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Sprout Fund cash nurtures young ideas

Sunday, July 07, 2002

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

An art exhibit in Downtown's so-called Skinny Building. A bike explorer's guide to urban Pittsburgh. The online literary magazine The New Yinzer. A cyber lounge in Wilkinsburg. A network for African-American singles. The restoration of the former Union Baptist Church as a working space for East End artists.

Cathy Lewis, executive director for the Sprout Fund, in Mellon Square Park, Downtown. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

In a year's time, the Sprout Fund has seeded 23 disparate programs as part of a distinctive mission -- making southwestern Pennsylvania more attractive to young professionals by providing funding to projects generated by young professionals.

"Sprout is about supporting the growth of indigenous culture," said Cathy Lewis, who started as the nonprofit's first executive director last week. "We really see ourselves as a community foundation that supports grass-roots initiatives.

"We're not saving the world. We're just trying incrementally to create change that will create a community with a more interesting fabric."

Sprout got its start in the afterglow of Jim Roddey's 2000 election as county chief executive. He created a volunteer transition team called the New Idea Factory, 13 committees that in the course of more than 25,000 volunteer hours generated recommendations for land use, mass transit, infrastructure, technology and various quality-of-life issues.

This six-month community brainstorm resulted in a wave of initiatives, including Sprout.

"It really took shape and was the next natural evolution after the New Idea Factory," Roddey said. "You can't cut the New Idea Factory off. People are going to continue to have ideas.

"We really needed a way to provide some seed money for these ideas."

For a relatively small amount of money -- awards run from $500 to $10,000 -- Sprout helps projects get up and running. Some may be one-time events or programs; others are pilot programs for long-range initiatives.

"It allows us, if you will, to take the risk," Lewis said. "We can seed initiatives that need money to get off the ground. But our awards also complement similar larger regional objectives. Sprout is a piece of the project."

A Squirrel Hill native and Carnegie Mellon University graduate, Lewis, 33, oversaw the implementation of Roddey's transition team and the New Idea Factory. She created the Sprout model along with Matt Hannigan, 22, then a Carnegie Mellon graduate student.

They had seen that the New Idea Factory generated ideas, community good will and volunteer energy; what they wanted to develop was a low-threshold mechanism with a high-impact result.

"The model itself grew out of a response to what we had seen during our time with the New Idea Factory," said Hannigan, who will be Sprout's program manager. "Every time there was a roadblock, we turned it on its head, seeing what would work best for the community."

The result was to make relatively small investments as a way to catalyze change within the region.

To that end, they streamlined the traditionally tortuous funding process of foundations. Applications for Sprout awards are accepted monthly, and checks are received within six weeks.

"We're very nimble," Lewis said. "Sprout looks at it as innovation dies in a six- to 18-month window, which sometimes can be the funding time for a foundation. We've structured ourselves so that we can turn around quickly."

While other foundations around the country have funded grant-making programs run by youths for youths -- most notably Michigan's W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Mo. -- they focus on high school-age youths. The Sprout Fund is unique in its effort to promote regional growth by providing seed money for projects generated by people between the ages of 18 and 40.

"I think Sprout is an especially cool, cool project," said Jo DeBolt, director of the Tides Center of Western Pennsylvania, which helps start-ups and nonprofits, including the Sprout Fund, manage their finances.

"They're out funding people who are doing such interesting and different kinds of things, different in the sense that they're innovative and interesting and should cause people in this region to look at the region differently."

The nonprofit's advisory board ranges between seven and 11 members, and is predominated by young professionals. Lewis said the idea was to provide those interested in community and civic affairs a chance to gain experience and leadership skills while generating change.

Alexandra Laporte, 27, was the recipient of a $5,000 Sprout award last year for a project called Making a Scene, a 10-day interdisciplinary arts event held in the cultural district's old Duff's Building. Now, she's a member of the nonprofit's advisory board.

"I thought it would be good to be on the other side of the coin to engage other artists and encourage them along," said Laporte, an urban designer and architect with Urban Design Associates who has lived in Pittsburgh three years. "It was just a whole new world and learning curve."

Louis Fineberg had cast about for years to interest a publisher or agent in his bike explorer's guide to Pittsburgh, titled "3 Rivers on 2 Wheels." Earlier this year, a friend mentioned the existence of Sprout to him. Fineberg applied for an award and received $8,500.

"I was surprised they existed more than I was surprised that it worked out," said Fineberg, who printed 2,500 copies of the guide in May. More than 250 have sold. "Sprout really filled a niche. These are the kinds of things that bring people here."

This year, the Sprout Fund had a $175,000 budget, split equally between the Heinz Family Endowments and the Richard King Mellon Foundation. Lewis is now hoping for funding in the $800,000 range; already, the Richard King Mellon Foundation has granted $400,000, while PNC Foundation has added $25,000.

Sprout expects to receive its hundredth award application this summer. The two dozen projects approved so far have received more than $132,000.

But beginning its second year, Sprout also is taking a big step forward as one of the three arms of C-STAR, the Collaborative Strategy for Talent Attraction and Retention. In the partnership, the Coro Center for Civic Leadership will research benchmarks, measure outcomes and provide strategy, the Sprout Fund will leverage its investments strategically, and local marketing gurus Traci Jackson and Pat Clark will raise awareness of the projects.

Plans call for three $7,500 awards to be made quarterly to address an array of issues.

"We want to have a ripple effect," Lewis said. "We see Sprout as part of the solution to creating a community that young people want to be a part of."

Correction/Clarification: (Published July 9, 2002) A grant from the Heinz Endowments' Economic Opportunity Program helped the Sprout Fund grow in its first year of operation. A story in Sunday's paper misstated the donor organization's name.

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