About the J.M.K. Innovation Prize

The J.M.K. Innovation Prize seeks out innovators who are spearheading transformative early-stage projects in the fields of the environment, heritage conservation, and social justice.

Since launching the Innovation Prize in 2015, The J.M. Kaplan Fund has reached across America to support early-stage social and environmental initiatives with extraordinary potential. Over three biennial rounds of the Prize, we’ve supported innovators empower­ing frontline climate fighters, confronting gentrification, revolutionizing immigration law, and much more in solutions that show how top-down inequi­ties can be conquered through bottom-up action.

For our most recent round of the Prize, we named ten winning initiatives from the class of 2019, each of whom will receive up to $175,000 over three years and participate in a learning collaborative of fellow innovators to support their journey as change agents. To learn more, download our report on the 2019 Prize, view awardees from previous Prize cycles, and explore additional resources at the bottom of this page.


For more than three generations, The J.M. Kaplan Fund has provided catalytic funding for projects in their early stages of development. Whether a pilot project, a new organization, or a nascent initiative, work supported by the Fund has involved a certain measured risk that ultimately led to large-scale, transformative results. We launched The J.M.K. Innovation Prize in 2015 to leverage this legacy of catalytic grant-making in the field of social innovation. Currently on a biennial schedule, the Prize has to date funded thirty wildly creative solutions to social and environmental challenges. Each awardee takes a visionary approach to a societal need, working within one or more of the Fund’s three program areas:

  • The Environment: Protecting natural resources and reducing the impacts of climate change.
  • Heritage Conservation: Conserving the places that communities care about most.
  • Social Justice: Supporting just alternatives and reforms to the criminal justice and immigration systems.

Tailored for Early-Stage Social Entrepreneurs

We know there is a scarcity of funding for untested ideas being piloted in the social innovation field. The Prize is designed to fill this gap in innovation philanthropy, supporting ideas that other funders may deem too risky or too small. We also know that early-stage innovators need the freedom to seize opportunities when and where they arise. The Prize’s unrestricted funding offers this flexibility, letting awardees deploy resources where they are most needed.

“The Prize’s pacing and amount of funding allowed for building on the successes and lessons learned from the previous year for maximum impact.”

– Alan Lovewell, Bay2Tray, a project of Real Good Fish

We know each organization must follow its own path to achieving a change-making vision. With its three-year period, the Prize gives awardees room to evolve at their own pace, with an infrastructure of support tailored to their specific needs as early-stage innovators.

“Many early-stage prizes in the innovation field are focused on speed, scale, and markets at the expense of depth and connection. What we so appreciated about The J.M.K. Innovation Prize is that we were part of a cohort of people who approach their work from a community-centered perspective, and who are working on longer, more lasting time frames.”

– Michelle Miller & Jess Kutch, Coworker.org

An Innovation Community

Beyond the cash award, the Innovation Prize provides tools to help turn ideas into action. Over the three-year Prize term, we bring awardees together for two convenings each year. Each of these meetings, spotlighting a different awardee’s organization, offers opportunities for peer learning and mentoring from experts in organizational development, board cultivation, media coaching, leadership training, and more. From West Virginia coal country to Monterey, California, our awardees have shared powerful learning moments, embedded in one another’s work and reflecting on their role as change agents.

“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.”

– Gina Clayton, Essie Justice Group

Through these gatherings, we seek to cultivate a community of innovators who can build meaningful relationships with one another as well as with the Fund. Indeed, a hallmark of the Prize is the Fund’s readiness to devote its considerable resource network to support awardees throughout their Prize term and beyond. Whether providing guidance on nonprofit management or an introduction to a fellow funder, the Fund and its staff are there for awardees—both to celebrate the successes and offer strategic counsel amid the inevitable challenges of a social innovation startup.

“J.M. Kaplan Fund staff have been cheerleaders and morale-boosters, which is an important if often overlooked role in philanthropy.”

– Brandon Dennison, Coalfield Development Corporation


Individuals or teams representing nonprofit or for-profit organizations are eligible to apply for the Innovation Prize, which is awarded to projects or ideas that:

  • represent a game-changing answer to a clearly identified need;
  • are innovative within one or more of the Fund’s three program areas;
  • demonstrate the potential to develop an actionable pilot or prototype with Prize funding; and
  • hold out the promise to benefit multiple individuals, communities, or sectors through a clearly articulated theory of change.

Some cutting-edge social innovation can be more impactful using market solutions, but may require philanthropic seed capital. We thus support mission-driven for-profit organizations, with funding provided in the form of philanthropic grants rather than an equity stake in the company.


Read about all of our awardees from the class of 2019 and previous Prize cycles.

To dive deeper into the Prize:

  • Read our 2019 report, Growing Grassroots Resilience, with seven takeaways highlighting the resourcefulness and moxie of social innovators committed to advancing community resilience.
  • Our 2017 report, Community-based Change Agents Rise Up, features insights from entrepreneurs using new technologies, cross-sector collaboration, and a blend of for-profit and not-for-profit tools to create change across the country.
  • Learning from America’s Social Entrepreneurs explores themes from the inaugural Prize cycle, including a prescient concern for income inequality as a lens for social practice.


For the first time, The J.M. Kaplan Fund is opening up its database of Innovation Prize applications to funders across the nation and around the world, inviting them to tap into the innovative ideas and individuals that may spring from their own communities or be related to their program interests. There are more than 1,300 innovative ideas from the 2019 round that have considerable merit, and the Fund is eager to help connect these social innovators with resources and opportunities.

Funders interested in receiving additional information about innovators in their communities and program areas may contact Justin Goldbach, Program Director, The J.M.K. Innovation Prize, at JMKInnovationPrize@JMKFund.org.


We are not currently accepting applications for The J.M.K. Innovation Prize. Please check back for updates on future Prize cycles.

To receive announcements about the Prize and other updates from the Fund, please submit your contact details at the lower right-hand corner of this page.

We want to hear from you! Send us a note at JMKInnovationPrize@JMKFund.org.