The J.M.K. Innovation Prize Report


Download The J.M.K. Innovation Prize: Learning from America’s Social Entrepreneurs

After announcing the Prize in January 2015, the J.M. Kaplan Fund was pleasantly surprised to receive 1,138 submissions, far more than expected. Seeing those applications as a valuable pool of information about the makeup and trends of the social innovation sector in the U.S., the Kaplan Fund commissioned a study that distills seven key insights from the submissions received:

1. Innovators are cross-wiring solutions to intractable social challenges. Among Innovation Prize entries, we found the strongest solutions to complex social problems are additive: hybrid approaches, cross-disciplinary thinking, and unconventional partnerships are what turn a good idea into a game-changer. Whether it’s combining green buildings with social justice, or crossing micro-loans with homeless youth, boundary-jumping ideas allow social innovators to multiply impacts, broaden audiences, and support their mission in sustainable ways.

2. Income inequality offers a transformative lens for social practice. The theme of economic empowerment proved one of the most powerful attractors for our pool of non-profit social entrepreneurs. We found 12% of Innovation Prize applicants seek to serve the economically disadvantaged, ranging from community-based crowdfunding platforms to innovative housing solutions for foreclosure affected families. In concert with renewed attention to equity issues across America, these applications suggest that rooting out income inequality can be a multiplier for social change.

3. We won’t solve America’s incarceration crisis without investing in youth. Among Innovation Prize applicants who defined a target population, the top focus by far is youth. Nearly 20% of all initiatives seek to serve children and young adults, reflecting a widespread belief that to make an impact, social action must engage the next generation. Whether it is Berkeley students nurturing climate-change leaders, or Alabama social workers pioneering supportive tools for LGBTQ youth, innovators across the board are focusing fresh energy on future change-makers.

4. Place-based innovation is retooling community activism. Of necessity, many fledgling social innovators start out local and dial up ambitions as resources permit. But social innovation, we discovered, finds particularly fertile ground at the local scale: more than half of all Innovation Prize applicants targeted the city or community as their area of impact. By another metric, the top issue area addressed across all applications was community improvement and development. The upshot? A sea change in the way citizens, government, community groups, and philanthropy come together to support community transformation.

5. Water unites causes with catalytic social and environmental impacts. Among applications focused on the environment—notable among the Rocky Mountain, Southwest, Far West, and Southeast regions—water has emerged as an all-encompassing concern, crossing the Kaplan Fund’s grant areas of climate change, conservation, land use, and oceans. As with the power of place, water can activate communities around interlinked social and environmental causes.

6. For-profit and non-profit social enterprises are trading tactics. For a variety of reasons—strategic, financial, and philosophical—Innovation Prize applicants are re-drawing the boundaries between for-profit and non-profit social enterprise. In some cases, non-profits are leveraging for-profit tools to secure financial sustainability and scale. On the other side, for-profits are tapping into the street credibility of non-profit partners. And tech-powered social activists are co-opting the disruptive capacity of the Internet to catapult change-resistant sectors into the twenty-first century.

7. As much as anything, social entrepreneurs need the freedom to fail. We found social innovation bubbling up across the nation with scarcely any philanthropic aid. Bootstrapped by Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns, today’s social entrepreneurs are going it on their own, yet remain starved for the high-risk support that allows them to make the leap toward world-changing success.