woman on laptop taking notes
There are many grant programs available to small businesses, depending on a variety of qualifying factors. — Getty Images/Deagreez

Times are tough for small business, but help is available, from both the government—federal, state or local— and the private sector. It may be in the form of a grant, a loan or a leg up competing in a difficult business environment. Here’s a breakdown to help you sort through what’s available.

Federal stimulus aid

Businesses of all sizes have been negatively impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Some are just getting started, while others have had to rethink their business model. The recently enacted coronavirus stimulus bill is designed to help, providing $900 billion in assistance to businesses and individuals. The bill includes aid in the form of tax credits, loans and grants.

[Read: Small Business Update: More on PPP Loans and the Employee Retention Tax Credit]

Government grants

Begin your search for a grant from the federal government at Grants.gov. This government site offers the most comprehensive database of funds the government is going to give away. There are thousands of grants to apply for, with opportunities for companies from all backgrounds.

Keep in mind that not all assistance flows directly from the federal government to small business. Some funds are distributed to state and local governments and agencies, nonprofit organizations and institutions of higher learning. These entities, in turn, distribute the funds, or use them to provide technical or educational assistance on a local level.

In addition to the programs listed here, be sure to check with your state and local governments and use the resources listed below. When searching through grant and contracting options, note that you may qualify for more than one program.

As illustrated by the following sampling of grants, the assistance available to you at Grants.gov will vary, depending on your specific situation.

  • Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR). The SBIR offers grants to small businesses so they can participate in federal research and development with the potential for commercialization. It’s a highly competitive awards-based program that helps businesses achieve scientific excellence and technological innovation. To qualify for SBIR grants, you must operate a for-profit company and satisfy other requirements.
  • Small Business Technology Transfer Program (STTR). Similar to SBIR, the STTR program focuses on funding research in the R&D arena. However, what separates the STTR is the requirement that the small business have a formal collaboration with a research institution. To qualify for STTR grants, you must operate a for-profit company and satisfy other requirements.
  • USDA Rural Business Enterprise Grant Program. The USDA Rural Business Enterprise Grant Program offers technical assistance and training to small businesses that have less than 50 workers, less than $1 million in gross revenue and are located in rural areas. Grant money is intended for projects benefiting rural public entities, including towns, state agencies, nonprofits, higher education institutions, rural cooperatives and federally recognized tribes.
  • U.S. Department of Commerce Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA). Targeted grants and loans designed to aid minority-owned businesses are offered throughout the year. Minority-owned businesses can find information about local MBDA Business Centers at MBDA.gov.
  • U.S. Small Business Administration State Trade Expansion Program (STEP). Intended to assist small businesses desiring to export product, this program distributes federal funds through state entities. Small businesses that meet the criteria set by each state can use the financial assistance to participate in foreign trade missions and shows, obtain entry to foreign markets, develop websites and design international marketing products or campaigns.

As you would expect, acceptance of free money from the government comes with a fair amount of paperwork. Applying for a grant can be time consuming and technical. You want to make sure, therefore, that you are eligible before applying. In addition to the legal and administrative prerequisites, there are ongoing reporting and auditing requirements. You can find the full details at govinfo.gov.

Government contract assistance

The federal government spends billions of dollars on goods and services each year. A lot of that money is spent through a competitive bidding process. Programs have been put in place to assist some small businesses with the process, allowing them a better chance to compete for those federal dollars.

  • Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business Program. The federal government seeks to award at least 3% of all federal contracting dollars to such businesses annually, so this program helps with meeting that target. This federal contracting program offers assistance to small business owners who are service-disabled veterans. Eligible small businesses must be over 50% owned/controlled by one or more service-disabled veterans, have day-to-day operations and long-term goals managed by at least one service-disabled veteran and have a service-connected disability.
  • Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) Federal Contracting Program. The federal government seeks to award at least 5% of federal contracting dollars to women-owned small businesses annually. Through this SBA program, the Office of Women’s Business Ownership provides support to women entrepreneurs by offering business training, counseling, federal contracts and access to credit and capital. Their goal is to offer equal opportunities for all women in business.
  • 8(a) Business Development Program. The purpose of this program is to assist small businesses owned by socially and economically disadvantaged entities. This is achieved by limiting competition for certain government contracts to businesses participating in the 8(a) business development program. To participate a business must be certified as an 8(a) entity.
  • HUBZone Program. This program aids businesses in underutilized business zones by making them more competitive in regard to some government contracts. Businesses that join the HUBZone program can compete for set-aside contracts as well as receive preference on others, including a 10% price evaluation preference in open contract competitions.

Natural Resource Sales Assistance Program

In addition to the billions of dollars spent purchasing goods and services, the federal government also sells large amounts of natural resources and surplus property. The SBA Natural Resource Sales Assistance Program sets aside a percentage of these goods for bidding by small businesses only. In addition, federal agencies sometimes divide surplus materials into smaller parcels, making it easier for small businesses to purchase. The five categories are:

  • Timber and related forest products.
  • Strategic materials.
  • Royalty oil.
  • Leases involving rights to minerals, coil, oil and gas.
  • Surplus real and personal property.

The program also provides training for small businesses on government sales and leasing.

Industry-specific small business grants

There are many nonprofit and corporate entities offering grants and other assistance to small businesses. Some of these programs are confined to a specific entrepreneur demographic or business profile and they often have an application process that is easier to navigate. This is a sample list, so be sure to check with nonprofits and large corporations in your geographic area or industry.

  • Eileen Fisher Women-Owned Business Grants. Awarded to 501(c) (3) nonprofits or other nonprofits with a fiscal sponsor, Eileen Fisher Environmental Justice Grants range from $10,000 to $40,000. Grants are awarded to entities providing direct services to address both environmental issues and the empowerment of women.
  • Amber Grant Foundation. With a simple goal of supporting women entrepreneurs, the Amber Grant Foundationwas founded by WomensNet in 1998. The foundation awards a $10,000 grant each month and an additional $25,000 grant each December to women entrepreneurs with a compelling story.
  • Tory Burch Fellows Program. Awarded annually to a woman-identifying entrepreneur, the Tory Burch Fellows Program is open to for-profit businesses in the early stages of operation in any industry. The fellowship is a one-year program including virtual education, business guidance and a $5,000 grant. Details for this year’s awards have yet to be announced.
  • FedEx Small Business Grant. In 2020, The FedEx Small Business Grant Contest awarded over $250,000 to 12 small businesses to help them grow and scale their businesses. The 2021 application process is not yet open. The company website says it hopes to have details posted soon.
  • National Association for the Self-Employed (NASE) Growth Grants. According to its website, the NASE has distributed over $1,000,000 in grants to its members. Its growth grants provide up to $4,000 to assist with training, marketing and more. You must be a member for 90 days before you are eligible to apply.
  • Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) Rural Relief Small Business Grants. LISC is not a government agency but receives funds from them as well as from foundations, corporations and banks. It is one of the country’s largest social support enterprises and distributes funds to businesses in need of assistance through its grant program. Different parameters are in play at different times throughout the year. LISC is currently offering grants to small businesses located in rural communities (those with a population of 50,000 or less). Applicants need to certify having been negatively impacted by COVID-19 and that they are promoting the best interests of the community. More information is available at LISC.org.

Additional resources

The programs listed above are a good start when it comes to grants and funding. You may find additional resources available by following the links below.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

Follow us on Instagram for more expert tips & business owners stories.

The guidance your business needs, delivered.

Want the latest expert guidance on COVID-19 vaccines and prevention measures delivered directly to your inbox? Sign up for the Rally for Recovery! You’ll get the information you need to help protect employees, inform customers and support your local community.



Published January 14, 2021