Lessons Learned

Take chances on people and their ideas. Support today’s thought-provoking change makers and tomorrow’s inventive visionaries.

The Sprout Fund pioneered a new mechanism for community-driven, community-advised philanthropy. Working out of neighborhood storefronts, 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 even the small-scale stuff can yield big results.

The cultural shifts Sprout seeded have taken root. It’s a good time to close this chapter and start writing a new one.

Yet there is still more work to do. Some of the challenges communities face today are different from what they were when we started. Some are systemic and just as pertinent as ever. All require a mix of present-day solutions and newer, bigger ideas.

We are proud of Sprout’s successes over the last two decades and mindful of the mistakes we made along the way. As we sunset the organization, it’s with humility that we offer this hard-won wisdom as advice:

  • Be Inclusive. Put people first. Open doors for new audiences and lower the barriers to participation. Creative solutions often originate from diverse perspectives coming together for a shared purpose.

  • Be Human. Empower individuals to become change agents. Connect them to each other as well as resources, mentorship, and opportunities for growth.

  • Be Authentic. Respect every idea and everyone as worthy of consideration. Put in the time and meet people where they are and build trust. Believe in the importance of deliberate dialogue and honest conversations.

  • Be Open. Share what you learn. Understand that as one idea thrives, its success encourages others to rise. Small ripples can start big waves.

  • Dig into the Details. Sweat the small stuff, whether you’re recruiting applicants, designing an event agenda, or just making nametags. The quality of every interaction with your audience hinges on your attention to detail.

  • Relieve Anxiety. No one likes being stressed out. Do you best to relieve the anxiety of those around you. Be relentlessly organized and help others tackle their most pressing challenges.

  • Bring the Bagels. Community work isn’t always glamorous work: Someone has to turn on the lights, set up the chairs, and, yes, even bring the bagels or beers, as the case may be.

  • Listen Intently. Do your best to learn from the experts, including longtime community residents, city leaders, young people, academics, and practitioners. Be willing to challenge assumptions and continuously reflect on how you might improve your work.

  • Keep Your Eyes on What’s Next. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and context matters. Think about what project leaders or event participants might have experienced before and how they may have worked together in the past, and design accordingly. Then, make sure that each program activity ends with a clear call to action and specific next steps.

  • Think Big: We need bold action and courageous risk-taking. We gain strength and resilience when we test, try, fail, succeed, and learn. We must harness the creativity and ingenuity of the entire community to meet our civic challenges—both old and new.

We were driven by a desire to empower grassroots innovators by providing them with the resources and connections they needed to cultivate their ideas and create stronger communities. We wrote this Field Guide as a free and open resource to encourage people to invest in community-driven innovation and collaboration.

We sincerely hope that these ideas inspire you to create more open, connected, and generous communities.