Part 2 - The Budget Calculation (Qualitative Research Proposal Series)

This is Part 2 of a four-part series on proposal writing for qualitative research. Please read Part 1 of this series, which covers crafting an overview as a starting point of conversation with the client.

Budget calculations at the most basic level include estimated costs in professional fees and expenses associated with your proposal. These costs are in fact estimates because sometimes project scopes can adjust total fees, and expenses are never easy to predict.

Regardless of whether you apply a fixed fee or variable fee approach – creating a budget calculation is always advisable. Meena and I have always advocated a fixed fee approach, believing it shows sufficient predictability to the process, and one that does not rest on our charging for every small piece of work conducted. The key in a fixed fee approach is the confidence you have in your process.

A good budget calculation requires some previous experience and repeatable processes. Because our projects typically involve research and some strategy, we developed a five-phased research approach that can be applied to pretty much any program. Within each of these general phases, there is a lot of consistency to the tasks included. Often, each is tweaked to meet the demands of the research study.

The five-phased approach is a result of both Meena and my experience. Based on our experiences, we know exactly what it takes us to execute a well thought-out and credible research program. We encourage you to tap into your personal experience to determine the best process for you that can make crafting a budget calculation more predictable.

On a side note, when consulting, it’s easy to spend just as much time writing proposals as it does conducting project work. Set structures in place so that you are not reinventing the wheel every time you create a proposal – this will save you time, and money. This could mean a reusable budget calculator in a spreadsheet, or using a program that you have had good success with.

We have both used project programs, spreadsheets and other tools to calculate budget. I used to be a big fan of Microsoft Project because it not only provides tasks associated with real dollars and hours, but it also links up to actual working time (dates). This is great, but MS Project is a costly tool. We use a simple Excel spreadsheet that does just the trick, but does not include actual dates

Each section will describe how to determine and describe:

1.      Professional fees

2.    Expenses

3.    Field schedule


1. Professional Fees

There are a number of calculators online that help freelancers and independent consultants determine an annual living wage. If you have not already determined what this is, we suggest exploring these calculators to determine your hourly wage. It is ALSO very important to look at market data on how much freelancers/independents are charging in your region. We strongly advocate doing your research prior to determining your hourly wage so as not to artificially inflate or weigh down (deflate) the value of qualitative research.

Once you have determined your hourly wage, you can enter this as a header column in a spreadsheet. From there, list all the possible tasks that would be associated with the program (one task per line). Do not forget little administrative tasks like the time it takes you to book travel (unless you outsource it, in which case it becomes an expense). Indicate the number of hours (considering an 8-hour work day) for each task, and multiply these hours by your wage. This will yield your professional fee total, ta da!

Having a solid, well-thought out description of tasks in professional fees is crucial for the discussion with the client. While we do not share the spreadsheet with our client, it gives us specific line items to adjust. Therefore, when the inevitable discussion about cost-cutting comes into play, we can specifically associate any cost reduction with specific tasks. For instance, “we removed an orientation session with client observers,” is a specific task and associated deliverable that is tied to actual dollars. As well, the client can understand where some variability can be applied. Creating a research protocol is a task regardless of meeting with 5, 10 or 15 people. Therefore, its creation does not get affected by the sample or recruitment. The amount of time spent on analysis does get affected – and therefore, the client can appreciate which professional fees can and cannot get affected by sample size change.


2. Expenses

Qualitative research requires plenty of purchases, partnerships, and getting around. If a methodology and sample size are set, then the cost of recruiting is typically the same whether a client goes with vendor x or vendor y. As such, we like to focus the conversation on the professional fees and our value-add as opposed to the number of flights and cost of group session catering.

Expenses typically fall into three categories: travel, recruiting, and supplies.

For travel, we always do research into flight options as well as hotel and ground transportation. Having specific numbers for each travel component (such as hotel, number of Uber rides, etc.) will give a better sense of what it will take to be in the field. We always indicate two multipliers in our spreadsheet – the number of researchers or participants, and the number of days in the field. These help us determine total cost of travel. As well, consider times of year, and availability of flights and hotels: doing this legwork upfront can help manage the client perception of research expenses.

For recruiting, our strategy is to outsource. We will discuss this in more length in Part 3 (The Conversation/Talking Points). We work with a trusted partner to give us an estimate on recruiting fees, incentives, floater fees, facility rentals, catering (for behind and in front of the glass), and video recording. We typically ask for these as line items so that we know the per head cost. To bring down costs, video recording is often the first thing to go. Meena and I typically challenge that video is expensive, and does not yield as much actual value to the client. How often does the client team go back and review the recordings? What will the recordings be used for, and more importantly, how will the recordings be stored? Given that it almost always contains personal information on specific individuals recruited for a study, we want to make sure it is given its due respect.

Lastly, supplies are always a big part of our research programs. We believe people have easier times articulating themselves when they do not have to simply sit in conversation. We calculate how much printing, shipping, purchasing, and renting we have to do and make this one lump sum. It is essentially the cost of executing the protocol and conducting analysis. This can also include printing, which we tend to outsource because often our deliverables involve some printed material.


3. Field Schedule

In qualitative research, it is important to be as realistic as possible, as early as possible. In the same spreadsheet in which we have our budget calculation, we also include a field schedule. This helps us visually see how many actual days we are in the field, and when actual travel will occur. A flight out on a Sunday evening is going to be a different price than a Monday morning – for example. As well, from a work-life balance standpoint, there will be times you will have to work on Sunday evenings, or late into a weeknight, but, making it a regular occurrence often sets an unhealthy standard.

We indicate the days of the week (often with actual dates), and list off the amount of participants that can be engaged on any given day. We always give ourselves enough travel time between participant locations, and enough time to debrief with our client (who is often in the field with us).

Once we have a rough field schedule, and the proposal is moving to signature, we then populate an actual Google calendar with these dates. This is a shared calendar between Meena and I, and we use it to see if there are any conflicts. It is usually a separate project calendar that can be deleted or hidden once we are finished with the program.


Your budget calculation is your hard, fast numbers. It is crucial to give it the diligence and time it deserves. All the details count here, even if they are not ported into your actual proposal. Budgeting is a skill – and not something that comes to everyone right away. We feel comfortable with our process because we have done it so many times. Be sure to set aside time to reflect on the budget, and the fees and expenses applied so that you can continuously make the process more accurate as you evolve in your profession. Note details about the client interaction as well – and where your time might be eaten more so than other projects. This permits you to allow more time for the “client that needs extra coaching” so that can be explained in those very terms when costs are brought up.

What are some costs you consider? Tweet Meena (I ain't on the Twitter!) @meena_ko for #betterproposals.