Need to Ask Your Supervisor for a Bigger Programming Budget? Do These 6 Things.

Student affairs professionals tend to dream big.

We envision the very best for our programs: Beautiful decorations, spacious venues, stunning marketing campaigns, top-tier guest speakers, and of course, delicious food. 

But then we have to face reality. And what’s the difference between our dreams and reality?

Our budgets, usually.

'cash yo' gif America Ferrara

Nothing stops our wild plans and our student leaders’ enthusiasm quite like the restrictions dictated by a programming budget.

Sometimes, a strict budget can lead to wonderfully inspired creativity (such as any of the 100 budget-friendly programs here). But other times, it can prevent us from meeting our goals. Having to constantly say “no” to students, and to our own internal dreams, can be — to put it eloquently — a real bummer.

So, you might need to ask your supervisor to expand your budget. And yes, I realize this could be terrifying, especially if you’re new to your role, know that your office is already working on a tight budget, and/or you don’t have the greatest relationship with your supervisor

But by preparing for this request as a formal pitch, rather than spilling it out as a question among your other one-on-one agenda items, you’ll be able to make a better case for yourself — and ultimately, for your team’s shared goals.

Here are six tips to help you prepare for the Big Ask.

6 Tips

1. Pitch in person

It can oh-so-tempting to jot off an email to your supervisor rather than requesting an in-person meeting. After all, an email will allow you to retain control in phrasing your request perfectly and avoiding interruptions. 

But an email misses something critical: Personal appeal.

The Harvard Business Review found that “written passages lack critical paralinguistic cues that provide critical information about a speaker’s intelligence and thoughtfulness.”

In other words, you’ll seem smarter — and thus, your argument will be more convincing — in person.

“Your voice is a tool that has been honed over the course of human evolution to communicate what’s on your mind to others. Without even thinking about it, you naturally flood your listener with cues to your thinking through subtle modulations in tone, pace, volume, and pitch. The listener, attuned to those modulations, naturally decodes these cues … Written text may not convey the same impression as your voice, because it lacks a critical feature: the sound of intellect.

Juliana Schroeder and Nicholas Epley in the Harvard Business Review

So, although delivering your pitch in-person will probably be more nerve-wracking than sending it off digitally, those nerves will be worth it; they can help you to literally rake in the money.

2. Be clear on your why

“Because I want it” or “Because the current budget is too small” are not good enough reasons. You’ll need to get more specific, touching on the pain points you and your students are experiencing as a result of the too-low budget. 

Here are some questions that you should personally reflect on before planning out your pitch.

  • Whose problem will an increased budget solve? Yours? Your students’? The whole office’s or department’s?
  • What precise problems is the low budget causing? How is it impacting your big-picture concerns, such as retention, engagement, and student success? Or how is it impacting your everyday productivity and influence? 
  • What goals are you not able to meet because of your current budget? 
  • How will an increased budget help you better meet your goals, achieve your mission, or work towards your vision? 
  • Why now? Why is it the right time to increase the budget?
  • How did you come to the conclusion that an increased budget, rather than other changes, will help solve your challenges?

Your supervisor will almost certainly pose some of these questions, so you’ll need to be prepared to answer them confidently and convincingly. 

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Getting caught off-guard can make it seem like you haven’t considered the issue thoughtfully… or like you’re just trying to throw money at the issue. Knowing (and being able to explain) your “why?” well can help counteract all this. 

3. Consider your supervisor’s viewpoint

Put yourself in your supervisor’s shoes. (Yes, even if they’re Crocs; sorry.) 

What might concern them about your proposal? What other issues are they dealing with that might make your proposal harder (or easier) for them to approve? Remember to take professional politics into account; how might your request fit in with the power dynamics at play?

By addressing your supervisor’s top concerns and questions — before they even ask about ‘em — you’ll help put their mind at ease.

Be sure to also consider your supervisor’s learning style. Do they find visuals, like infographics and photos, most persuasive? Or are they swayed more by success stories and personal experiences? Perhaps they’re primarily data-focused and will appreciate you sticking strictly to data gathered through assessment projects (conducted at either your institution or by similar ones).

Spend some time observing your supervisor’s learning style so that you can make your budgetary request in a personalized, optimal way.

By showing that you get where they’re coming from, your supervisor won’t have to feel like they’re making a sacrifice for you. They’ll understand that you’re on their side — that you’re advocating for the whole team’s success, not just your own.

4. Translate your “why” into a broader “why”

Your supervisor likely has their own supervisor to whom they have to justify decisions. And this higher-up might not love the idea of adding more to your budget bank. 

So, in addition to explaining why a budget increase will support your own goals, you should help your supervisor out by explaining why an increase will support the department or even the entire institution as a whole.

Start by researching the institution’s mission and values. Ditto the strategic plan and/or vision if either of those are defined. Consider how expanding your budget will support at least one of these. 

Perhaps a bigger budget will allow you to create programs that will deepen students’ connections to the institution and thus, increase retention. Maybe you can prove that having a budget for a better commuter students’ lounge will increase commuter enrollment. Or perhaps more funding for late-night alcohol-free events will keep students safer and happier.

By thinking and speaking beyond your day-to-day responsibilities and spheres of influence, you’ll be more likely to woo your supervisor and their supervisor, which will hopefully earn your budget an increase.

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5. Be realistic about cost and provide evidence

This is one time when you shouldn’t shoot for the moon; shoot for something realistic instead.

If you ask for an impossibly high budget, your supervisor will likely tune out and not take you seriously — just as you’d surely guffaw at a student leader asking to bring Beyonce to campus. 

Now, I can’t tell you what’s realistic. You’ll need to do your research. Here are a few things to look into:

  • Where does your budget come from? How are divisional/departmental budgets allocated? Is it controlled by student fees and/or a random hodge podge of funds from across the institution? 
  • Are there any financial restrictions imposed on your institution by state or local law? And if so, how does this affect whether or not your supervisor will even be able to approve your request?
  • What are the current programming budgets at comparable institutions? 
  • How frequently has the budget increased in the past, and by how much?
  • How have the costs (for what you hope to purchase) increased since the budget was last tweaked?
  • Can you accomplish your goals with a lower budget? (And if not, why not?)
  • What is your department and/or office’s total budget? Does the percent of funding you’re asking for (of the total pot) align with how much priority your initiatives hold within the team’s collective goals? 
  • Are there any other upcoming projects that will require funding, and thus will take away from what’s available to you? 
  • Where might this increased funding come from? If another budget will need to be reduced to pay for it, how can your team justify that? How can you confidently predict that this change won’t hurt your team’s shared goals?

Also, be sure to research when will be the best time to make your request. Your supervisor likely won’t have the power to up your budget at any ole time of the year. 

So, simply ask them when budgetary decisions will need to be made for the next semester or fiscal year. Having an honest conversation about when you can negotiate budget allocations — before actually making the ask — will help you get the timing right. Plus, it’ll give your supervisor a heads up! They might even decide to do some research on their own, which will support your request.

And finally, be sure to research what your ideal programs and initiatives will cost. Look up the prices of supplies, guest speaker honorariums, decorations, venue rentals, entertainment, transportation, and of course, food. Also consider what you can score for free, by reusing or borrowing supplies, DIY-ing decorations, or hosting events in free public or university-owned spaces.

Understanding the current costs and the answers to the bullet-pointed questions will help you land on a realistic number. That way, you hopefully won’t give your supervisor a heart attack and you’ll be able to make better, wiser purchases.

6. Explain the best-case scenario 

Your supervisor will probably imagine everything that could possibly go wrong as a result of approving your budget request. They might foresee pricy food left uneaten, marketing campaigns that are unable to reach the right students, or guest speakers who fail to inspire student learning.

So help them envision the opposite, too; tell them what might go oh-so-right. I recommend painting a metaphorical picture of your dream scenario in two ways: Through data and through storytelling.

Consider reviewing past event attendance figures at high-budget events, along with survey responses from students who participated in high-impact experiences. Dive into how these opportunities engaged students and benefited retention, learning outcomes, or other goals your team has. 

By studying tailored analytics, you could help your supervisor envision how your dream programs have the potential to engage certain demographics of students. 

You could, for example, show that splurging on weekend programs will finally allow you to connect with students who work full-time. Or perhaps you could show the correlation between events that offer transportation and commuter student involvement. 

Studying past surveys, assessment projects, and attendance numbers can gift you with specific numbers — which will allow you to say more than just “a larger budget will allow me to engage more students.” You’ll be able to estimate precisely how many more students you’ll be able to reach (and their demographics, too)!

Plus, you can use storytelling techniques to show how an increased budget would benefit individual students. 

By storytelling, I don’t mean that you should tell a tale beginning with “once upon a time…” nor parody Harry Potter with a saga about an underdog transfer student. 

Rather, you can consult with students you already know. Ask them how past programs have benefited them or how they hope future programs might.

Then, compile some compelling quotes or/and anecdotes to present to your supervisor. You could even ask your a student leader or two to join you, in order to share their stories in person.

Consider this: Would you be more likely to donate to a cause after speaking with a person in need about their experiences… or after hearing of a vague hypothetical? 

Storytelling is powerful. And combining it with well-researched data will hopefully add up to an increased budget!

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How have you successfully advocated for a bigger budget? What strategies haven’t worked so well? We’d love to hear your tips! Tweet us @HelloPresence, and we might feature it in our Trail Mix email newsletter.


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Jodi Tandet

About the author: Jodi Tandet loves writing about the magic of campus life as the Lead Storyteller at Presence. She's also passionate about baking, mental health advocacy, all the Presence office dogs, and her ever-growing podcast collection. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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