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Sprout Fund To Close Shop In June After Nearly Two Decades Of Community Philanthropy

Rob Long
Provided Photo
Sprout Fund co-founders Cathy Lewis Long, left, and Matt Hannigan.

A Pittsburgh nonprofit known for its small grants to grassroots organizations will shut its doors in June.

The Sprout Fund will spend its last several weeks as an organization awarding small “legacy” grants similar to the small seed grants that were the basis of the organization.

The Sprout Fund found success by giving modest monetary awards to early-stage community projects. The idea was to close the gap between the grassroots idea and the complicated process of landing a grant from a large foundation.

Most of the Sprout Fund grants came through funds from large foundations. The average grant was $6,000. In 17 years, the group invested more than $7 million in more than 1,000 projects and ideas.

As the group phases out its work, it will spend its remaining funds on two dozen $1,000 grants. Sprout is calling those awards “investments in Pittsburgh’s future.” Social media nominations for those grants are due by Friday May 4.

Co-founders Cathy Lewis Long and Matt Hannigan say they started the organization at a unique time in Pittsburgh’s history. In 2001, they set out to make Pittsburgh a welcoming place for new voices and diverse perspectives.  

While they recognize Pittsburgh still faces many challenges, they say their work has run its course and they were able to accomplish much of what they originally set out to do.

“Pittsburgh is stronger and more resilient than when we started,” Hannigan said. “There’s a real cultural shift that’s happened over the time that Sprout has been involved. We think we’ve had a small hand in helping to get started a bunch of powerful nonprofit organizations to help build strong networks that have built greater resilience in the community. So now seems a good time to close this chapter.”

Credit The Sprout Fund / Submitted Photo
Submitted Photo
Carley Parrish and Shannon Pultz's mural in the Strip District was one of many neighborhood murals commissioned by the Sprout Fund.

Lewis Long said while the organization was effective for nearly two decades if someone were to try to replicate now what the fund has done in the past, it would need to be approached differently. 

"Some of the issues are the same and some are different and require present-day solutions," she said. 

Both co-founders noted that several other organizations are now doing similar work including major funders like the Pittsburgh Foundation which launched Small and Mighty Grants in 2016 to, "bridge the gap between our grantmaking and the neighborhood-based nonprofits that work to better our region," according to its website.

The Sprout Fund also started before the rise of crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and GoFundMe. 

But, Hannigan said crowdfunding can't be the solution to everything as gaps exist when relying on personal networks to raise money for projects. 

"I think there's still a role for the kind of grant-based solutions that award the quality of the ideas, the quality of the individual that's proposing those ideas and the quality of the plan necessary to execute those ideas. There's still a role for philanthropy to lift up those ideas and empower those that don't have access to the same kind of capital that others might," he said. 

The Sprout Fund partnered with regional and national foundations receiving nearly $2.5 million from the MacArthur Foundation and millions of dollars of support from Pittsburgh-based foundations.

The fund launched projects and organizations including:

The MacArthur Foundation also supported the Sprout Fund’s work to expand a network to connect educators in the region to technology-enabled learning opportunities for middle and high schoolers. That funding ended about two years ago, but MacArthur senior program officer Jennifer Humke said she commends the team for knowing when to discontinue the organization.
“Closing down an organization when it has good standing in a community and hasn’t been prompted by some kind of a crisis is rare, and I would imagine emotionally difficult to do. I know they did not make the decision lightly. They are leaving behind an important legacy, and I look forward to seeing what they do next,” she said in a statement.

The Sprout Fund will also wrap up its work by spending time documenting what the group has learned in its nearly 20 years of existence. They’ll create field guides detailing best practices for current and future grantmakers.

“Through the conversations we’ve had with our staff and with our board and some of our trusted community advisors, we have a sense that maybe some nonprofit ideas are very useful for their time and place and that it’s OK for them to move on and to allow other ideas to flourish,” Hannigan said.

The co-founders said terminating the group was a decision they spent a lot of time thinking about. Because of that, Hannigan said, they’ve haven’t thought about what will be next. He said he and Lewis Long plan to stay in Pittsburgh.

Lewis Long said some of the same issues persist in the city that existed when they started the fund including making the city a welcoming place for all.

“We remain deeply committed to this community and deeply committed to working from a different posture on a lot of the same issues. I think that there’s a lot that we are proud of the Sprout Fund but we are very mindful of the many challenges and the work there is still to do,” she said.

Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she worked for the school newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.