Okay, now that I have your attention…
When I worked as a grants director for a women’s college, I would occasionally receive the odd request for funds from individuals. Inevitably, they were hand-written and stuffed into a colored envelope of some kind and smelled faintly of desperation. I think I received a handful a year, but they were memorable. There was one from a single mother who needed money to pay her bills. Another one was from a woman who needed money to help with everyday expenses, which had become untenable since she became the sole caregiver of her ailing elderly father. They were heartbreaking, even more so since there was really nothing I could do for them. After all, my job was solely to solicit grants from foundations, corporations and individuals for the college, not to disburse them to the public. If only.
One thing all the letters had in common was that they all mentioned that they found my contact information from the infamous Free Money Man himself, Matthew Lesko. You know the guy. (And no, I’m not linking to his Web site. I’m annoyed with him enough without throwing him any traffic.) He’s the one who wears those blazers with the question marks printed on them; he screams at the camera at the top of his lungs and tells you all about the “free money” that’s available from the government. Uh-huh. He basically repackages information anyone with a quarter of a brain can find themselves for free from government Web sites, and then charges a nice little fee for the privilege. He has plenty of critics and is frequently charged with broadcasting misleading advertising, but he’s still around and still taking suckers’ money.
I didn’t take the time to actually track down this book that my correspondents claimed had my information in it, but I had little doubt that it was true. Although my name and title were on the college Web site, few ordinary folks would have found me unless they were somehow associated with the college. I was appalled that Mr. Lesko would perpetuate his fraudulent practices by throwing my name into his book; surely he’s smart enough to figure out that a grant writer, especially one employed by a college, would not be in any position to give money away.
Anyway, I mention this now because I’m seeing lots and lots more people heading to the Web and seeking the “free money” scam that Mr. Lesko continues to hawk. One of my former clients is actually a young small businessman who wanted grant money to buy a farm. We had a lengthy meeting whereby I took as many notes as I could about his background, finances, etc., but cautioned him multiple times that there were likely few, if any, sources of government or private funds for land purchases. I didn’t have much experience in the area at the time, although my background in grant writing did give me enough confidence to let him know that I thought our search would likely prove futile.
He didn’t care and remained optimistic. I offered him two hours of basic research to see if his idea was viable, after which we could talk about the next step, which would have been crafting a bare-bones proposal draft. He paid me 75% of the work in advance and in cash (although I’d only requested 50%), and I went to work.
As I had predicted, no “free funds” were available for what he wanted. I dug deep into the sites of the US Department of Agriculture, the Colorado Ag dept, a few foundations, the Farm Bureau, and talked with folks from organizations such as the Future Farmers of America. My conclusion dovetailed with what I had initially predicted: unless my client had a very, very specific and research-oriented reason for buying a farm (in which case the USDA does have some grants), his only option would be to take out a low-interest loan from a lender that specializes in rural development loans, of which there are actually quite a few here in Colorado.
I wrote up my report and sent it to my client. I actually spent 2.5 hours on the project rather than the initial 2 that I had quoted, but I threw in the extra half-hour for free because a) it was an educational experience for me, and b) I liked the guy. He has a wife and little kids and really wanted to have his own farm. He had great ideas for it, and I had no doubt that he would succeed.
Of course, you could probably guess how this ended. I never heard from the client again, and I never got the remaining 25% that he still owes me. Oh well.
I suspect that he’s still out there, still believing in the hype that free money does exist, still trying to find a grant writer who would find him that elusive pot of government gold. I see variations of him on Craigslist and other job sites I haunt, folks seeking grant money because “I’m a woman” or because they “want to raise funds for my company to get off the ground” or because they need money to “pay my bills” or — and here’s a really popular one — because they have a “great idea.” I suspect that few, if any of these folks want to even consider a loan — possibly because they’re not eligible, especially in these days of tightening credit — so they fish the Web for some cheap writer to find that free money for them.
Many promise fees to the writer of over $25,000, although most wouldn’t pay more than a couple of hundred dollars, if they pay at all. Forget about the fact that writing grant proposals is a professional service that often requires hours of time at a rate upwards of $50-200 an hour. These poor souls have fallen under the Lesko Spell, the kind that seems to especially attract the gullible, the desperate, the lazy, and/or the greedy.
Folks, please get this straight: THERE IS NO FREE MONEY OUT THERE. Sure, there are plenty of grants from all levels of government (federal, state, local, tribal), but generally they’re scholarships for students, and more often than not they’re very specific in their requirements, e.g., you have to be a particular ethnic minority, go to a particular school, study a particular subject, have a parent who’s employed with a particular agency, maintain a high GPA, etc. If by some chance you are eligible and that’s what you’re looking for, you still have to apply for it — the government is likely not going to just hand it over to you. However, know this: if you’re smart enough to go to college, you’re definitely smart enough to find these grants yourself and fill out the applications without hiring someone like Matthew Lesko to do it for you.
There is no “free money” for individuals looking to buy a home.
There is no “free money” to help you start a small business.
There is no “free money” to help you pay your bills.
There is no “free money” to help you with your health care costs.
Repeat after me: There is no “free money.” There is no “free money.” There is no “free money.”
What does exist are: programs for desperate homeowners to refinance or renegotiate their mortgage payments; small business loans to qualified folks with a solid business plan; food stamps, energy rebates and other government entitlement programs for low-income Americans; and Medicaid and extension of COBRA eligibility for people needing health insurance. Many of these provisions are in the new stimulus package recently passed by Congress, which also includes plenty of tax credits for both businesses and individuals.
In other words, there is money out there, but none of it can technically be called “free,” with the possible exception of food stamps, but I doubt that these are what people have in mind when they start hunting down proposal writers.
It actually makes sense that the myth of “free money” remains just that: a myth. There’s a reason why foundations don’t simply distribute checks to outstretched hands. Grant proposals are complicated beasts, requiring not only the basic information about the potential recipient but also a damn good reason why they should hand out their funds. Donors want to know that their money is going towards a greater good, that their hard-earned cash is going to a project that will serve the greatest number of people. They want to give $1,000 or $100,000 or $1,000,000 to a program that will change a community, a country, the world, not to a single person or a group of people with more limited needs. They want to know that their money will outlast them, that they will create something that will make a difference. Imagine if UNICEF just handed out checks to all the people in Africa or Asia or South America rather than create programs that will expand education access to all children or train women to start their own microenterprises or ensure potable drinking water for a village. With very few exceptions, grant money operates on this classic principle: Give a man fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man how to fish, and he’ll eat for life.
So please, if you’re thinking about maybe hiring your own proposal writer for $100 or so to help you land that “free money,” save your cash. First of all, really good proposal writers — the kind who can put together a viable proposal that may actually stand a chance of attracting funds, not the kind who will just slap together a rambling essay about why you deserve this money — are generally a kind and generous bunch, but we need to eat and pay our own bills, too, so we’ll need to charge more than a pittance for the work. Many of us will do pro bono work, but usually only for nonprofits with which they’ve worked/volunteered in the past.
And second? There is no “free money.”