Introducing The Sprout Fund Field Guide for Philanthropy & Civic Action

  • By Diana Avart and Matt Hannigan, September 20, 2018

Excerpts from this post originally appeared at This project was made possible with the generous support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The Sprout Fund improved Pittsburgh by inspiring and nurturing people with innovative, grassroots ideas to positively impact their communities. From 2001 to 2018, Sprout worked with regional and national philanthropic partners to build strong networks and make more than $8 million of community-decided investments in 1,500+ early-stage projects, organizations, innovators, and activities.

After 17 successful years, careful thought, and extensive planning with our board, we have decided to sunset The Sprout Fund in 2018. The cultural shifts Sprout seeded have taken root. It’s a good time to close this chapter and start writing a new one.

Now, upon our sunset as an organization, we’re sharing the philosophy and ideals that drove our work for almost two decades so others can leverage our unique approach and processes.

That’s why we’re delighted to formally share what we’ve learned with a new publication we released this summer: The Sprout Fund Field Guide for Philanthropy & Civic Action. This Field Guide documents our lessons learned from 17 years of cultivating applications, making decisions, hosting events, leading community building campaigns, telling stories, and working with our grantees and our funders to achieve meaningful results together.

The Field Guide isn’t just a peek into our archives. Instead, we developed a series of tools that are intended to help others adapt our practices into their communities and contexts. We’ve shared artifacts and templates that you can use to develop and support your own funding programs, and we’ve shared links to our favorite resources from around the web that inspire and support our work.

Photo credit: Ben Filio for The Sprout Fund

About Catalytic Funding at The Sprout Fund

Sprout pioneered a new mechanism for community-driven, community-advised philanthropy. Working out of neighborhood storefronts in Pittsburgh, we were open and accessible to anyone with an idea. Our investments amplified diverse voices across our region and created space for new approaches. We built strong networks to help ideas take hold. Throughout our history, we showed that even the small-scale changes can make a big difference.

We called our work “Catalytic Funding,” but you might also describe it as micro-grants, early investments, or startup capital. Whatever name it takes, this kind of support is responsive to the interests and initiatives of regional stakeholders while also creating space for new leaders and ideas to emerge.

Photo credit: Matt Hannigan for The Sprout Fund

In addition to catalyzing new ideas, our approach also helped build the capacity of individuals to organize small groups of peers and colleagues into high-functioning collaborative efforts. Communications and documentation investments supplemented the financial awards and amplified the voices of project leaders, elevating them as change agents in their communities and inspiring others to become more active, involved, and civically engaged. You can learn more about our approach to community building in this companion post here.

Small Seeds, Deep Roots

Sprout’s funding portfolio was eclectic: our funded projects included programs in community innovation, learning innovation, and public art. Regardless of a program’s specific focus area, our catalytic grant programs shared the following fundamentals:

  • Timing: early support for new ideas, catching new ideas at their germination.
  • Amount: small investments that can produce big results, an entry point for new projects.
  • Innovation: unusual, unexpected, unique ideas that act as a catalyst for change, providing support for emerging leaders and new projects, programs, and activities that are not yet established enough to be considered for more traditional grant programs.

Our catalytic funding helped major funders reach new audiences of first-time grant seekers and enabled communities to make fair decisions for themselves about which projects should be supported. In order to ensure that these micro-grants were responsive to the interests of both the grassroots community and major regional stakeholders, we worked to engage key stakeholders in multiple ways, from early focus groups to final decisionmaking meetings. We worked to build coalitions of support among community members who had the greatest understanding of the needs and interests of their communities. As a result, we think that even the smallest grants had a more effective impact. While many projects yielded individual successes, their cumulative output produced a critical mass of innovative approaches designed by and for the communities we aimed to serve.

Photo credit: Ben Filio for The Sprout Fund

We hope you’ll visit the Field Guide and use its Catalytic Funding resources to inform your own program design, applicant recruitment, decisionmaking, and funding project management. We hope that these ideas inspire you to find news ways to engage effectively with the communities you endeavor to serve.

You can learn more about The Sprout Fund and the people, projects, and ideas that we supported at

Diana Avart served on the catalytic funding team at The Sprout Fund from 2015 to 2018. As Program Associate, Diana was responsible for the administration of Sprout’s funding programs, including preparing decisionmaking packets and funding round reports, managing the grants database, and producing grant-related paperwork. Diana additionally provided applicant and project management support by coordinating information sessions along with funded project meetings, cohort convenings, and showcases.

Matt Hannigan was a co-founder of The Sprout Fund and worked at the organization in a variety of capacities from 2001 to 2018. Ultimately, as Deputy Director, Matt provided oversight for program staff, actively participated in fundraising, and maintained responsibility for finance and business operations. From 2002 to 2004, Matt was the primary staff person responsible for Sprout’s catalytic funding programs.