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Updated on Tuesday, May 21, 2019
When you need funding for your small business, receiving money you don’t have to pay back would be the best case scenario. Various organizations award grants to small businesses without expectations of repayment. The catch: steep competition and stringent standards.
Government grants for small businesses, as well as corporate and private grants, are highly sought after, and are given to businesses that meet specific eligibility criteria. The application process can be time-consuming and competitive, but your efforts could pay off if your business is selected.
We’ll help you better understand what types of small business grants you may be eligible for, as well as a few programs that could be a good fit for your business.
Who can apply for small business grants?
Many grants are targeted toward certain types of businesses or owner demographics, such as women, minorities or military veterans. Grants could also be industry-specific, and recipients could be restricted in their use of funds.
Business grants can be separated into two general categories – grants from federal agencies and those from private groups or entities, including nonprofits.
Federal grants are available to all levels of government entities, like city or county governments or independent school districts, nonprofit organizations and for-profit businesses. Grants.gov provides a searchable database of federal grant programs. State and local governments also have grant and assistance programs for small businesses. In these programs, federal money is typically awarded through state agencies. Recipients are typically chosen based on statewide social or economic concerns. You can find resources for business owners in your state at USA.gov. It’s also possible your city or county could have available grants for small businesses, so check your local government websites as well.
Private grants are available from for-profit businesses or nonprofit organizations. Corporations and foundations offer private business grants to small business owners, and these programs are usually competitive and focus on certain types of business.
Government grants are usually distributed to businesses that could help advance certain causes or initiatives or stimulate the economy in a specific way. Private grants are typically awarded with similar intentions, and grant makers would select businesses that support a particular focus or goal.
How to apply
Grant eligibility requirements would be based on the goals of the organization: who they want to give money to and how they want that money used. You could also expect a grant application to ask for common business information including how many years you’ve been in business and your annual revenue.
You may have to disclose additional personal information depending on the grant program. Your gender or income level could be a factor. You could be required to submit a personal statement or resume, as well as a business plan and a proposed use for the grant.
10 business grant programs to get started
The competitive nature and strict requirements of grant programs could make it challenging to receive a small business grant. But if you are chosen as a recipient, you would have access to debt-free funding for your company. We’ve compiled a list of general small business grant programs for which you could apply.
Government business grants
1. Small Business Innovation Research Program
The Small Business Innovation Research program, or SBIR, encourages research and development among small businesses. Through the Small Business Administration-powered program, federal agencies allocate a percentage of their research and development budgets to eligible businesses. Participating agencies include:
- Department of Agriculture
- Department of Commerce: National Institute of Standards and Technology and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
- Department of Defense
- Department of Education
- Department of Energy
- Department of Health and Human Services
- Department of Homeland Security
- Department of Transportation
- Environmental Protection Agency
- National Science Foundation
Grants for first-time applicants could be up to $150,000. Recipients can then apply for a second grant up to $1 million.
2. Small Business Technology Transfer Program
The Small Business Technology Transfer program is associated with the SBIR program and promotes technological innovation in business. Five federal agencies participate in the SBA-backed program:
- Department of Defense
- Department of Energy
- Department of Health and Human Services
- National Science Foundation
The program has the same maximum grant amounts as the SBIR program – up to $150,000 for new applicants and up to $1 million for recipients continuing in the program.
3. Environmental Protection Agency Grant Programs
In addition to providing grants through the SBIR program, the Environmental Protection Agency offers grants for a range of environmental activity, such as making improvements to air quality and public health. Grants are available to small business owners, as well as community organizations, tribal programs and college students.
Government agencies post contests on Challenge.gov to crowdsource innovative solutions. Small business owners, academic researchers, hobbyists and students have won past challenges, which come with prize money to carry out the proposed solution.For example, the Department of Health and Human Services is awarding a total of $400,000 to three winning ideas for improving Alzheimer’s and dementia care through technology.
5. State Business Incentives Database
To help business owners find local assistance programs, The Council of State Governments provides information on available resources through the State Business Incentives Database. For instance, the site lists the Kansas Tourism Marketing Grant Program designed to help businesses and organizations in the tourism industry with innovative marketing strategies.You can’t apply through the database, but it could be a valuable resource when searching for state grant programs.
Private and corporate small business grants
1. NASE Business Growth Grant
The National Association for the Self Employed awards $4,000 grants each month to business owners looking to grow their enterprises. Applicants must be members of the organization to be eligible. Purchasing an annual membership for $120 would allow you to apply immediately after joining, but you would have to wait 90 days to apply after buying a monthly membership for $11.95.
2. Tory Burch Foundation Fellows Program
The Tory Burch Foundation, created in 2009 by fashion mogul Tory Burch, awards $5,000 to women entrepreneurs as part of a one-year fellowship. Recipients also receive four days of workshops with experts in the Tory Burch office in New York, as well as one year of access to the foundation’s online resources and peer network. Each year, 50 fellows are chosen to participate in the program, and a select few are also invited to pitch their businesses to industry professionals.
3. FedEx Small Business Grant Contest
FedEx chooses 10 businesses each year to receive grants and FedEx Office services. One grand-prize winner receives a $50,000 grant and $7,500 in print and business services, while a second-place winner receives a $30,000 grant and $5,000 in print and business services. Eight additional winners each receive a $15,000 grant and $1,000 in print and business services. The general public can vote for contestants online, and FedEx selects winners from a pool of 100 finalists who received the most votes.
4. Street Shares Veteran Small Business Award
Business owners who are veterans, active-duty military members, spouses of military members or children of military members who died on active duty can apply for grants from the Street Shares Foundation. Eligible businesses must have some sort of social impact on the military community. The Street Shares Foundation awards a $15,000 grant to a first-place winner, while a second-place business receives $6,000. A $4,000 grant is reserved for third place. The Street Shares Foundation is a philanthropic branch of Street Shares, an online lender that specializes in loans for veteran-owned businesses.
5. Visa Everywhere Initiative
Visa awards business owners in the financial technology industry who pitch winning solutions to various business problems. For instance, Visa challenged applicants this year to create solutions that make it easier for consumers to access digital payment tools. Applicants’ ideas must be relevant to Visa’s business and should have the potential to add value to the company’s clients. The winning business receives $50,000 from Visa and a possible partnership with the company.
Alternatives to small business grants
Applying for grants may feel like a pointless effort because of tough eligibility requirements that are often tied to the agenda of the grant sponsor, whether it’s a federal entity or a private corporation. The way you use the funding could be regulated as well.
There are other ways to secure business financing if you would rather avoid the grant application process and competition for funding. Consider these alternatives, but keep in mind you would typically have to repay the money you receive, possibly with interest.
Small business loans
Different types of small business loans are available to meet your funding needs. You could take out a long-term or short-term loan and pay back the money over a set period of time. You may need a strong credit profile to qualify for a business loan, and lenders would also consider your business history, cash flow and assets that could secure the loan. If you need funding right away, you may want to consider a short-term loan rather than taking your chances on a grant. Short-term financing typically has fast time to funding because of minimal application requirements.
Small business owners can solicit funding from the general public through crowdfunding. Platforms like GoFundMe, Indiegogo and Kickstarter provide a platform for you to collect contributions for your business. Some platforms require you to offer products or equity in your company in exchange for funds, but others allow you to accept donations. Like applying for a grant, starting a crowdfunding campaign doesn’t ensure you’ll receive funding. It could take time to generate contributions, and you may not raise as much money as you’d like.
Microloans are disbursed in small amounts less than $50,000 and are typically reserved for businesses involved in community development. Like many grants, some microloan programs target underserved demographics, such as the SBA Microloan Program that prioritizes low-income, women and minority business owners. A microloan may have higher interest rates than a traditional bank loan, and the small loan amount could result in a quick repayment schedule.
The bottom line
Small business grants are often referred to as “free money” from government entities or private organizations. Although you wouldn’t have to repay a grant, it’s not a handout for just any business.
Many grant programs are designed for certain types of businesses or business owners. You may have to meet strict requirements to be eligible. Competition is usually fierce for business grants, especially those from giant corporations like FedEx. Your chance of receiving a coveted grant could be slim.
However, if you do qualify for a small business grant, you would be able to fund your venture without the worry of paying off debt. There are numerous small business grants available both nationally and locally, so it could be worth your while to find grant programs that align with your business.