Small business owner budgeting
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Maybe you’ve got a great idea for a new business but don’t have the cash to get started. Or you own a small business but lack the money to expand or franchise.

You can always borrow money—with a personal loan, for instance—but another option is “free money” in the form of small-business grants. Here’s how to get in on the action.

Small-business grants: an overview

Small-business grants are available from the government—federal, state and local—as well as from large corporations. Many grants have highly specific application requirements, such as demonstrating how your business will benefit the country or community. That doesn’t mean you need to be a charity: the benefits could be local job growth or developing innovative technology. And some grants aim to boost businesses owned by minorities or women.

Federal small-business grants

Federal grants are the largest—on average more than half a million dollars each—but also the most restrictive. Generally,  federal government grants only fund research and development that is deemed to benefit the country, such as medical or technological innovation.

If your small business fits that profile, the place to start are the websites of the Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR) and the Small Business Technology Transfer program (STTR). Both are administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).

Beyond high-tech R&D, some federal grants target small businesses engaged in conservation efforts. For example, the Department of Agriculture provides grants and expertise for small businesses in the field of forestry management.

State and local small-business grants

State and local small business grants are more focused on job creation than R&D, which means they’re accessible to a wider range of companies, and often provide startup and expansion incentives. For instance, Douglas County, Ore., will sell you cheap land in a new industrial park to relocate your small business, and provide credits toward the purchase price of $5,000 per new job created.

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Many local grants are indirectly paid by the SBA through its Growth Accelerator Fund, which supports entrepreneurship grant programs in many states. Once your company is in such a program, other doors open to larger grants. One recent example is My Home Pro Network, a business-to-business digital marketing platform that participated in Maine’s Top Gun small-business competition—then went on to score a $100,000 grant from Connecticut’s Department of Economic Development. Every state has small business development centers; here’s a list maintained by the SBA.

Finally there are grants from large corporations, which view supporting small businesses as good public relations. Often the winners of these grants are companies that benefit the environment, serve minority communities or are owned by women. Every year, Federal Express awards 10 grants of up to $25,000 each. The grand prize winner in 2017 was a women-owned Denver company that makes urban bags and accessories from military surplus tents.

Free money! What’s the catch?

Small-business grants can be hard to find. There is no single “clearinghouse” of information, so you’ll need to spend time doing research or hire a professional grant writer to do it for you. The website of the American Grant Writers Association has a job posting board.

Many grants have strings attached, such as the requirement to hire a minimum number of new employees or to use services provided by the grantor corporation. Expect plenty of paperwork and presentations. And many local grants are awarded through pitch competitions, so you’ll need to be comfortable delivering fast-paced “dog-and-pony” shows while fielding tough questions. In short, free money is like the proverbial free lunch—not so cheap in the end. But if you’ve got the right stuff, the rewards are out there.