When The Award is Just the Beginning: What’s Next for the Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom

By Jon Woocher, PhD

Over the past several years, prizes have become a significant part of the American philanthropic landscape. According to a story in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, citing a McKinsey & Company report, philanthropic prize activity is now worth $1-2 billion annually. The McKinsey report went on to suggest that “every leading philanthropist should consider the opportunity to use prizes to help achieve their mission, and to accept the challenge of fully exploiting this powerful tool.” In fact, the use of prizes to advance a philanthropic goal turns out to be far more complex than may seem apparent at first glance. Different types of prizes, the SSIR article contends, are suitable for quite different purposes and under different circumstances. It describes three different types: 1) recognition prizes that honor work that has already taken place (e.g., the Nobel Prizes); 2) incentive prizes that seek to motivate entrants to pursue a clearly defined objective by awarding money (and recognition) to those who achieve that objective (often first) (e.g., the X prizes); and 3) resource prizes, where winners propose a plan to achieve a specified objective and receive funding to implement that plan (e.g., the TED prize). All of these, as well as hybrid types, are now being used widely, and though prize philanthropy is certainly subject to critique, there is every prospect that its use will grow.

When Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah decided in 2016 to launch its own recognition prize competition, we didn’t really think of ourselves as joining a bandwagon. Our mission is to help people apply Jewish wisdom – by which we mean the accumulating corpus of Jewish teachings, practices, and historical experience, both classical and contemporary – in order to live better lives and shape a better world. We knew that there were organizations and programs across the spectrum of Jewish life that were engaged in this work, and we wanted both to give recognition to their efforts and learn from their experience. We were surprised and delighted to discover that many more programs were in fact seeking to apply Jewish wisdom in a wide range of areas, from developing character to sustaining the environment, than we had imagined. We received over 200 applications from which a jury selected a half dozen worthy Prize winners and runners-up.

But, we were also mindful of the last part of that McKinsey recommendation and asked ourselves: How could we “fully exploit” the Prize as a tool to advance our mission? As the report notes:

A prize’s life cycle does not end the day the award is bestowed. On the contrary, much of a prize’s impact can only be generated after the award is given. Further investment can reinforce winning ideas or take them to scale. The prize’s community of problem solvers can disseminate ideas and use them to solve other problems. And the sponsor can learn and apply lessons from the prize’s design and delivery that will improve its own impact in future competitions, or the impact of other prizes. Prizes not structured to reinforce impact in these ways may exert a positive effect on their own winners, but nonetheless fail or fall short of their sponsor’s ultimate aspiration for change. (p.69)

With this in mind, we decided not to run another Prize competition in 2017. Rather, we’re using this year to follow-up and try to capitalize on the relationships developed and the information gleaned in the course of the 2016 competition. Though still a work in progress and in many ways a series of experiments for us, we’re in the process of implementing a number of activities designed to amplify the Prize’s impact:

Research Using the Program Information Gathered: The 200+ submissions for the Prize are a treasure trove of information about how organizations are seeking to apply Jewish wisdom. They can help us better understand what Jewish wisdom programs value and are seeking to transmit and apply; how they are making that wisdom accessible and applicable to participants; what they are learning about the factors that make for effective programs; and what impacts they are having, both on participants and more broadly. We will be producing a series of studies of our own based on this information (the first of these, on Jewish Outdoor Food/Farming and Environmental Education [JOFEE] programs, is available here (link coming soon)). We’ve also circulated a request for proposals, inviting researchers to undertake studies of interest to them using the database, with a stipend paid by the Foundation.

Convening Prize Applicants: An important motivation for us in launching the Lippman Kanfer Prize was helping to build a sense of common endeavor among the organizations engaged in applying Jewish wisdom. To strengthen this sense and give it practical effect, we are planning to bring together around three dozen of the applicants next fall for a three-day retreat where they will be able to share their work and problem-solve together. To participate, organizations will need to bring an issue they are dealing with to the group and be prepared to help other participants address challenges they are experiencing. Using this approach, we will draw on the “wisdom of the crowd” to advance the state of the art in the field, as well as build stronger relationships among programs and practitioners.

Drawing on the Expertise and Experience of the Prize Winners: Obviously, one of the major assets emerging from a Prize competition are the winners – those who exemplify best what the Prize seeks to recognize and promote. We are fortunate to have six outstanding and diverse winners and runners-up, so giving them an opportunity to share some of their approaches and learnings is a logical way to take advantage of their achievements. We will be offering a series of webinars featuring the Prize recipients open not only to all of the applicants, but to the wider field of Jewish education as a whole. These will also serve as the beginnings of a “good practices” archive that can be expanded with other material from future winners and other exemplary programs.

Planning the Next Prize Iteration: Finally, we want to make sure that we thoughtfully glean lessons from the first round of the Prize competition to design the next iteration. In addition to our Board and staff, we’re putting together a small group of advisers from outside the foundation to help us assess how well our initial experience met the goals we set and what we might do differently in the next go-round. We don’t know yet, therefore, what a 2018 Prize competition will look like, but we want to make sure, a la McKinsey, that it advances our overall mission as strongly as possible.

We inaugurated the Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom somewhat naively, in part to celebrate 50 years of Kanfer family philanthropy and in part with the instinct that there was activity taking place to put Jewish wisdom to positive use that merited broader awareness and appreciation. We feel that we got far more out of the initial competition than we bargained for. Now, we’re determined to do even better by following-up on that first round, and we’re eager to see the results.

Jon Woocher, PhD, is Senior Fellow at Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah.