Cost Analysis

Cost management is always high on the agenda, and ACT teams may tackle a wide range of issues involving cost analysis.

Typical Cost Analysis Project

A common situation is a client facing a serious budget deficit, asking the team to provide advice on how and where to cut program or administrative costs.

Steps to Cost Analysis

The key to the project is to understand the organization’s finances. There are at least two substantially different approaches to analyzing costs-“top-down” and “bottom-up.” Using both, at least to some degree, is helpful to identify any errors or omissions in the cost analysis or source documents.

Cost Analysis Methods
  • “Top-Down” — Detailed study of cost reports
  • “Bottom-Up” — Understanding basic activities that cause costs (“cost drivers”)
  • Review budgets (operating, capital, fundraising) for the past year, current year, and proposed next year. Pay particular attention to large projects or large expense items.
  • Analyze significant changes from one year to the next.
  • Interview managers and staff, and observe operations to understand programs and costs.
  • Develop an understanding of the organization’s cost drivers, and how spending contributes to providing services or creating value in support of the organization’s mission.

Top-Down Analysis

This approach can be started quickly by gathering up copies of the organization’s budgets - including operating, capital, and fundraising budgets for the current year, past year and any proposed budgets for the next fiscal year. Detail by individual program, location and organizational unit, expense categories, and tracking of budget versus actual should be displayed. These internal documents should be compared to the organization’s public financial statements and the most recent report of its auditors.

Generally both the audited financials and the internal budgets should show a breakdown of revenues and expenditures by program/activity. Obvious (but not necessarily the best) places to look for savings are large programs and large expense items. Top-down approaches tend to focus on “exceptions”-explaining year-to-year changes in costs or revenues, looking for ways to close program deficits, etc.

Bottom-Up Analysis

This approach may be pursued by interviewing both managers and line staff to understand the activities of concern in some detail. It is generally useful to observe relevant operations, if possible, as manager and staff descriptions of an activity are often reflections of desires rather than actual practice. Of particular concern is information about how activities are structured, what staff and material resources go into delivering a service, how professional time is consumed during a workday, economies of scale due to equipment, setup time, coordination and supervision requirements, and learning curves.

A costing approach that fits into a bottom-up analysis is the incremental cost method. In an incremental cost analysis, you strive to understand what are the driving external events and internal decisions that cause major costs to be incurred. In each case, you assess the total costs if a certain event occurs or decision is made (e.g., open a new location, eliminate a program) compared with a baseline cost.

Hints and Red Flags

Problem Definition

It may seem logical to view a project as a straightforward matter of finding ways to reduce costs. However, it is generally more useful to recast the problem as one of better managing costs-cost reduction alone may not be the best approach to achieving financial and organizational health. Paring dollars from the budget is only desirable if the dollars saved exceed any value or income lost.

The overall objective is cost-effective use of resources.

Objective: Cost Effective Use of Resources

Focus on understanding how each dollar spent does — or does not — contribute to:

  • More services delivered
  • More value created
  • More income (earned or contributed)

Go Beyond Identified Problem Areas

Suggested areas for cost cutting may not necessarily be the best areas. Look into these, but go beyond the obvious, and look for more effective alternatives.

Focus on Specific Programs

It may be tempting to focus heavily on programs that appear to be “losing” the most money. However, perform a quick analysis before presuming that accepted statements about program surpluses and losses are reasonable budget-cutting guidance.

Evaluating Individual Programs

Surplus/Deficit (Profitability) Analysis and Service Cost

Be careful about using any information that purports to show whether an individual activity (department, program, location, etc.-sometimes referred to as cost “objects”) is covering its costs. Any surplus or deficit information that is drawn directly from public financial statements or the nonprofit’s financial accounting system is likely to employ allocations of certain costs that can actually mask an activity’s true financial health.

To determine whether an activity-for example, a particular service offered by the nonprofit -is breaking even, you need to assess what it costs to provide that service. There are many different methods that are used to develop a service cost, and each has certain strengths and weaknesses.

There are several terms that are relevant to this analysis-“direct costs,” “indirect costs,” “overhead costs,” and “lumpy costs.”

  • “Direct costs”-these can be directly associated with a single activity and can feasibly be traced back to that activity. For example, the salary of a child care worker in a nonprofit with many types of social services in different locations could be directly attributed to “Child Care Department” or “After School Services” or the “River City Facility.” The offering of that service in that location causes the nonprofit to incur the salary cost.
  • “Indirect costs”-these are shared costs that are incurred in the operation of multiple activities, or costs that are directly associated with a single activity but that cannot feasibly be traced to that activity. A typical example of a cost that is viewed as indirect is payroll processing, which may be considered indirect for both of the reasons cited: it is a cost that is incurred by all activities in the organization, and it may not be cost-effective to precisely trace the additional payroll processing cost caused by each employee’s services each pay period.
  • “Overhead costs” is a term subject to considerable variation. It can be loosely applied to all costs except direct costs-which make it interchangeable with “indirect costs” -or applied to just that small portion of total costs that is unaffected by any specific activities in an organization. Examples of such overhead costs are general administration (the executive director’s office space, basic legal and audit/accounting costs of organizing and maintaining a nonprofit, and costs of convening meetings of the board of directors and publishing annual reports). A slightly broader definition of overhead in the nonprofit accounting world includes all “supporting activities”-encompassing general administration and fundraising costs.
  • “Lumpy costs”-those which do not increase smoothly as one provides more service. Although it sounds colloquial, the idea is actually a powerful concept used in costing research! We see lumpy costs when we look carefully at how the level of costs in some organizations increases as the level of service provided increases. When costs are lumpy, they tend to exhibit an initial economy of scale-with unit costs declining rapidly with increases in volume-and then suddenly jump upward when some existing capacity limit of equipment, staffing, or facilities is reached. At that point, the organization has to make a major addition to its “fixed” capacity, and average unit costs are high once again. If the volume of service grows, unit costs will tend to decline once again over time-until the next time that capacity is exhausted. Lumpy costs are also said to behave like a “step function.” (See Horngren, 337-339.)

The important point about a service with lumpy costs is that the cost of providing service may not be captured well with a single, average dollar figure. The effective cost to the organization of even a small increase in service level may vary wildly depending on how close it is to exhausting the capacity of one or another input, the size of the lumps, whether the service is growing or shrinking, whether the cost of lumpy inputs is changing - and how quickly.

Alternative Service Costing Methods

With all costing methods, direct costs are included in the computation of a service’s cost. Any costs that are completely attributable to a given service, and can be feasibly measured, should be the first element in its service cost.

The treatment of lumpy direct costs, as well as indirect and overhead costs, are more problematic. If they are a relatively small proportion of the total costs under consideration, you can calculate a “full cost” in the way that is suggested in the Bridgespan paper. This full cost method allocates a portion of the indirect and overhead costs to each of the individual services of a nonprofit, and adds the direct and allocated costs together to arrive at “the” average cost per unit of a service. This method has the distinctive advantage of simplicity, but it can result in a unit cost figure that is too high - and cause managers to put the brakes on options that would be cost-effective given any “sunk” costs that have already been incurred and that cannot be saved in the near term. (See Horngren and Chabot Space and Science Center example.) With lumpy costs, the full cost method could also result in a cost per unit that is too low.

Other costing methods that handle lumpy, indirect, and overhead costs with more subtlety are better suited to nonprofits that have major fixed costs (labor contracts or other long-term employment agreements, long-lived equipment, facilities, owned land and buildings, large overhead) or offer service on a “multi-part” basis; e.g., one fee for entrance to a museum, another for attendance at a particular program.

While the full cost method has the distinct advantage of “objectivity,” the incremental cost method requires more detailed analysis and judgment. The objective is to characterize the “cost structure” of the overall organization and its individual programs of interest. The discussions in Porter and Horngren suggest criteria for identifying the key cost drivers in an organization. Such an understanding can help you identify ways that the organization can reduce costs by downsizing, reallocating resources, or redesigning its offerings or operations.

Additional methods for discerning the cost structure of an organization are described in Horngren (328-335).

Conditions Favoring the Use of Different Service Costing Methods
Direct Cost or Full Cost Methods Activity-Based Costing Incremental Cost Methods
  • Organization has simple cost structure
  • Direct costs are not lumpy
  • Overhead costs are small
  • Costs are not lumpy
  • Indirect costs are large
  • Capacity is completely used
  • Overhead costs are either small or tracked separately
  • Large costs are lumpy
  • Indirect costs may be small or large
  • Extra capacity may exist
  • Overhead costs are tracked separately
  • Other costing methods such as activity-based costing (ABC) represent a mid-ground between a full bottoms-up approach (e.g., incremental costing) and a tops-down approach (e.g., full costing). A typical ABC analysis allocates indirect costs in a tops-down manner, but distinguishes four layers of costs and uses multiple allocators to more closely mimic the cost structure of an organization.
  • Used extensively in larger businesses, ABC has the advantage of a “formula” approach while being considerably more versatile than simple direct or full-cost methods. However, ABC tends to require a major investment of time and effort to develop-and we therefore don’t recommend a full-blown ABC analysis for ACT project teams.


Deliverables should have immediate applicability for helping to manage costs.

Typical deliverables from an analysis include:

  • Tables showing how the total cost of a program or service changes under varying assumptions (such as volume of service delivered, different service configurations, or staff wage levels).
  • Calculation of the short-term and long-term incremental cost to add or eliminate a program/service/location.
  • A compilation of unit costs for different services. One example might be an array of unit costs that shows the separate and progressive effects of incremental decisions. The use of a single average-unit cost for each service is discouraged unless the conditions described in evaluating individual programs apply. See Hints and Red Flags section.

by Ernie Ting, MBA ’90

Model ACT Projects

Recommended Reading

General Cost Accounting

Horngren Datar and Foster, Cost Accounting: A Managerial Emphasis (12th Edition)

  • Cost terminology: 30-38
  • Full cost methods: 373-374
  • Incremental cost and the concept of relevant information: 370-389
  • Cost structure and cost driver concepts: 324-344
  • Break-even and Other Kinds of Cost-Volume-Profit Analysis: 62-78
  • Activity-based costing: 136-155

Full Cost Methods

Susan Colby and Abigail Rubin, Costs Are Cool, online at The Bridgespan Group.

Incremental Cost and the Concept of Relevant Information

Ernest S. Ting and Associates, Introduction to Incremental Costing Methods, online at Esta-Consulting.

Cost Structure and Cost Driver Concepts

Michael E. Porter, Competitive Advantage, 62-88.