Navigating government contract and grant compliance: Optimize your indirect rate

With steady discussions regarding plans and priorities for infrastructure improvements across the nation, the federal government appears poised to increase the amount of contracts and grants available to private industry, primarily for construction, manufacturing, research and development (R&D), and transportation projects or support. This has sparked a lot of interest in the opportunity for companies to obtain government funding, and as a result will likely spark new entry into this market. Large-scale federal spending doesn’t come around often, so interested companies will need to be ready. For those entering this space, navigating the regulatory compliance can often catch companies off guard and cost money. 

Indirect rates: Are you maximizing cost recovery on government awards? 

For a construction, manufacturing, technology, or R&D company that has just been awarded their first government award, the term “indirect rates” may be new, and there may be questions. Depending on the agency or award type, you may see the term “indirect rate,” “overhead rate,” or “facilities & administrative rate (F&A),” but the three are often used interchangeably for one common theme: They are used as the reimbursement method for company costs that are not directly related to a certain project or award. There are no hard-and-fast rules associated with what is considered an indirect or direct cost. It all depends on the award and circumstance. 

Companies sometimes propose what they consider industry standards as indirect rates to win government awards without taking into consideration their actual indirect rates. For example, National Institutes of Health (NIH) grantees often use a 40% indirect rate because an indirect rate of 40% or less normally is not required to be justified with additional indirect rate supporting documentation. In the case of other agencies, companies are often subject to the 10% de minimis indirect rate for those who have never had a negotiated indirect rate. However, during actual performance of the work, this often leads to an under-recovery of indirect expenses and ultimately leaving money on the table. Many companies are surprised when we calculate their actual rates and they realize their indirect rates are actually running significantly higher. 

Supporting your indirect rates 

In order to recover those additional percentage points in indirect expenses, a company must provide supporting documentation to propose or negotiate the higher rate with the government agency. When you are unfamiliar with the government business model, the thought of supporting indirect rates in order to propose a higher indirect rate can be intimidating. We have identified the following three major areas of concern related to supporting higher indirect rates in government awards and proposals: 

  • Insufficient and/or unenforced timekeeping policies and procedures
  • An accounting system that is not set up to segregate direct and indirect expenses 
  • Lack of unallowable cost tracking

Using sound financial data and addressing the major areas of concern identified above can help ensure not only the creation of adequate indirect rates but also the maintenance of suitable documentation to support them. This information can be used to develop and review your actual indirect rates and further understand your company’s profitability. Once you identify whether your company is achieving maximum recovery of its indirect costs, you can determine whether you should consider proposing or negotiating a higher indirect rate with your government agency. 

A company must also align the indirect rate structure with the complexity of the company’s organizational structure. There have been instances where the Defense Finance and Accounting Service and the government agency have asked the company to revise their indirect rate structure or face adverse consequences on current or future awards, because their current structure did not equitably allocate costs to federal work. This is especially of concern to the federal government when a mix of commercial and federal work exists within one entity. 

In conclusion

Indirect rates are an important source of cost reimbursement from government grants and contracts. Although using an industry standard or de minimis rate can be an easy compromise, it does not maximize cost recovery. Taking the time and effort to develop a supportable indirect rate based on your organizational structure may be worth more in the long run if you can maximize cost recovery and profitability.


Kristen Soles, CPA, Partner, Government Contracting Industry Leader


Robert Gutiérrez, JD, CPA, Manager



Get in touch with our specialists

View All Specialists

Kristen Soles

CPA, Partner - Managing Partner, Advisory - Global Consulting Solutions and Government Contracting Industry Leader

Looking for the full list of our dedicated professionals here at CohnReznick?



Let’s start a conversation about your company’s strategic goals and vision for the future.

Please fill all required fields*

Please verify your information and check to see if all require fields have been filled in.

Please select job function
Please select job level
Please select country
Please select state
Please select industry
Please select topic

Inside Infrastructure: U.S. Infrastructure Plan Resource Center

This has been prepared for information purposes and general guidance only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. You should not act upon the information contained in this publication without obtaining specific professional advice. No representation or warranty (express or implied) is made as to the accuracy or completeness of the information contained in this publication, and CohnReznick LLP, its partners, employees and agents accept no liability, and disclaim all responsibility, for the consequences of you or anyone else acting, or refraining to act, in reliance on the information contained in this publication or for any decision based on it.