Grants are one of the many funding options available to small businesses, but they're generally harder to get than a typical small-business loan. Grants require a lengthy application process, and the money often has to be used for a specific cause, meaning it probably won't help you run your day-to-day operations like venture-capitalist funding or a bank loan. Nonetheless, small-business grants may still be a great option for a small business that has a greater overall purpose, whether that purpose is technology innovation, scientific research or community and economic development.
A grant is a lump sum of money that’s given to a person or organization by the government or a separate organization for a specific purpose. That sounds like a sprawling definition, but think of it this way: Grant money is financial assistance that helps people do great things, whether those people are students working on their Ph.D.s or nonprofit founders who need funding for a community project.
Most government grants are given to universities, researchers and nonprofit organizations, but there are also federal grants for small-business owners who are doing a specific type of work. Beyond that, the U.S. Small Business Administration and a variety of other organizations offer a vast array of small-business grants that don’t necessarily require you to be searching for a cure for cancer or solving climate change.
The government has strict standards as to what makes a business a small business, meaning your company may not actually qualify for a federal small-business grant. Even then, state and local grants that are provided by the federal government are typically only given to businesses that foster economic development. Thankfully, there are a number of private grants that have less-stringent qualifications.
Whether or not you’re eligible for a small-business grant depends on the specific grant you’re choosing. For example, some are only open to women entrepreneurs, some are for entrepreneurs from disadvantaged backgrounds and others get even more specific. There are grants for companies researching biomedical technology and jewelry makers launching their own jewelry business. More broadly, there are private grants, like Nav’s Legitify Your Small Business Grant, which simply gives free money to the most deserving applicant, whatever that might look like.
There are a number of places you can search for a grant, both online and offline. It depends on the type of grant for which you’re looking, but it’s nearly guaranteed that the SBA can help. Even if you don’t qualify for a grant, it can help you secure some other sort of funding.
Most small businesses opt to start their search with federal grants because there are many options. Grants.gov is a prime resource, but you’ll have to sift through a ton of grants — like ones for schools, nonprofits and local governments — for which you probably don’t qualify. Additionally, the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance publishes an annual list of available grants and grant programs along with the agencies that sponsor them.
Another option is the SBA-backed nonprofit SCORE. Its website isn’t exactly a grant search, but it offers free tools and mentorship to small-business owners similar to small-business development centers. SCORE may be able to connect you with an expert in your area who can help you find a grant that’s suited for your small business.
If you don’t qualify for a federal grant and can't find anything worth your while on Grants.gov, your next best bet is a local or state business grant. You can find these by utilizing a small-business development center. SBDCs are funded by government grants themselves, and the advisers who work there can guide you through the local business-grant application process.
If all else fails, try your local library. You probably haven’t stepped inside a library since you bought a Kindle, but librarians have access to hundreds of databases and are likely already working with your local chamber of commerce and various local business organizations. They can point you in the right direction.
It may seem like grant money is free money, and it is, but you may not be able to spend it however you want. Grants given by the federal government have very specific spending guidelines. For example, you generally can’t use government grants to:
- Start a business
- Pay off existing debts
- Fund operational expenses
If you’re looking for that, you’ll probably have to secure a loan or private grant instead. Some grants also require a commitment to technology or scientific research and development, which is really where the money is being spent.
There are two major programs for federal grants: the Small Business Innovation Research Program and the Small Business Technology Transfer Program. These are focused on research and development, meaning you’ll likely have to be researching and developing in a certain field to qualify.
The SBIR program focuses on innovation and technology that has commercial potential. Grants in this program are given by the Departments of Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, Education, Commerce, Agriculture, Homeland Security and Transportation; the Environmental Protection Agency; NASA; and the National Science Foundation. Each agency has its own requirements, so you need to do your research before applying. For example, the Department of Agriculture may provide grant money to small businesses that create jobs in rural areas.
The SBTT program aims to give funding for research and development of existing technology, and small businesses have the opportunity to collaborate with research institutions as part of the program. Grants are given by the Departments of Defense, Energy and Health and Human Services; NASA; and the National Science Foundation. Again, federal agencies have their own requirements and guidelines. For example, the Department of Defense offers grants through the STTR program to companies looking to develop military technology.
You can apply for a government grant directly through Grants.gov, though privately distributed grants have their own application processes. Mostly, grant applications serve as a resume for your business. You may have to explain your business’s greater purpose or your business’s growth. In some cases, like with a FedEx small-business grant, the grant application requires a personalized video.
When you’re filling out a grant application, you’ll generally need the following information:
- Your Employer identification number
- The length of time you’ve been in business
- The size of your company (i.e., number of employees)
- Revenue figures
- An explanation of how you’ll use the grant money
- An explanation of why you deserve the grant money
- Social media handles
- A business plan
- Photos of yourself
Additionally, there are many freelance writers who specialize in grant-proposal writing. If you don’t feel comfortable filling out the application on your own, feel free to hire help.
Beyond federal grants, there are a number of popular private small-business grants. This includes:
- The Eileen Fisher Grant Program: Up to 10 women or women-owned businesses are awarded this grant, which exceeds $10,000 every single year. The focus of the grant varies from year to year, so check before applying. For example, in 2020, the program is looking for businesses with a social or environmental impact.
- The Amber Grant Program: This is a small-business grant for women. Each month, $500 is awarded to qualifying woman entrepreneurs who then compete for an annual $2,500 grant.
- FedEx Small Business Grant Contest: FedEx awards grants of $25,000 to existing small businesses. All you need to do is complete a video application and cross your fingers.
- National Association for the Self-Employed (NASE Growth Grants): This is for NASE members looking to expand their business through grants worth up to $4,000.
- The StreetShares Foundation Veteran Business Grant: This grant, which is worth up to $5,000, is awarded to veterans, active-duty members or spouses who are running or want to launch a small business.
Of course, these aren’t the only small-business grants out there. Do a comprehensive search and remember: Just because a grant is typically given to a nonprofit, that doesn’t mean it won’t be awarded to a small business that supports the organization’s overall mission.