Every Corner of the Nation: A Foundation Looks Off the Beaten Path for Innovative Ideas



One of America’s most discussed mega-trends is the increasing concentration of capital and economic development in a small handful of metropolitan areas, mostly on the coasts. And while many tech companies and the vast philanthropic wealth being produced from them seem to be following that trend, one family foundation is making a big push to find and fund social innovators in every corner of the nation.  

The J.M. Kaplan Fund has provided catalytic funding for projects in their early stages of development for more than three generations. But the New York-based foundation’s leaders say that when it established its Innovation Prize in 2015, it created an important new mechanism for identifying and funding transformative social, environmental and cultural organizations all across the nation.

The J.M.K. Innovation Prize seeks to identify, support and elevate innovators from across America who are spearheading transformative early-stage projects in the fields of the environment, heritage conservation and social justice,” says Amy L. Freitag, executive director of the J.M. Kaplan Fund. “There is a scarcity of funding for untested ideas being piloted in the social innovation field, especially in places outside the largest metro areas of the United States.”

The J.M.K. Innovation Prize is open to nonprofit and mission-driven for-profit organizations in all 50 states that are tackling America’s most pressing challenges through social innovation—defined as those pilot projects, new organizations or nascent initiatives that involve a certain amount of measured risk, but which may ultimately lead to large-scale, transformative results. Freitag and her colleagues believe there is no shortage of ideas in every single state, and previous rounds of Innovation Prize applications bear that out.

When the prize launched in 2015, the foundation received over a thousand applications from 45 states, ultimately awarding 10 prizes. There were 2015 award winners from the expected areas of New York, California and Washington, D.C., but there were also fascinating projects from West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington State.   

In its second round of J.M.K. Innovation Prize awards in 2017, the foundation received even more applications (1,193 to be exact) from 49 of 50 states. It again identified 10 award winners representing innovative ideas across the nation, including Western North Carolina, Texas, Georgia and Hawaii.  

What’s the one state that hasn’t offered up an innovative idea? “We are not into calling out specific places because we know that every single state has amazing innovators, and we just haven’t done a good enough job of letting everyone know about the availability of this funding,” Freitag says. “While we received applications from nearly every state in 2017, this year, we are determined to hear from even more people everywhere in the United States who are thinking of new ways to protect natural resources, conserve the places communities care about, and advance reforms to the criminal justice and immigration systems. It’s all about spreading the word and making more connections.”

For innovators across the nation, the opportunity to apply is now open. From January 29 to April 30, 2019, the J.M.K. Innovation Prize is accepting first-round applications. In 2019, the foundation will again award up to 10 prizes, each including a cash award of $150,000 over three years, plus $25,000 for supplemental project expenses, for a total award of $175,000. Awardees also receive guidance from people in the foundation and its resource network.

Beyond the cash award and connections within the J.M. Kaplan Fund’s vast network of funders, social entrepreneurs and policy leaders, the Innovation Prize also provides tools to help prize winners turn their ideas into action. Over the three-year prize term, the foundation convenes awardees twice each year. The meetings offer opportunities for peer learning and mentoring from experts in organizational development, board cultivation, media coaching, leadership training and more.

“J.M. Kaplan Fund staff have been cheerleaders and morale-boosters, which is an important if often overlooked role in philanthropy,” West Virginia’s Brandon Dennison said of his experience as a prize winner for Coalfield Development Corporation.  

Funded in the 2015 inaugural round of the prize, Dennison’s Reclaim Appalachia project is a particularly apt example of innovation germinating in parts of America often overlooked by large philanthropic institutions. Reclaim Appalachia addresses the interconnected economic, cultural and environmental distress of West Virginia’s collapsing coal economy by hiring unemployed young adults to rehabilitate formerly industrial and other derelict buildings as affordable housing and cultural anchors, while at the same time offering community college credits and life-skills training. At the end of their 30-month contract, trainees earn an associate’s degree, have valuable new work experience, possess four professional certifications, and can be placed with private-sector partners to begin careers or start their own businesses. Dennison’s Coalfield Development Corporation is now ambitiously converting an oft-demeaned cultural heritage into a catalyst for regional revival.

Gina Clayton of Essie Justice Group in Oakland, California—another prize recipient—said that the connections to innovators from across the country had a huge impact on her idea’s progress. “The convenings provided incredibly valuable spaces where I was able to connect with peers, deepen relationships and consider the big-picture evolution of the organization.” That’s immensely valuable to her group, which was founded to address the impact of mass incarceration by advancing an agenda of “healing to advocacy” that organizes women with incarcerated loved ones to push for social and policy reform. 

How will the J.M.K. Innovation Prize reach its 2019 goal of receiving applications and hearing from innovators in every state in the nation? The J.M. Kaplan Fund is doubling down on an aggressive communications campaign to reach innovators everywhere, which includes making presentations at conferences, reaching out to more community foundations and innovation centers all across the nation, increasing efforts to make connections to innovators through state-based nonprofit and funder associations, advancing social media conversations using the hashtag #KaplanPrize, and enlisting the help of philanthropic sector leaders in every state.

The “winner-take-all geography” trend described by Richard Florida and Ian Hathaway in which “just the top five cities account for nearly half of the global total, and the top 25 for more than three-quarters of global venture capital investment” is not likely to reverse anytime soon. So is the philanthropic sector prepared to address the effects of this increasing concentration of wealth and funding for social innovation? The J.M.K. Innovation Prize hopes not only to identify creative social change ideas, but also to demonstrate that funders can lead the way in recognizing the vast societal implications of intensifying concentrations of capital and begin to mitigate those effects.