What Is Catalytic Funding?

A small investment can yield big results

As a way to power grassroots responses to pressing regional issues, Sprout provided critical support for ideas at the earliest stages of development—when just a small amount of investment and guidance had the potential to yield big results for the community.

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

In addition to catalyzing new ideas, it also helps build the capacity of individuals to organize small groups of peers and colleagues into high-functioning collaborative efforts. Communications and documentation investments supplement the financial awards and amplify the voices of project leaders, elevating them as change agents in their communities and inspiring others to become more active, involved, and civically-engaged.

Across the diversity of topics covered by Sprout’s funding portfolio, the catalytic grant programs were connected through the following fundamentals:

  • Timing – early support for new ideas, catching new ideas at their germination
  • Amount – small investments 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 Approach

Sprout’s approach to catalytic funding support was responsive to the interests and initiatives of the grassroots community. We worked to lower the barriers to program participation and drive successful project implementation through a variety of support activities.

These included regular information sessions in which program staff explained the program intent and goals, listened to ideas, and offered advice and feedback prior to application submission; technical support to help applicants meet any application requirements; and “storefront” availability, where people could stop by or call in to go over any questions or discuss feedback on a draft of their proposal. While time consuming, these are meant to encourage people to apply with their ideas regardless of their fundraising experience and ultimately, to strengthen proposals that are submitted for review.

We additionally utilized a transparent facilitated process for vetting project applications and guiding decisions. The process began by allowing advisors to independently make decisions based on evaluation criteria to focus the funding decisions on projects with the greatest potential for success—not subjective assertions based on taste or trends. The process then often brought those independent opinions together for focused decisionmaking that represents the voice of the group as a whole, rather than “the loudest voice in the room.”

These funding recommendations were made by committees of people that are a part of the communities served by the program—emerging civic leaders making decisions to support projects that impact their communities. These advisors acted as a jury of peers—including former project managers—to determine which applications should receive funding support. After decisions were made, committee members could become mentors to supported projects and denied applications were invited to go over comments and feedback from the review process to enhance future or resubmitted applications.

Funded project managers were encouraged to advance their planning, management, and leadership skills by tapping a broader network of services. Reports and cohort convenings were used to identify and work through challenges being experienced by project managers, sharing best practices between peers and encouraging additional collaborations to expand the impact of their work and the program as a whole.

Design Principles

By seeding many small projects, catalytic funding supports, celebrates, and showcases individual initiatives to create a critical mass of positive change. Although each supported project is different, they generally create an exciting new event, program, or activity that helps citizens take action on a specific pressing issue, create a sense of community through engagement with the public, or enhance the cultural vitality in their community.

The following principles guided our catalytic funding programs and can be seen throughout this guide, not as step-by-step instructions, but as overarching advice and fundamental tenets of our approach:

  • Collaborative: Utilize partnerships that are mutually beneficial and capitalize on each party’s individual strengths, working together to expand the impact instead of replicate it.
  • Fair: Use a transparent process based on merit, rooting decisions in consensus instead of allowing the loudest voice in the room to carry the day.
  • Human: Respect every idea and everyone as worthy of consideration, putting in the time to build trust by meeting people where they are, making personal connections, and answering the phone.
  • Inclusive: Welcome diverse perspectives and opens doors for new audiences by reducing barriers to participation.
  • Nimble: Act fast in rapidly changing environments, achieve meaningful and timely results.
  • Responsive: Amplify community voices and listen to local needs.
  • Thorough: Be detail-oriented from the start so that all of the program components fit seamlessly together, encouraging the other principles to be purposefully woven throughout the program.
  • Well-documented: Expand the impact of the program by documenting the process and story of the projects in a way that is easily shared with the broader community.

Infusing human-centered design and appreciating the benefits of going the extra mile is in the end what makes a program most “Sprout-like”. However, incorporating any of these principles into a funding program help make it more community-oriented and increase the impact of both the individual projects and the program as a whole.

What You Can Expect

Explore the following chapters to learn more about our approach to catalytic funding. We’ve created tools you can use to develop your own funding programs and have shared links to our favorite resources from around the web that inspire and support our work.

While the guide was built as a linear process, feel free to jump to the section(s) where you would like to first focus your attention. Or, if you are starting from square one with a brand new program, work your way through the process from start to finish to fully understand how all of the steps are truly intertwined to develop a comprehensive, well-designed funding program that focuses on relationship building and the power of process, as opposed to just “checking boxes”.

All of the templates, samples, and artifacts are drawn from Sprout’s “filing cabinet” of tools that have been used to make more than 1,100 grants over the course of almost two decades. They have been refined and reimagined to meet the needs of individual programs and are meant to guide others, with the intention of being shared openly and adapted to best meet the needs of each individual that utilizes them.