Finding working capital to help start or run a business in Illinois can be complicated, especially when you’re looking into small business grants. Like business loans, small business grants can help your business accomplish many things. Whether you need funding for ideation or business operations, a small business grant can give your business the extra boost it needs. But the best part about grants is that you never have to worry about paying the funds back.
In this guide, we’ll go over the top small business grants in Illinois. Most of these grants are specifically for businesses in specific areas of Illinois, but we’ve also included some national grants as well. We’ll also address how to find the best small business grants and the proper steps you need to take to complete your grant application.
When it comes to finding the best small business grants for your Illinois business, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, your best strategy is to look into grants offered by your local community and city. Contrary to what some may believe, there are several local grant programs that are available; however, they can be hard to find because they aren’t advertised very well. Second, Illinois has many grant programs specifically for businesses in underserved areas, such as Chicago’s South Side. If you’re planning on starting a business, you may want to consider looking into areas that could use more revitalization, as there are generally more grant resources from the local government to support entrepreneurs who are interested in starting or relocating their businesses.
To help you with the search process, we’ve selected a mix of both local and national grant programs for Illinois businesses.
Established in 2016, the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund supports Chicago’s underserved neighborhoods. Business owners located in Chicago’s West, South Sides, and Southwest commercial corridors can apply to The Neighborhood Opportunity Fund for grant funding to pay for the construction or rehabilitation of new business projects.
Business owners can apply to receive one of two types of funding: small projects or large projects. Small projects can receive up to $250,000 in grant funding, but applicants must be located in an eligible commercial corridor. Large projects can receive grants exceeding $250,000, and applicants do not necessarily have to be located in designated areas.
The South Side Pitch is a business plan competition organized by the University of Chicago Law School’s Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship with the aim of showcasing Chicago’s South Side businesses. Finalists of the competition must pitch their business in front of a panel of judges and members of the Chicago community, and the top three winners will receive $8,000, $7,000, and $5,000, respectively.
To be eligible to apply for the competition, your business must have less than 50 employees, generate under $1 million in revenue, and be located within the South Side area. Your application must address how it has impacted the surrounding South Side community, how you plan on using the grant money for your business, and your business’s history.
The Metro East Startup Challenge is a competition for businesses in the St. Louis Metro East region of Illinois. The purpose of the competition is to encourage high-growth businesses to relocate or grow in the Metro East area. Applicants to the Metro East Startup Challenge can submit their application online. Finalists will then have to pitch their business for 10 minutes, and the grand prize winner will receive a $10,000 grant. You must be a for-profit business and be relocating (or headquartered) to one of the nine counties in the Metro East area in order to compete in the challenge.
The city of Urbana awards $1,000 to $2,000 grants to new or existing businesses in Urbana, Illinois. Entrepreneurs can apply for either a business development grant or a business opening grant. To apply for a business development grant, you must ensure that you already own a building or have signed a lease for a space located in an eligible district area. You must also participate in the city’s free business counseling program. Existing businesses are not eligible for the business development grant.
For the business opening grant, applicants must meet the same requirements as those applying for the business development grant. However, applicants for the business opening grant can be an ongoing business.
Another Illinois grant program is the Feed the Seed Business Startup Grants, which are designed to bring innovative business ideas to market within the Kane, DuPage, Kendall, and Will counties. Recipients of the grant must ideally generate no more than $40,000 in revenue in the past 12 months and agree to remain headquartered in the above areas for at least two years. Businesses in the retail, pharmaceutical, restaurant, consulting, and nonprofit sectors will be automatically disqualified.
If you identify as a female entrepreneur, the Amber Grant for Women is a nationally recognized grant program that awards a total of $145,000 to outstanding women business owners each year. Each month, one woman wins $10,000 to invest back into her business. At the end of the year, one of the winners is selected to win an additional $25,000.
Applying to the Amber Grant for Women is incredibly simple, as all you need is to fill out a short application form detailing your business information and other required information. You’ll also have to pay a $15 application fee.
Keeping up with the latest local and federal grants can be overwhelming, but Illinois GrantWatch simplifies the process. Illinois GrantWatch is an aggregate site that lists all of the available small business and nonprofit grants in Illinois from government agencies. The website updates daily, so we highly encourage you to check back frequently to stay updated on the latest grant programs in Illinois.
Once you’ve done your research and found a couple of interesting grant opportunities you’d like to apply to, it’s time to familiarize yourself with the grant application process. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind as you go about your grant search.
Applying for an Illinois small business grant, like applying for an Illinois business loan, takes a lot of advance preparation. In addition to gathering financial statements and submitting documents, you’ll have to allocate enough time to write your grant proposals, which can eat into your time spent running your business. We recommend starting the process as early as possible—in fact, you may want to start the application process a few months ahead of time. We also suggest hiring an experienced consultant who can look over your application.
The key to applying for Illinois small business grants (and grants in general) is having a complete understanding of your business’s eligibility. That means knowing your business industry, goals, and the community your business serves.
If you don’t have the basics of your business drilled down already, you should look into developing answers to these questions:
The more you can identify what makes your business unique, the better. For example, if you’re a woman, minority, or veteran business owner, you should know that there are a ton of grant programs targeting business owners of your demographic, and you should most definitely look into small business grants for women, small business grants for minorities, or veteran business grants.
Unfortunately, grant scams are a common occurrence, and there are many scammers out there who try to take advantage of desperate business owners. If a grant program has super easy eligibility requirements or asks you for sensitive banking information, be sure to verify the credibility of the organization. Remember, applying and receiving a small business grant is usually a very long and tedious process, so if an organization immediately approves an application, you should think twice.
Securing a small business grant for your business in Illinois is a big undertaking. It requires a lot of upfront investment and energy, and you’ll likely have to apply to multiple grants to get the hang of the process. With that said, don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t able to get a grant on your first try. Many grant programs allow businesses to reapply again.
If you don’t manage to secure a small business grant, you can always look towards other small business loan options, particularly small business loans offered by the SBA. While business loans come with repayment terms and interest rates, they may be a better option if you’re looking to get funds more immediately.
Zoe Weisner is a contributing writer at Fundera. Previously, Zoe worked at BlueVine, a fintech startup that provides working capital to small businesses. At BlueVine, Zoe worked with small business owners to understand their financial needs and wrote content about small business-related topics, including marketing, business operations, and small business financing. Today, Zoe writes articles about personal finance, small business, and banking.