Networks & Community Building

Helping people openly collaborate to achieve shared goals.

Sprout’s Community Building team plans a new participatory experience.
Sprout offices, July 2017  photo: Ben Filio

Sprout’s community building practice powered our work as a community engagement engine.

In addition to providing catalytic funding to promising projects, Sprout also spent more than a decade forging connections between people working in service of critical social causes like education, art, and neighborhood development. Early on in our work, we began to understand the value of actively building communities of creative, industrious, and ambitious innovators. We recognized the importance of connecting grantees with each other, with the broader Pittsburgh community, and with national and international stakeholders.

As a result, Sprout developed its community building practice. Our work was deeply influenced by design thinking and human-centered design, and we designed and led intentional, in-person community outreach activities that created the conditions for collaboration. Our experience suggests that most problems cannot be solved in isolation; instead, we believe that positive change results when people openly work together to achieve shared goals.

Some of our events weren’t especially revolutionary. We hosted an awful lot of happy hours and met a ton of people over coffee, and those smaller meetings mattered: they were part of a bigger picture of developing trusting relationships that laid the foundation for future work. Meanwhile, our large-scale events truly showcased our expertise: we hosted events jam-packed with hands-on activities and provocative questions intended to spark thoughtful conversation and foster meaningful collaboration between community stakeholders.

We think our community building efforts were most effective because they weren’t one-size-fits-all. Instead, we developed lots of ways to engage community members, and the common thread was our creative approach to bringing people together.

Strategic Approaches to Networks & Community Building

Our Approach

Sprout hosted hundreds of small- and large-scale events, from focus groups to multi-day festivals. The most effective experiences make the most of participants’ time together. We embraced unexpected collaborations. We valued openness, which means sharing ideas, showing your work, and inviting contributions from others. We insisted on recruiting diverse participants and we employed high-quality facilitators who help push the work forward.

Throughout our 17-year history, we used the following strategies to build community in Pittsburgh and beyond.


Community building usually isn’t glamorous. While our large-scale events and more creative activities might have been flashier and more visible, our day-to-day stewardship activities more often involved small gestures that connected people with resources that might support their work.

Calls & Correspondence

Part of our work was customer service: When you called the number on the Remake Learning website or when you needed more information about One Northside, the phone rang at Sprout. Whether we were offering last-minute application advice or giving directions to an upcoming event, it was important to us to be accessible and easy to reach.

One-on-One Meetings

Face-to-face interactions are often the best way to meet new community members and forge a lasting connection. We hosted one-on-one conversations in our storefront offices on Penn Avenue and passed many an hour in meetings at our local coffee shops.

Brokering Connections

Over the years, we made some extraordinary friends, from grassroots community organizers and classroom teachers to prominent visual artists and influential local leaders. We loved to introduce fellow “friends of Sprout” to each other. Sometimes remarkable projects and collaborations resulted; more often, we hope we helped make Pittsburgh just a little more connected.


People love to learn, and they love to share what they know. We often hosted events to enable experts to share their wisdom and to foster a culture of knowledge-sharing among community members.


We offered stipends to enable Remake Learning Network members to attend national and international conferences. We often coordinated activities that brought Pittsburgh’s innovations to a wider audience, including panels at SXSW EDU and ISTE and workshops at Mozilla Festival.

Meet-ups and Lunch & Learns

Ongoing shared-interest Meetups and informative Lunch & Learns were key “heartbeat” activities of the Remake Learning Network. These gatherings enabled like-minded network members to connect informally, to visit each other’s spaces, and to learn about innovative approaches at work in the community.

Full-Scale Conferences

Sprout designed and led a two-day summit in Silicon Valley about digital badges and micro-credentials for a group of 300 funders, technologists, educators, and other innovators. This event We developed large-scale events to introduce people to Prior to beginning local badge efforts in Pittsburgh, Sprout hosted a national convening in Silicon Valley to set the course for the next evolution of Open Badges.


Gathering Feedback

We found that hosting dedicated feedback events made room for community members to reflect on our work and offer candid input. We used a mix of activities to gather structured answers and more open-ended responses.

Pitch Sessions

At the Pittsburgh Economic Opportunity Forum, three working groups pitched their collaborative approaches to advancing economic opportunity in the Pittsburgh region. Attendees then completed a brief survey offering their reactions to the proposed approaches, the results of which were shared with each working group as they refined their ideas and prepared their grant applications.


Some of the best collaborations emerge over pancakes or a cold beer. We hosted lots of events whose purpose was purely social: these casual, informal, relationship-focused events can help create and strengthen social connections.

Kick-off Events

When we launched new programs or initiatives, we often hosted a large-scale event to build excitement and signal how people could get involved. We designed these events to be aspiration and action-oriented: we made sure people left the event with a clear understanding of what would happen next.

Happy Hours

To launch each round of Grand Ideas applications, we hosted a casual happy hour to showcase past grantees’ projects and field questions about the funding opportunity. These events echoed the spirit of the grant program: they were modest in scale, and they were intended to celebrate creativity and ingenuity.