Last Will & Testament of Sprout

The Sprout Fund
4 min readApr 9, 2018

The Sprout Fund was an important force for change in Pittsburgh. During a critical period in its post-industrial revitalization, we powered the grassroots response to many pressing regional issues. We took smart chances on creative people and their innovative ideas. We forged deep and trusted relationships with philanthropic organizations. And, we put decisions about resources in the hands of the next generation of civic leaders.

We pioneered a new mechanism for community-driven, community-advised philanthropy. Working out of storefronts on Penn Avenue, we were open and accessible to anyone with an idea. Our investments amplified diverse voices and created space in Pittsburgh for new approaches. We built strong networks to help ideas take hold. From 2001 to 2018, we showed that small-scale catalytic projects can yield big results.

And now, upon Sprout’s sunset, we look back on the beliefs and ideals that guided our work and share our reflections with all who strive toward a bright future for Pittsburgh.

The cultural shifts Sprout seeded have taken root. Early catalytic investments led to new organizations still making an impact in Pittsburgh today. Other Seed Awards tried something bold and simply asked us to imagine what’s possible. Murals beautified our neighborhoods. Artists helped communities tell their stories. Hothouse served as our “live annual report” to the community — and was a rockin’ party! Community Connections mobilized the entire region to celebrate a moment in time. Spark and Hive challenged teachers and techies to transform education together. Remake Learning harnessed the power of networks. One Northside helped neighbors put a shared vision to work. 100 Days united us to take action and demonstrate our values and vision for the country. For these efforts and others too numerous to list, the whole of our work stands greater than the sum of its parts.

Our approach to community change was born of its time and place. Over the 17 years, it evolved. It was durable, flexible, and adaptable. Because a distinct set of beliefs guided our work:

  • Responsive: We amplified community voices and listened to local needs.
  • Inclusive: We welcomed diverse perspectives. We opened doors for new audiences by reducing barriers to participation.
  • Nimble: We acted fast in rapidly changing environments. And we achieved meaningful and timely results.
  • Human: We respected every idea and everyone as worthy of consideration. We put in the time and built trust: Meeting people where they are. Making personal connections. Reviewing draft applications. Answering the phone.
  • Fair: We used a transparent process to grant funding based on merit. Known to many as the venerable “stoplight chart,” it helped us root decisions in consensus instead of allowing the loudest voice in the room to carry the day.
  • Detailed: To be honest, we were a little ridiculous. We sweated all the small stuff and put our hearts into everything — whether designing decisionmaking processes, planning events, writing reports, or just creating name tags.
  • Open: We documented our craft. Inspired by the open source community, we shared our “code” so that others could learn from our experiences.

We also showed the power of engaging face-to-face experiences. Our interactive, facilitated events used human-centered design principles. They focused on building trust, forging connections, and sparking high-impact next steps. We documented changes in the civic landscape with photos and videos. And we told stories that raised awareness about unique people, projects, and ideas.

Many friends and supporters championed our efforts. We worked as an intermediary between the grassroots and treetops. We helped new leaders engage in their communities. Our founders led with a compelling vision. We were governed by a board dedicated to this community. And through long service together, our staff of nonprofit professionals became a family. Collectively we charted a mighty course.

Much of what we set out to do is done. But there is still more to do. Together, we must:

  • Understand that as one idea thrives, its success encourages others to rise.
  • Believe in the importance of deliberate dialogue and honest conversations.
  • Empower people to lead change. Creative solutions often originate from diverse perspectives coming together for a shared purpose.
  • Be responsive and agile. Transformation is more resilient when it comes from the top down and the bottom up.
  • Design with equity in mind. Tailor guidance and support for each audience.
  • Use separate criteria to evaluate the potential of untested ideas. And judge their impact using metrics that go beyond sustainability.
  • Build a deep network of support. Provide access to resources, mentorship, and opportunities for learning and growth.
  • Be curious and attentive. Dedicate time to reflection and documentation.
  • Share successes and failures with each other and with the world.

We are proud of our successes and mindful of the mistakes we made along the way. We trust those who trusted us — with their ideas, their money, their leadership, and their time — to learn from our work. And we humbly offer this advice for the future.

Sprout now lives within thousands of people working hard every day to make Pittsburgh better for all. You will know these “Sprouters” by their good works. And you’ll recognize them as:

  • Driven by deep personal passion and sense of purpose
  • Audacious thinkers with small starts and big plans
  • Serious about their work but not always about themselves
  • Creative doers with uncanny insights and avant-garde approaches
  • Challengers of the status quo and unrelenting in their pursuits
  • Quirky, scrappy, and authentically Pittsburgh
  • Civic-minded, tireless pioneers always with their eye on what’s needed next

To all the Sprouters… to our friends and supporters… to the community that we call home… and to those whose paths we did not cross or whose work is yet to come…

Thank you. It’s been an epic journey. And it does not end here. We share this last will and testament with confidence that our public good endures.

All of us at Sprout
Pittsburgh USA
April 9, 2018

The Sprout Fund

Communities are better places to live, learn, and thrive because of the people and ideas supported by The Sprout Fund in Pittsburgh.