Free Money: A Guide To Getting Grants For Personal Projects

Grants available for everything from starting a business to getting help with a mortgage. Find out how you can find this

There's a lot of free money to be had out there, and not just by robbing banks. Individuals, organizations and the federal government offer millions of dollars in grants each year for everything from starting a business to buying a home and creating a work of art to doing research for a dissertation or book.

How can you tap into this well of free money? It's not always as easy as some of the books and web sites (most of which are trying to sell something) would have you believe. Grants, especially high-dollar grants, are often quite competitive and you really do have to demonstrate a need and a plan for what you will do with the money. But if you can get a grant, it's better than taking out a loan to fuel your dreams because grants never have to be paid back.

The United States government alone administers about 900 grants a year. Information about such grants is most easily accessed on government Web sites. You can start your search at the site of the individual department that administers the grant you are interested in, such as the Department of Health and Human Services to support your dream of opening an AIDS education center or the National Endowment for the Arts if you're looking to become a visiting jazz master at local schools. If you aren't sure what kind of grant you are looking for or what department you might find funding in, the government also has a grants clearinghouse that you can search or browse by category (such as agriculture, environment, transportation), agency (including the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security), or keyword (but it might be easier to browse than to pick just the right keyword to find all the opportunities that are right for you.

Perhaps the most popular grants these days are grants that help people to start their own businesses. While you'd think the federal Small Business Administration would handle these grants, it doesn't (the SBA can offer you a lot of great free advice, though, if you are looking to start a business). For grants to start or expand a business, you should look to your individual state's department of economic development. They might also call it the small business development office or it could be part of the state's Department of Commerce. It takes a little bit of work to find the right place to look, but if you get a grant, it's worth it.

If you're an artist seeking a grant, you can look at the grants offered by the National Endowment for the Arts (and maybe even the National Endowment for the Humanities) but your best bet is probably either with your individual state or with a non-governmental agency that supports artists like you. You can do an Internet search (fiber artist grant, arts grant Texas, etc.) with some of the keywords you'd be likely to find in a grant you could apply to successfully. Again it's a good idea to stay close to home, applying for grants from your state's commission on the arts or from private grantors in your state or region. Arts grants are very competitive and it is a good idea to start by applying to smaller residencies (where the grant allows you to stay at a cabin or house usually in some remote location so you can focus on your art) before applying for the bigger cash grants. You also usually have to be able to show evidence of sales, awards or publishing contracts in order to get these awards.

Another popular grant category these days is grants that help people buy homes. If you are a first-time home buyer you can get a grant that will pay your down payment and closing costs so you can get into a house basically at no cost. Of course you have to meet a lot of qualifications for a grant like this, but if you have good credit it is certainly something worth looking into. Individual states may also have grant programs, so search your state's web site for first-time homebuyer grants or ask your real estate agent if there is any aid available to you.

Whatever kind of grant you are looking for; keep in mind what might make you unique. Are you a veteran? A woman? A member of a minority group? The first generation of your family in this country? Depending on the kind of grant you are seeking, there may be a specific grant just for people like you. Just one example is the Spare Key foundation, which helps Minnesota families pay their mortgages while dealing with the catastrophic illness of a child. When looking for these specific grant it can be helpful to have a good book on grants, but you can find information yourself for free with a little web surfing.

How do you know if a grant is right for you? Read the application carefully and make sure you meet all the required criteria and can perform any action that is required of you within the specified time (creative residency grants, for instance, often require you to take the grant within a certain period). Don't apply for grants where you just come close to meeting the criteria. It's a waste of your time and the grant committee's time to have to wade through applications for people who do not qualify for grants.

How can you improve your chances of getting a grant? Again, read the application and think about it before applying. Answer all the questions thoroughly and supply all the information and supplementary materials that the application requires. You don't want to ruin your chances of getting a grant that could really help you because you failed to follow the directions. If at all possible, send your application packet well before the deadline (if you are applying for a grant with a deadline) and make sure everything is as perfect as possible. You really have to illustrate why you are more worthy to get this money than someone else is. The people making the decisions don't know you; those words you send them are all that represents you to them. Get help from friends, family or a local college writing center or English tutor if you aren't comfortable expressing yourself in words. If you are applying for a business grant you can also seek help and advice from the local (or regional) office of the Small Business Administration. The administration has district and branch offices in every state that offer training, counseling and resources to those looking to start small businesses. Finding the right grant for you can take a bit of leg work, but it is definitely worth it if you find the perfect grant, apply and receive the money for the project of your dreams.

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