The 2015 J.M.K. Innovation Prize and Report

Launched in early 2015, The J.M.K. Innovation Prize was designed to seek out boldly promising ideas in the field of social sector innovation—however untested or wherever they arise. From a pool of more than one thousand applications from every corner of the country, we selected ten outstanding awardees who receive multi-year support for their visionary ideas.

Seeing those applications as a valuable source of information about the makeup and trends of the social innovation sector in the U.S., the Fund commissioned a study that distills seven key insights from the submissions received.

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

Why an Innovation Prize?

Innovation is in The J.M. Kaplan Fund’s DNA. From our inception more than 70 years ago as a New York–based family foundation, we have championed risky, early-stage endeavors focusing on longstanding subject areas of heritage conservation, social justice, and the built and natural environments.

We know there is a hunger for early-stage funding. Today, many outstanding ideas fail to find backing from established philanthropic sources. We sought to fill this gap, not only by providing capital to the social innovation field, but also by taking risks on projects that others may consider unfledged. In addition, we wanted to introduce social innovation funding into areas not typically served by the field—including historic preservation and environmental conservation—thereby bringing visionary thinking to realms that have long been a central focus of the Fund.

The Prize Process

We offered up to ten $175,000 awards to U.S.-based individuals or teams working with a non-profit organization or fiscal sponsor to address our country’s most pressing needs through social-sector innovation. Each award consists of up to three years of support at $50,000 per year, plus $25,000 for technical assistance or project expenses. Just as important, winners benefit from the Fund’s community of social innovation experts and fellow entrepreneurs as a peer-learning network.

The response was overwhelming: 1,138 applications from 45 states as well as Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. We built a rigorous evaluation process, recruiting 373 volunteer reviewers from the Fund’s network. Each application was scored by at least 6 reviewers, after which 202 entries were advanced to the second round. Fuller applications were read by subject matter and social innovation experts in disciplines including justice, education, human rights, food systems, energy, natural resources, and the arts. From a group of 15 finalists, we selected ten awardees we believe offer extraordinary potential.