Different types of grants are available to individuals, businesses and nonprofit organizations. Some grants are available for specific purposes, such as grants for scientific research projects or grants for college tuition, while others are available to cover general operating expenses of organizations. Some grants are awarded based on the discretion of the giving organization, while others known as formula grants are available based on preset criteria.
Different Kinds of Government Grants
One of the biggest sources of grant funding is different layers of government. The federal government provides grants for school tuition and related expenses, grants to state and local governments for various programs and many other grants to individuals, businesses and nonprofits.
State governments provide grants as well to support various sorts of programs and individual citizens, and local governments often provide grants to support programs within particular municipalities. For example, New York City offers grants to support environmentally friendly infrastructure on private property, while Chicago provides grants for community art projects.
Whether you're applying to college, starting a business or putting on an arts exhibition, it's worth checking what grants are available to you. You can search the federal website grants.gov for applicable federal grants or check with state and local websites and officials to see what other grants are available.
Private Charity and Foundation Grants
Many grants are also available from private nonprofit charities and foundations. They can range from large, heavily endowed organizations like the Ford Foundation or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to smaller or more local organizations.
Some nonprofits have a broad focus and will give grants to organizations and people doing a wide range of beneficial work. Others have a narrower focus, and may give grants for very specific purposes or to a narrow set of individuals. For example, some may only give grants to support research on a particular disease or to support college students in particular majors or from particular backgrounds.
Search online or print databases of grants to find grants that may apply to you or your organization. Many public libraries provide in-person help and online databases you can use to find and apply for grants that may be right for you.
Restricted and Unrestricted Grants
Some foundations and agencies give unrestricted grants, supporting the work of an individual or an organization in whatever method it may take. Among the most famous unrestricted grants are the no-strings-attached John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grants, which are popularly known as "genius grants" and are given to people doing exceptional work in their fields.
Other groups give grants for a specific purpose, like to fund someone to do specific types of work or to pay for particular equipment, research of travel. Government science agencies like the Department of Energy, National Institutes of Health or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency often give grants to support particular scientific research. Academic organizations often provide travel grants to enable researchers on small budgets to attend their conferences.
The process of applying for grants is often referred to as grant writing. If you're applying for a small grant or one that's automatically awarded by formula, this can be done by someone with little experience, but it often pays to have someone experienced at grant writing or with a particular grant-giving organization apply for more significant grants.
Understanding Formula and Competitive Grants
Certain grants are essentially automatically given to eligible recipients according to a published formula, while other grants are competitively awarded, meaning they will be given to the best applicants in a particular funding cycle.
Formula grants examples include many grants given by the federal governments to state and local governments for programs including education, Medicaid health insurance and transportation infrastructure. Often these grants are allocated essentially automatically based on the demographics of particular regions.
Competitive grants include grants given for scientific research, many arts and humanities grants and some tuition programs available to students. Make sure you understand the grants' criteria to make your application as competitive as possible. In some cases, you may be able to communicate with the organization giving the grant to have any questions resolved.
Grants for College Expenses
College tuition can be expensive, and it's one of the most common ways for individuals to use grant money.
Sometimes the term "grant" is used to refer to student financial aid based primarily on financial need, while the term "scholarship" is used to refer to aid based primarily on academic, athletic or artistic performance. Other times the terms are used more interchangeably. Grants and scholarships are always distinct from student loans, which generally must be paid back, since they are given essentially as gifts to students who qualify for them.
Student grants include the Pell grants, given to college students with financial need, as well as program-specific grants available to students pursuing anything from math and science to foreign languages. Many grants and scholarships require students to meet certain criteria, whether that means prior military service, a minimum grade point average, a particular ethnic background or something else.
Applying for College Grants
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is used to apply for many types of federal grants, scholarships and loan aid. States may have their own grant applications for students from a particular state, in some cases including those not attending a state university.
Some colleges give their own grant aid based on their own forms or other standardized forms, including the CSS Profile. High school guidance counselors and college financial aid offices can help you locate grants, but it's usually up to you to complete the actual application forms, secure any supporting materials like letters of recommendation or academic transcripts and make sure the paperwork is submitted on time.
Grants involving financial need often require information about parents or guardians of students as well as the students themselves, unless students are over a certain age, probably independent or married.
Once you finish your undergraduate degree, it's often possible to get additional grants or fellowships for postgraduate study, travel or other endeavors. Some famous examples include the Fulbright and Rhodes scholarships. Colleges can help you find and apply for these grants as your study comes to an end.
Grants for Small Businesses
If you're running or starting a small business, even one that you hope will make a profit, there may be grants available to help you from government agencies or private organizations.
Some of these grants are designed to help specific groups, such as women or people of color, or to help people in disadvantaged economic areas. Others are available to anyone who applies or to businesses in specific fields.
Search grants.gov for federal grants and check in with local economic development groups for advice on what grants might be available to you and your business. Make sure you understand any requirements attached to applying for or accepting a particular grant so that you know you will be in compliance with the grant's terms.
Small business loans are also available from the federal government, as well as various other groups and financial institutions, and while these must be paid back, they can still be a good way to get a small business off the ground.
Depending on your industry, you may be able to find venture capital money from established funds or small investors who will contribute to your business, usually in exchange for a share of the company.
- Grants.gov: Formula Grant
- Department of Education: Grants and Scholarships
- Grants.gov: How to Apply for Grants
- Grants.gov: What is an Award?
- New England Foundation for the Arts: Creative City Grants
- NYC DEP: Green Infrastructure Grant Program
- City of Chicago: Grants
- VentureLine: Unrestricted Grant
- MacArthur Foundation: MacArthur Fellows Frequently Asked Questions
- Santa Monica Public Library: Grant & Nonprofit Resources
- Congressional Budget Office: Federal Grants to State and Local Governments
- Federal Student Aid: Pell Grants
- Lead with Languages: Grants & Scholarships
- The College Board: CSS Profile
- NerdWallet: Small-Business Grants: Where to Find Free Money
- Federal Student Aid: FSEOG (Grants)
- Federal Student Aid: TEACH Grants
- Federal Student Aid: Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants
Steven Melendez is an independent journalist with a background in technology and business. He has written for a variety of business publications including Fast Company, the Wall Street Journal, Innovation Leader and Ad Age. He was awarded the Knight Foundation scholarship to Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.