Still wondering why it’s so hard to charge meeting expenses to a grant?

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What Happens In Vegas…

Ever pay $7 for a piece of sushi? The federal government did in 2010, at a conference for 300 General Service Administration workers. It also footed the bill for $44 breakfasts, $95 dinners, lavish receptions, gifts for conference attendees, and other services, to the tune of $823,000 for a four-day training conference. That’s a whopping $2,743 per employee. (My head is spinning as I write this.)  Did I mention the conference was held in Las Vegas? When the auditors found out, and issued a report in April of 2012, and a similar scandal followed from the Veterans Affairs Administration, albeit on a slightly smaller budget. ($300,000)

….Didn’t Stay in Vegas

Obama issued two Executive Orders, which specified not only how the federal government was to conduct business with regard to expenditures related to travel, conferences, promotional items, printing, and food purchases for all types of circumstances, but these Executive Orders outlined how agencies were to use government funds in all areas – both intramural and extramural – to follow these orders. This included how recipients of awards were to follow these orders. NPR Marketplace Article, April 2012

Just to bring you up to speed, these guidelines included informing government agencies to print on both sides of the page, use .5″ margins when printing, and use the draft setting on the printer to maximize paper use, and to use electronic versions of documents whenever possible. Regarding travel – if a federal employee can accomplish the work without traveling to do it, the EO and guidelines state that this is the preferred method. Food is offered or accepted by federal employees only when it is included as part of the cost of an event and part of the business conducted at a meeting.  There are exceptional circumstances, but they are few and far between.

So What Do I Tell My PI?

So in general, its best to minimize expenses on food, printing and travel on sponsored projects given the environment we are in, but that doesn’t mean we can’t offer food to conference participants. (I recently had a PI tell me that I wanted her conference attendees to wither from hunger after a day-long conference without any food after informing her of these rules…) There ARE a lot of changes to meeting expenses on grants, and they affect every government agency that funds research. The HHS documentation is the easiest to refer to, so I’m including it here.

You have to plan ahead if you are going to have a conference or meeting where you are going to host attendees, and you plan to offer them materials, and any type of food or drink. This is clearly the case where preparation in the pre-award (application) phase will help with the execution of a meeting or conference in the post-award phase of a project.

MEALS: Business needs to be conducted when food or drink is served. Accordingly, it is not possible to have breakfast, lunch, or breaks between meeting times. The formal meeting needs to continue in order for these costs to be covered. This means that:

  1. The meeting needs to start when you serve a continental breakfast. Participants need to eat while the meeting is going on.
  2. Lunch needs to have a keynote speaker.
  3. Formal coffee breaks are no more. Participants can get up and help themselves to coffee and use the bathroom as the meetings progress. If you take a break, don’t serve food.
  4. You cannot charge the cost of meals/beverages to a grant for federal employees. This means that every conference or meeting you hold that are funded with federal dollars needs to have a sign in sheet, and there needs to be a check box to ask if an attendee is a federal employee.
  5. Your agenda should reflect the activity of the meeting and when meals are served accordingly to demonstrate to your project officer that these rules were followed.
  6. Use per diem rates set by your University.

MATERIALS: Using a website to have participants download meeting materials (instead of printing them out) is a viable alternative to keeping handouts and materials costs to a minimum. If you want to fund a giveaway item –  make it a memory stick with the materials on it.

SPACE: Free or reduced cost meeting space should be used whenever possible.

TRAVEL: Piggy-back meetings for studies on top of regular annual meetings your PI will normally attend. Chances are, his or her collaborators will be there too. Use Skype, free conference calling, and other electronic resources. Your project officer should see why travel is necessary for the meeting to take place.

If you currently have an award with a proposed budget for a conference, it doesn’t mean that you can spend the line items as is – President Obama’s Executive Orders take precedence.


Think through the meetings and conferences on your research budgets carefully, and prepare program staff for the extra documentation needed for these activities. It’s crucial!

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