For Release November 14, 2019, 9:00 a.m. EST

Rural Action's True Pigments Earns National Prize for social innovation

Environmental Justice Initiative Selected by J.M. Kaplan Fund from 1,300+ Ideas, Joins Nationwide Cohort of Social Innovation Leaders

New York City
The J.M. Kaplan Fund announced today the results of its nationwide search to identify ten exceptionally catalytic social and environmental change initiatives. One of the ten awardees – True Pigments – is an environmental-justice initiative of Rural Action based in Ohio that offers a powerful new model for the environmental field.

The J.M.K. Innovation Prize is awarded biennially to ten non-profit and mission-driven for-profit organizations tackling America’s most pressing challenges through social innovation – defined as those pilot projects, new organizations or nascent initiatives that involve a certain amount of measured risk but which may ultimately lead to large-scale, transformative results.  Each awardee receives up to $175,000 over three years and participates in a learning collaborative of fellow innovators to support their journey as change agents.  

“To environmental leaders across the nation, we urge you to examine the work of these innovators,” said Peter Davidson, Chairman of The J.M. Kaplan Fund Board of Trustees. “All ten awardees show incredible promise, and we believe the innovators focusing on the environment will not only have tremendous impact in their communities, but offer lessons for the larger field.”

With the Fund’s new report analyzing innovation trends ascertained through the process – along with an open call to funders to view the proposals of innovators in their own communities and program areas – The J.M. Kaplan Fund aims to highlight innovation in parts of America that don’t get enough resources.“

Innovators are hard at work across America, and we can’t wait to share their pathbreaking ideas,” said Amy L. Freitag, Executive Director of The J.M. Kaplan Fund.  “Since we launched The J.M.K. Innovation Prize in 2015, we have been able to provide 30 early-stage initiatives with crucial financial and capacity-building resources, and shine a spotlight on innovators beyond our awardees who may have huge potential.”

About true pigments

Using an innovative technology, True Pigments brings acid mine drainage impacted streams back to life by removing iron oxide and processing it into pigment, a valuable commodity that can be sold to pay for the process, create jobs in rural communities, and fund additional watershed restoration projects. 

“Currently, iron pigments are primarily mined or produced in an energy-intensive chemical process, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and causing additional environmental destruction,” said Michelle Shively, Director of Project Development at True Pigments and watershed coordinator at Rural Action. “The vision of our social enterprise is to change that equation and contribute to environmental restoration.” 

One of the Prize application reviewers, Tensie Whelan, Director of NYU Stern School of Business’s Center for Sustainable Business, said, “True Pigments has a proven technology, large potential environmental and social impact, a good scale-up plan, and a self-sustaining, credible team.” To learn more and view a short video of Shively and True Pigments Director of Operations Paul Patton discussing the initiative, click here

The list of all ten 2019 J.M.K. Innovation Prize awardees across immigration, justice reform, environment and historic preservation is available online.

Innovation Trends in the funds 2019 report:

The J.M. Kaplan Fund put out the call for applications to the Prize in January 2019, and by April received a record 1,354 applications from all 50 states. With so many applications arriving from early-stage initiatives – 44% of all proposals described projects less than two years old – the Fund has highlighted key takeaways from its analysis of those proposals and the creativity occurring across the nation. 

The report on this year’s Prize — Growing Grassroots Resilience — details seven overarching findings, including these that may be particularly relevant to environmental leaders:

  • Climate reformers are putting people first. Some of the most powerful environmental initiatives are those that link climate change to social justice, leveraging more holistic solutions to create climate-resilient communities.
  • Waste can be re-imagined as a source of community value. Among places scarred by environmental injustice, innovators are digging deeply into the waste stream to restore ecologies and rebuild economies.
  • Public health initiatives are being reframed as social medicine. Across the Fund’s program areas of social justice, the environment and heritage conservation, more than 1 in 5 applicants referenced health or health care, pointing to a convergence of cross-disciplinary innovators who are linking health, place and community empowerment.
  • Government is not the enemy of innovation. Many applicants are enlisting public institutions as partners in social innovation, with a significant percentage of applications referencing government as well as policy or legislative efforts, emphasizing the role that government can play in catalyzing new solutions to social challenges.

The report also presents a brief discussion of how The J.M. Kaplan Fund utilizes the learning provided by applicants in its funding strategies outside of the Prize program, as well as reflections from reviewers and funders who have connected to new ideas and potential grantees through the Prize process.

Open call to ohio funders to connect with innovators:

For the first time, The J.M. Kaplan Fund is opening up its database of 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 1,300+ innovative ideas from this round that have considerable merit, and the Fund is eager to help connect them with resources and opportunities.  

Funders interested in receiving additional information about innovators in their communities and program areas should contact: Justin Goldbach, Program Director, The J.M.K. Innovation Prize,

In the coming months, The J.M. Kaplan Fund will also be holding a series of webinars for funders interested in learning about innovations in each program area. Funders interested in joining those conversations should also contact Justin Goldbach.

About the J.M. Kaplan Fund

Established in 1945 by philanthropist and businessman Jacob Merrill Kaplan, the Fund has since its inception been committed to visionary innovation. Over its 72-year history, the Fund has devoted $250 million to propel fledgling efforts concerning civil liberties, human rights, the arts, and the conservation and enhancement of the built and natural worlds. The J.M.K. Innovation Prize continues the Fund’s legacy of catalytic giving, reaching across America to provide early-stage support for entrepreneurs with twenty-first-century solutions to urgent social and environmental challenges.

About Rural Action

Rural Action is a regional community development organization with a 29-county footprint working with members and community leaders on a range of quality of life, environmental, and economic projects across rural Appalachian Ohio. Its mission is to build a more just economy by developing the region’s assets in environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable ways. Learn more about Rural Action at