Budgets can feel like barriers. Especially in education where money is extremely tight—and many budgets are shrinking.
But there are ways to find savings and use the dollars you have strategically to hire smartly, achieve your goals, and reach your organization’s mission.
1. You’ve got more money than you think—if you know where to look for it.
Deanna Harnett: Be creative. When looking at spending, there are some ways to do things more efficiently or even without any cost. Partner up with other departments or people to share resources, events or ideas. Sometimes simplicity can be nice (and cheap!).
Todd Forsyth: Many costs within our budgets are relatively fixed (facilities, personnel, insurance, etc.). So focus on those costs that are more discretionary and provide opportunity for savings, such as office supplies, consulting spend, travel and meeting spend. Review these costs monthly and reassess your team’s projected needs.
2. Make sure you’re putting financial weight behind high-priority work.
Todd Forsyth: Prioritize the “must-haves” and identify those budgeted costs that might be reduced, eliminated, or possible delayed to the following fiscal year. As budget dollars become scarce, you’ll have identified available funds to either shift to the higher priority work or back to the organization to fund priority work elsewhere.
(What, shift my funds back to the organization?? Remember, #TeamworkMakestheDreamWork. Besides, finance people tend to have good memories.)
3. Plan strategically when your budget hasn’t been approved yet.
Deanna Harnett: Manage spending to a reasonable level with the understanding of what the needs are as you move forward. Planning is critical for this to happen—so ensure you understand what the objectives are and how you are moving to achieve those objectives as you plan.
Todd Forsyth: Begin to act once you recognize the need for non-budgeted resources. Start by documenting the who, what, where and why of the need and the additional resources required to address it. Compile analytical and financial data to support your position and present it to your budget director. Remember, your gain will likely need to be offset somewhere else in the budget so be compelling and clearly articulate the benefits gained.
4. Manage personnel costs carefully to reward and support staff and address talent gaps.
Deanna Harnett: Awareness of where you are relative to personnel costs and planning for needs is critical in the success of meeting this significant line item. Trying to plan for and fill gaps in talent are critical for getting work done and doing it fiscally responsibly is tricky. NOT filling gaps in talent can be challenging, so contingency planning is critical in all staffing situations—planned and unplanned.
Relative to other investments in staff, there are both monetary and non-monetary ways to support staff—in professional and personal development areas, rewards, and simple thanks. It’s important that people feel valued and acknowledged for work done. This recognition can be done through accolades and also small tokens of appreciation that do not cost a lot of money but provide for extremely high value.
5. Find the silver (and gold) lining in staff turnover.
Todd Forsyth: Personnel costs are typically the most significant line item and therefore warrant special consideration. While we’d all love to believe that we’ll retain our staff forever, managing turnover is a very real challenge within every organization. And recruiting and landing that perfect replacement takes time, money, and energy that we simply don’t have in our back pockets.
As painful as it may be sometimes, departing staff often give our budgets a boost as we’re suddenly savings salary dollars. A suggestion is to use these savings to backfill the open position with temporary staff. While it may seem daunting to find the right person and train them for a short-term role, if you land the right candidate, they can take the added workload off of your team, help you train new staff when hired, take on new projects, or might actually be the perfect candidate to replace your lost staff.
6. Remember that there’s no mission without margin.
Deanna Harnett: Running a not-for-profit (NFP) with the fiscal responsibility of a for-profit is a good practice, and the good news is, there is flexibility and less rigidness relative to management of the dollars.
The main lesson to be learned is that the more fiscally responsible an organization is, the more investment opportunities there are to move the organizational purpose forward.
Todd Forsyth: Having worked in both for-profits and NFPs, I recognize that the most successful NFPs are those who incorporate the fiscal management policies of their for-profit friends.
A friend who has been very successful introducing new programming at an international education organization turned to me the other day and said, “there is no mission without margin and the sooner we all understand that, the more successful we’ll be with our programming and the greater impact we’ll have in our work.”
While the mission needs to be the priority, continually striving to be better stewards of our resources can only further that mission.
7. Your budget is your roadmap, but prepare for bumps along the way.
Deanna Harnett: Be aware and flexible. Things change, situations change, and the world does not remain static.
That being said, budgets are critical for management as they are guidelines and roadmaps for how we can and should spend money from a financial perspective. I think awareness of how and what money is being spent on is critical and also understanding implications of shifts are imperative.
8. Talk with your organization about its financial health throughout the year.
Todd Forsyth: Effective and timely communication is an absolute imperative to successfully managing a budget, regardless of whether it’s organization-wide or specific to one department. Oftentimes the factors driving budgets are decided six to nine months prior to the start of the fiscal year and, well, life doesn’t always progress as planned.
While we are often painfully aware of mid-year shifts in priorities, we don’t always know how those shifts impact the financial picture of the organization or individual budgets. If, or when we do know, we don’t always share that information with the rest of the team or organization in a manner that is useful to guide planning for the remainder of the year.
It’s critical that organizations continually update staff on the financial picture throughout the fiscal year and that this information flows through the entire organization. It’s through the efforts of everyone in the organization that budget shortfalls or shifting priorities are addressed and an organization’s mission is progressed.