Opinion
November 12, 2015

How Offering an Innovation Prize Energized Our Grant Making

Drawing courtesy LAGI

Land Art Generator Initiative, a 2015 J.M.K. Innovation Prize winner, holds competitions for urban art installations that generate clean energy. “Windstalk" won a mention from the jury in one competition.

In January, our foundation put out a call to anyone in America with a promising solution to a social problem.

In return, we offered 10 prizes, each worth up to $175,000 over three years — enough, we hoped, to set a fledgling effort on the path to success. We held our breath, watching applications trickle in. Would we catch the eye of wildly inventive social innovators?

As a family foundation, the J.M. Kaplan Fund has supported early-stage innovation for 70 years. So we knew well that talented people are seeking to solve social challenges in creative ways. We also knew that there aren’t nearly enough resources to launch and sustain worthy ideas to transform society. The J.M.K. Innovation Prize gave us an opportunity to find and fund those projects, priming the pump of future aid from other grant makers.

But we’d never done anything quite like this. For us, the prize was an experiment in philanthropy. We were taking a chance not just on untested ideas and social activists but on a new way of doing business as a foundation. If successful, program officers would actively participate and contribute their deep expertise to the review process, and ultimately we would infuse new ideas into our longstanding grant-making programs.

Luckily, we weren’t starting entirely from scratch. The fund has a tradition of innovative grant making to groups that work on causes like cultural heritage, migration, historic preservation, and the natural environment. We also learned from other groups that have a long track record of supporting social entrepreneurs, such as Echoing Green, the Claneil Foundation, and the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, whose staff members generously shared their experience.

"These social entrepreneurs knocked our socks off. They showed us new approaches for making social change happen."
Moments before our deadline, the trickle became a flood as 1,138 applications poured in from all corners of the country: Iñupiat leaders confronting drug abuse among Alaskan youths by immersing them in native values and traditions; manufacturers in the Mississippi River Delta teaching needy students laser cutting, 3-D printing, and other 21st-century skills; Brooklyn teachers creating justice programs for young offenders; and others bringing fresh thinking to diverse fields.

These social entrepreneurs knocked our socks off. They showed us new approaches for making social change happen. And, we discovered, their methods can reshape our own work as grant makers. We learned more when we analyzed all 1,138 applications and spotted trends shaping social innovation today.

Across the board, we found that the strongest solutions to complex social problems are hybrid approaches. Cross-disciplinary thinking and unconventional partnerships are what turn a good idea into a game-changer. Whether it’s combining energy-saving building retrofits with youth job programs or reintegrating returning veterans in communities through organic farming, these boundary-jumping ideas allow social innovators to broaden their impact and support their missions in sustainable ways.

Second, many social entrepreneurs are serving the economically disadvantaged, ranging from community-based crowdfunding platforms to housing solutions for families whose homes have been foreclosed. Their work suggests that rooting out income inequality can be a multiplier for social change. Two of our prizewinners, Essie Justice Group and ScholarCHIPS (for Children of Incarcerated Parents) are developing creative ways to support the spouses, siblings, and children of incarcerated adults by focusing on ways to help them rebound from the economic problems caused by mass incarceration.

Third, innovators are redrawing the boundaries between for-profit and nonprofit social enterprise. One winner, Enable Community Foundation, uses production tools common in the for-profit world — crowdsourcing, mass customization, and distributed manufacturing — to deliver 3D-printed prosthetic hands and arms to children through a network of "digitally savvy humanitarians."

Above all, we learned that social entrepreneurs need the freedom to fail. In the for-profit world, investors have recognized that failure is the next best thing to success, allowing entrepreneurs to iterate and discover. The way we see it, not every inspired idea will succeed. And that’s not just OK — it’s a fact of entrepreneurial life.

"We're already learning from these activists who see challenges and opportunities on the ground."
Taking a chance on these ideas has inspired and energized our grant making, challenged us to reassess our assumptions, and prompted us to risk failure just like the social entrepreneurs who won our prize.

The democratic spirit of the prize, we believe, made it an especially powerful tool. Unlike traditional grant making, we kept the bar of entry low, asking for a brief description of applicants’ ideas, not a complex proposal that few start-up entrepreneurs could manage. We sought out people with visionary ideas who weren’t necessarily plugged into philanthropic networks. We didn’t care whether they had decades of nonprofit experience or were a budding innovator — as long as their idea had transformative potential.

We couldn’t have imagined a more exciting pool of innovators of diverse ages, experiences, and passions. We’re already learning from these activists who see challenges and opportunities on the ground. And, most important, we are helping germinate life-changing ideas that might otherwise be lost.

Will we do it again? It’s too soon to know where our innovation experiment will take us. We’re eager to work with our first set of award winners — and understand how to focus our impact — before we launch another round of innovation funding. What we do know is that social innovation is thriving in America. We should all be seeking to support — and learn from — this outrageously creative force for social good.

Peter Davidson is chairman of the J.M. Kaplan Fund, where Amy Freitag is director.