Catalytic Funding

Seeding change through small grant programs.

Sprout Catalytic Funding staff talk with prospective applicants at a breakfast workshop
The Waffle Shop, December 2009  photo: Matt Hannigan

Sprout jumpstarted organizations and tested new ideas with its support for early-stage projects.

The Sprout Fund provided critical financial support for small-scale and first-time projects and programs in the initial stages of development—when just a small amount of investment had the potential to yield big results in the community. Our catalytic funding helped major funders reach new audiences of first-time grant seekers and enabled communities to make fair decisions for themselves about which projects should be supported.

Serving as an intermediary between the grassroots community and major regional stakeholders enabled us to build coalitions of support among residents at multiple levels of civic engagement. While many projects yielded individual successes, their cumulative output produced a critical mass of innovative approaches designed by and for the communities we served.

Sprout offered two categories of catalytic funding support with distinctions based on target audience and focus. Learning Innovation funding programs supported projects that impacted children, youth, and teens through new approaches to teaching and learning. Community Innovation funding programs supported projects that fostered creative approaches to civic engagement and community life at the grassroots.

While the focus of the funding programs varied, Sprout opportunities were all connected by being focused on early support for new ideas. By supporting ideas at their germination, our small investments were an entry point for new projects, taking chances on unusual, unexpected, and unique ideas that were not yet proven.


Program Design

Sprout often took a dual approach to program design, working with regional stakeholders and the community being served to inform the key components of the program. Both one-off and ongoing programs were designed to support applicants and project managers in a way that solicited benefits every step of the way, helping to create assets beyond what was made possible through the funding support by adding value to the process instead of just the end result.

Ongoing Programs

Having application deadlines at regular intervals throughout the year enabled Sprout to consistently cultivate prospective applicants and support ideas as they were being developed, when they were most relevant to the community.

Requests for Proposals

RFPs enabled Sprout to dive in on special topics and issues that were especially relevant at that point in time. These one-time programs also helped to engage project managers with more niche focus areas and skills.

Special Collaborations

Sprout’s broad network of partners and project managers put us in a unique position to bring together top tier civic leaders to demonstrate the region’s work in learning and community innovation during key events and celebrations in the region.


Prospect Cultivation

With a focus on early support for new ideas, it was important that people knew that their ideas for learning and community innovation were welcomed by The Sprout Fund regardless of their relationship with the organization. Sprout regularly hosted informational events and attended community gatherings to help spread the word about current funding opportunities and continue to diversify the applicant pool.

Monthly Workshops

Held on the second Friday of every month for more than a decade, these workshops went over the programs with upcoming deadlines so that people could determine if their idea was a good fit for Sprout funding. Anyone could drop in to learn about the process and ask questions.

Community Events & Meetings

Program staff did their best to meet people where they were, attending meetings and events where people in the program’s target audience could learn more about the funding opportunity through presentations and tabling activities.

Working Breakfasts

Typically occuring on the Saturday before a deadline, these events were used to provide draft application feedback and answer last-minute questions from applicants. They also enabled applicants to meet with program staff outside of regular business hours on a first-come, first-served basis, as they enjoyed a cup of coffee and some pastries.


Applicant Support

Acknowledging that not every prospective applicant was an experienced fundraiser, Sprout implemented a series of optional support services that anyone could take advantage of leading up to the application deadline. These opportunities were typically more personalized than cultivation activities, providing applicants with the chance to speak one-on-one with program staff about their proposal.

Draft Review

By reading applications in advance of the deadline, program staff were able to provide insight and feedback on proposals before they were considered for funding. This also enabled staff to let applicants know if the idea was better suited for an alternate opportunity without waiting for the decisionmaking process to be completed.

Technical Support

To help remove barriers to applying, Sprout provided technical support needed to meet application requirements. This support looked different from program to program but helped to ensure that if someone had an idea, a lack of access to or experience with technology would not hold them back from applying.

Denied Applicant Feedback

To support those that were not recommended for funding, Sprout offered feedback from reviewers and insight into the decisionmaking process. These conversations highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the proposal with the intention of helping the applicant re-apply or directing them to alternate funding opportunities.


Decisionmaking 1

Sprout believed that funding recommendations were best made by those that understood the needs of the project’s intended audience intimately and that decisions were rooted in consensus instead of allowing the loudest voice in the room to carry the day.

Funding Criteria

After staff ensured that projects met the program’s eligibility criteria, a set of decisionmaking criteria that aligned with the program goals were often used to score the applications. This enabled reviewers to score different aspects of the proposal separately instead of just the proposal as a whole.

Stoplight Chart

Scores were compiled into a scorecard summary known as a Stoplight Chart. This allowed staff and reviewers to see how the projects performed in the review process, prioritizing proposals and identifying the strengths and weaknesses of projects in relation to the decisionmaking criteria.

Consensus-Based Decisions

A final decisionmaking meeting—most often in-person but sometimes via phone—provided a forum to openly discuss the high and medium priority applications under consideration and compare potentail projects to one another. Not every project received unanimous support but advisors always built consensus around the funding recommendations.


Decisionmaking 2

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Donec odio. Quisque volutpat mattis eros. Nullam malesuada erat ut turpis. Suspendisse urna nibh, viverra non, semper suscipit, posuere a, pede. Donec nec justo eget felis facilisis fermentum.

Advisory Committees

Funding recommendations were most often made by committees of people that were a part of the communities served by the program. These advisors acted as a jury of peers, coming together to determine which applications should receive funding support.

Online Voting

Online voting was ocassionally used to engage the broader community in the decisionmaking process. This required developing or purchasing access to technical systems that allowed votes to be counted. To prevent it from turning into a popularity contest, the online voting was typically paired with input from a group of community advisors.

“Greenlight” Grantmaking

Some programs had decisonmaking that helped move eligible proposals that fit the funding criteria through the process quickly. Instead of creating competition by selecting only a few of the most innovative projects in the funding round, this process worked to encourage and support people’s desire to make positive change in the target community.


Grantee Support

With service-oriented staff-to-project administration, project managers were assisted in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of their initiatives. This approach encouraged open communication with staff, mentors, and peers regarding both the successes and challenges encountered while implementing their funded project.

First Project Meetings

Meetings with the project team after their project was recommended for support created opportunities for Sprout staff to share suggestions and feedback from the decisionmaking process, discuss any updates or changes to the project plan, and go over the next steps in the funding process.

Peer Mentorship

An active mentorship program offered personalized guidance from mentors drawn from the community. Mentorship cultivated project manager leadership potential, enhanced the quality of project activities, and added value to our investments in the community.

Cohort Activities

Cohort convenings identified opportunities for projects to collaborate and work togeher through challenges being experienced by all project leaders, sharing best practices between peers and encouraging projects to expand or extend their impact.


In addition to traditional written grant reports, verbal reporting was also utilized to accommodate those who were more comfortable talking through their project activities with program staff or presenting their work to the community at an event.

Project Referrals

Active projects were often referred by Sprout staff to complementary projects, services, or individuals in the community to further support their projects. After the grant was closed, many projects were also referred to other funding opportunities to continue their work.