If your people are the intangible soul of your organization, money is the nutrition that keeps it alive. I was a finance major, and even I’ll admit I find dealing with finances to be at times quite tedious. You may feel differently. If you do, I applaud your attention to such an important matter, just promise me that if we ever meet, we’ll talk about something else. But your interest in the topic is beside the point. Having a solid grasp on your team’s finances is absolutely necessary.
As Sun Tzu says, “If you know your enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” As a student leader, you’ll likely have a strong perspective on your financial situation and the need for additional funding. However, when the student activities council or other money granting board is looking at your request, they have a valid perspective as well. As both a student leader and an activities council board member, I will provide you both sides of the funding story.
While your school’s budgeting system will likely have its own nuances, the practices of allocating funding are largely universal. Your budget will be divided into certain categories with possible line items in each of those categories. When you submit your receipts for reimbursement, your expenses will be placed in the category that is most suitable for it. If you multiply the number of groups at your school by the potential number of line categories, you’ll get a sense of how difficult it is for the activities council to have any sort of in depth understanding of an individual group’s needs.
NOTE: Remember to always consider the motivations of the individuals in the budgeting office. The members of the activities council are generally a part of student groups as well. While they may seem stingy, realize that the process is structured so that the members want to be as conservative as possible. If the council gives out more money than they have available, they’ll have to go back and reassess their budgeting. Especially if your school has hundreds of organizations, this can be a nightmare. Additionally, in order to be consistent and ensure a semblance of fairness, the council will almost always defer to the stated rules and precedents. It’s much easier to explain to one group that you were just following the rules than it is to explain to multiple groups why a single organization was identified for an exception.
When assessing requirements, there are two areas you must consider. First, identify the amount of money that you need to run a successful organization. Second, consider the way that activities council representatives react to student group requests.
The best way to identify the amount of money you need is to look at your own historical costs. What activities does your group consistently participate in? How much do they cost? If your team has expanded, do your costs increase by a proportional amount? If you’re a new group without a lot of historical data, you’ll need to be able to justify your line expenses. Focus on the activities you want to conduct and have prepared numbers for how much they will cost. For competitions, equipment, transportation, lodging, etc, you’ll want to contact vendors and find out what the average cost is for the service you’ll require. Be cautiously optimistic. A budget that’s too small will limit your ability to accomplish your goals. A budget that’s too large may not be granted at all.
The second perspective you’ll want to consider is that of the activities council representatives. These members are distributing money provided by the school. As such, they have strict rules they must follow. You will need to familiarize yourself with those same rules. A council member will rely on three criteria in this order of importance: rule > historical precedent > requested budget. If a category of expenses has a maximum that can be granted, it is unlikely that you will be able to get more than the maximum even if you have a good reason. Barring a clear rule, council members will rely on your historical precedent. If your team is functional at current levels of funding, they’ll likely keep those current levels unless you can prove that you need more to function successfully. You’ll have to determine these good reasons and document them. Generally, good reasons include tangible changes like increased number of members, change in national competition requirements, etc
NOTE: Sometimes councils will try to use relative amounts of funding requested to assist with budgeting. For instance, if you requested $1,000 in the previous year, but this year you requested $750, the council may assume that your budgeting needs have reduced and will reduce your budget accordingly. Therefore, a good rule of thumb is to always request at least as much money as you did the previous year.
When it’s time to submit your budget request for consideration to the council, you’ll need to build a strategy to maximize your success and funding. Find the best negotiator on your team. This person should be tough but fair. Once you’ve done that, you’ll want to start compiling the facts to make a good pitch.
If your main goal is to keep the same level of funding, all you need to demonstrate is that your team is similar to how it’s historically been. Show the relevant statistics including number of members, events, and awards. These requests tend to be rather simple. As stated previously, activities councils have a strong preference for historical precedent.
If your goal is to increase your funding, you’ll need to do a little bit more research. The best avenue of attack is to show how your team is different than it was previously. Show the growth in members, events attended or held, and any vendor cost increases. It might also be a good idea to ask other programs at different schools what their budget is. Every increase you request should be justified by a specific increasing number. If the council can only fund a category at a certain maximum amount, there’s no need to try and increase that category if you’ve already received the maximum.
Lastly, consider your opportunities for appeal. If you can appeal your request to the general body of groups, you can be more aggressive during the negotiation. Generally, student groups are more likely to vote for a budget increase than the council will. However, if your only option is to go through the council, then you may need to adjust and play a bit more nicely.
During the year, your primary goal is to ensure that you spend at or slightly above the amount you’ve been allocated. If you spend below your allocated amount, the council will automatically assume you don’t need that money and will remove it. If you’re spending above your allocation, this might be a good piece of evidence that you need more funds.
When you submit your budget, take time to explain any potential questions. It’s likely that the council member reviewing your file will not take the time to read your explanations, but it’s a good documentation in case you need to negotiate later. It goes without saying that you should submit your budget through the requested channels and on time.
If you’re offered an interview to explain your request, take it. During the interview, be assertive but respectful. Cite your evidence and don’t be afraid to be passionate about your cause. If you need to appeal your budget request to the general body, do so. Construct your speech to the general body so that it’s concise, has data, but speaks to the need of your students. You’ll want to combine an emotional and statistical approach. Practice your speech and be prepared to defend your position.
Questions to Consider
Do you really need more money? Seriously…do you actually need it?
What contingencies do you have in place if you do not get the amount you requested?
Do you have any relationships on the council or in the general body that you can leverage?