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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. President Biden's recently enacted coronavirus stimulus bill is designed to help, providing $1.9 trillion 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.
  • U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA). The EDA is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce offers ongoing funding opportunities for projects that support regional and national economic development. Applicants can apply for a variety of rolling-basis EDA investments that fund projects in construction, non-construction, planning, technical assistance, research and evaluation, higher education and more.

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.

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.

General small business grants

There are many nonprofit and corporate entities offering grants and other assistance to small businesses. Here are a few such programs that are open to qualifying small businesses in any industry:

  • GoFundMe Small Business Relief Fund. GoFundMe’s Small Business Relief Fund will match $500 grants to qualifying small businesses that have been negatively impacted by COVID-19 and raise at least $500 through a GoFundMe campaign. The fund is backed by GoFundMe and corporations like Intuit QuickBooks, Yelp, GoDaddy and Bill.com. Small business owners with existing campaigns can add the hashtag #SmallBusinessRelief to their campaign and fill out this form to confirm their business.
  • KKR Small Business Builders. KKR launched its Small Business Builders fund in partnership with Hello Alice to provide COVID-19 recovery grants of up to $10,000 to small businesses. In addition to capital, grantees also gain access to technical expertise, mentoring and coaching opportunities from KKR, as well as Hello Alice's network of resources and online community.
  • Nav's Small Business Grant. Nav, a loan and credit card matching service, recently opened its 2021 round of grants to help small business grow to the next level. The grand prize winner receives a $10,000 grant and the runner-up received $5,000. Applications are open through May 31, 2021.
  • Visa Everywhere Initiative. The annual Visa Everywhere Initiative is a global startup competition for businesses with products that are gaining traction in the market and need an extra push to scale up. Visa will select five finalists from each of its five competing regions (North America, CEMEA, Europe, Asia Pacific, Latin America), and the winning finalist from each region will compete in the global finals. Applications for North American businesses close on May 14, 2021, with one finalist spot reserved for a minority-founded startup.

Industry-specific small business grants

Some small business grant 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.

  • Amber Grant Foundation. With a simple goal of supporting women entrepreneurs, the Amber Grant Foundation was 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.
  • 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.
  • Artwork Archive's Art Business Accelerator Grant. The Artwork Archives Art Business Accelerator Grant awards visual artists with 10 cash grants of $2,500 each. This grant gives artists the necessary business skills to succeed as artists and entrepreneurs with an unrestricted cash grant, six weeks of self-guided online educational resources and one-on-one expert career guidance.
  • Black Founder Startup Grant. The Black Founder Startup Grant program from the SoGal Foundation and other sponsors provides grants of up to $10,000 to Black and multiracial women and nonbinary entrepreneurs. The program accepts applications on a rolling basis and is open to entrepreneurs with a legally registered business who plan to seek investor financing to scale.
  • IFundWomen COVID-19 Relief Fund. IFundWomen launched a COVID-19 Relief Fund that provides community-funded microgrants and free coaching to women-owned businesses affected by COVID-19. Grants are distributed on a rolling basis. To be considered, women entrepreneurs must start a campaign on IFW.
  • The StreetShares Foundation Military Entrepreneur Challenge. Each year, the StreetShares Foundation offers military veterans and their families the opportunity to gain access to business capital with its Military Entrepreneur Challenge. This year, the Foundation has partnered with the Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream program to help qualifying veteran and military spouse entrepreneurs who have been financially impacted by COVID-19. Applications for the $15,000 (1st place), $6,000 (2nd place) and $4,000 (3rd place) cash prizes will be accepted through May 29, 2021 at midnight ET.
  • Yale's Innovation to Impact Award Competition. The Innovation to Impact Award Competition, sponsored by Yale, offers up to $60,000 for businesses that provide solutions for substance use disorders. The deadline to apply is Saturday, May 15.
  • SBA Restaurant Revitalization Fund. The Restaurant Revitalization Fund is a Small Business Administration award for restaurants and other food establishments that have lost revenue because of COVID-19. Applicants can receive up to $10 million in funding. Applications opened May 3, and businesses owned and operated by women, veterans, or socially and economically disadvantaged individuals are prioritized for the first 21 days.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce initiatives

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is dedicated to helping small businesses succeed through a variety of programs, including grants and small business awards. Here are some of the Chamber's recent initiatives designed to assist business owners.

  • Save Small Business Initiative. U.S. Chamber of Commerce Save Small Business Initiative launched in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis to provide guidance on financial assistance programs and resources and provide advice to help business owners survive this tumultuous period.
  • Dream Big Awards. The annual Dream Big Awards offers a $25,000 cash prize to the Small Business of the Year winner. The application deadline is July 16, 2021. You can apply for the awards as a small business or be referred by a local Chamber of Commerce or trade organization.
  • Citizen Awards. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation has opened nominations for its annual Citizens Awards, which includes a category for small business. The deadline to submit a nomination is June 25. More information on how to nominate a business can be found here.

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.

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Published May 13, 2021