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If you ever hear someone promising you “free money,” it’s probably a scam—unless it’s a small business grant.
Grants really are free money, but they come with a few hidden costs:
the time it takes to find a grant that you qualify for
the time it takes to go through the application and waiting process, and
the restrictions of using the money in the way grant the prescribes.
Though getting a small business grant takes an investment of time, it’s typically worth it for the free money that can be used to fast track your business growth. If you’re looking to inject some funds in your business, we’ve compiled a list of options to get you started.
What are small business grants?
Small business grants are funds given to a business by an organization for a specific purpose. Grants are available to small business owners during their startup phase, company expansion, and for research and development.
Unlike small business loans or credit cards, grants don’t need to be repaid, they won’t hurt your business credit score, and you won’t have to worry about lender fees to get your money.
But grants do come with restrictions—the money has to be spent in a particular way as outlined by the grant provider. And if you don’t play by the rules, there could be penalties.
Further reading on small business loans:
The different types of small business grants
There are two main types of grants: government and private.
To find federal and state grants, you can browse government databases based on your location and industry. But these are often paid services that are poorly organized and outdated.
Corporations provide small business grant programs as well. These private grants usually have less rigorous application requirements, but more competition for funds.
You can also apply for a foundation grant. This is another kind of private grant, but instead of a corporation, you’ll receive grant money from a charitable foundation.
Unfortunately, the internet hasn’t invented a one-stop database where you can search for every kind of grant. So we’ve compiled a list of the top government and private grant databases, complete with quick navigation links.
How to apply for (and win) a small business grant
If getting free money was easy, everybody would be doing it. The lengthy application process deters many business owners from applying for funding—but even if the pool of applicants is small, the competition is high. If you find a grant that seems like the right fit for your business, it’s important to stand out from the rest.
Pay close attention to the stringent requirements of each grant application before you start the process. Are you a minority-owned business? Check. Focused on a positive environmental impact? Check. In operation for over three years? Hmm. If you’ve only been in business for two, you’ll have to wait until next year. Don’t try to fudge the truth—you’ll end up wasting valuable time and effort.
Read over the grant application and provide complete and accurate information. An incomplete application may not make it through the screening process. Follow the instructions to the letter—if a section asks for a maximum of one page, don’t write one and a quarter.
Reach out to the grant officer and get a sense of what they’re looking for. What are their needs? Timing? Constraints? The more you know, the better.
Contact past grantees to see what worked for their application. They can provide valuable insight into how they approached the application so you can replicate it for your business.
A well-crafted business plan will be required. Make sure your business plan describes why your company will be successful, how the funding will strengthen your business, and how you’ll fulfill the specific goals of the grant. (Check out our complete guide to writing a business plan for more information)
Follow up with the grant officer after you’ve submitted your application—it’s okay to keep in touch in a non-intrusive way. Ask if they have any questions or concerns that you can address.
How Bench can help
Grants come with very specific use requirements, which means grantors will request to see your business’s financial reporting. With Bench, you get access to every transaction your business records in a single space and a personal bookkeeping team to help keep things organized. Beyond that, we provide you with valuable insights into your operations, chat about your finances, and even file your taxes. Learn more.
Federal small business grants
Federal agencies distribute several grants to small businesses in specific industries like scientific research, technology, and conservation. They also help fund nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, and local governments. Federal grants don’t cover the cost of starting up a business or operational expenses. Instead, they place a focus on research and development.
Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG)
The SVOG is a grant program administered by the Small Business Administration (SBA) that provides emergency financial assistance to eligible shuttered venues affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Venues eligible for this small business relief program include live venue operators or promoters, live performing arts organization operators, theatrical producers, relevant museum operators, zoos and aquariums who meet specific criteria, motion picture theater operators and talent representatives.
Applicants needing COVID-19 relief may be eligible for grant amounts that equal to 45% of their gross earned revenue, up to a maximum of $10 million. Eligible businesses must deduct any PPP loans (Paycheck Protection Program) received on or after December 27, 2020 from their maximum grant amount. For example, if you’re eligible for a SVOG of $100,000 and you received a PPP loan in January 2021 for $25,000, your maximum SVOG amount is reduced to $75,000.
Applications were paused on August 20, 2021, however there were plans to reopen for unallocated funds. If it reopens, you can apply through the SBA’s SVOG portal.
Grants.gov is the official access point for grants administered by government agencies. It’s comprehensive with a lot of information on the federal grant process. Start your search for grant opportunities and check “small businesses” in the eligibility box. To read the full eligibility for each grant and apply through Grants.gov, register an account first.
Challenge.gov is a list of creative, technical, and scientific competitions and prizes run by agencies across the federal government in order to drive innovation. Search through open competitions on their homepage to see the type of challenge, prize amount, and host agency. If something catches your attention, register for an account to participate and submit your entry.
GrantWatch is a website to locate funding through federal, state, local, foundation, and corporation grants in the U.S. and Canada. Filter your search for small business grants or go to the specific section for businesses. Before seeing the full eligibility for a grant, you’ll have to pay to become a member.
Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR)
SBIR is a competitive grant program that encourages small businesses in the U.S. to engage in research and development for federal agencies. It’s an awards-based program for high-tech innovation with the potential for commercialization, overseen by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). To qualify, you must operate a for-profit business with less than 500 employees and fulfill all eligibility requirements. One notable SBIR grant is run by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) which provides ten grants of up to $100,000 for research and innovation in the field of accessibility.
Browse "solicitations" posted by federal agencies and filter by program, agency, or phase. Click any headline for further details on how to apply.
Small Business Technology Transfer Program (STTR)
The STTR program is another competitive grant program that expands funding opportunities for federal research and development. Both the SBIR and the STTR programs encourage research partnerships, but STTR requires each applicant to collaborate with a non-profit research institution during the first two phases of the program. To qualify, you must operate a for-profit business with less than 500 employees and fulfill all eligibility requirements.
See a list of solicitations posted by federal agencies and filter by program, agency, or phase. Click any headline for further details on how to apply.
State small business grants
Federal small business grants are limited by industry and in number, and they’re often very competitive. Don’t feel discouraged—look for grants and assistance programs at a state or municipal level for access to a wider variety of lesser-known opportunities. They typically offer grants for local economic and community development meaning a smaller pool of applicants you’re competing against.
Below are some places to start looking, but we recommend doing a deep dive into what your own state and local area can offer.
Economic Development Administration (EDA)
The EDA is a U.S. Department of Commerce agency that offers grants, resources, and technical assistance to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation. Discover grant opportunities and search for your state’s agency—each one helps local small businesses find financing, secure office space, and recruit employees.
Click here for the full breakdown on how to apply for an EDA grant.
The State Business Incentives Database
The State Business Incentives Database is a national database for economic developers, business development finance professionals, and economic researchers. The Council for Community and Economic Research (C2ER) created it to provide data on incentive programs from all U.S. states and territories. Before you register, read the membership benefits and pricing to decide if this is right for you.
Use this guide for database information and how you can access its features.
Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs)
Your local SBDC provides support for small businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs throughout the U.S. by helping existing businesses remain competitive in a competitive market. Often associated with the state’s economic development agency, your SBDC can help connect you with financing, networking opportunities, and business mentors.
Use this portal to find the nearest SBDC to you.
Corporate small business grants
If you have a great business idea and you’re looking for startup funds, you may want to move beyond government grant programs and focus on corporate-sponsored funding. Large companies, like FedEx and Visa, will often provide hefty grant funding to small businesses for entering (and winning) a contest or pitch competition. Bonus: even if you don’t win, there’s the potential of a runner-up prize or publicity for your business.
Pro tip: do some industry-specific research on the top names in your area of business. Although more obscure and harder to find, some companies will fund small businesses who are tailored specifically to their industry.
FedEx Small Business Grant Contest
The FedEx Small Business Grant Contest provides a top prize of $50,000, along with funds towards print and business services. In the past, it has been open to for-profit businesses in operation for at least six months with no more than 99 employees. Read the full rules and eligibility.
Click here to learn about what you’ll need to prepare to enter.
Visa Everywhere Initiative
The Visa Everywhere Initiative is a global innovation program that encourages small businesses to solve payments and commerce challenges. The program has raised over $2 billion in funding and chooses four finalists to present at the Visa Payments Forum each year.
National Association of the Self-Employed (NASE)
If you’re a member of NASE, you can apply for their small business grants. One grant is awarded per month up to $4,000. Login, set up an account, and read the grant guidelines before you start your application.
Click here for more information on the NASE grants and how to become the next grant recipient.
Patagonia Corporate Grant Program
The corporate grant program at Patagonia gives between $10,000 and $20,000 of funding to innovative nonprofit organizations that work to preserve and protect the environment. Read the grant guidelines for more details on whether your small business meets the requirements.
Click here and follow the portal when you’re ready to apply.
Nav’s Quarterly $10,000 Business Grant
Each quarter, Nav—a financing marketplace for businesses—awards a $10,000 grant to a small business (and two lesser grants for runner-ups).
You don’t need to meet any special criteria to apply. You just need to sign up for a free Nav account and post on social media about what your business plans to do with the grant.
You can learn more here.
Demographic-specific small business grants
If you’re a woman, veteran, or minority business owner, there are financial incentives funded by corporations, special interest groups, and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) that aim to help underrepresented demographics.
Eileen Fisher Women-Owned Business Grant
The grant program by women’s clothing retailer Eileen Fisher awards a total of $100,000 in grant money to up to 10 female business owners each year. Women must make up at least 51% of your business’s ownership and leadership, and you have to be in operation for at least three years, earn less than $1 million in annual revenue, and be focused on environmental or social change. The program is temporarily suspended but will potentially open up again soon.
Read the program guidelines for more information on how to apply.
Further reading: A Big List of Small Business Grants for Women (2022)
The Amber Grant
Awarded once per month, the Amber Grant gives $10,000 funding to a female entrepreneur. Each year, one of twelve monthly grant recipients gets an additional $25,000 in funding. Applying is fairly straightforward—you just need to fill out a form online. However, there is a $15 fee to apply. The Amber Grant is run by WomensNet, an organization for female entrepreneurs.
Learn more about how to apply for an Amber Grant.
US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Grants
The USDA offers a variety of grants for small businesses and nonprofit organizations operating in rural areas. They also offer a variety of business loans—so, if you don’t qualify for a grant, you may be able to borrow money at zero interest.
Learn more about USDA grants.
Veteran Small Business Award
The Veteran Small Business Award provided by StreetShares Foundation awards up to $15,000 to veterans or spouses of veterans that own over 50% of the business. It’s mission is to inspire, educate, and support veterans as they start small businesses.
Read the full terms and conditions for eligibility and application guidelines.
First Nations Development Institute Grants
The First Nations Development Institute is a nonprofit organization that has successfully provided over $46 million total grant money to projects that help Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians.
If you’ve given up hope that there’s a grant out there for you, don’t worry. There are lots of other small business funding options—like SBA loans, or a traditional bank loan. If you want to know how long your grant will sustain your business operations, consider tracking your burn rate.