What's Kaplan Doing with Its Innovation Prize? And What Have They Learned?

Amy Freitag, Executive Director, JM Kaplan Fund

Prizes in philanthropy to encourage innovation and achieve social benefits seem to be everywhere these days. A 2009 McKinsey study of prizes of more than $100,000 given by foundations and corporations found that the value of prizes tripled over ten years, coming in at an aggregate total of $375 million. Since then, it seems like this trend has only amped up, particularly as the economy has come back to life.

The role of prizes is also evolving: Nearly 80 percent of prizes awarded since 1991 have been designed to reward innovation rather than general excellence. And while some may argue there are too many prizes, others say that philanthropy does not have enough of them. At Inside Philanthropy, Tate Williams recently weighed in on this debate with a piece on best (and worst) practices in prizes and competitions. 

Related: The Perils of All These Prizes

One prize that is new to the scene is the J.M. Kaplan Innovation Prize, which began in January 2015. To find out more about what it feels like to start a new prize in philanthropy, and how things have panned out over this past year, we connected with Amy Freitag, executive director of the J.M. Kaplan Fund and one of the driving forces behind the new Kaplan Innovation prize.

Freitag has only been with Kaplan since early 2014, so it's a relatively new arena for her, as well. But talking to Freitag, you get the sense that she has infused this 70-year-old foundation with a new electric charge. "It's a fascinating way to get the pulse of what is going on out there," said Freitag, describing how it feels to run a national prize on innovation.

"We were so impressed with the number of people who said, 'I just want to hear about it.'"

The J.M. Kaplan Fund was created by Jacob M. Kaplan, who made his fortune when he sold the Welch's Grape Juice Company to a cooperative of grape growers, an unusul move that spawned other agricultural co-ops in the food and beverage industry.

Freitag said the spirit of Kaplan still infuses the work of the foundation. For example, she described how a white paper Kaplan commissioned for $2500 on municipal ID cards "got picked up by De Blasio's administration as a centerpiece of their immigration program." De Blasio hired the author as the commissioner of immigrant affairs, and "suddenly muni ID cards shot out across New York City," said Freitag. Though the idea of municipal ID cards is not new, and Kaplan and other funders have been working this terrain for many years in a number of cities, this was an instance when a strong idea helped to catalyze action.

With these kinds of roots in expanding good ideas, Kaplan set out in January 2015 to ignite change with its Innovation Prize, which is giving up to $175,000 over three years to 10 early-stage social innovation projects across the U.S. that offer "cutting-edge, interdisciplinary and actionable approaches to important social problems."

Freitag's vision was of a prize that would be accessible to people who "might not otherwise be in the flight path of philanthropy and social innovation," in order to really dig down and find emerging leaders. 

As Tate Williams wrote, beating the bushes in this way is one thing that prizes can do really well. The best prizes "open up philanthropy," he wrote, and "invite outsiders to get involved. Grant writing is intimidating and confusing, and a good open contest can provide an entry point to philanthropy for a whole set of new people." The caveat, though, is that prizes shouldn't make people jump through hoops if they don't have a prayer of winning: "They must strike a balance between being inclusive and wasting people's time."  

The J.M. Kaplan Fund grasped all this. "We put together the simplest possible application: What's your big idea and why are you the one to do it?" said Freitag, and she credited the social strategy work of Justin Goldbach for laying the groundwork to bring in a large and diverse applicant pool for the prize of 1,138 submissions, with 70 percent of those applicants coming from outside New York State.

"We used social media, and we also did good old-fashioned research and found out in each state which university had a social innovation program. We found someone in the office of each program and we used them as a launching pad to get the word out."

Another impressive aspect of running this prize for Freitag was the huge response it received for volunteer reviewers of the prize applications. "I thought we'd have 50, maybe 70, people who would give up eight hours of their life for free just to do this, and 375 people signed up to be volunteer reviewers."

Freitag said with so many reviewers, each application got an average of 6.6 reviews. "So lots of eyes, and it was quite clear in the scoring that there was a consensus on which applications were advanced to additional rounds of screening." Freitag believes there was strong integrity in the process for the prize, and because there was so much new learning, the foundation released a report that summarizes it all rather neatly. 

One last question before we get to to the announcement of the prizes: We asked Freitag if Kaplan will do the prize again this coming year. "In our December board meeting, we will be having this discussion," she said. "The staff would love to have a shot to do it again. You learn so much in doing it. We'd love to invest those learnings in another round."

And now, without further ado, from today's announcement, the winners:

Behold! New Lebanon (Upstate New York). To reverse years of demoralizing decline, rural individuals organize and open their towns to urban dwellers eager for deeper and more comprehensive access to country living and skills. Rural residents in Upstate New York demonstrate how to live in concert with rather than in opposition to the natural world. Tourists pay for topical workshops and frequent the town's restaurants and other local business and nonprofits, thereby lifting the local economy and spirit while providing important public education. The program is conceived and led by Ruth Abram, who founded the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York.

ScholarCHIPS, Inc. (Washington, D.C.) provides a pathway to college for children of incarcerated parents by offering scholarships and an essential support network – both by mentoring and a growing peer community. Roughly 2.7 million children in the United State have a parent in prison, which negatively affects their mental health and education, leading to a sadly predictable host of maladies including anxiety, withdrawal, depression, hyper-vigilance and shame coupled with guilt.

Growing Veterans (Washington State) uses sustainable agriculture to help veterans transition back into their communities, prevent suicide among its members, and nurture a healthier environment and community in the process. Peer-mentoring is at the heart of the project, offering a supportive community for veterans as they continue their national service through local food production. The organization believes that the model created through this proposal will prevent veterans from falling into personal crisis.

The Essie Justice Group (Oakland, Calif.) seeks to transform the American criminal justice system by building a women-led movement to end mass incarcerations and empower marginalized women affected by this. The Essie Justice Group is developing and piloting a “Healing to Advocacy” curriculum in order to build the first nationwide network of women with incarcerated loved ones, as well as partnering with research institutions to disseminate data that dispels the myths that help to ostracize women with incarcerated loved ones.

Reclaim Appalachia (West Virginia) aims to address economic distress, environmental degradation, and demeaned cultural heritage through its job training program. This program will hire low-income young adults as on-the-job trainees for environmentally progressive construction projects such as green housing or deconstruction of abandoned buildings whose materials will be reclaimed for furniture. In addition to these environmental benefits and job creation, the trainees will work towards an associate’s degree and receive mentorship to develop cultural pride and life-skills.

Bay2Tray (San Francisco), aims to provide affordable sustainable local seafood for healthy school lunches that support healthy oceans and thriving communities. The project endeavors to buy, process, and package bycatch that would otherwise be thrown back, dead, into the water. By purchasing the bycatch, the project is creating a market for the fishermen, providing healthy lunches to school children, and educating future generations about local oceans and the relationship between food and stewardship of the environment.

Coworker.org (Washington, D.C.) attempts to bring worker-centered, collaborative labor organizing to meet the changing labor structures of a 21st century economy. Traditional worker support systems, such as unions, are ill-equipped to organize jobs that are increasingly independent, contingent, short-term, and freelance. Coworker.org is a platform that connects people to one another in order to influence their working conditions, including dress codes, wage increases, scheduling reform, and workplace safety.

The Land Art Generator Initiative (Pittsburgh) aims to address the public’s resistance to sustainable energy development, like wind and solar power, due to their aesthetic impact. Through design competitions and educational outreach programs, LAGI designs and constructs a series of large-scale, site-specific public art installations that uniquely combine art with utility-scale clean energy generation. The artworks utilize the latest in renewable energy science and innovate on the application of new technologies.

e-NABLE (Upstate New York) is an online network of volunteers who design, build, and disseminate 3D printed prosthetics and give them away for free. The organization uses crowd-sourced collaboration to develop and distribute assistive technologies, primarily prosthetic hands and arms, to underserved youth. So far, in the group's two-year existence, it has created more than 800 3D printed prosthetics.

Advancing Real Change, Inc. (Baltimore) is creating a national organization that defines a new approach to ending severe and excessive penalties by narrating the life stories of poor defendants, so that courts can see more than just the crime and decide on a proportional and humane outcome for those accused. ARC is attempting to end the overuse of severe punishment by improving the quality of representation in capital and juvenile LWOP cases through direct casework, training, and consultation around the country. The focus of this work is on life history investigations, where representation researches the accused’s life to demonstrate a complete life beyond the circumstances of the trial. To this end, ARC has already partnered with the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project on the Mitigation Initiative, which will bring in ARC to consult with defense teams in three of the country’s most death-sentencing counties in California, Arizona, and Florida.