If you’re in a position of applying to small business grants, you probably already know that the amount of tracking, writing and fulfilling criteria requirements is equal to a full-time job. The grant award is never guaranteed, which means that the most effective strategy balances both a high volume of applications with a targeted approach that thoroughly considers the purpose of the grant. But just because there are thousands of grants out there doesn’t mean they’re all right for you, or that you’ll catch them in time.
“The first challenge is finding what program is the fit,” says Jeremy O’Krafka, a business funding coach and professional grant writer. “The second challenge is knowing when the application is open.”
So the first order of business? Set up a system to collect and track grants and sort them by criteria and deadline. And once you’ve got that going, it’s off to the races.
Think about your immediate goals
Don’t stress about coming in prepared with a fully fleshed-out business plan. Instead, think about what you have and what you need to grow your business and hit your next target in the next 12 months. Are you hiring soon? Boosting your research and development? Or trying to tap into markets overseas? Once you know precisely what your targets are, says O’Krafka, you can start identifying the grants that are best suited for your goals.
Get out your building blocks
Grant eligibility criteria vary by program and award amount. But that doesn’t mean that you have to start every application from scratch.
“In most applications, anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the application is going to be recurring questions,” said O’Krafka.
Having answers to these recurring questions is part of what he calls ‘the Funding Building Blocks’. These answers should include your company elevator pitch, bio information, your track record receiving funding, financial history, and project description and more, depending on your company and the types of grants you’re going out for.
With these answers in place, you’ll be able to meet application deadlines at the pass, quickly tailor your copy to fit the criteria and apply for a higher volume than if you had done each one individually.
“If you plan for these in advance, then when you come to that two-week application window, it’s not as overwhelming,” he says.
Make sure to also have your documents, government business numbers, feasibility reports, prototypes, or whatever else you need to apply at the ready.
Position, position, position
Kim Kirton is the founder of UnCo, an agency that supports social impact small businesses with a suite of services including market research, strategy, digital marketing, content and design. She’s a pro at navigating small business grants through startup accelerator programs and social enterprise initiatives. Her approach is not unlike online dating: Seeing what the granting organization is looking for, and figuring out how your company can be the best match.
“I really look at the criteria and objectives,” she says. “Are we the type of founders they’re looking for? Are we serving their objectives of maybe creating more jobs? Maybe they’re serving their objective of coming up with a solution to fight climate change; is that us?”
Once you understand the overall objectives of that grant, she says, you can start positioning your business to meet those objectives.
Adopt a sales mindset
Grants, whether they come from the government or some other organization, are notoriously hard to obtain. Rather than going all-out for a single application, O’Krafka suggests approaching grant applications with a sales mentality: Think about it as a longer course where you’re selling to many people, rather than one grantor.
“It would be really disappointing to have invested that much time in writing a good application and having it rejected,” he says. But, if you take the long view of it, you’re not just investing the time and effort into that one application; you’re developing good application copy that you finesse over time, again and again—just as you would with sales and marketing material.
“Over time, your hit rate is going to be better, because you’re going to improve the copy or improve your ability to assess the fit and competitiveness of the program,” says O’Krafka.
Consider professional help…
There are plenty of free resources to help new business owners navigate the world of funding. However, as most grants are targeted to growth-stage businesses, it makes sense to beef up your grant-applying efforts once you hit your second year, when you’re ready for your lil’ snowball to roll bigger, faster.
This is when you might consider enlisting professional grant writers or looking up a coach, like Jeremy O’Krafka, who can help you develop a system to efficiently target your grant applications. Once you’re starting to apply for substantially higher tiers of funding, you should also think about delegating the job of grant applications to one person on your team, who can network, track and devote the 10 to 20 hours needed for a substantial grant—and then do it again, over and over.
…Or consider alternate sources of funding
Grant applications are ultimately a numbers game: You could have the best application and fit the criteria exactly, and still be up for stiff competition. Or you could be spending all your time going after grants when there are more reliable sources of funding out there.
Kim Kirton’s funding strategies include grants, but also pitch competitions and crowdfunding. When she considers going out for a grant, she first assesses fit (that’s where positioning comes in!). Secondly, she considers the length of the grant application process itself, the size of the value, what the audit criteria are like, and how hands-on the granting organization is going to be once you receive the funding.
“Is the amount so large that it would really make a significant impact on my business, or is it something I can go make in sales?” she says.
She urges new entrepreneurs she works with to consider validation before chasing money. “Ask yourself: What can I do today to validate this idea and get one step closer to my goals tomorrow?”
That might be launching a presale for your product, and other creative ways to bootstrap and prove your business.
The Last Word
Grants are just one way of securing funding. If this seems like too much or you don’t meet the eligibility criteria, applying for a small business loan might be a better option.
But for entrepreneurs who are looking for a large infusion of cash to hit a major milestone or get a project off the ground, a small business grant might be just the ticket. Plus, the application process, while demanding, can offer a useful exercise in business positioning, as well as sharpening and focusing your company’s goals.
If you’re not seeing much luck the first go-rounds, just know that you will get better at it over time, while learning more and more about your company with each application you file. And if you’re really stuck, you can always call in a professional.