When it comes to funding, a business grant is the closest thing an entrepreneur can get to acquiring “free money” to grow his business. With a business grant, you don’t have to pay the money back, so you don’t have to take on debt, refinance your home or put up your assets as collateral.
Both a loan or a grant can help you get financing for your company but the two have important differences. With a small business loan, you have to pay back not only the amount you borrowed, but the interest as well. The interest can get quite costly, especially if your business is new (and your rate is higher as a consequence), or you lack collateral or your credit score is only mediocre. With a business grant, you don’t have to worry about collateral, interest rates or term lengths because you don't have to pay the money back.
The stakes are also higher when it comes to business loans. If you fail to make a payment on time or if you default on your loan, your personal or business credit score will suffer. Worse, you could lose the properties and assets you had put up as collateral. Misusing your grant, however, is mostly about your opportunity cost.
On the downside, the IRS considers business grants as income so you can expect part of the grant money to go to the IRS. To prepare for this, you can have your accountant take the grant into consideration when computing your future tax burden so that you can set that money aside.
Another difference between a business grant and a small business loan is flexibility. A business loan usually (but not always, so read the fine print on your small business loan agreement) gives you freedom on how and where to spend the money. A grant, however, tends to be very specific on how you are allowed to use the capital. For example, some grants don’t allow the funds to be used for operational expenses or to pay off debts.
Business grants are also also fewer and far between, not to mention significantly harder to obtain. While with a business loan getting an approval may be an issue for some small business borrowers, at least you are not competing with other businesses for the same funding. If your business is financially sound and you are creditworthy, your loan application will likely be approved, even if there are many other businesses in the same industry or region applying for similar loans. With a business grant, however, there can only be one or a few recipients, so your business has to perfectly match the grant requirements and stand out from the other applicants in order for you to be selected.
Another difference has to do with business credit. When you pay off a loan responsibly, the transactions are reported to the credit reporting agencies, which builds up your credit score and history. Business grants, however, are not reported to personal or business credit reporting bureaus, so if you still need to get a loan after spending the grant money, the grant won’t boost your credit score to make borrowing money easier in the future.
Small business grants are notoriously hard to qualify for, and also hard to find. A quick Google search will return millions of results but you are likely to encounter many dead links, outdated contests or complex databases when searching for a grant that fits your business needs.
To make it easier for you, we’ve compiled a list of federal, state, and private resources that can help you in your search for the most suitable business grant.
There are many federal business grants, but most are available only to businesses related to science, technology, R&D or healthcare. Some of the top resources are:
Grants.gov – This comprehensive database lists all federal grants, including the ones for small businesses. You can use the filter to narrow down the results to the ones that are applicable to your business.
Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program – This program is for entrepreneurs focused on innovative technologies that have commercial potential. There are 11 government agencies involved in SBIR, each with its own set of requirements. Grants begin at $150,000, but promising businesses can get additional grants.
Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Program – Similar to SBIR, but grant applicants are required to work with a research institution. It has five participating agencies and the grants start at $150,000.
State-level grants are usually focused on that state’s economic or social affairs. Compared to federal grants, the funding is typically smaller but there is less competition. Some of the state-level grants are what is known as a matching grant, which requires the entrepreneur or business owner to match the funds given by the institution. Below are some examples; to search for more, check out the U.S. Department of Commerce website or the grants portal of your particular state.
Arkansas Infrastructure Grant – The Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC) offers infrastructure grants to businesses that create jobs in Arkansas. The amount granted depends on several factors, including the company’s strength, average wage, and cost of facility improvements.
Illinois Recycling Expansion and Modernization Program – This grant program offers up to $250,000 to small businesses concerned with sustainability. Note, however, that this is a matching grant program, so you will need to put up your own money to receive the funds.
Colorado State Trade Expansion Program – Colorado offers multiple kinds of small business grants. The State Trade Expansion Program is geared towards small- and medium-sized Colorado businesses interested in exporting their products. The funding will offset the costs of international business development and marketing.
New York City Commute Enhancement Grant – This program awards up to $10,000 to New York City businesses related to commuting in the city.
Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development – These grants are for enterprises that expand or improve public infrastructure in Tennessee.
Aside from state-level grants, there are also small business grants offered by cities and towns. The provided capital is usually smaller compared to federal and state grants, but there is less competition because of the geographical limitation. Also, if your business benefits the community in a noticeable way—such as by improving the residents’ environmental awareness or health—you already have an advantage.
Here are just a few examples of such grants.
Cleveland Job Creation Incentive Program – This program is for new Cleveland businesses that will create at least five new jobs within the first year or existing businesses that have significant job creation.
Orlando Downtown Facade & Building Stabilization Program – Businesses can receive $5,000 to $40,000 with this program if they own their buildings in downtown Orlando and are looking to enhance the establishments’ looks or stability.
San Francisco Historic Preservation Grant – The city offers grants for new and established businesses that are engaged in the preservation and rehabilitation of historic buildings.
Many large companies, foundations, and organizations also offer business grants. These programs are usually niche-specific and highly competitive. There is no single database listing all these opportunities, so you will have to do a bit of digging to find ones that are applicable to your business or sector. Below are just some examples of corporate business grants.
FedEx Small Business Grant – Yearly, FedEx awards up to $50,000 in grant money to 10 small businesses nationwide.
Visa Everywhere Initiative – This is a global program for startups to solve business problems.
National Association for the Self-Employed (NASE) – NASE offers up to $4,000 in grants to small business.
Above, we’ve listed grant programs based on the source of the funding, but there are also many grants that cater to specific sectors of society to promote diversity and social equality in business. There are small business grants for women, minorities, and veterans. Here are some of them:
Minority Business Development Agency – This agency conducts regular grant contests for minority entrepreneurs.
StreetShares Veteran Small Business Award – This program supports veteran business owners (or the spouses, children, and immediate family members of military members who died on active duty) with cash awards amounting up to $15,000.
Different grant programs have different requirements, so the applications will vary. A city-level grant, for example, may ask you to explain how the growth of your business will benefit the community, while a corporate grant may ask you to submit a video essay or join a pitch competition.
Nevertheless, most grants will ask you to provide information regarding your monthly revenue, number of employees, time in business, and how you plan to spend the grant money. Many will also ask you for your business plan, financial stats (income statements and balance sheet, at a minimum), and projections, and some may require photos and an “elevator pitch” of your business.
With small business grants, you don’t have to go into debt just to secure additional financing for your business. These grants can help you meet your business goals and push your company forward. It will take a bit of time and effort to find the grant that’s perfect for your business, but it’s worth it—it’s free money, after all.