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Webinar: Understanding Indirect Cost Rates for Government Contractors and Grantees

August 3, 2018 / Ed Jameson / Webinars
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My name’s Ed Jameson and for the next hour, I’m going to give you some information on indirect cost rates to help you understand how to write a better proposal; one that’s not going to handcuff the growth of your business.


It all began with a government contract

When I was 14, I came home from middle school, and found my dad was home early from work. He sat the family down and said, “I’m not sure how I’m going to be able to feed the family. I’ve lost my job, I’m going to start my own business.”

I said to my dad, “Geez, dad, I really like to eat. If there’s anything I can do to help let me know. So at 14 years old, my dad taught me how to reconcile bank statements. By the time I was 16, he taught me how to prepare corporate tax returns. By the time I was 18, I had a $40,000 book of business with pizza shops, canteen trucks, hair salons…anything to make a buck, we did it.

What I didn’t realize until later on was that my dad was a government contract accountant. He was division controller for the Honeywell Electro Optics division, and they had just lost a huge government contract. Three hundred people actually lost their job that day. A number of the scientists and engineers that he was working with wound up starting their own business. So, in addition to canteen trucks and hair salons, we had a bunch of clients who were doing government R&D. In fact, several of them were working on the Strategic Defense Initiative, which most people know as Star Wars.

Starting at 16 and 17, I was dealing with the defense contract audit agency and all the various government funding agencies because of my dad’s background.

Jameson & Co today

I bought my dad out about 15 years ago. Today, I’m 54 and the focus of our firm is totally on government grants and contract accounting. We were once an independent CPA firm, but we’ve morphed into the internal accountants for our clients, because that’s where the need is.

People need a CPA on their side to help them negotiate with the government, to represent their interests, to keep them out of trouble.  That’s why we exist.

We have about 16 people here on staff and clients in 41 states. We work with virtually every government funding agency, every type of government funding award, and over the years we’ve helped clients procure, manage, and survive audit on over four billion dollars in government funding.


For background information, I will use the NIH vernacular and focus this talk around NIH grants. I’ll use terms like Fringe and F&A rate— a very common indirect cost recovery methodology for NIH grant recipients.  A DOD contract may have an overhead and G&A rate, or Department of Energy grant may have a fringe, overhead and G&A rate.  These terms are somewhat interchangeable.

At the end of the webinar, I’ll talk about the five common indirect cost rate recovery methodologies. And I’ll show you how simple it is to do a bottoms-up indirect cost rate projection so that you can be comfortable that the rate you’re proposing isn’t going to bankrupt you.

In this webinar we’ll cover:

  • indirect cost rate background information
  • how and why people bankrupt themselves by using the wrong indirect rate in proposals
  • how people set themselves up for failure
  • inadvertent fraud
  • the multiplier concept
  • Jameson’s free indirect rate projection templates and how to use them

About inadvertent fraud: Instead of bankruptcy, we often see people committing what I call inadvertent fraud. And it’s incredibly easy to do. If you follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn, you’ll see that every month or so we post an article about some grant recipient or government contractor who’s done something wrong and has now been indicted.  Just recently, there was a Purdue University professor who was indicted for paying himself $3,000 a month for rent because he thought it was reasonable. The government didn’t.


It’s incredibly important for you to step back and think about how you’re going to use government funding to develop your business. Most people think of this as free money—and it is free in the respect that you’re not diluting yourself by selling equity— but it has strings attached to it, and you need to understand what those strings are.

VC-Backed vs. Bootstrapped Companies

When you’re in the NIH arena and you’re proposing grants, you need to recognize whether you’re competing with bootstrapped companies or a VC-backed companies. Most VC-backed companies that we see have a very similar thought process on indirect cost rate recovery. Basically, their mentality is, “This is $1.0 or $1.5 million that we don’t have to come up with. We don’t really care about indirect cost recovery; it’s a million dollars that we don’t have to come up with against the total $7 – $10 million in funding needed.

Typically, we see VC-backed companies requesting a 20 to 30% indirect rate. They really don’t care about F&A rates.  You’re competing against other NIH proposals with this VC-backed pool mentality.

If you are bootstrapped and you don’t want to dilute yourself, your fringe and F&A rate cost recovery is going to be a critical concept for you to understand.

A Project vs a Business

One of the things that I want you to consider is – If you win this funding, what do you hope it will do for you? Are you going to have a project or are you going to have a business? I will tell you that funding a project, whether you’re running the project out of your basement or you’re still in an incubator, is very different from having funding to propel a business, where you have employees and rent. I really want you to understand that there’s a distinction between the two, and quite honestly, it’s very common to have a project that succeeds before you have a business.


When you are funded by the federal government, you need to have a FAR Part 31 acceptable accounting system. The federal government requires you to segregate your costs into three buckets – Direct costs, indirect costs and unallowable costs.

Indirect Webinar 1

I hear this all the time, “Jeez Ed, we have expenses that weren’t in the original proposal.”

I’ve worked with people who are absolutely brilliant, yet I have never met a human being who was able to write a proposal, get funded six months later and knows exactly what the costs are going to look like a year to a year and a half down the road.

You are making your best guess at what you think the direct and indirect costs of this project are going to be. But know that that government will not always allow you to re-budget your expenses.

KEY POINT: You cannot re-budget from a direct cost category into an indirect cost category, but you can re-budget indirect monies from your indirect cost pool to direct expenses.

That’s a concept that is incredibly critical to understand. When you use a ridiculously low indirect rate and you don’t negotiate your indirect rate, what you’ve done is cap your rate.

Capping & Rebudgeting Example: The NIH will give you a 40% F&A rate without negotiating, but if you only bid 3%, when you get your funding, your indirect rate is capped at 3%! And remember, you cannot re-budget from a direct cost category into an indirect cost category.

Conversely, if you propose the 40% F&A rate and you decide to only use 20% for indirect expenses, you are allowed to re-budget those indirect monies towards direct expenses.

If you come away with nothing from this webinar, understand that proposing an incredibly low indirect rate locks you in to what you propose to the government.

The government doesn’t pretend to understand your financial situation, so if you’re going to give them a sweet deal, they’re going to take it, no questions asked. Once you’ve given them that sweet deal, like a 3% indirect rate, you’re locked in. And the only way out is selling equity, going into debt, or making sure that everything that goes through your accounting system is coded as a direct expense, whether it is or not, because you don’t have any other way to fund it.

Indirect costs vs. direct costs. How to know the difference.

You can determine if an expense is a direct or indirect cost by asking yourself two simple questions.

  1. If it weren’t for this project, would I have incurred this expense?

If the answer is yes, it’s a direct cost. If you didn’t have this specific project, you wouldn’t have this expense.

  1. If you didn’t have the business, would I have incurred this expense?

If the answer is yes, it’s an indirect cost. 

Every situation is unique: The Lab Jacket Example

Typically, when I think of a lab jacket, I think of something that people wear around their office or lab to protect their clothes, and it probably benefits the entire business. But every case is unique.

I did a webinar for the Principal Investigators Association a while ago and I got a phone call from a gentleman who asked me if a lab jacket was a direct or an indirect expense.

I said, “Why do you ask?” and he responded “We do this one particular bovine (cattle) experiment and every time, it destroys our lab jackets.“

If it weren’t for this project, they wouldn’t have to continuously buy lab jackets. In this company’s scenario, the lab jacket is a direct expense.

Unallowable costs

FAR part 31 has rules that are black and white. As an example, alcoholic beverages are unallowable.  Marsha asks the question, “It says alcoholic beverages are unallowable as entertainment expenses, but are they allowable within the scope of approved research?”

If you’re doing research on alcohol abuse, you may need to incur alcohol expenses for the project. That’s a direct cost.

But if you and I went out and had a beer, that would be unallowable.

Big Picture Thinking for a FAR Compliant Accounting System

If you’re working with the NIH and you have one grant, you could make the argument that every single expense that you have is for this grant. That’s an incredibly dangerous way to think.

When you set up your accounting system, I want you to imagine you have three or four or even 20 projects.  When you start thinking like that, it makes it a lot easier to understand what should be indirect and direct. That mentality will help you build a realistic fringe and F&A rate.


Your employees are expensive, and they shouldn’t be charging all their time to direct labor!

What’s a fringe benefit? For one, it’s corporate FICA, FUTA and SUTA – 7.65% of everybody’s gross pay gets matched by the corporation.  Second, you’ll know you own a business when you give your employees vacation, holiday and sick time, right?  Think about it.

There are roughly 2,000 hours in a year.  Most of the companies that I work with offer two weeks’ vacation, five sick days and 10 paid holidays. That’s 25 days a year that their employees don’t show up for work and get paid.  Multiply 25 days a year times eight hours in a day and you have 200 hours.  Divide 200 by the ~2,000 hour in a year, and roughly 10% of the time your employees are getting paid to not show up to work.

Third, most employees will need medical and dental insurance, and retirement plans.

In Massachusetts, if we don’t offer our employees medical and dental insurance, and we don’t match 3% of their 401K contributions, and don’t give them vacation, holiday, and sick time, they’re not going to work for us. If you’re in Silicon Valley, you’re competing with Google for employees.   Google picks their employees up and drives them to work, feeds them, does their dry cleaning, and drives them home.  So, you have to be competitive to attract and retain employees.


Odds are, you’re also going to have rent, telephones, utilities, computers, furniture and equipment, accountants and lawyers – which are almost always allowable expenses.

A word or two about rent:

If I rent from XYZ corporation, and I don’t own XYZ corporation, I’m representing my own economic interest and they’re representing their economic interest. A fair transaction has taken place because we’re both protecting our own economic interests at an arm’s length.

But when I rent from myself, like the Purdue University professor who was indicted, there’s a formula in the federal acquisition requisition as to how much rent is allowable when you’re renting from yourself.

A word or two about accountants:

Accountants are allowable indirect expenses if they’re working for your corporation and not doing your personal tax returns. We work for your business, and benefit all the projects that we work on.  Jameson is always an allowable F&A expense.

A word or two about lawyers:

With lawyers, you have to look into the actual merits of what the lawyer is doing for you to determine whether their costs are allowable or not.

If your attorney is helping with an employee handbook or a subcontract agreement, those are allowable F&A activities.  If a lawyer is helping you raise Series A financing, that’s an unallowable expense because transferring ownership of your business creates no benefit to the federal government.

KEY POINT: If the federal government doesn’t benefit, it’s unallowable.

Still, the largest indirect expense that most people overlook is indirect labor.

Think about the time spent at conferences, writing proposals, managing your business, employees, accountants, lawyers, subcontractors, and vendors. It takes a tremendous amount of time and it’s not a project expense, it’s a business expense – and that time needs to be budgeted as indirect labor.


Most people dramatically underestimate their F&A rates because they don’t see the bigger picture.  Indirect cost rates are a balancing act that most people get wrong by proposing absurdly low indirect rates.

The other day we picked up a new client. He has a 2.88% F&A rate. It makes my brain spin; it’s such a low indirect rate. I just told you in the last screen, there are fringe benefits, rent, telephone, utilities, accountants, lawyers, indirect labor. Yet, he’s using a 2.88% indirect rate.

And that rate is now capped so he’s not allowed to re-budget from a direct cost category into an indirect cost category.

How do you bankrupt yourself? You propose indirect rates that are too low.

Because those rates are capped, because you didn’t negotiate the rate, you’re going to create an automatic cash flow problem and automatic project cost losses proportional to the degree of the miss.

In this case, if his actual rates run at 32.88%, and he’s capped at 2.88%, he’s going to lose 30% for every direct expense he has on his project. If you’re bootstrapped, that means credit card debt, borrowing from your savings, borrowing from your relatives, prematurely selling equity, or worse, you stop paying yourself.

Why do I say worse? Because when you have a cost reimbursable award, you are reimbursed for your allowable actual expenses. Paying yourself is an allowable expense. However, if you opt to not pay yourself because you don’t have the money, you can’t charge the government.  Remember, this is a cost reimbursable grant and if you’re not paying yourself you can’t reimburse yourself because you have no cost.

Why people do this? This is what I hear all the time:

  • I have a colleague at MIT, he told me to use a 10% rate and I’d win.
  • Our grant writer is tremendously successful at writing winning proposals and he doesn’t like us to use more than a 20% indirect rate.
  • It’s really competitive, so we thought it would be better to have a low indirect rate.
  • We wanted to dedicate as much money to the science as we could.
  • I used the agency’s templates and worked backwards.

All of these reasons are horrifically bad—unless you want to go bankrupt, cut corners, and set yourself up for failure.

Again, you cannot re-budget from direct expenses to indirect expenses.

How do you bankrupt yourself? You don’t use the right multiplier.

Most people do what I call working backwards. What does working backwards mean?

Indirect Webinar 2

Let’s say we’re going to propose $1.5 million, and the agency gives us a 7% fee, which we’re going to use to pay for some of our unallowable expenses like alcoholic beverages, the cost of first class travel in excess of the government per diem travel rates, patent costs…whatever. When you divide $1.5 million by 1.07, you come up with a $1.4 million total cost figure

Then we have this prominent consultant and that prominent consultant, and we have to get them into the proposal because they give us a lot of weight. And we have subcontracts with Children’s Hospital and Johns Hopkins University, and so on…and they back into the indirect cost numbers by plugging it with what’s left over.

Now, let’s step back for a second, I want to teach you something called the multiplier.

The multiplier (or wrap rate) is the government’s way of looking at how efficient you are at spending your money

For every dollar you pay for direct labor, how much do you charge the federal government

In this example, the fictional company uses the 35% fringe rate, and a 60% F&A rate.

They charge a dollar to their accounting system for labor and it gets burdened 35 cents for fringe benefits. Then that subtotal gets burdened by a 60% F&A rate, for a subtotal of $2.16.

Charge a 7% fee, and you’ve got a total of $2.31.

Indirect Webinar 3

For every dollar you pay in direct labor, you wind up charging the federal government $2.31. Now when I show most people, they go, oh boy, that sounds like a lot.

But here’s what we see when we negotiate indirect rates with the Division of Financial Advisory Services (DFAS), which is the branch that negotiates indirect rates for the National Institutes of Health.

Indirect Webinar 4

  • If the multiplier is less than 2, there’s almost no pushback from DFAS
  • If it’s between 2 and 2.5, we’re asked normal questions
  • If it’s between 2.5 and 3, they start asking an awful lot of questions and they become tougher and tougher and tougher and tougher.
  • If it’s greater than 3, they start, almost arbitrarily, throwing things out because they’re repulsed by your indirect rate.

But when you go back to my last example of plugging the fringe and F&A rate using “what’s left over” – you’re looking at a multiplier of 1.37…  and that’s an absurdly inexpensive range.

You’ve used this 2.88% rate, you’re capped, you’re stuck.


Now I’m going to show you how people commit inadvertent fraud to make up for proposing a ridiculously low fringe and F&A rate.

If you work with the Department of Defense, before you get a Phase II SBIR, the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) will come out, they will examine your accounting system to make sure that you have a compliant accounting system and they will look at the indirect rate projection that you used in your proposal, to make sure that it’s appropriate.

With the National Institutes of Health, they basically say, if you ask for a safe rate —an F&A rate of 40% or less— we don’t have to negotiate and the DFAS never gets involved. The NIH grant specialist will ask you for a copy of your chart of accounts and a copy of your time sheet. Folks, you can go to NIH’s website and download their standard forms, give it to the grant specialist, and the grant specialist will rubber stamp your accounting system.

But nobody has actually made sure that your accounting system is set up correctly. Now you have a $1.5 million worth of funding, and you’re allowed to draw down money from the Payment Management System for expenses that you see as legitimate.  Just like the Purdue University professor.

Nobody has negotiated your indirect rate, nobody’s looked at your accounting system, and nobody has told you you’re doing anything wrong. You’re drawing money, and for those people who don’t understand how the payment management system works, your $1.5 million is sitting in the payment management system.  You use a user name and login, you say I want $37,250, you click send and it shows up in your bank account the next day.

But here’s where you really shoot yourself. Because nobody has ever told you that you don’t have an acceptable accounting system and you don’t know how to track your project costs properly, you wind up drawing down money from the Payment Management System that you think is appropriate.


On a quarterly basis, you are required to file this form SF-425, which is known as a Federal Financial Reporting Form, which is a fairly complicated looking form. We hire CPAs with 15 years of experience and it takes them about a year to understand just how to fill out the forms properly because of all these nuanced accounting concepts.

Most likely you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t have an acceptable accounting system, and you’re not tracking job costs and indirect cost rates properly, when you go to fill this form out, please read line 13.

By signing this report, I certify that it is true, complete, and accurate to the best of my knowledge. I am aware that any false, fictitious, or fraudulent information may subject me to criminal, civil, or administrative penalties.

If line 13 doesn’t give you pause it should.  Here’s a few people who probably didn’t read carefully enough. Here’s a Washington State University professor who may face 30 years in prison. And here is the Purdue University professor and his wife that were just indicted.

Nobody was overseeing his accounting properly, I almost guarantee it.

A low F&A rate handcuffs your potential

The NIH, without negotiating, will allow you a 35% fringe rate and a 40% F&A rate on a Phase I and a Phase II, no questions asked. However, you’re allowed to be foolish and ask for less.

Why do I say foolish? Because no one is going to stop you if you say, “I’m trying to spend all my money on the science or my friend from MIT said if I ask for more than 10% I might not win.“

If you ask for the 35% fringe and a 40% F&A rate, and if you don’t spend it you’re allowed to re-budget those indirect monies on direct expenses.  If you ask for a 10% F&A rate, you are capped and are not allowed to re-budget that money and use it to spend on indirect expenses.

Your indirect cost rate is capped unless you negotiated. So, if you need an F&A rate of 50%, you have to submit a proposal to the Division of Financial Advisory Services and that gets audited by DFAS.

I have to tell you, it’s not a tremendously difficult audit. DFAS says “How did you come up with that rate?”  Then you show them your indirect rate projection template.  Done.

In a couple of minutes, I’m going to show you how to project an indirect rate using our Excel template.

Why you need indirect rate planning

How does the indirect cost rate cycle work

It’s a never-ending cycle. Your job is to project your indirect rates, monitor them and adjust them accordingly.  This is one of the concepts that most CPAs who aren’t familiar with government award accounting struggle with:

Let’s say you propose an indirect rate— an F&A of 60%. At the beginning of the year, everybody’s working like crazy on grants so your actual indirect rate may run lower, let’s say 50%.

But then grants end and you start spending time on vacations. You start writing proposals, and because you’re not spending your time on direct labor, you’re spending your time on indirect labor. Your F&A rate starts to go up. The goal is, by December 31st, you want that F&A rate to be 60% so that when you submit your incurred cost submission and you go to negotiate your indirect rate, you hit your target on the head.

What makes it difficult is that when you have structural changes within your business that aren’t cyclical.

EXAMPLE: Let’s say we just won a $31 million BARDA award, we’re going to hire 25 employees, and we’re going to need a much larger space.  It’s time to update your indirect rate projection. When you’re writing proposals, once a year, you need to project your indirect rates. At the end of the year, you’re required to submit an incurred cost submission.  When structural events occur, you’ve GOT to step back and reassess.

Your incurred cost submission gets audited and that history, as well as the indirect cost rate projection is used by the government to negotiate a realistic rate. On an annual basis, you update and send them the projection, use those new numbers in your proposal and it’s a cycle that just goes on and on and on

What are indirect rate monies really for? Indirect rates give you the money to build your business infrastructure—your people, the facilities, and the processes. It allows you to work ON the business, as opposed to working IN the business

You need to think about what you this funding will do for you. Are you going to have a project or are you going to have a business?

If you project an indirect rate of 2.88%, I guarantee that you will charge all the time on your time sheet to that project. You will be working IN the project instead of working ON your business.

The government wants to be able to buy solutions from you in the future; they want you to stay in business, but they’re not going to ask for the money for you.

One of the things that people frequently argue is, “I’m using a lower indirect rate because it’s competitive.” but flip the switch for a second and think of it from a government procurement officer’s point of view.

You’re going to give both of these companies $1.5 million in funding. Right?  One is projecting an indirect rate that’s really low and is capping themselves with those indirect rates. The other is doing a realistic projection. Which one of them is going to be in business a year from now? Probably the one that’s doing the realistic job projecting indirect rates, even if it’s higher than the 10% rate their buddy at MIT told them to use.

The government spends trillions of dollars, this isn’t news to them, but they’re not going to ask for the money for you

One of the things that I want you to consider is this: If you win this funding, what do you hope it will do for you? Are you going to have a project or are you going to have a business?


Everyone who attended the webinar received a link to download a free indirect rate projection template. You can access those templates here.

Before you download one, you will need to know which of the five templates is right for you and your business.

There are five common indirect cost recovery methodologies:

For NIH grant proposers, there are two options: Fringe and F&A rate or Fringe and modified F&A rate.

If you’re not going to negotiate an indirect rate with NIH, I would use the fringe and F&A rate model. This allows you to burden subcontractor costs and direct equipment costs with your indirect expenses.

If you are negotiating with NIH, say a 60% F&A rate, they will require you to use a modified F&A rate. In this case, you will not be allowed you to burden your subcontractor or your direct equipment costs with your indirect expenses.

But for most people, if you’re not negotiating an indirect rate on an ongoing basis and you’re an NIH grantee, download the fringe and F&A template

If you’re a Department of Energy or a DOD person, you have three options: an overhead rate, an overhead and G&A rate, or a fringe, overhead, and G&A rate.

The default here is the overhead and G&A rate; overhead is the costs of employees and G&A is the cost of the business.

But if you have a software company, there’s really no other direct expenses other than labor, so we advise the single rate – the simplest methodology possible.


How do you want your people charging their time? Do you want them charging all of their time to the project, or do you want them to help grow the business

You need to be accurate, because here’s a company that was raided by the FBI because the president was telling the people to work on one thing and fill out their time sheets another way, violating The False Claims Act.

KEY POINT: You do not want to start working with government funding and tell your people work on something and charge something else.

Sometimes, when people charge ridiculously low indirect rates, they tell their employees to charge their time direct to the project regardless of whatever they’re working on, because there’s no other way to pay them. That’s not legal and If you haven’t heard about the Whistleblowers Act, you should. Through it, whistle blowers get 15% to 30% of the funds recovered by the Federal Government.

Instead, you want to tell your employees to work on a project and charge their time to that project. When they’re not working on the project – charge their time to indirect labor.


We specialize in government award accounting and have clients all across the country. If you need us, we’re here for you. You can call us anytime you have a question, but especially if:

You’re preparing the cost portion of your proposal and you’re not sure.

You’re having cash flow problems, unexpected debt or dilution events.  You’re probably raising money because you’re not recovering enough through your indirect rates.

You don’t know what your indirect rates are running

You understand the ramifications of the SF-425, you’re nervous or concerned about your financial team.

You want to set up a FAR-compliant accounting system that helps you track your indirect rate


Don’t set yourself up for failure by proposing an indirect rate that’s too low. We know it’s competitive, but you are not proposing a low-cost commodity manufacturing solution for the government. You’re coming up with innovative, high-end solutions to problems by hiring expensive people. And they know it.

Download the right indirect rate projection template, build your indirect cost rates from the bottoms up, and call us if you need any help.

Download a free indirect rate projection template

Learn more about our approach to indirect rate proposals

To talk to one of our government award accounting experts, contact Ryan at  or 781.862.5170 ext. 2106

Ed Jameson, CPA, Managing Partner

I’ve been in practice for over 40 years helping our small business clients procure, manage, and survive audits on more than $6 billion in federal government contract and grant funding. We’ve been featured presenters and panel moderators at Tech Connect’s National SBIR/STTR conferences since 2010, and I’ve presented at the DOD’s Mentor Protégé Summit and present regularly for several state and local organizations.