About the 2023 J.M.K. Innovation Prize
The J.M.K. Innovation Prize seeks to identify, support, and elevate innovators who are spearheading transformative early-stage projects in the fields of the environment, heritage conservation, and social justice.
In 2023, we will award up to ten Prizes, each including a cash award of $150,000 over three years, plus $25,000 in technical assistance funds, for a total award of $175,000. Awardees also receive guidance through the Fund and its resource network, providing tools and training to support them through the challenges of a startup organization.
Our open application period for this year’s Prize closed on April 28th. Thank you to all who submitted projects and helped us reach innovators across the country. Stay tuned for updates about our applicant pool and review process.
ABOUT THE PRIZE
In a time of increasingly convergent social and environmental challenges, our need for ambitious new ideas could not be clearer. We know that transforming the future of our climate and society will require new voices and models for change-making. We also know that leaders of budding movements and solutions are hard at work in the gaps between and beyond the reach of traditional funding streams. Time and again, through hardship and against systemic forces, we’ve seen innovators defy conventions and reach across established disciplines to forge new paths to social impact. We created the J.M.K. Innovation Prize to support and elevate them.
Since 2015, over four biennial cycles, we’ve called on change-makers across the country to submit projects with transformative potential. To date, we’ve supported 40 wildly creative social and environmental initiatives, ranging from Catholic sisters engaged in land reparations to rural entrepreneurs converting mining runoff into pigments for high-quality paints. Leveraging a legacy of catalytic grant-making at the J.M. Kaplan Fund, the Prize seeks out visionary nonprofit and mission-driven for-profit organizations that work within, across, or in a manner related to one or more of the Fund’s three program areas:
- The Environment: Slowing the pace of climate change and mitigating climate impacts.
- Heritage Conservation: Conserving the places that communities care about most.
- Social Justice: Strengthening democracy and reforming the criminal justice and immigration systems.
THE PRIZE PROCESS
Applications are open to individuals or teams representing nonprofit or mission-driven for-profit organizations. The Prize will be awarded to projects or ideas that:
- Represent a game-changing answer to a clearly identified need;
- Innovate 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.
Following review of first-round submissions, select applicants will be invited to submit a more detailed second-round application in late spring. Finalists will present their ideas to the trustees of the J.M. Kaplan Fund in the fall, with awardees formally announced in November 2023.
Beyond naming up to ten awardees, the Fund is eager to help connect Prize applicants – and their many promising initiatives – with resources and opportunities. As part of this effort, the Fund will make its database of applications to the 2023 Prize available to funders who may seek to tap into innovative individuals working within their own communities or program areas.
DESIGNED FOR EARLY-STAGE ENTREPRENEURS
We know that there is precious little funding for untested ideas in the social innovation field. We designed the Prize to fill this gap in philanthropy, nurturing ideas that other funders may deem too risky or nascent. Anticipating the challenges of a startup organization, the Prize combines unrestricted funding with consultative support from our staff and partners. A flexible bank of technical assistance funds also allows awardees to deploy resources when and where they’re needed most – whether replacing crucial farming equipment or upgrading their website.
“We’ve received several federal grants that were very strict, and the unrestricted nature of the J.M.K. Innovation Prize allowed our organization to flourish, particularly considering our focus on social-enterprise models.”
– Molly Hemstreet & Sara Chester, The Industrial Commons
Above all, we know each organization must follow its own path. With its three-year term, the Prize gives awardees room to evolve at their own pace, with support tailored to their needs as 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 timeframes.”
– Michelle Miller & Jess Kutch, Coworker.org
AN INNOVATION COMMUNITY
Over four rounds of the Prize, we’ve seen how community among awardees can spark new innovations and help turn ideas to action. Over the three-year term, we bring awardees together for two convenings each year. These meetings spotlight a fellow awardee organization, foster peer learning, and offer mentoring from experts in organizational development, leadership training, and more. From Coastal California to rural Appalachia our awardees have shared in powerful conversations and learning by being embedded in one another’s work and reflecting on their role as change agents.
Throughout their Prize term and beyond, awardees also benefit from the Fund’s considerable resource network. 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 stresses 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
To dive deeper into the Prize, read our reports on previous cycles:
- Building Pathways to Collective Power (2021) highlights trends and lessons learned from our pool of proposals in 2021, as well as reflections on how the Prize has touched off social impacts far beyond the Fund.
- Growing Grassroots Resilience (2019) features seven takeaways highlighting the resourcefulness and moxie of social innovators committed to advancing community resilience.
- Community-Based Change Agents Rise Up (2017) 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 (2015) explores themes from the inaugural Prize cycle, including a prescient concern for income inequality as a lens for social practice.