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Learn what it means to become a line item in an existing budget, explore when and why you'd want to (and not want to), and explain how to go about it.


  • What do we mean by becoming a line item in an existing budget?

  • When might you try to become a line item in an existing budget?

  • Why would you want to become a line item in an existing budget?

  • How do you become a line item in an existing budget?

For three years, the Patterson Youth Alliance had been working with Patterson's at-risk teens with great success. The program's combination of straight talk, clear structure, fairness, and responsibility, along with its teaching of life skills and academic support, spoke to teens with few positives in their lives and very little self-esteem. Most of the older participants had stuck it out to graduate from high school, and many had become real forces in the student community - peer mediators and student advocates. A considerable number were now enrolled in college. The younger kids were going through adolescent hell, generally complicated by horrendous family situations and their own self-destructive behavior. But with the support of the Youth Alliance, most of them were managing to stay out of trouble and in school, and were learning skills that would eventually equip them to become leaders in the community.

Nonetheless, the Alliance was in deep trouble. Its pilot funding had run out, and the foundation that had provided it wasn't interested in funding an ongoing program. The state agencies concerned with youth thought that the private sector should fund programs like this; the private sector thought the state should. The Alliance was caught in the middle... without money to operate for the coming year, and without future prospects.

The organization still had an ace in the hole, however: the county Human Service Coordinator really liked the program. PYA decided to approach her with a request to put a line item specifically for the program into the county budget.

Desperate circumstances sometimes call for desperate measures. In a case like this, where the existence of an effective and necessary program is at stake, one way to institutionalize it might be to get the program written into the local budget under its own name. Another option might be to get it included in the budget of a larger organization.

This section will examine what it means to become a line item in an existing budget, explore when and why you'd want to (and not want to), and explain how to go about it.

What do we mean by becoming a line item in an existing budget?

Becoming a line item, in its simplest terms, means being specifically written into a public or organizational budget for the long term. Your organization, by name, is granted a sum of money in the budget each year

A line item is one expense category, with the expense attached, in a formal budget. In the situation we're describing here, the expense category would be your organization.

Becoming a line item can take several different forms.

  • Your organization can be written into a line item as a specific expense to be taken from a larger sum. The county budget allotment for Youth Services, for instance, might include this line item: "5051-0001: $435,000 for the provision of support and training services to at-risk youth, with at least $78,000 to go to the Patterson Youth Alliance for this purpose."
  • Your organization can be written into a budget as a specific line item in its own right. Thus, a separate item in the county budget might read "5051-0010: $78,000 for the provision of support and training services to at-risk youth by the Patterson Youth Alliance."

The numbers at the beginning of budget items here are the line-item numbers by which the line items are identified, and they're the same year to year. (For those familiar with accounting and bookkeeping, these are really account numbers.) Because governmental budgets are often big and complex, line item numbers become very important. Sometimes, the only easy way to find a particular line item is by number. If you 're advocating for or conferring about this process with a government official, you have to be familiar with the appropriate line item numbers: it may be the only way they'll be able to find them in the budget.

  • Your organization can become a line item in a public agency budget, one remove from the public budget process. The county Department of Youth Services, for instance, may specifically include a line item for your organization in its internal budget. (You might convince the director to do this through political pressure, or she might choose to do it on her own, because she's familiar with your program and wants to make sure it's funded.) Thus, although you might not be in the county budget, you'll be a specific line item in the Department of Youth Service's annual budget. You might be able to obtain the same result from a regional or city agency.
  • Policy makers at the state or local level might create a generic line item for the work that you do, describing it in a way that would make your organization a very competitive bidder for the funds.
  • A particular program of a coalition or organization, or even a small organization itself, might become a line item in a larger organization's budget. This could mean that the larger organization takes over the work completely (likely in the case of a coalition, which, after starting a program, would probably look for a home for it.) It could also mean that the smaller organization would establish a long-term contractual relationship with the larger, and would be paid through the larger organization to do its work.

We focus in this section on local and organizational budgets, because getting your own line item is far more likely at the local than at the state level. At the town or county level, this is sometimes how health or human service appropriations are made: at the state level, this option is always at the discretion of a legislator who's willing to make it happen, and is seldom advisable. For these reasons, we include information on obtaining a line item in the state budget as Tool #1, but advise against it except in extreme circumstances.

A note about federal budgets. In this section, we assume most of our audience is composed of smaller grass roots and community-based organizations. Getting written in as a line item is also possible in the federal budget, but only if your organization is big enough, has a mission that would justify its inclusion in a national budget, and either has the lobbying power to sway a congressman or senator, or that politician has some personal or ethical reason to include it. Our assumption is that few Tool Box users have the kind of clout necessary to become part of the federal budget, and that those who do already know how to use it.

When might you try to become a line item in an existing budget?

In most circumstances, this is a step that shouldn't be undertaken lightly, as we'll explain below. It carries some potential disadvantages with it, and it may, in some instances, be unfair to other organizations. Therefore, trying to become a line item shouldn't be entered into without a good deal of consideration, and without a compelling reason.

That compelling reason is usually (although not always) money. It may be the result of having your financial back against the wall, or it may simply have to do with trying to find a stable and reliable funding source.

  • You might have been a successful pilot program - like the Patterson Youth Alliance - but have been unable to find funding to take over from the start-up money.
  • Because of politics, a poorly-written proposal, or the funder's lack of commitment, your successful program might have been defunded, making it doubly difficult to find replacement funding.
  • You may be a new or unique service, offering something for which everyone agrees there's a desperate need, but for which there seems to be no funding available. Often, funders - especially those in the public sector - are fully committed to their "regular" grantees, and have little or no money left over to accommodate new programs.
  • Your funder may have gone out of business, or had its funds transferred elsewhere. This may be a result of a state or local reorganization of departments, or the collapse of a community foundation or other private source.
  • The state or municipality may simply no longer be interested in your issue. Public funding is notoriously fickle. If your issue isn't currently hot or popular, you may find funding drying up only because politicians don't see it as connected to their reelection.

A caution here: be sure your organization should continue to exist. Are you actually doing a good job at whatever the work of your organization is? Are there other competent organizations available to take over if your organization folds? Have you done any sort of evaluation of your services or activities to determine whether you're doing what you think you are?

You don't necessarily have to do formal, quantitative research to get the answer to that last question. Looking at the actual results for participants, for instance, will tell you a great deal. (If most of the kids working with the Patterson Youth Alliance could have been expected to drop out of school and/or get in trouble with the law, and didn't do either, that's a pretty good indication of program effectiveness.)

Many organizations are simply unwilling or unable to look at reality: they're not doing a very good job. Sometimes funders notice this, and stop giving them money. (That "sometimes" isn't meant as a joke - inertia grips funders just as it does organizations. They often continue funding ineffective programs simply because they always have. As long as the programs do the paperwork and jump through the proper hoops, they continue to get their money.)

  • You may not have the personnel resources to keep finding and applying for the small grants and contracts that have kept you going so far.
  • You may be seeking to stabilize your funding so that you can turn your energies to the areas for which you founded the organization in the first place - service to the community and the target population.

Some communities may also provide other types of line-item funding opportunities:

  • Basic funding. Some municipal and county budgets use line items in particular sections as regular avenues to fund local organizations and agencies. In other localities, there may be a city or county human service budget, which in turn includes line items for local organizations. You're not likely to get enough to fund all your operations, but you can at least lock in a piece, and this funding doesn't carry the disadvantages discussed later in this section.

Either of these basic funding situations might include a competitive proposal process, or simply involve administrators choosing organizations to fund. In an "I -win-you-lose" competitive situation, especially one which doesn't involve a proposal process, beware of popularity contests and favoritism. These generate bad feeling and aren't good for anyone, even if you're on the positive end. If the situation is charged with these issues, you may want to think carefully about the implications of taking part in it.

One way to think about this process is to ask whether it's good for the community as well as for your organization. Will it lead to divisiveness among agencies and community based organizations? Will it adversely affect services to your target population? Who will lose if you get what you're asking for? If the answers to these questions are unsatisfactory, or raise more questions than they answer, you might want to be cautious.

  • Becoming a line item may be a step in changing policy toward your issue through a sympathetic official. You might want to consider it if the issue is important, but largely unrecognized. It can raise the consciousness of officials and the public alike.
  • If you're a new organization, becoming a line item may help to establish you as an integral part of the local health and human service system, and give you credibility.
  • You may have a one-time-only opportunity, thanks to a helpful official.

Organizational budgets. There may be a range of opportunities for becoming a line item in the budget of another organization. These include:

  • Another organization obtains funding for the same work you do, and offers to contract or collaborate with you.
  • A friendly organization is willing to apply for funding specifically to support your operations.
  • A joint funding proposal results in a grant award to another organization, as lead agency, to fund your work.
  • A coalition or initiative sponsors the founding of a program to meet a particular need, and seeks to spin it off permanently to a community organization that will sustain it.
  • You completely give over a program to a larger organization that has the capacity to keep it going.

Why would you want to become a line item in an existing budget?

Local government budgets.

Becoming a line item in an existing local government budget, especially at higher levels, is not to be done lightly. It carries both distinct advantages and distinct disadvantages.

The obvious advantages here:

  • Your organization will stay alive and continue to operate.
  • You'll get a chunk of stable funding that you don't have to compete for every year.
  • You'll gain the attention and protection of the official who put you in the budget. By making sure to maintain the connection between him and your organization, you may be able to get his help in other ways as well. In addition, he's more likely to be aware of the importance of your issue.
  • Having stable funding may allow you to be more creative in what you do, or to use your funding in ways that make more sense for your organization than the ways funders might have mandated.

Be aware that if you're part of a department or agency budget, you'll probably still have to adhere to the funding rules of that body, just as if you'd been funded through the normal process.

With these positives, however, come a number of equally powerful negatives:

  • You may anger colleagues by bypassing a funding process they still have to contend with, and you may find it hard to work with them in the future.
  • You may be taking money away from other, equally-needed services.
  • Rather than freeing you to be creative, it may make your organization complacent: Our funding is secure, so why try to improve, or advocate for the field, or think about expansion?
  • It may not be ethically consistent with your organization's view of the world, and could turn the organization as a result into something very different from what you had in mind.

There are other elements to consider here as well. For one thing, you are likely to know a number of the people who create and vote on the local budget, and thus have both a better chance of getting what you need and the opportunity to keep your needs in people's minds when they're not thinking about the budget. Furthermore, if a line item in the local budget is the norm for agencies, very few if any of the above disadvantages are relevant.

In some ways, many of the disadvantages may be irrelevant even if it's not the norm. You may be breaking ground for other agencies and organizations by convincing the local government that it has an obligation to fund health and human services or other community programs. Your line item may be the foot in the door that allows local organizations to be considered for funding, and that starts local officials thinking differently about their responsibility for community services.

In addition, a line item, as discussed earlier, can provide a higher profile for both your issue and your organization. Once you're in the budget, it means that local officials have to consider the issue each time they engage in budget deliberations, and that puts it before the public as well. Your presence in the budget lends legitimacy to your work - it's worth funding in the budget, after all - and establishes you as a respectable organization.

Organizational budgets.

As with public budgets, a line item in the budget of another, especially larger, organization, has its pros and cons.

Some of the positives:

  • It provides you with a stable source of funding.
  • It can free you to be creative, rather than tying you to the whims of a funder.
  • It can free you from administrative drudgery: that may be the responsibility of the other organization.
  • It can expand the range of services of your organization by giving you access to those of the other organization as well.
  • It can leave you with a mutually beneficial collaborative relationship with the other organization.
  • It establishes you as a partner of a larger organization, and may thus work to improve your standing in the community

On the other hand, there are risks and other possible negative consequences here as well:

  • You're dependent on the other organization's funders, just as you were on your own funders in the past.
  • You're dependent on the other organization's continued interest in sponsoring your work.
  • You may have to give over control of your organization and your work to the other organization in return for the budget line item.
  • The other organization could use its position to push you in directions different from those you'd prefer to go in, or even to take over your work (assuming that wasn't part of the original agreement).
  • You may find, after the fact, that you have serious philosophical differences with the other organization, or that your methods of operation are incompatible.

Perhaps even more difficult to deal with is the possibility of serious personal differences among directors or staff of the two organizations. This can lead to all sorts of complications, as you can easily imagine.

You have to consider all these and other possibilities before you make the decision to enter into an agreement that makes you a line item in the budget of another community organization.

How do you become a line item in an existing budget?

Once you've weighed the pros and cons and decided to go ahead, how do you actually get yourself into a local government or organizational budget? The short answer is politics, but that's not quite enough. The first step is to learn everything you can about the budget process you're concerned with: who creates the budget, to whom is it distributed for comment and editing, by whom and how is it voted on, who are the key players? These questions can have very different answers in different places.

A free-form guide to becoming a line item in a local government budget

A local government budget may be one that covers a city or town, a region of several towns, a rural area, a county, or - in a large city - even a neighborhood. Each type of budget may be administered totally differently - or may or may not exist - in different places, and the possibility of your becoming a line item may vary greatly as well (thus the freeform rather than step-by-step nature of this part of the section ).

Local budgets really have no one "typical" process. As a result, finding one major sponsor might not help you at the local level the same way it would in a state legislature. In a rural area where the author worked, for instance, human service agencies - in addition to applying to the County Human Services Coordinator - had to make presentations for funding before the County Finance Board, made up of selectmen and private citizens from towns with populations ranging from 400 to 20,000.

If, as discussed above, separate line items for organizations represent the way health and human services are funded locally, then becoming a line item becomes simply an issue of convincing the local government in question that your organization is worth funding. Your chances may be enhanced by the fact that you're the only local organization providing the service or doing the job in question. If that's not the case, you might consider forming alliances with other providers to get a line item that includes everyone.That might not be possible in a large city, where there could be tens, or even hundreds of agencies doing similar work; but it might be very possible in a rural area or small town, or even in a small to mid-size city (up to a population of perhaps 150,000).

Even if a separate line item is not the norm, it may be the only way a local government can fund you. In a rural area, that may mean getting a line item into the annual budgets of several different communities. Whatever the situation, it means legwork.

Tip O'Neill, the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, said that all politics is local. By that he meant that votes are won, deals are made, and initiatives are built one person and one small group at a time, whether those people are your neighbors in Somerville, Massachusetts (where O'Neill began his political career), or members of the U.S. Congress. When politics actually is local - and make no mistake: getting yourself a line item in any public budget is political - this observation is doubly accurate

What you can learn from Tip O'Neill is that you have to make and maintain personal contact with the people who make up the local budget, with those who approve it, and with those who can put pressure on either of those first two groups. That means:

Know the budget process inside out - who's responsible for what, who has authority, what the budget is based on, what the timelines are, etc.

Know which individuals and groups are really the keys to the process

Establish personal contact - ideally, personal relationships - with those key individuals and groups:

  • Elected officials and bodies: mayors, city or town councilors, aldermen, selectmen, county commissioners, boards of health, etc.
  • Appointed officials and bodies: Town planners, town or county human service administrators (if they exist), county health commissioners, finance boards, etc.
  • Public employees who may have influence on the budget process: Town or county accountants, bookkeepers, administrative assistants, community developers, etc.
  • Influential members of the community, especially those who are in some way affected by your issue: business leaders, political and community activists, the media, opinion leaders, clergy, service groups, leaders and spokespeople representing particular groups in the community, and average citizens with higher-than average credibility

An example of this last appears elsewhere in the Tool Box as well. A local man had been shot down as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War. He came home without the use of his legs, and the whole town watched as he, without complaint, learned - slowly and with great pain - to walk with crutches, drive a car, and resume a normal life as a family man, owner of a small business, and participant in the community. His standing and credibility in that town are unquestioned, and when he ventures an opinion, people usually listen.

Convince or remind these people and groups of the importance of what your organization does. 

  • Numbers and data are helpful here. If you can show that you're performing a service for a large number of community members, and that the need is far from being met, local officials are far more likely to look with favor on your request.
  • Even more helpful is the testimony of participants. This testimony is extremely powerful at the local level, because the hearers probably know, either personally or at no more than one remove, the people whose stories they're hearing. They went to school together, or their kids did; they're related by blood or marriage; they belong to the same clubs, the same sports teams, the same volunteer fire department or ladies' auxiliary or veterans' organizations. It's very difficult to ignore an issue when it directly affects your family, friends, or neighbors.

A learner in an adult literacy program, who had graduated from the local high school unable to read 25 years before, agreed, with great misgivings, to take part in a presentation the program was making to a Chamber of Commerce breakfast. He was embarrassed because he knew - indeed, had grown up with - many of the people in the room. Nonetheless, he talked about how difficult being a non-reader had been for him for years, about how even his wife hadn't known. And he described what it was like for him to learn to read after all that time, and the elation he felt when he could actually read a menu or a newspaper without faking it... when he could be like everyone else.

There was dead silence while he spoke. When he finished, the applause was deafening, and person after person, many of whom he'd known most of his life, came up to him afterwards to tell him how awed they were by his courage and persistence. He gained more support for the program that morning than any number of TV specials or newspaper stories could have, because the experience of the people in the room was personal.

  • A third argument is cost effectiveness. It has been reckoned that every dollar spent on human services brings back or saves four in the long run. For some kinds of issues - job training, adult literacy, and preventive health, for instance - the return is easily shown. If a local government can be convinced that its investment will have a visible return - and it's much easier to see returns at the local level - it will be willing to fund you.

Once you've made your contacts, keep track of the budget process, and keep gently making your point to anyone who's involved in it. Furthermore, it's your responsibility to mobilize support, both from participants in your organization and others in the community, and to help your supporters make your case.


Even though you have a line item in a local budget, your task isn't over.

You have to keep at it indefinitely.

  • Keep in regular contact with the folks who helped get you into the budget, and, if they leave, with their successors.
  • Remind them what a good job you're doing (and make sure that your reminders are true), and how important your work is to the community.
  • Continue to give them numbers - how many people you're serving, what the results are, etc.
  • Invite them to visit and to organizational events, and introduce them to beneficiaries of the organization. Political memories are short: it's your job to make sure no one forgets about you.

An even more freeform guide to becoming a line item in an organizational budget

In the case of a public budget, being included in a line item is virtually always a favor, even though your being funded may greatly benefit the community. In the case of an organizational budget, you may be asking for a favor... but you may as easily be offering one, as in the case of a coalition spinning off a successful program.

Furthermore, organizations are even more likely to be different from one another than local governments, so the actual steps to getting yourself into an organizational budget will vary tremendously. There are, however, some basic guidelines that it's worth paying attention to.

  • Consider carefully the mission, philosophy, methods, target population, etc. of the organization you're considering. Do they match, or are they at least compatible with, those of your own organization? Are you likely to find yourselves at odds over basic issues, or over the importance of doing things in particular ways? It's important that you agree on some basics before you decide to work together.
  • Make personal contacts at more than one level of the organizations. If the relationship begins with the directors, for instance, make sure that other staff as well get a chance to meet and to discuss what they do and how they view it. The better the personal relationships, the better the organizational relationship is apt to be.
  • Think about what each organization can offer the other. If you're getting funding, what are you bringing to the table that will benefit the other organization or its target population?
  • Establish mutual trust before you enter into any agreement. No matter how important money is in this arrangement, you can't allow it to be the only driving factor. There are so many things that can go wrong here that you have to be sure that if something does, you have enough trust and good will to resolve it (and that you start out trusting that each organization will do what it says it will).
  • Work out any agreement carefully beforehand. In the ideal, the terms of the agreement should be the result of internal discussions that include, in some way, all the stakeholders in both organizations. The final agreement should be accepted by both organizations, and everyone involved should understand how it's going to work, whether it's as drastic as one organization being absorbed by the other, or as simple as a fee-for-service arrangement.
  • Put it in writing. Once you know exactly what it means to be a line item in the other organization's budget, you should draft an agreement to be signed by both parties, spelling out just what your relationship, obligations, expectations, etc. will be. This can save both organizations from enormous grief later..
  • Continue to maintain and build your relationship, even if you reach a point where you no longer need the line item. Once a relationship has been established, it can become the basis for collaboration, and for better functioning for both organizations, as well as more benefit to the community.

In Summary

One way to institutionalize your organization is to acquire a line item dedicated to it in a local government or organizational annual budget. This strategy has to be carefully considered. While it will bring you stable funding, it also carries risks. At the community or county level, a line item may in fact be the normal route to health and human service funding, or it may lead to jealousy and anger among colleagues. At the organizational level, it can leave you at the mercy of a larger, more powerful organization, and even jeopardize your mission.

At the same time, in addition to money, a local line item may gain recognition for your issue, add respect and credibility to your organization, and even help local government understand its obligation to fund health and human services in the community. An organizational line item may evolve into a mutually beneficial collaborative relationship. If you decide to pursue it, gaining a line item for your organization can be an effective way of assuring funding for the future.

If you plan to become a line item in a local government budget, you would be wise to do several things:

  • Familiarize yourself with the local budget processes. Learn who the key players are, what really happens (as opposed to what the rules say), what the timeline is, and who can influence the process.
  • Get to know personally, if you haven't done it already, local elected and appointed officials, local government employees, influential citizens and groups, the media, activists, and opinion leaders.
  • Convince them all of the necessity and effectiveness of your organization, using numbers and data, measures or indications of cost effectiveness, and the personal stories of participants in your program.
  • Help your sponsors help you by marshalling support in the community to help convince those who develop the budget that they should include your line item.
  • Once you have obtained a line item for your organization, continue to maintain contact with your sponsors and supporters... forever.

Some general guidelines for becoming a line item in an organizational budget are:

  • Make sure the other organization's mission, philosophy, and methods are compatible with yours.
  • Focus on personal contact between the organizations.
  • Consider what each organization can offer the other.
  • Come to agreement only after careful internal discussion.
  • Put it in writing.
  • Continue to build the relationship.

Online  Resources

To find the names, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, etc. of your state legislators:

University of Michigan Library. Another terrific site, including links to information for the federal and all 50 state governments -- laws, courts, executive branches, and everything else.