Small business grants can help your business get the money you need to grow your business. But there are a lot of misconceptions about grants. Here’s what you need to know about finding and getting free money to start a small business (or grow an existing one).
What Is a Small Business Grant?
A grant is financial assistance that is given to a person, business, nonprofit, or corporation from federal, state, county, or local governments, or private businesses or corporations. There are a number of companies, nonprofits, and government agencies providing essentially funding to small business owners in the form of a small business grant. And the best part? Grants don’t require repayment of any kind.
Grants can be formed to target businesses based on a variety of factors, including minority-owned businesses, specific for-profit businesses as well as non-profit organizations, veteran-owned businesses, grants for women entrepreneurs, and more. For example, securing grants for a minority-owned business can help give your business a much-needed boost for growth and profitability.
You may not have to make your pitch on “Shark Tank,” refinance your home, or take out small business loans to take the next step in your entrepreneurial journey. Instead, you may be able to get money for small business needs through a business grant — if you know where to look and how to apply for small business grants.
We’ve pulled together numerous resources for business owners searching for small business grant opportunities. The majority of these have broad grant application requirements, meaning many businesses qualify.
Keep in mind that this can be a double-edged sword for applicants, though — you can apply for a lot more business grants if the qualifications are broad, but that means more competition for the grant. Often, you can find more success by finding niche grants for your industry, or based on your ownership structure and makeup. Learn how to compare business grants here.
Types of Small Business Grants
There are several types of grants, and you may only be eligible for certain ones. Grants generally come from the following sources:
- Federal state or local governments
Government grants are often the most involved, while grants made by businesses may include a “competition” aspect.
Here we’ve rounded up examples of some popular grants in these categories. However, don’t limit your search to just these grants. We’ve also included several research tools you can use to find grants that may be a fit for your business.
Private Small Business Grants
There are many private corporations that want to support small businesses in the U.S. See which of these grants you qualify for.
FedEx Small Business Grant Contest
Good for: Existing businesses
Each year since 2013, FedEx has offered $25,000 grants to businesses. The application is only open for a one-month period, so ready your applications for the next open date. You’ll need to capture your business’s story via video.
National Association for the Self-Employed (NASE) Growth Grants
Good for: Growing businesses
NASE Growth Grants are offered to NASE members looking to take their business to the next level. NASE grants are worth up to $4,000 and can be used for all types of activities, like purchasing new equipment, hiring help, and creating promotional material.
The StreetShares Foundation Veteran Business Grant
Good for: Veterans
The Second Service Foundations Military Entrepreneur Challenge (MEC) features a speed coaching session, private pitch session to a judging panel, and finally an opportunity to pitch business ideas to a live audience for a chance to win a small business grant.
Businesses must be at least 51% owned by a veteran, Reservist, National Guardsman, or transitioning active-duty Military Member of any of the United States Armed Forces, the spouse of a Military Member, or the surviving spouse or child of a Military Member who died on active duty (i.e., a “Gold Star” family member). The applicant must be low income. Grand prizes vary by event. Note: The StreetShares Foundation is now the Second Service Foundation.
Nav’s Small Business Grant
Good for: Existing businesses
For several years, Nav has offered a $10,000 small business grant to help business owners solve a business problem or take their business to the next level. The Nav Small Business Grant is currently paused — but we plan to reopen it in the future, so keep an eye out.
In the meantime, Nav is here to help you secure alternative small business funding options.
eBay Up & Running Grants
Good for: eBay sellers
50 eBay Sellers will win $10,000 grant packages including cash, coaching and eBay education. The 2023 competition has ended, but keep an eye out for the 2024 grants.
Halstead Jewelry Grant Award
Good for: Jewelry startups
Are you a jewelry artist? If so, submit your portfolio and business plan to Halstead for its annual jewelry grant award of $7,500. In addition to funds, Halstead aims to help jewelry artists develop their business, fine-tune their plans, and hit their goals.
Federal Small Business Grants
The Federal government, too, offers grants to support small businesses.
Small Business Innovation Research Program
Good for: Technology companies
The federal research SBIR grant program is for entrepreneurs focused on innovations in technology that have the potential for commercialization. You can check its funding opportunities here. Focus areas from the past include clean and safe water, homeland security, land revitalization, green construction, advancement of health care, and more.
Small Business Technology Transfer Program
Good for: Energy-focused businesses
The STTR program aims to expand funding for innovative research and development leveraging existing technology. What makes this program unique from the SBIR program is that small businesses get the opportunity to formally collaborate with research institutions throughout the program. Each agency sets its own guidelines — check here for open STTR grants.
Department of Defense Grants
Good for: Research and development companies
The DoD offers grants to small businesses through the STTR program and a number of other initiatives, like the Defense Enterprise Science Initiative. The Office of Naval Research, the Air Force Office, and the U.S. Army Research Institute are all looking for research and development of technology that will help them reach their goals.
Department of Energy Grants
Good for: Innovative technology companies
The DOE offers grants through the SBIR and STTR programs for innovative research and development leveraging technology developed by a university or a DOE National Lab. Check here for its current grant openings.
National Institute of Health (NIH) Grants
Good for: Biomedical businesses
NIH is a federal agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It offers business grants to small businesses developing and researching biomedical technology.
Department of Justice Grants
Good for: Public safety projects
The DOJ allocates grant funding to projects that support law enforcement, public safety activities, programs to improve the criminal justice system, and more. Here’s an overview of the agencies within the DOJ that provide grants.
Department of the Interior Grants
Good for: A variety of businesses
The DOI offers small business grants through several departments, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, Indian Affairs, National Park Service, and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Find other DOI grant opportunities on Grants.gov.
USDA Rural Development Business Grants
Good for: Small rural businesses
The Department of Agriculture offers both loans and grants to support businesses in rural areas to create quality jobs. It funds community projects such as the development of housing, community facilities, and other services.
National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Grants
Good for: Agriculture and food nonprofits
The NIFA is a federal agency within the USDA with a focus on leadership and funding programs. It offers grants throughout the year, which come with support and guidance. Be mindful that many of its grants are offered to nonprofits or larger businesses.
Small Business Grants for Women
While grants offered by private companies and grants for startups are available to a broader range of business owners, there are also grants for women-owned businesses. You can find resources and information at women’s business centers, but here are two business grants for women to start with. Here are 11 women-focused business grants.
The Amber Grant Program
Good for: Planning-stage businesses
The Amber Grant is a $10,000 cash grant awarded to qualifying female entrepreneurs each month. At the end of the year, monthly grant recipients will have the opportunity to win an additional $25,000 grant.
Boston Women’s Fund
Good for: New businesses
The Boston Women’s Fund provides seed money, program support, and operational funding for women-led grassroots community efforts. Find its grants for women here.
How to Find a Grant for a Small Business
A quick Google search will pull up millions of results for business grants. So many possibilities are out there that it can seem impossible to narrow down the prospects. But there are a few resources that can not only help you find the right grants for your business, but even assist in the application process, and help you identify grant opportunities that can’t be missed.
OpenGrants offers the most comprehensive data set of public and private grant funding in the United States. The site offers both free and paid membership options. With the free membership, you can search the grants database, hire grant writers (for a fee), and get access to resources and guides.
With the paid membership, you can flag grants, get email alerts when new grants are added, take notes on grants, use the power search feature, export results, and get personalized matching.
Free money from the government — who wouldn’t want a piece of that? Grants.gov is the federal government agency’s landing page for all federal government grants across agencies. It’s a great resource for finding grant opportunities, but small businesses may be disappointed to find that many of the grants are closed to them.
The site includes grants for school systems, local governments, individuals, and nonprofits as well, so you have to sift through to find ones that are the right fit for you. Also, the federal grants available to small businesses have specific requirements when it comes to business size. (You can read more about how the federal government determines which businesses qualify as “small” businesses in this article.)
If it seems like receiving a business grant, specifically a government-funded one, is tricky, that’s because it can be. Here are some general guidelines and requirements that the federal government uses to determine business grant eligibility requirements:
- Grants are not provided for starting a business.
- Grant money is not made available for a business to pay off debt or to cover operating expenses.
- State and local grants that are provided by the federal government may be awarded to organizations that assist with economic development.
GrantWatch is another database of grants of every kind, though it’s a subscription-based service you will need to pay for. The site has a wide variety of grants offered by federal, state, and local governments, as well as foundations and corporations. The site is constantly being updated, and grants that have closed are archived.
You can filter the more than 25,000 grants by category to narrow down the ones targeting small businesses like yours.
Your local librarian
Among the many, many things local libraries provide for free or at a low cost to business owners is help finding grants. Just ask your librarian. These men and women are trained researchers with access to hundreds of databases.
Libraries often work in conjunction with local Chambers of Commerce or business organizations already and may be able to connect you with experts who know the local lay of the land and help you find business grants specific to your community.
Other Resources That Can Help Your Small Business
If you’re seeing grant funding to start or grow your business, there’s another step you should consider: get help from local agencies. The following organizations can provide free help for your business, and you can find them through SBA.gov or use the links below:
Small Business Development Centers
Once you’ve exhausted your searches for grants from federal agencies, the next stop on your list should be local and state business grants. You may be able to hit paydirt and find some of these on your own, but there’s a free, local resource that may help.
When used alongside Nav, Small Business Development Centers are a business owner’s best friend. Local, regional, state, and national offices mentor small business owners and help them understand business financing options, craft marketing strategies, and connect to other local small business owners (and much more — these guys do it all).
One thing they can help with, for example, is creating a business plan that can help you create an exciting vision for your company, and a compelling pitch on how you’ll use the grant money. They may also be able to help you navigate federal small business grants.
They can also help with navigating the grant process. Very few people have as much visibility as SBDC advisors do on the local business grant and loan scene. It’s the one appointment you can’t afford to skip when searching for small business grants or loans. Nav can also help you with state regulations: We’re here to teach you how to qualify for financing in South Carolina, for example.
SCORE is a nonprofit organization backed by the Small Business Administration that promotes free entrepreneurship training, tools and mentorship for American small business owners. Like SBDCs, SCORE is a free resource for entrepreneurs looking for help or expertise and they have many local experts that you can connect with. A SCORE mentor may help you identify local grant opportunities, or review your pitch to help you make it as compelling as possible.
Many states also offer free business resources to help business owners in their state. Check your state’s Department of Corporations website (or similar website). Get on their mailing list if possible, as they may send out emails alerting you to small business grants in your state.
Demystifying Common Grant Myths
There are a lot of misunderstandings that can come with grants for small businesses. We’re here to clarify the most common ones for you.
Myth #1: There are no restrictions
Many small business owners believe that you can use the money however you want, but this isn’t true. Grants are typically given out for a specific use that you need to prove you’re making progress on, and you’ll need to fill out reports to the grant provider. Failing to do so could mean the grant is taken away from you, you’ll pay fines, or even have to serve time in jail, so it’s necessary to follow the grant requirements.
Myth #2: Grant applications are simple to put together
It may take your business weeks or even months to finish a grant application, so don’t be fooled that it’s something you can write in a day or two. The work involves a lot of planning before you even begin writing, including assessing if you’re a good fit, assigning roles, and identifying partners. Give yourself plenty of time to put the application together.
Myth #3: Grants are easy to get
Many grant programs are extremely competitive, which means they can be more difficult to get than other small business funding. Some grants have thousands of applications, so it’s important to make sure you put together the best possible version of your application before submitting to increase your chances.
Myth #4: The business with the largest need is most likely to get a grant
Grants are actually usually awarded to the business that will most likely fulfill the grant agency’s goals, not the ones that need it the most. Grantors look at credibility, a clear plan for the funds, and commitment to the business goals above financial need.
How to Apply for a Small Business Grant
Work smart and hard. Instead of filling out an individual grant application, do what every job applicant does and create a “resume” for your business that outlines your answers to the common questions business grant-givers ask of their applicants. While grants are technically free money, that doesn’t mean they come without hard work on your part.
Some applications will vary based on what’s required. For example, a local government grant will likely require an explanation of how your business’s growth and development will benefit local commerce directly, while a grant from a private company like FedEx may require a persuasive video.
Here are a few common details you may need to provide when applying for a business grant:
- Time in business
- Number of employees
- Monthly or annual revenue
- How the funds will be used
- Your business’s “elevator pitch”
- Your Employer Identification Number (EIN)
- Your social media handles (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)
- A photo of you (and, if applicable, your partners or offices). Tip: A professional photo can go a long way, especially for companies looking to use your image on their site when announcing awards.
- A business plan. You should already have one, but if you don’t, talking to an SBDC adviser or your accountant can help you figure out the numbers, projections, and stats that reflect the current health of your business and where you can go down the road.. You should already have one, but if you don’t, talking to an SBDC adviser or your accountant can help you figure out the numbers, projections, and stats that reflect the current health of your business and where you can go down the road.
Grant Application Pitfalls to Avoid
There are several snags you can run into when you’re applying for a business grant, so let’s look at the most common mistakes to help you avoid them.
- Not paying attention to instructions: It’s extremely common but also simple to fix when you follow the instructions exactly. Not following instructions can instantly remove you from the running.
- Not reading the funder’s guidelines: You’ll need to know exactly what the purpose of the grant is, not a general idea. For example, you’d need to understand that the grantor wants to fund businesses owned by minority women rather than underserved communities in general.
- Making spelling mistakes: It’s important to proofread your grant application to make sure there are no spelling or grammatical errors.
- Not asking for a specific amount: It might seem obvious, but many grant applicants forget to include how much they need to borrow in their application.
- Missing the deadline: Many grantors refuse to accept applications after the deadline passes, so make sure you get yours in early.
Business Grant vs. Business Loan: What’s the Difference?
While both help you get money for your business, grants and business loans for small businesses are different beasts. The main difference between a grant and a loan is whether or not they require repayment. Loans require you to repay the money you borrow; a grant does not. Grants can be awarded by government departments, trusts, or corporations and given to individuals, businesses, educational institutions, or non-profits.
Grants can be notoriously difficult to get, so if you apply for funding and are rejected, consider other financing, including business credit cards.
Here are other things to know about the differences between grants and loans.
- Grants are taxable income. The IRS generally considers business grants as income for tax purposes. How your business is structured and how you report income to the IRS will determine what impact this will have on you come tax time, but generally, expect that a chunk of any grant money will go to Uncle Sam. You can head off this potential business grant downside by planning ahead and asking your accountant or tax professional to factor any grant money you’re awarded into your quarterly estimated payments (if applicable) or to help you estimate owed taxes and set aside those funds so you don’t have a larger-than-expected bill come tax time. Loans, however, are not considered income in the eyes of the IRS.
- You pay interest on loans. Grants are free money for all intents and purposes. Even a low-interest loan, however, comes at a cost. Depending on the type of business financing, you could face APRs anywhere from 5% to 150%, depending on your personal and business credit scores, cash flow, years in business, collateral, and other factors.
- Grants won’t help you build business credit. It’s one of the things that frustrates borrowers of all sorts — it takes credit to build credit. Building a business credit history with the major commercial credit reporting bureaus (most notably, Experian and Dun & Bradstreet), requires a tradeline of some sort. While a business grant is nothing to sneeze at — it’s free money, after all — once it runs out, you still may need additional funding to grow and expand your business. And a business grant isn’t reported to any personal or business credit reporting agencies.
- Grants are a direct competition. Loans aren’t. There’s no guarantee you’ll win a business grant or get approved for a business loan. But loans aren’t an either/or scenario where you’re competing directly with another business for the same pot of money. If you can prove to a business lender that you’re credit-worthy and your business financials are sound, you’re likely to get approved for a business loan, whether or not another business in the community applies. Business grants, however, tend to have one or a handful of winners — supplies are limited. You have to not only be a great business, but you also need to be the best business per the grant parameters. That’s not an easy feat for many grants where application requirements are broad.
- Loans can come with consequences. If you can’t make a payment or you default on your loan, you’re going to face consequences. What those consequences are depends on the loan type and what you put on the line to get approved, but can include repossessed equipment, a business lien or UCC filing, a damaged personal or business credit score, or bankruptcy. Generally with a business grant, if you use the money unwisely and spend it on something your business wants but maybe doesn’t need, your biggest risk is opportunity cost. (However, keep in mind that larger grants— and especially federal grants— may have specific reporting requirements, and they may release funds only after certain milestones are met.)
Are There Any Downsides to Business Grants?
A variety of factors make many business owners skeptical of the “free” money that business grants offer. While every grant has a different application period, rules, terms, and conditions, here are some potential downsides you should keep in mind when applying.
As mentioned above, business grant funds are taxable income for IRS purposes. The funds will still be free money for your business, but you will need to make sure you don’t spend the entire payout without planning for the added income in your tax bill.
Business grant applications take time. You’re already a time-crunched business owner wearing a million hats, do you really have time to apply for every business grant opportunity you come across? It’s a valid complaint about business grants. The likelihood of winning the grant can be small depending on the size of the contest, so you have to make your own cost/benefit analysis to figure out if your most precious asset — time — is worth it.
Small business grants may require campaigning. Many business grants require a social media component, where you campaign or share something publicly about your grant application. That’s not necessarily a negative if you have an active and vocal social media following, but campaigning does take additional time and some business owners may understandably not want to be as public about their search for money.
Any way you look at it, small business grants are a good thing. It’s worth your time and energy to explore which ones your business is eligible to apply for because money you don’t have to pay back is money that helps your business grow.
Alternatives to Small Business Grants
If you don’t have the patience to apply for a small business grant and wait to see if you’ve been awarded it, look to other options to get the financing you need.
There are plenty of small business loans available, no matter what your credit profile. If your business is established and you have excellent credit, you might qualify for a bank or SBA loan with lower interest rates. If you want access to some cash now and more later, look for a line of credit.
If you’re working to build your credit, you may be able to get a merchant cash advance or invoice financing. And if you’re just looking for a way to purchase what your business needs, there are plenty of small business credit cards available to you.
Frequently Asked Questions
This article was originally written on November 19, 2019 and updated on November 15, 2023.