The budget process only rewards those who are prepared.  But how do you prepare? (Hint - it is about marketing.)

The basic steps for preparing a successful budget request are relatively simple.   The execution of the steps, however, requires smarts, stamina, and speed.   This is what you have to do:

  • Document your budget needs in relation to the programs you are responsible for, or the support you are expected to deliver.  Fill out all the forms you will be required to fill out, or prepare the materials you will need when higher levels finally issue their instructions (probably late instructions).  (This process should be based on your own organization's internal planning and budgeting process.)  As part of this process, you should:
    • Review the strategic plan and see how your program fits.  The plan may be obsolete by now, but this is an opportunity for you to point out what you are doing that is new and that requires a change in strategy.
    • Review your performance measures and outcomes, and see how you have done.  Assess the need for changes in the measures.
    • Do comparative analyses of your needs compared to those of your competitors, your needs compared to prior budget decisions, and your needs and the agency's overall set of priorities and political leadership's expressed and/or real wishes.  Use the results of your analysis in developing your strategy for selling your budget request.
    • Form a coalition, if at all possible, with other operating components with similar interests.  If you cannot form coalitions, rethink your strategy.  It is easier to win if others support your request.
    • Determine appropriate staff or leadership to whom to make your sales pitch.  Is there an obstructionist staff office that will get in the way?  Find a way around them or co-opt them or neutralize them.
    • Formulate a sales pitch.  Make the best case you can muster.  This is marketing and selling (see below).
    • Deliver your sales pitch (or make your case for your budget needs, if you prefer to use different terms to define what you have to do).
  • Get commitment to carry your story up the line to the top leadership.
    If you take care to follow these steps, you will have done the best job you can to present and sell your budget request.  You may or may not get your request approved if you do this (there are too many other factors involved that you don't control), but if you don't you will lose out to your competitors who are now preparing their budget sales strategies.

A note about marketing and budgeting

Keep in mind that the budget document is primarily a sales tool, to be used to support whatever you are selling in the market you are selling in. If you know your market, you should be able to develop your sales pitch based on what the market wants in ways that the market accepts or that, at least, has an impact on the players in the market. The impact part is important - if you know your market well, you should be able to change the traditional ways to sell to it and increase your ability to sell.
The first question about preparing the budget is: What is it that I am going to sell? Do you have a new program that needs increased resources? Do you want to save a program that is controversial and has many enemies? Do you want to cut what has many friends? Each of these presents a different marketing challenge. Deciding what you are selling and whether or not it is worth doing involves a large amount of time and effort in an agency’s budget process since this decision is made many times, at each decision level in the agency’s hierarchy.

     Once you have decided what to sell, you get to the next question: Whom do I sell it to? This may be easy to determine if you know who the players are in your program areas and have experience with the process, as well as if you are in a simple hierarchy - in some cases, "the boss" is the answer. In other cases, however, you may have to sell to others as well, such as staffs at various levels or to parallel organizations that may have a say in what you want. And you may conclude that you have to sell first to those who may not be the obvious ones when you first start to look for answers.

     Once you have answered the first two questions, you get to the third question: Which is the best way to make my case? To present your budget, you need to look at who your audience will be. Are they people in the know or are they amateurs in your business? Do they understand the technicalities of what you are dealing with, or are they strangers to your work? Have you dealt with them before, or do you have to deal with a new crowd? Will they be receptive to your pitch, or will they be a hard sell? These questions are no different from those related to any sales objective and presentation. You have to develop a presentation, deliver it, and be prepared for questions. You also have to be ready to change with every new audience or new instance of the presentation. Which leads to question number four.

     Which is the best way to prepare my presentation? This needs to be assessed in the light of the technical requirements that you have to meet. Forms have to be filled out, tables prepared, supporting evidence submitted, questions answered before any other communication can take place, analysis prepared. All these requirements masquerade as rational decision making-related ones, but they are mostly impediments to the sale - all can get in the way of preparing the best possible presentation. These chores, although necessary, are distractions that can keep you from focusing on the marketing job you have at hand. To succeed, you need to keep your focus. Remember, it is a sales job.