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The SBA’s Community Navigator Program: What You Should Know

By Roy Rasmussen Reviewed By Mike Lucas
By Roy Rasmussen
By Roy Rasmussen Reviewed By Mike Lucas

The Small Business Administration (SBA) Community Navigator Pilot Program is open for grant applications. 

Learn how the program works — and how to apply for a grant. We’ll take a look at:

  • What the Community Navigator Pilot Program is
  • How it coordinates SBA financing
  • Who’s eligible for grants through the program
  • How to submit a grant application

So, What Is the SBA Community Navigator Pilot Program?

Authorized and financed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic by the American Rescue Plan Act, the SBA Community Navigator Pilot Program allocates grants to eligible organizations which promote awareness of and participation in SBA programs among small businesses in underserved communities. 

To be clear, the program is designed to promote the use of SBA COVID relief programs and other SBA programs by small businesses owned and controlled by:

  • Women
  • Veterans
  • Socially and economically disadvantaged small business concerns as defined by section 8(a)(4)(A) of the Small Business Act, including economically disadvantaged minorities and other disadvantaged individuals

To encourage the use of SBA programs by small businesses in these categories, the SBA Community Navigator Pilot Program allocates $100 million for grants to eligible organizations, known as “community navigators.” As navigators, these groups provide free services to help underserved communities navigate the SBA loan application process. Keep in mind that community navigators can use these funds to provide free business counseling, networking and assistance to help small business owners in underserved communities access SBA financing.

In addition to $100 million in funding for grants, the Community Navigator Pilot Program allocates another $75 million for outreach and education to carry out the program’s mission. This goes toward things such as updating the SBA’s website to showcase the Community Navigator Pilot Program, advertising the program, conducting educational outreach in the languages most commonly spoken in the U.S. and operating a call center to support the program.

An arm labeled “SBA” on the suit sleeve throws a life preserver ring to an arm reaching out from the water.

So, How Does the SBA Community Navigator Program Work?

The Community Navigator Pilot Program is designed to solve a problem frequently faced by the SBA and its partners when serving underserved communities: red tape. That said, SBA applicants must submit a significant amount of paperwork when seeking financing, including bank statements, financial statements, tax documents, business plans and other documents. 

Indeed, gathering up all of this can be daunting for inexperienced entrepreneurs who aren’t familiar with business planning, accounting and making financial projections. In underserved communities, issues such as language barriers may introduce further barriers to business owners seeking SBA funding.

Community Navigator Networks: Hubs and Spokes

The Community Navigator Pilot Program aims to lower barriers to serving underserved communities by leveraging partner networks. To do this, the program takes an approach that uses strategic “hubs” and “spokes” to make SBA programs accessible to business owners, who can be visualized on the perimeter of a “wheel” using this metaphor:

  • Hubs are organizations such as nonprofits and governmental agencies that coordinate activities such as meeting, planning and hiring of qualified personnel to provide access to SBA programs for underserved communities
  • Spokes are organizations that work with hubs by serving as trusted ambassadors to underserved communities, assisting to steer business owners to hubs through activities such as outreach via telephone calls, texts, emails and door-to-door canvassing
  • Through hubs and spokes, underserved communities on the perimeter of the wheel receive assistance accessing SBA programs

Together, hub and spoke organizations form networks that channel completed loan applications to qualified lenders for timely processing. Navigator networks facilitate loan applications by providing access to resources such as linguistically knowledgeable business mentors, accountants, attorneys and lenders.

Note that community navigator organizations are responsible for setting numerical goals for the number of loan applications submitted and loans received. In addition, they are responsible for tracking and documenting applications and results. This provides data-driven accountability for navigators participating in the program.

So, What Services Do Community Navigators Provide?

Community navigator organizations provide several main types of services to eligible businesses to promote awareness of SBA programs and support participation in these programs:

  • Outreach
  • Education
  • Technical assistance

Outreach and education services consist of efforts to promote the SBA’s programs to eligible current and prospective business owners. The Community Navigator Pilot Program is tasked by the American Rescue Plan Act to conduct these outreach and education efforts in the 10 languages most commonly spoken in the U.S.

Technical assistance is available, too. This includes several types of assistance that can help eligible businesses access SBA programs:

  • Small business counseling
  • Networking with resources such as SBA lenders and qualified business mentors
  • Professional services such as accounting and legal advice

Community navigator hub and spoke organizations work together to help businesses access these services. Spoke organizations can play a critical role in outreach and education. These groups use their language, cultural and promotional resources to help steer small business owners toward the technical assistance provided by hub organizations. Also, they may provide further support through means such as facilitating translation for business owners working with hub organizations and lenders.

Ultimately, community navigators serve to help small business owners submit applications for SBA loans to qualified lenders. After loan applications have been submitted, community navigators may continue to guide applicants through counseling on the approval process and the use of approved funds.

What SBA Programs Do Community Navigators Access for Business Owners?

The Community Navigator Pilot Program is designed to help eligible small businesses access SBA loan programs. Not only does this include the SBA’s general programs but the special relief programs created to help businesses survive the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

SBA programs include:

  • 7(a) loans, a group of loans that are partially guaranteed by the federal government to provide affordable financing for small businesses with special requirements, such as purchasing real estate, financing short-term and long-term working capital, refinancing debt or purchasing furniture
  • 504 loans, providing long-term, fixed-rate financing for purchasing or repairing real estate, machinery, equipment or other assets
  • Microloans, providing up to $50,000 for start-up or expansion
  • Economic Injury Disaster Loans for businesses experiencing temporary revenue loss, including loss related to the pandemic
  • Paycheck Protection Program loans to help businesses struggling with the effects of the pandemic to keep their labor force employed

Note that Community navigators may assist small businesses in accessing these and other SBA programs.

Who Do Community Navigators Serve?

The American Rescue Plan Act delegates community navigators the task of serving all small business concerns eligible for SBA programs. Priority is given to small business concerns which are owned and controlled by:

  • Women
  • Veterans
  • Socially and economically disadvantaged business owners, including economically disadvantaged minorities and other disadvantaged individuals

While priority is given to these groups, other small businesses eligible for SBA funding also fall within the scope of the Community Navigators Pilot Program as defined by the American Rescue Plan Act.

A life preserver ring floating in the water is labeled “Community Navigator Pilot Program.”

How Much Is Available Through Community Navigator Pilot Program Grants?

Competitive grants will be awarded in amounts from $1 million to $5 million. These amounts are allocated for 2-year performance periods.

Who Can Apply for a Community Navigator Grant?

Community Navigator Pilot Program grants are for organizations that help provide SBA access for small businesses. Priority is given to those serving businesses owned and operated by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals, women and veterans. 

Grants are available to eligible organizations in a number of categories:

  • State governments (including the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam or any agents, instrumentalities or fiscal agents thereof)
  • County governments
  • City or township governments
  • Native American tribal governments recognized by the federal government
  • Native American tribal organizations other than tribal governments recognized by the federal government
  • 501(c)(3) nonprofits, other than higher educational institutions
  • SBA resource partners
  • Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs)
  • Economic development organizations (EDOs) and similar organizations
  • Community development financial institutions (CDFIs)
  • Women’s Business Centers (WBCs)
  • Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE)
  • Veterans Business Outreach Centers (VBOCs)
  • Nonprofit colleges and universities

Note that organizations applying for grants must meet the requirements for the program and demonstrate the ability to support the requirements of the funding opportunity.

How Do You Apply for a Community Navigator Grant?

Organizations seeking Community Navigator Pilot Program grants can apply through federal platforms such as Grants.gov, SAM.gov and GrantSolutions.gov.

So, What Is the Community Navigator Grant Application Deadline?

The SBA announced it was accepting applications for the Community Navigator Pilot Program on May 25, 2021. The deadline for the latest round of applications is July 12, 2021. Note that SBA anticipates making award decisions by August 2021.

The current round of $100 million in funding is available until Sept. 30, 2022. Note that the program is authorized through Dec. 31, 2025.

Apply for a Community Navigator Grant Now to Secure Eligibility

The Community Navigator Pilot Program provides grants to help qualified organizations. The goal is to bring underserved communities access to SBA COVID relief funding and other SBA programs. As noted, the program works by supporting networks of nonprofits and other organizations providing services such as counseling, networking and loan application assistance.

Competitive grants are available in amounts from $1 million to $5 million to organizations such as SBA resource partners, nonprofits and state, local and tribal governments. Moreover, organizations can apply for grants through federal platforms such as Grants.gov, SAM.gov and GrantSolutions.gov. 

Also, don’t forget: Applicants should submit their paperwork by July 12, 2021.

Roy Rasmussen Contributing Writer for Fast Capital 360
Roy is a respected, published author on topics including business coaching, small business management and business automation as well as an expert business plan writer and strategist.
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