Many chambers have jumped in to help their businesses with grant writing. Some chambers have started applying for grant funding for themselves.
If you’re wondering how to get started with grant writing for your chamber or your members, this article shows you how.
We’ve done the research as well as interviewed chamber pros who have experience in grant writing and getting grant funding for their advice on the process.
What Are Grants?
A grant is a sum of money given from one entity to another. The main reason grants are preferred over loans is that they do not have to be paid back. They are usually intended for the betterment of a community, either directly or by helping individuals.
Some are memorials to someone who has passed away, while others are operated by government, for-profit, or non-profit entities aimed at a given pursuit or interest.
Grants can state specifically how they are to be used or provide general direction for their usage. For instance, there is a grant for single parents who want to be writers that can be used to pay for childcare or any other challenge to their writing time. Some cities offer grants to be used specifically for creating murals on the outsides of businesses.
Grants usually come with stipulations on the type of person or group that is eligible to apply. Some are need based, others are not. They are generally awarded on a one-off basis and are not renewable each year. Therefore, don’t count on them as a a source of ongoing funding but as something to help at that moment.
Grants usually require a written application. The most competitive grants will require grant writing that is precise and compelling.
Grant writers are usually paid a portion of what they secure from the grant so keep that in mind if you (or your members) decide to hire one. This is where some chambers are helping their members. While few chambers likely have the time to offer grant writing services per se, they may help with the application and review as well as notifying members of potential sources of money.
Sometimes grants require references or letters of “good standing” for community involvement. The chamber can be a great source of these letters for their members.
Grants can be stipulated for and awarded to businesses, municipalities or other government usage, agencies, tribes, nonprofits, or individuals. They can be awarded for specific activities or additional education that may be required. For instance, there may be a grant for artists to submit beautification ideas to the city or there may be a grant that can be used to train employees on a much needed skill to keep a business competitive. There are also grants for established businesses and money for opening new ones.
There are grants for every level of funding from small amounts of a couple hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands. What is received can depend on the grant itself as well as the quality of the application (the reason some people hire professional grant writers) and the amount that is being asked for.
How Can I Find Grants?
It’s surprising how many grants are available. Some are very obscure and require a specific match to the requests, while others are more general in the types of applicants they are looking for.
Before applying for any grant funding, familiarize yourself with all the details of what they are looking for. You don’t want to waste your (or your member’s) time applying for a grant that you don’t qualify for. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your application will be so compelling that they will waive the restrictions. They won’t. They’ll move onto the next application.
There are several resources where you can find grant opportunities. These include:
- SBA (note PPP ended on May 31, 2021, but existing borrowers may be eligible for loan forgiveness making this funding resemble a grant. Here’s a link to what your members need to know if they received funds.)
- FedEx Small Business Grant Fund (annual)
- National Association for the Self Employed
- StreetShares Foundation (Veteran-owned businesses)
- Grants.gov (for government-awarded grants – they have an app)
The US Chamber also compiled this helpful list of 50 grant sources.
Tips for Grant Writing and Applying for Them
While each grant requires a different application process (make sure you follow it exactly, no “close enough” answers), the following grant writing tips can help you (and your members) be more successful in getting grant funding:
- Broad qualifications = lots of competition. Most people look for the broad application stipulations and think of them as easy wins (such as money for a US business employing 20 people or less). However, while it may be easy to see the business is a good fit, there are many businesses that will be a good fit under a broad grant and so competition to receive funds will be fierce. If you spend time researching more niche grants, there will be fewer applicants and the competition will not be as steep.
- Understand the decision timing. All grants have deadlines but how the money is awarded is not always the same. Some grants hold all applications and make a decision after the deadline. Others give out funds to qualified requests as the applications are received, which means money could run out long before the deadline. We saw this in the first round of PPP. Others make rolling decisions throughout the application period. You want to know how they give out the money so you know how quickly you should apply. But remember, regardless of how they reward money, there are no automatic bonuses awarded for the application that comes in at the eleventh hour.
- Be clear about your plans. Specificity wins grants. The clearer you can be about what the business owner wants to accomplish with the money, the more apt the judges are to award them the funds. Also, when possible, grant applicants should be specific about how their spend will impact the business. If they expect a certain percentage of growth or employee benefit, share that. It proves strategy, goal setting, and forward thinking.
- Dig deep. During COVID, many people applied for the same sources of funding. Allocate some time going forward (maybe when you’re watching TV in the evening or waiting on hold or for an appointment to begin) to research less known sources of money. Also, while it takes a little more time with multiple applications, apply for all levels of funding. Just as people tend to play the lottery when the jackpot is higher, applicants gravitate toward high-paying funding. Every little bit helps and the smaller amounts may be easier to win because there are fewer applicants.
Here’s an important tip for chambers about grant funding:
When you help a member(s) secure funding, don’t be afraid to talk about it. It shows what you’re doing for the community, but it also highlights what you can do for members and that may sway someone to join.
Marketing your efforts through storytelling is important and helps you, the community, and your members.
Take a look at this example from Tony Gallo and the Lorain County Chamber.
It’s also a great idea to market the help you’ve received, like this piece:
Chamber Grant Writing Success Stories
Many chambers have answered the call from their members helping them gain the funding they need to stay open. Here are a few examples of the positive roles chambers have played in grant writing and securing funding for their communities:
Tony Gallo at the Lorain County Chamber of Commerce in Ohio shared, “…with the help of our local Small Business Development Center (we) raised and distributed over $300,000 in grant dollars that went out to our local small business community. It started with a $50,000 grant from one of our philanthropic partners, that we leveraged to get to the $300,000+, which resulted in helping 144 different small businesses in our county (approximately 300,000 residents west of downtown Cleveland).
We also are currently working with another municipality using HUD dollars that has an additional $267,000 in “forgivable loans” that will go through 2022. AND we are currently in talks with one of our local municipalities to do an additional $150,000 in grants on their behalf for small businesses located in their community from their ARP dollars.
We are extremely proud to be a part of this and it has brought great exposure to the County Chamber and helped our relationship with some of our municipalities by acting as the fiscal agent on their behalf. Cities are set up to collect money, not so much in handing money out!
The municipality that we are in talks with for an additional $150,000 are making the grant available to businesses that were started DURING Covid 19 as well as any previous recipients too…This has been a great way to build relationships with our local cities and be a partner with them in ways that we could never have accomplished.”
Michael Gallops, President/CEO of the Rowlett Chamber pointed out the importance of working together to secure funds.
He said, “We worked with our City, using CARES Act money, and developed a grant program for small businesses and nonprofits. We distributed over $900,000!!”
The Zephyrhills Chamber also worked in partnership with their county.
CEO Melonie Monson said, “We were able to get $15K. Once was a $5K grant from the county the other was an EIDL grant. Of course we also got $25K from PPP. The greatest thing that we were able to do is be on the grant committee for our county and be able to help in the selection of businesses to receive disaster relief funds. We helped with selecting more than $1,200 grants, $400 coming to our own community.”
Lisa Workman, President at the Fergus Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, had a similar experience with helping the community in such a needed way. She said that her chamber has helped with the $1.7M received so far by local businesses and non-profits.
“We’re proud to have helped local businesses and non-profits apply for and receive grants from the City of Fergus Falls, Otter Tail County, and the State of Minnesota. In addition, we’ve worked with many of our members to navigate federal programs like the PPP and ERC.”
But sometimes you as the chamber need to reach out to members to find out what they need. Lisa suggested one of the problems many communities face is “Businesses don’t want or expect “handouts” = grants. Around here, they felt like “someone else had it worse off” and were hesitant to apply. It was our job to push them a little bit — set aside their pride and strongly encourage them to apply. Non-profits are used to applying for funds but businesses were used to applying for loans. It was a learning experience for all of us.”
Being aware of available funds is essential to attaining them; that’s why we encourage chambers and businesses to do some research. Many interns are used to searching for school money so they can be invaluable in this regard.
Marc Jordan, President/CEO of Montcross Area Chamber shared his experience of why it’s important to research funding opportunities. He found one on a local level.
He explained, “We have received commitments totaling around $50,000-$70,000, from our six partnering cities and towns for our Emerge Initiative to support small businesses. They are funding this from monies received from the American Recovery Plan (ARP) Act approved by Congress. To my knowledge, we are the only entity which has applied to receive these funds from our municipalities, primarily because no one knows much about the funding.”
Grant money can be an excellent source for chambers to fund special programs needed in the area.
Tonia Howell, Director of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce in Tennessee shared, “The Arlington Chamber received a $30,000.00 Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE) grant. Monies to be spent for workforce development and economic development. I will include a new tool on my website and do a marketing campaign to promote our area.”
Finally, sometimes chambers are best served creating their own funding opportunities as Carmélle Bielenberg, President/CEO of the Stayton Sublimity Chamber & Regional Visitor Center did.
She explained how they put together funding for things that were often not covered by grants but desperately needed, “In 2020, our Chamber reached out to our local Rotary to partner (since we don’t have a c3) and local businesses who were doing well. We received a match opportunity from a large business in town and together we able to raise nearly 100K in funding for small businesses.
We formed a committee and application with the goals to cover expenses that we often needed but were not covered by traditional COVID grants, i.e., outdoor seating; tv monitor menus; mobile point of sale systems; carpet removal and installation of hygienic, easy-clean flooring; and expensive equipment repairs that, due to reduced hours or income, businesses were struggling to take care of.
We awarded over $97K in grants to small businesses in our community, both members and non-members alike. As a result we saw a 98% retention rate in 2021 membership renewals and have added 28 new businesses to our Chamber so far this year.
We will be looking to employ this type of grant opportunity as a long-term, beginning in 2022, to assist great businesses in times of need or with unexpected financial burdens. We are considering adding our own c(3) foundation to do so.”
Even though some communities are beginning to rebound at this point, grant funding remains a viable way to get help in business growth even post-COVID. It could be an excellent opportunity for chambers to help with the process and general education behind it for members, non-members, and to gain assistance in subsidizing their own programs.