An injection of a few thousand dollars into your small business could be the difference between eking out a living and growing your company to the next level.
Taking out a small-business loan or line of credit might not be the best option if you want to avoid debt — or can’t qualify for the credit. Bringing on an investor could give you debt-free capital, but you’d have to forfeit a portion of your business. And a small business in need of just a little cash might not be worth an investor’s attention.
A small-business grant could be the cash cow you need. You don’t have to repay these funds or hand over ownership of your company. You can usually find them through nonprofit organizations dedicated to supporting small businesses, nonprofits, and the arts.
Where to Find Small-Business Grants
Organizations of all kinds offer small-business grants. The simplest way to find small-business grants is to search for “grants + [characteristics of your business].”
Also browse these resources that list small-business grants:
- Grants.gov. Search for government grants, most of which support nonprofit organizations, government entities, or educational institutions.
- U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). This government agency works with community organizations to provide funding, typically for nonprofits and research institutions.
- U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA). Find local EDA resources, which could include grant opportunities.
- Small-Business Resources. Sites like Fundera and Nav help small businesses find financing, primarily credit and loans, and sometimes list small-business grant opportunities.
- Chamber of Commerce. Your local Chamber of Commerce is a rich resource for information and community for small-business owners and could direct you to grant opportunities.
When searching for grants, keep in mind that most grants serve a dedicated purpose, such as supporting a target community, industry, or mission. This reduces your options to only grants that fit your type of business, but it also narrows the competition you face with any grant application.
Some small-business grants target underserved communities such as women, people of color, or rural areas. Many serve only nonprofit organizations or projects, and these tend to focus on your impact on social issues like environmentalism, women’s health, or poverty.
Grants for the arts could also help your business if you’re primarily a writer, performer, or visual artist. These tend to support individuals, rather than companies, and they apply to a single project, rather than your whole business. So you have to get creative to find arts grants that fit your small business.
Tips to Apply for a Small-Business Grant
Whether for a few hundred dollars or tens of thousands, put your best foot forward when applying for a small-business grant. Grant-making organizations want to know their money will benefit their chosen cause or community, and your grant proposal is the way to show them your business can fulfill that goal.
Entrepreneurs who’ve received grants to support their businesses offer the following advice.
1. Hire an Experienced Grant Writer
Writing a grant proposal is a specialized skill, so don’t count on just anyone in your business to handle it. A large grant could make a professional grant writer worth your money.
William Taylor, a career development manager at VelvetJobs, credits hiring an expert with receiving multiple grants at his previous company, Rank Easily. “This helped us stand out from the crowd by coming up with a well-prepared business plan that clearly demonstrated how the grant would benefit our business and satisfy the goals of the grant,” he says.
You could find experienced grant writers through contractor job boards and niche communities:
- Professional Associations. Browse member lists or post a job with professional associations for writers, such as the American Grant Writers’ Association.
- Writing Communities on Facebook and LinkedIn. Many Facebook groups for writers welcome job posts, so seek groups relevant to your needs and industry, such as The Grant Writers Forum and LinkedIn Grant Writers.
- FlexJobs. This subscription-based job board helps you find high-quality candidates looking for remote and freelance work. You can post up to five jobs for free.
- Freelance Brokers. Sites such as Upwork and PeoplePerHour connect employers with freelancers for any role. Freelancers on the platform tend to be less experienced, but you can review their previous work and check ratings from others who’ve hired them before committing.
- Small Business Administration. Find an SBA center in your area to get small-business assistance, including free resources that could help you write a grant proposal.
Be specific in your listing about the work and the skills you require. It helps filter the candidates who contact you, so you don’t have to sift through too many unqualified writers.
To find a strong grant writer, look for:
- Grant Writing Experience. Beyond general writing skill and experience, ask for candidates who’ve specifically written grant proposals — with a bonus for those with a record of securing funding.
- Understanding of Your Industry. Writers should understand the business you’re in, whether it’s commercial, nonprofit, or the arts. Experience writing grant proposals within your industry means they’ll understand what grant organizations look for.
- Familiarity With Available Grants. If you plan to apply for several grants, a grant writer who knows what’s available and can help you research requirements and deadlines is an asset.
- Strong Writing Skills. Ask for a portfolio, and review content they’ve written before. Clear, concise, and clean (grammatically correct, typo-free) writing is a must-have.
- Business or Nonprofit Experience. If a writer doesn’t have grant writing experience or education, their experience working in a business or organization like yours could help them craft a solid business plan and convey your message in a grant proposal. New writers generally charge less, so you could benefit from hiring someone with less grant writing but other related experience.
- Ability to Meet Deadlines. Check that your grant writer has the bandwidth to dedicate to your business and get drafts and revisions in on time so that you don’t miss grant deadlines.
2. Write a Business Plan
Suchot Sunday, owner at The Curious Frugal and a serial entrepreneur, won a grant for a small organic bakery business. She recommends including a business plan with your grant application because it “will lend a weight to your application that others with only the application will not have.”
Your business plan should include the following for either the whole business or a specific project, depending on what the grant is for.
- Business Concept. What does your business do? What products or services does it provide? What value do you offer your target audience or community?
- Marketing Plan. Define your audience and marketing strategies. Also describe your competition and how you differ.
- Financials. Include the nitty-gritty to show grant organizations how you’ll use the money and demonstrate you can manage it responsibly. This should include things like revenue, sales, profit, loss, and profit margins.
A solid business plan shows the granting organization your business will put its money to good use, explains Lynn Jordan, who received a grant from the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health for her company Joyful Boogie and once worked for a philanthropic foundation.
“The grant officer builds their own reputation in the field by the amount of successes they bring to the table,” Jordan says. “If an organization or individual already has proven themselves, then they are considered less of a risk.”
3. Be Articulate and Specific
Like a job application, your grant application or proposal showcases your competency in your field.
“Use proper grammar, spelling and pay attention to formatting. The readers [who choose grantees] have limited time to review,” recommends Romy Taormina, CEO and founder at Psi Health Solutions, Inc., which has received small-business grants including the (now discontinued) Huggies Mom Inspired Grant for $15,000.
Copy edit and proofread a grant proposal before submitting it. Before hiring an editor, use a writing tool to spot mistakes and weak writing, such as:
- Grammarly. Install this free Chrome extension to get recommendations for grammar, spelling, tone, clarity, and word choice wherever you write online — including email, social media, messaging apps, and Google Docs.
- Hemingway Editor. Paste (or compose) copy into this free online editor to detect weak writing, including passive voice, adverbs, and complex words and sentences.
- ProWritingAid. Use this Web editor or plugin for your word processor of choice to improve grammar, spelling, style, and word choice. Install the Chrome extension for free or purchase a license for the software starting at $70 per year.
Then, enlist an editor for a final look and personalized feedback on the proposal.
Like the grant writer, an editor is more valuable if they have experience in your industry or knowledge of grant writing. An editor without this experience can do a good job cleaning up your copy, but grant-related experience means they can also help you tailor the language to leave the best impression on grant judges.
If you don’t have an editor on your team, find a freelancer through brokers, general job boards, or these editorial organizations:
- ACES: The Society for Editors. Post to this organization’s job bank for free or browse editors for hire.
- Editorial Freelancers Association. Submit a job for free or search the member directory for editors.
4. Know Your Competition
Learn which other businesses — or, at least, what kinds of businesses — apply for the grant so you can figure out what sets you apart.
Co-founder Jeremy Lawlor’s company Active Business Growth won a $5,000 Starter Company Plus grant in 2019. He credits it to a strong business plan that eclipsed opponents’.
“We knew that most businesses applying were more or less just starting out or still in the idea phase, so their business plans were short and sweet at about 10 to 15 pages,” Lawlor explains. “Knowing this, we went above and beyond and submitted a business plan of 65 pages.”
Most grant websites list past and current grant recipients, so start there. Browse businesses that have received the grant you want, and consider:
- How Do They Fulfill the Grant Requirements? Put on your judge’s hat, and determine what about a business made it right for the grant. If some of the grantees surprise you, it could give you some clues as to what the organization looks for.
- How Do They Compare to Your Business? Does your business feel like a fit with these? Are you in the same industry, of a similar size, in a similar location, serving the same audience or community, sharing goals?
Also ask around in your network to figure out which other businesses are applying for the grant in the same cycle as you. Tap into professional associations and social media groups for intel. You could even turn it into a friendly competition by trading tips and advice with fellow applicants.
5. Emphasize Your Impact on the Community or Area of Service
“The entrepreneurs and investors that support small businesses and small nonprofit organizations seek to achieve specific causes or benefits for society,” explains Plamen Beshkov, who received a grant for a nonprofit art project for Bulgaria-based Open Space Foundation. Beshkov urges, “Find out whether there’s a need for what you want to achieve with your idea.”
Jordan agrees and suggests using as many facts as you can to showcase how your company benefits the area of the grant’s focus.
“Present any hard data that is available,” Jordan says. “How many people benefit from this work? Are there any studies to back up this work? Have you already received any accolades for your work? Do your best to present a picture that lets the grant giver know that they are joining in on already established momentum.”
Include hard data in your business plan to show you did your research before starting your business. Include data and research studies to answer these questions about the product or service you offer:
- How Big Is the Market? In other words, how many people want what you sell? For mission-driven grants, also find data to demonstrate the need for your service.
- Who Is Your Target Audience? Include demographics such as age, location, income, education, family size, marital status, and buying habits of the market you serve.
- How’s the Competition? How many other businesses offer what you offer? Are they doing well?
- What Is Your Impact? Include data to demonstrate the progress you’ve already made to serve the target audience. This gives judges a concrete understanding of how grant funds can impact a community through your business.
6. Hone Your Network
Before seeking funding, put yourself out in the community and industry. Get to know other business owners and the people who work for foundations that support small businesses.
These connections help you find opportunities, learn what it takes to succeed, and could even directly give you an advantage when you submit an application.
Connect with other business owners in your industry through:
- Local SBA centers
- Your city’s Chamber of Commerce
- Facebook and LinkedIn groups
- Professional associations
- Local community and charity events
- Mentorship programs or networks, such as SCORE
- Leadership and self-improvement events, such as Toastmasters International
Jordan found out about the grant her company won through a contact who’d previously worked on the same grant campaign. She says, “Having a personal connection to the grant giver, I believe, really ups the chance of being a recipient. It’s about relationships.”
A small-business grant could be a boon to your company or project, but it takes skill to win one.
Writing a grant proposal is a professional skill not every business owner or even writer has mastered. You could benefit from hiring professional grant writers and editors to craft a winning business plan and proposal if you’re applying for a large grant or plan to apply for several grants.
Don’t approach your grant application casually. Securing funding requires research and time to develop a strong understanding of what the judges want to see in your proposal.
Study what makes a good grant proposal in general and what each grant organization is looking for specifically. This will prevent you from wasting time — yours and the judges’ — by applying for grants that aren’t right for your business.
For more ways to find funding for your business, check out these additional startup financing options.