Writing a Budget

So how much will this project cost? Whether your electoral work is integrated into your organization’s overall budget or you’re putting together a budget for an initiative campaign, a realistic and comprehensive estimate of costs will save you stress – and money – in the long run.

On this page, we’ve tapped into the expertise of Wellstone Action, a nonprofit dedicated to sharing the lessons learned over the course of Paul Wellstone’s political career. Their handbook, Politics the Wellstone Way, is a useful guide that covers all the bases, with particular insight into the daunting issue of money in grassroots electoral organizing work.

While Wellstone Action’s budget model is intended for a candidate or ballot initiative campaigns – projects that have a defined beginning and end; projects where winning counts – it’s a helpful exercise for organizers of integrated, nonpartisan voter turnout projects because it highlights the particular and possibly unexpected costs of electoral work.

Step One: Estimate the project’s income and expenses

This includes everything you’ll need, from messaging (which includes the cost of producing an ad, buying ad time, and designing, printing, and distributing signs and direct mail) to paid labor (you may choose to hire several part-time field organizers or enlist the services of an election consultant) to technology (barcode scanners, an extra computer for data-entry, the expertise of a database consultant). Ideally, most of the project’s infrastructure – office space, furniture, copy machines and the like – will come from your organization (and will share space with your ongoing organizing work), but you may need an extra phone line at headquarters and a meeting place that can hold a number of volunteers.

Step Two: Estimate costs and create budget categories

Be a responsible consumer and tenacious solicitor of donation; collect and compare a range of costs of big-ticket items and get creative about getting things and services for free. This is where the research you did in the political context analysis phase on potential allies will come into play.

Wellstone Action explains that categorizing expenses is an important and “illuminating” process because it allows organizers to identify which category of expenses seems too high or seems underestimated. Once it’s all there in black and white, you may discover you need to reassess certain expenses or shuffle funds from one category to another. The following categories are those suggested by Wellstone Action, but we’ve narrowed them to the scope of a non-partisan voter engagement project:

Step Three: Create a cash-flow chart

The final step in Wellstone Action’s budgeting process is to create “a cash-flow sheet that will provide a month-to-month guide of how much to spend and what to spend it on.”