The word “budget” tends to make me cringe. I think that’s because budgets have mostly been something that I was subject to as an employee or volunteer. They were yet another tool (and symbol) of power and yet another grounds for politics and resentment. At best, they were something I simply didn’t have to worry about when there was generally enough money to go around.

But budgeting can be a source of great creativity and can hold deep meaning if framed as an answer to the question: How can we best use the resources we have in service of our organization’s purpose? The answers are profound in that they reflect our deeper priorities and beliefs about what seems possible and what is most worth pursuing. And there is always creativity to be applied in finding ways to make progress — both with and without significant funding.

What’s preventing the budgeting process from reaching its full potential? I think one of the more interesting impediments may actually be the widespread use of grids of numbers — i.e., spreadsheets — as the medium for the task. Focusing on raw numbers and arithmetic emphasizes scarcity — literally the zero-sum nature of allocating money. If our goal is to be generative and in touch with our deeper aspirations, we need budgeting tools that emphasize instead the infinite possibilities for how the money can be spent and the flexibility with which we can adjust the plan in response to new information and ideas.

The numbers still have to add up, of course. But computers can do the math faster than we can blink. Software can alert us to any problems and mismatches — and even better, it can support us in exploring the space of possibilities. It just might help us take budgeting to the next stage of its evolution.

As you might have guessed, I have some ideas for such a tool. Let me know if you are interested in contributing in some way to its creation. For starters: how would you like to evolve the way your organization does budgeting?

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