By Paul Ruggiero
In 2003, Scott Bricker and other pedal commuters in downtown Pittsburgh were chaining their rides to parking meters, lampposts, and anything else that was nailed down. Bricker and the other co-founders of the then small, all-volunteer Bike Pittsburgh organization wanted to make a better bike parking solution. But they’d just started the bicycling advocacy non-profit with their own money, and their pockets were feeling pretty empty.
Luckily, just two years earlier The Sprout Fund had launched the Seed Award program to make modest grants to catalyze young people’s nascent community projects. Bricker and the Bike Pittsburgh crew won a Seed Award to design the now-classic Three Rivers Bike Rack: a steel hoop encircling a stylized, three-pronged representation of the Point. They started with a handful of racks, and soon the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership gave them money to make a lot more.
Art and utility. Personal visions and public impact. Small seeds and, sometimes, big growth. Since 2001, that’s been the story for nearly 300 recipients of the Seed Award.
“We learned the power of leveraging funding from basically day one,” says Bricker, Executive Director of Bike Pittsburgh, now a thriving nonprofit supported by more than 1,700 dues-paying members. “A program that set out to only install about twelve bike racks became a program that put about 130 bike racks into various locations, mostly downtown. And then we were off to the races.”
This week, The Sprout Fund celebrates its 100th round of Seed Awards. Since first launching in 2001, Seed Award winners have received an average of $6,000 each—$1.7 million overall. But Sprout Fund Program Officer Mac Howison, who’s overseen the Seed Award program since 2004, says it’s not all about the money. “We do provide a fairly active network of support,” says Howison. Managers of closed projects can still stay involved in the Seed mentorship program or become a member of the award’s advisory committee, he says, “ultimately helping to make decisions about the kind of projects that we choose to support, in the same way that their project was supported.”
But it starts with the money, and sometimes less is more. In 2005, Jasdeep Khaira applied for a Seed Award to fund a second volume of the hand-bound art zine Encyclopedia Destructica. Their grant of $3,500 was just enough for supplies, a more robust solid-ink printer, and a plan to reinvest the sales of a limited run back into Volume Bumba. Khaira, who later became a Sprout Fund board member, says, “In some ways, because the grant was so small…it really made us figure out how to make the project sustainable.”
Encyclopedia Destructica is a regular vendor at the Handmade Arcade, Pittsburgh’s independent craft fair and a 2004 Seed Award recipient. According to Jennifer Baron, an organizing committee member for Handmade Arcade, do-it-yourself, or DIY, crafters had nowhere to go in Pittsburgh before the first annual fair. “It was because of the Sprout Fund Seed Award,” says Baron, “that we were able to create that community and create a marketplace that was very viable for our vendors.”
Michele de la Reza, co-founder and managing artistic director of touring dance company Attack Theatre, says that the Seed Awards have “funded what I call the unfundable.” Traditional foundations usually support non-profit enterprises, leaving artists and other individuals, and their potentially fringe ideas, out in the cold. “Sprout doesn’t pigeonhole the projects,” says de la Reza, whose Attack Theatre received a Seed Award in 2004. “It really looks at various aspects of what makes a community vibrant and is able to nurture those.”
Some of those projects have thrived, and some haven’t. Sprout’s Mac Howison says, “We are taking a risk on people and organizations to maybe try something speculative, maybe try something that’s new or different or unique, and it might not necessarily have longevity built into it.” The Seed Award’s relatively small payout allows Sprout to catalyze creative daring, not just a sure thing. It’s an open playing field for grant-seeking veterans and newcomers alike, says Howison.
Recent rounds of Seed Awards spread beyond the Steel City for the first time, to nearby Fayette and Greene Counties. Other changes may await the next 100 rounds. But Howison credits the excitement of the Seed Awards not to how it might change, but to what it already does: “It’s really simply knowing that the program has resources and continues to be available and that we’re ready to hear from the community their version of what makes Pittsburgh the best place to live, work, play, and raise a family.” Read more about projects funded in Fayette and Greene Counties.
You can help celebrate Sprout’s 100 Seed Award rounds- Join us at the Sprout Harvest Gathering on Friday, November 2nd during Penn Avenue Unblurred, from 5:30pm to 9:30pm at Sprout’s offices, 5423 Penn Ave in Pittsburgh’s Garfield/Friendship neighborhoods. See more on our Facebook event.