional details about significant items summarized on the budget page
- explain why each of the items on the budget page is needed to accomplish the proposed research
- make it clear that all budget requests are reasonable and consistent with sponsor and university policies
How to Write A Successful Budget Justification
1. Document each faculty member’s appointment, effort, base salary, and paymaster for the purpose of the award; document if the university will be covering the amount of the cost-share above the salary cap if the faculty member makes more than what is allowable to be charged on the grant.
2. Ensure that potential cost-sharing issues are avoided when faculty effort is discussed in the budget justification. (If other than the salary cap.) If a faculty member is planning to work additional time on the grant, it is not necessary to state that this will occur, or to specify the amount of time that this will occur. When it is written in a justification it becomes a stated commitment to a sponsor and that is not recommended. You can suggest that time may be spent over and above the faculty member’s effort but if there is no specific commitment, there is nothing to measure. Of course, we’d all like to avoid cost share entirely!
3. When referring to human subjects payments, do not refer to these payments as incentives. It is not appropriate to provide incentives to human subjects. Participant payments, or reimbursements are appropriate.
4. Ultimately, your justification is a roadmap for the proposed project to be implemented – the costs have to be reasonable, allocable and consistently applied (ala A21) but most importantly, you need to use the guidelines for the funder to ensure that you’re requesting direct costs that can be charged to the grant.
5. During the pre-award phase, you’ll likely develop several versions of your justification, which you’ll check against the science with the PI several times. The PI will edit this against the proposal just before turning in everything with the application to ensure that the application is consistent.
6. Once you have a format for a budget justification that you like to use (and that your investigators are used to seeing) stick with it – they can be cumbersome to read and develop, and when they work well, all you need to do is update the template language.
7. Double and triple check your math. Most budget justifications are developed in a Word document, or in Adobe, which means you enter in figures that you type by hand. We’re usually working fast and the numbers can become transposed. Have a colleague look over your shoulder so your central office reviewer doesn’t send it back to you.
A special note:
Justifying “unlike circumstances” is difficult. That’s the term for getting a cost on a grant that would not normally be allowable in other circumstances. You have to make the case that in your circumstance, the item that you need is going to be able to solely benefit the grant and not be used for any other reason. It’s harder than you think. Computers and food at seminars on campus most commonly fall under this category. I’ve tried it and it can be done. But it’s hard.
The Problem Solver
A well-written budget justification is one of the first documents we turn to when we need to answer a question about an award. It’s funny, most people don’t realize this when they apply for a grant, but when its awarded, most of the questions that are asked about how to administer an award come from the budget justification.
Now that we’re going into another proposal season, we can keep that in mind as we write another round of budget justifications!