The following is a conversation between Amy Freitag, Executive Director of The J.M. Kaplan Fund, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.


Denver: The J.M. Kaplan Fund champions transformative social, environmental, and cultural causes through inventive grantmaking. Over its history, the Fund has devoted some $300 million to propel fledgling efforts concerning civil liberties, human rights, the arts, and the conservation and enhancement of the built and natural worlds. To continue its legacy of catalytic giving, the Fund launched the J.M.K. Innovation Prize in 2015, reaching across America to provide early-stage support for entrepreneurs with 21st-century solutions to urgent social challenges.

And here to discuss all of that with us is Amy Freitag, the Executive Director of The J.M. Kaplan Fund.

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Amy.

Amy Freitag, Executive Director of The J.M. Kaplan Fund

Amy: Oh, thank you, Denver. It’s so good to be with you today. 

Denver: The Fund was established back in the 1940s by Jacob Kaplan. Share with us the founding story of the organization and a bit of its history. 

Amy: Well, J.M. Kaplan was truly a great American success story. He grew up poor in a poor neighborhood of Boston, and through his own sheer grit and determination, and creativity, and innovative spirit, built up a tremendous career of agricultural innovations, first working in the sugar industry, but most famously lifting up a group of grape growers in western New York State that became the mighty brand of Welch’s grape juice in America. 

So J.M. built up that group and then ultimately sold the company back to the grape growers, which was a really early innovative sort of model of cooperative ownership. And rather than profiting from that exchange, he actually invested the money to create a family foundation that is still led by his family today. We’re led by the third generation, J.M.’s grandchildren, 76 years later. 

Denver:  And he also was noteworthy in the institutions of New York that he supported, some of the most famous. Tell us about those. 

Amy: Oh, J.M. was a massive fan of The New School. He in fact really helped The New School through some early troubling days. And still today, there’s a building in his name on the campus of The New School. Probably the most famous institution that J.M. really came to the rescue of was Carnegie Hall. He was reached then by Isaac Stern, who was trying to counter all the momentum that was going into building Lincoln Center that was actually resulting in the push to demolish Carnegie Hall. So J.M. not only funded the effort to save Carnegie Hall, he rolled up his sleeves. He went up to Albany. He lobbied. And obviously, the history is written in the fact that the Carnegie Hall is still such a thriving institution. So J.M. was a guy that championed the cause that other people might have given up for lost. 

He also was a guy that would take an early bet on an innovator. I’ll use the example of an amazing guy named Bob Hayes, who came to him out of the blue and said, I think there’s something we can do for the homeless in New York City. And J.M. really invested in Bob, his work, his legal work that even today created the benchmarked protections in support of the homeless in New York City. So J.M. was a pretty remarkable guy, and he had a real eye for talent. 

Denver: Yeah, even the artists’ housing, he did that as well. He really was a pioneer. I was stunned when I did research on him, all the things that he had done and all the things that he had been engaged with.

Amy: It’s true. And his daughter who is still alive, who is our president emeritus, Joan Davidson, really would lift up our Westbeth Artists Housing as one of the greatest achievements of the Fund during that period when people began to realize that New York City wasn’t affordable and certainly wasn’t affordable for its artists. It stood as an example for its time and still today as one of the only purpose-built housing complexes to support artists. And it was the adaptive use of a tremendous industrial site in the West Village that now is a real landmark. 

Denver:  I’m always struck, Amy, how the DNA of an organization is really inoculated at its founding and how it carries through. And every time I’ve always wondered about an organization, I go back and look at the founding story, and it really informs me as to who they are and how they operate. So taking that founding, tell us about what you’re doing today. We’ll get to the Innovation Prize in a moment, but what are the areas of interest and the kind of things that the Fund is investing in?

Amy:The Fund has three major buckets of work, and these really go back to the earliest days of the Fund. Three sort of throughlines of areas of focus. One is on the environment. We’ve always cared a lot about conservation of open space. That turns out to be a critical play in mitigating impacts of climate change. So we focus very much on environment and natural climate solutions to address the climate crisis. That’s one bucket. 

 The second bucket would be social justice, and that has really changed in its focus over the years, but there’s always been a real commitment at the Fund to address the needs of people,  and that today is manifested in a focus around democracy and the right to vote. We focused a lot on immigration and welcoming immigrants to America, and we’ve also focused a lot on trying to bring an end to mass incarceration, specifically in New York City, but that, really through the Innovation Prize, has become a national effort.

Denver: Let’s get to the Innovation Prize. You started that back in 2015, it’s The J.M.K. Innovation Prize. How did that come about, and how is it different, let’s say, than some of the other innovation prizes that are out there? 

Amy: Well, I’ll tell you, it was one of the greatest challenges when I was interviewing to lead The J.M. Kaplan Fund back in 2014, I was asked the question:  If you had an additional bank of funds, what would you do? And honestly, that’s the impetus that drove the idea of the Innovation Prize, which was this idea that the Kaplan Fund had been working  very successfully in certain subject matter areas and in certain geographies. But what we lacked was a sort of open call, an opportunity to hear from the grassroots, from the innovators out in the field. What were the new and innovative ideas? And that really goes back to your earlier question about J.M. He knew New York City and he knew all the players. And so when he saw a promising spark of an idea or an innovator, he knew to take a bet on them.

Then we asked ourselves a question. Now we’re a national, even an international funder. How do you have that same spark and intelligence about where the rising needs are in the country? And so the idea of the Prize was to reach out across the country and hear from the folks closest to the problems. What are the solutions that they see? And you’ve got to love our trustees. They took the risk with us, right? But they’ve always had a high degree of risk tolerance, which I think is one of the things that’s really distinguished the Kaplan Fund over the years. 

They take the early and risky bet on an idea. Maybe back in the ’70s, that was funding the first green markets in New York City when * came to the Fund and said: I have this idea… let’s bring a bunch of farmers down from the Hudson Valley and set them up in some of the most drug-infested parks in New York City and look at the transformation of Union Square.

So we tried to rekindle that same imagination and that same ability to identify talent. We just enlisted the sort of grassroots population of America to give us the idea. So the Innovation Prize is an open call once every two years across the country to ask deliberately for early-stage innovative projects that fall within our three subject matter areas.

 And where I think we differentiated, and I have to give it up to my wonderful colleague, Tony Wood, who runs the Ittleson Foundation, who was supporting us at that time doing some research on social innovation funding, and he talked to Ashoka, and Echoing Green, and Draper Richards Kaplan, Claneil, all the best-in-class funders of this type of work. And they generously shared with us and gave us the idea of sort of best practices across the field to build something that was unique to The J.M. Kaplan Fund. 

So we like to think that we differentiate in this space by going earlier than others.  And we’ll take a bet, for example, on a project that may not even be a 501(c)(3). Maybe they’re a mission-driven for-profit, but we love to break down those silos. So not restricting ourselves to traditional 501(c)(3)s and looking at projects that don’t neatly fit in one bucket or another. So those are the ways that I think our Prize really differentiates. 

Denver: Yeah. And you’ve now had four biennial prizes. And you had almost 3,000 applications this year, which is absolutely out of sight. 

Amy: When we went into this cycle in 2021, honestly, Denver, we were not sure. It’s in the middle of a pandemic. Do people even have the bandwidth to respond to an open call for innovation?  But we had the sense like a lot of our fellow funders, rightly so, were retrenching and funding a lot of their consistent stable of grantees. And we were fearful that this would be a moment when innovation wasn’t going to be supported. So we really felt the pandemic demanded that we repeat the Prize.  And Boy! Were we impressed! I mean, double the number of applications than in any other year, which was a real stress test on our system! Could we, as a small organization, process that much incoming innovation? And I give it up to my wonderful colleague, Justin Goldbach, who really engineered the mechanics and the operations of the Innovation Prize. He was able to really effectively vet that number of applicants, and we’re so excited about the final pool of 10 that we selected. 

“What we weren’t expecting was this incredible creativity and imagination around combining the issues of social justice and the environment.”

Denver: Yeah. Sometimes you get too much of a good thing. You’re like, Holy Cow!  Look at the mail!  Let’s examine that pool of 10. Now you have some broad themes from this year’s class of winners. And why don’t we start with social justice is reshaping environmental practice, and I was struck that one in five applicants of this year’s prize identified with the environment and at least one other funding area. And one of those areas which was most popular was social justice. Tell us about that and a couple of the winners in that area.

Amy: Oh, well, I think we all felt, okay, we’re going to hear a lot about climate change in this pool… We’re going to hear a lot about it. What we weren’t expecting was this incredible creativity and imagination around combining the issues of social justice and the environment. So for example, our awardee Cambium Carbon is about trying to plant trees and create a reliable source of revenue to plant trees…in  some of our cities’ hardest hit neighborhoods, so places where people are most likely to succumb to heat-related impacts of climate change. 

And honestly, Denver, I go way back to my days in the New York City Parks Department where there was never enough, even when we did the Million Trees Campaign, never enough money to do some of the really basic things that can make a neighborhood safe and livable. Green, cool streets. And so Cambium Carbon figured out a mechanism to harness the wood that’s being taken out of cities and to reinvest that into new tree planting in cities. Just brilliant… that we’re so excited. 

The other thing that we saw, and I will say one of the trends that I was most excited about in this pool of Innovation Prize applicants, was a large number of applications that dealt either with tribal lands or with tribal communities. And we saw a lot coming out in the space of looking at renewable energy for remote rural communities, a lot of indigenous communities. So we saw an intersection of indigenous communities, social justice, and the environment, which I think is really promising. And I hope we see more of that in the years to come because that’s a real growing need in places that really don’t have reliable access to energy and don’t  necessarily have access to philanthropy to support that work. 

Denver: And Nuns & Nones would be one of those that you had supported that was using that land in creative ways.

Amy: Yeah. Who would have thought that there is this aging population of nuns, of sisters. Their average age, Denver, is 80. So there’s a lot of older women that have outside of the church structure a great deal of land and ownership. And they have built their whole lives and their whole mission around equity/ inclusion and trying to be supportive of the Earth, and suddenly they have to decide what to do with all their property. And Nuns & Nones is a beautiful project that’s looking to connect communities of need with these faith-based communities, and try to work on a transfer of land that really meets the goals of the sisters, but also looks to a future of regenerative agriculture and equitable use of land. So it’s a beautiful project, and we saw a number of things in that regard.

And one thing I want to make sure I say before I end this wonderful conversation with you, Denver, is that all of these applications are shareable. We have a tremendous dataset that includes not only our awardees, but also the other 2,800 applicants, and any funder who wants to join us and come in and say, “Look, I’m only interested in this state and this topic.”  We can certainly customize an output from our Innovation Prize applications so that we could really try to reach more funders with these innovative ideas because we’re just a small funder. We could only do 10, but I’m going to tell you there’s hundreds, if not more, of great projects that really deserve to be funded by the philanthropic community.

 So we welcome anybody both to download our wonderful report on the Pathways to Collective Power that’s on our website, but also encourage people to reach out to [email protected] And my colleague, Justin, would love to work with another funder to help customize an output from the data we receive from the Innovation Prize to drive their philanthropy or provide new ideas for their philanthropy. 

Denver: That’s fantastic. And we’re not going to end this conversation any time soon because I’ve got more to ask you. 

Amy: Okay, I’m here for you, Denver. 

Denver: There you go. Another theme was that the savvy public engagement opens pathways to power and Citizen SHE  would exemplify that. Tell me about that organization; it’s new to me. 

Amy: Oh, Nia Weeks is one of the most inspiring women anybody can ever meet. She is a one woman organizer powerhouse located in Louisiana, and her vision really was to just look across the life outcomes, the health outcomes for women in Louisiana, and realize Louisiana isn’t working for those women. What she does… she’s an attorney… she’s worked in all kinds of public sectors in representing people in need in Louisiana. But she really felt she had a specific talent that could help build power among women in Louisiana. 

So Citizen SHE is all about organizing women, and her successes to date are already significant. They passed something called the CROWN Act in Louisiana that gives women the right to wear their hair the way they want to wear their hair in the workplace and one of the first states to pass that legislation. And that is just a testament to Nia’s gift for organizing. She uses storytelling and media in digital organizing to such great effect that she’s often sought by Black Voters Matter and Color of Change and others to lead others in workshops on how to do that work. 

So I feel so strongly about the vision that Nia brings to her work. It’s similar to what Mike Milton is doing in St. Louis with The Freedom Community Center. Mike Milton is an extraordinary individual who has had a hard life himself, but has used his life experience to organize and build power in St. Louis. He came out of Ferguson. He’s effectively worked with his community to close their local jail, which is similar to the effort here in New York around Rikers. 

Denver: Rikers, yeah.

Amy: And now he’s using The Freedom Community Center as a little hub of restorative justice in St. Louis, trying to end the violence that has so plagued that community, and building power in a community that really wants to take back these systems to heal their historic inequities and to really build opportunity in St. Louis. So two projects that I think really exemplify savvy public engagement. 

Denver: Absolutely. And let me ask you about one more, and that is how Black women are catalyzing large-scale change, and why don’t we discuss Black Women Build – Baltimore? What have they set out to do? 

Amy: Now you’ve really hit my heartstrings because I have a lot of history in urban building restoration, and I have never met anybody like Shelley Halstead. Shelley Halstead is a woman that is trained as a union carpenter and tradesperson, worked in union trades, but really felt the discrimination against women of color in her field and decided she wanted to do something about that. So, number one, she went to law school. Number two, she moved to Baltimore and became aware of this extraordinary amount of vacant, abandoned housing stock in Baltimore. But you know that exists in New York; that exists in Philadelphia.  And she went to the city and said,” I want to fix some of these buildings up.” And they said, “No, no, no, we’re going to tear those buildings down.”  And she said, “I’d really like to fix them up.”  And they said, “Nope, it’s on the demolition list.”

 But two days later, the city of Baltimore called and said, “You know what? We’re going to give you a shot.”  And Shelley Halstead has house by house, block by block, re-built sections of Baltimore, and doing it in such a way that she’s giving women of color, Black women in Baltimore, really useful skills, job-like trade skills in building, and giving them a path to own these houses affordably. 

So she has come up with the financing package. She’s come up with the training and house by house, and she’s doing it block by block. So it’s not just one house on a block that gets fixed; it’s a group of women living on that block, taking it back and building community and ownership and ultimately changing the dynamics of the neighborhood and the financial outcome for the Black women involved. So I can’t say enough about Black Women Build – Baltimore. 

“…you just got to start seeing a twinkle in someone’s eye and recognizing they might live and work in an area that isn’t as richly supported by philanthropy…they seem to be where we hit the biggest home runs.” 

Denver: Yeah, it’s a great organization. And I’ll tell you, two cities that have really come on tough times for many years now are Baltimore and Detroit, but some of the most innovative stuff in the entire world is happening in both of those cities. I see it all the time.

You have done this long enough to probably be pretty good at pattern recognition. So let me ask you this, Amy, when people come to you with these ideas– the winners– what sets them apart? Is there a thread that distinguishes them from that entire pool of applicants when it comes to innovation? 

Amy: Well, I’ll tell you, there’s not one year that I’m not just so humbled and grateful for the opportunity to meet this group of people that put their applications into the Innovation Prize. But what I’ve seen and my colleague, Justin Goldbach and I, who worked so hard on this program together along with our staff, all of whom roll up their sleeves and get involved, is that we started seeing a pattern of people that are really maybe not in the mainstream of philanthropy, people who might not be… you know, we see a density of applications on the East Coast, a density of applications on the West Coast… but periodically a project will come like this amazing project that was in our first cohort called Coalfield Development located in the heart of Appalachia, with a really smart, innovative leader who had grown up in that community, left for college and came back, really wanting to solve the social and economic struggles that he was seeing in his hometown. And you see someone like that, Brandon Dennison, and he soaks up everything about the Prize because the Prize isn’t just about money; it is three years of general operating support, $50,000 a year. 

There’s also some extra technical assistance funds, but what we try to do and my colleague, Justin, does such a beautiful job, is curate a whole set of additional supports for the winners, whether that’s communications coaching, fundraising coaching, how to build a board, how to deal with your fiscal sponsor… all these things.

 And so someone like Justin soaks up all those things in the Prize and really gets the biggest bounce coming out of the Prize. So we’re always excited when we see somebody, an organization, and it’s not just those that are on the East Coast or the West Coast, but you just got to start seeing a twinkle in someone’s eye and recognizing they might live and work in an area that isn’t as richly supported by philanthropy… they seem to be where we hit the biggest home runs. 

“They’re creating a whole little ecosystem of innovation in their town and doing it in such a deeply rooted and  connected way. Just really impressed with people like that.”

Denver: Yeah, you’re right. I think of the Louisvilles and the Cincinnatis and the St. Louises and things of that sort, there are so many diamonds in the rough out there that sometimes get overlooked by philanthropy because we do tend to be too concentrated on each coast.

Amy: It’s true. I’d use this example of this great project called Co-op Dayton. Two innovative leaders in their town, seeing generations of disinvestment in their Dayton neighborhood and realized: Well, no one’s going to come to save us. We better start building the institution and systems within our neighborhood that’s going to make it more livable. So all the cooperative grocery stores; next they’re going to look at cooperative daycare. They’re creating a whole little ecosystem of innovation in their town and doing it in such a deeply rooted and connected way. Just really impressed with people like that.

So I think for philanthropy, what we realized is that the answers are on the ground; they’re not in the offices of philanthropy… really listening to our grantees, and giving them the trust and space to make the changes and build the change in their communities that they seek.”

Denver: Let me close with this, Amy. The upheavals of the last two years have been monumental between the pandemic and racial justice and everything else that has gone on in this world. What do you believe will be the most significant and lasting impact on the philanthropic sector as a result? 

Amy: Well, I think it’s been humbling, right? I think we’ve all had to take a big pause and to look at the ways that we have been making grants historically and recognizing that we did not have the ability… we did not see this coming, nor did we necessarily think that the organizations we were supporting would have to weather this kind of incredible disruption. So I think for philanthropy, what we realized is that the answers are on the ground; they’re not in the offices of philanthropy… really listening to our grantees, and giving them the trust and space to make the changes and build the change in their communities that they seek.

I think we also learned that problems don’t really need to fit neatly in our buckets. That Co-op Dayton, for example. It’s a food desert issue, but it’s also an access-to-capital issue. It’s a whole series of issues, and sometimes philanthropy is so tied in our very described areas of giving that we need to think outside of those prescribed silos to be as effective as we need to be, and as agile and responsive. 

I also hope that we as funders organize; why don’t we do the work that we see that we’re supporting on the ground which is organizing, we ourselves can do more to organize. So as an example, we have 2,800 applications coming in from the Innovation Prize. We can fund 10. Rather than asking more of those grantees to apply further, can we, as a group of philanthropists, wrap our arms around that group of applicants and find more utility in the effort that’s already been invested by them. So I think we have to do even more work to be better organized to support the communities that really deserve and need our help.

Denver: Yeah. To that point, I was speaking to a major foundation leader recently who said he wanted to see that interdisciplinary nature of the way people are working in communities to solve problems. And I asked him about his own organization, and he admitted, We’re pretty much set up by silos. We’ve got to begin to do it in-house.

For listeners who want to learn more about The J.M. Kaplan Fund or these Innovation Prize winners, tell us about your website and what they can expect to find on it. 

Amy: Oh, please come to our website, jmkfund.org, and you can click on the 2021 Innovation Prize winners. They can actually go back and look at all prior years of the Innovation Prize winners as well, and to really dig in. And  there are videos. And then there’s also a fabulous compilation report that, again, my wonderful colleagues, the Innovation Prize team led by Justin Goldbach, puts together a fabulous compilation report that looks not just at the winners, but really looks at the whole pool of 2,800. What did we hear? What were some of the consistent themes that came out of this? 

It’s not statistically relevant, but it’s anecdotally fascinating to hear what comes out in the Prize every year. As an example, say this year, language justice rose as a throughline through several of our winner projects. Everybody that’s fighting for folks that are behind bars and have no services for being deaf and not one access to American sign language or other sort of resources for deaf people. Can you imagine anything worse than being in already a violent place, but not really understanding what people are saying to you or understanding what’s going on around you? 

Or people that provide translation services for folks trying to get through the asylum process and maybe speak an unusual dialect coming out of Guatemala, and the traditional translation services don’t support that. But this is a network of language activists that work collectively to provide those resources for free for people in need.

And then finally, we have one other group that’s just trying to save languages. Who knew that there are so many languages and dialects even spoken in the United States? Like we think of Catalan as a dying language in Spain. But in our own national borders, there are fabulous indigenous dialects and languages that are dying. And with them dies cultural identity and power and cultural tradition. And so Wikitongues is a great organization that’s trying to protect languages. So that throughline comes out in things like this report. So I hope people will read about it and learn more. And please come to us if they want to join us in any of the funding and in these wonderful Innovation Prize groups. It’s a real joy to work on. 

Denver: Yeah, no, it’s a fascinating read. And I must say my level of unawareness was pretty, pretty incredible. And when you go around …like those languages, you begin to see how myopic we have been in terms of our world and how much out there that we’re finally discovering for the first time, and it’s enriching us all. 

I want to thank you so much, Amy, for being here today. It was a real delight to have you on the show and to talk to you. 

Amy: Thank you, Denver. I really appreciate the opportunity.


Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.

Listen to more The Business of Giving episodes for free here. Subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify to get notified of new episodes. You can also follow us on TwitterInstagram, and on Facebook.

Share This: