Tag Archives: Mankiw

Tilting at Windmills and Fees: Why There is no Free Grant Writing Lunch and You Won’t Find Writers for Nothing

People often find Grant Writing Confidential by searching for terms like “commission only grant writers,”* “free grant writers,” “free grant writing,” or variations on those themes. I see such queries in our blog stats every week, so I’ll address these anonymous multitudes now: in grant writing, you’re likely to get what you pay for. Caveat emptor. Others find us by searching for “free examples of written grants.” Those seeking example grants shouldn’t use them, both because the writing is probably of low quality and, even if it isn’t, if one person can find them, so can everyone else—readers aren’t likely to be amused by three proposals all cribbing from the same source. Buying papers for college assignments exposes the lazy or indifferent student to the same manifold dangers.

The cliché goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch. In grant writing, many snake-oil salespeople of various stripes want to entice you with promises of vast quantities of free money that turn out to be nothing but a mirage. For example, you may have seen infomercials for Matthew Lesko, the doofus dressed in a question mark-covered suit who touts billions of dollars for the average guy. Think about it logically: were there really this vast flow of money out there, wouldn’t everyone be seeking or taking it?** The story doesn’t pass the credulity test.

Free grant writing services don’t exist either. In looking for them, you’re wasting time. As with most services, you have three choices: pay a professional, learn how to do it yourself, or hope your sister marries a grant writer who wants to ingratiate himself with you. The first costs in monetary terms, the second in time terms, as well as being impossible for some people, and the third is just thrown in to illustrate the absurdity of the proposition. Notice that all three options have costs.

Even if someone did write high-quality, free proposals, they’d be so swamped by nonprofits seeking their services that they’d probably have a backlog stretching far into the future—certainly further than any live RFP. As a result, they wouldn’t be of any use to you, meaning that you’ve once again substituted time for money, just in a different sense. All this would be obvious to readers of Greg Mankiw’s excellent and surprisingly readable textbook, Principles of Economics, which deals with many of these issues and provides attractive graphs of supply and demand to boot.

In this case, a competent grant writer offering free services would have far more takers than she has time, creating a shortage situation where the quantity of time available is less than the number of people who want to use that time. The Soviet Union discovered the hard way that goods and services without prices tend to produce sub-optimal outcomes, and I’m sure that most seekers of anything for nothing, including grant writing services, will find the same.

The search for “free grant writing training,” and variations on that theme is both more and less pernicious. Free grant writing training is about as likely to materialize as free grant writing, but since grant writing training is probably useless to begin with, as Isaac discussed in “Credentials for Grant Writers—If I Only Had A Brain,” you won’t actually be losing much outside of your time, and you won’t be paying for bogus training. On the other hand, you’ll still be wasting your time, as you’d be better off paying for a journalism or English course at your local community college than you would with grant writing training, no matter the cost. Free grant writing training would lead to the same quality problems as free grant writers.

That’s the theory, anyhow, and the manifestation of that theory appears when people search for free grant writers. They’re never going to find those grant writers, and even if such grant writers are found, they won’t be very good, and even if they were, they wouldn’t be accessible. It would probably be more effective to focus on alchemy and through that invent a way to transmute base metals into gold and then sell that gold to fund the nonprofit.

Given that the history of humanity is one of credulous people being hoodwinked or duped by their own false hopes with the assistance of charlatans, I’m not expecting this post to stop many from searching for the philosopher’s stone, a cousin of alchemy. This post does at the very least explain why the quixotic search for free grant writing help will prove futile.

* Fewer discover us using the terms more common to grant writers, like “contingent fee,” demonstrating perhaps the knowledge of those involved; last time I searched for “contingent fee grant writers,” every hit in the top 10 on Google explained why this is a bad idea or why the grant writers in question wouldn’t or shouldn’t do it, including us. Other nomenclature problems exist in queries: the person who sought “free grant writing attorneys” doesn’t get legal jargon right, as attorneys who donate their time do so pro bono, or “for the public good.” Even then, there’s no guarantee that attorneys are going to be any better at grant writing than anyone else, and they might very well be worse. At the very least they’re likely to be more expensive, as law school doesn’t pay for itself.

** An old joke: An economist is walking down the street and passes $20. A pedestrian stops him and says, “Hey, why didn’t you pick up that cash?” The economist says, “In an efficient market economy, if it were worth doing, someone would’ve already done it.”