From the Ground Up: A Few Things to Know About the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation

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We periodically publish quick overviews of grantmakers on our radar, looking at recent developments and key details about how they operate. Today, we’re taking a look at the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation (DRK Foundation), a global venture philanthropy outfit that finds, funds and supports early stage, high-impact social enterprises.

Venture capitalists William H. Draper III and Robin Richards Donohoe established the Draper Richards Foundation in 2002 with $14 million in seed funding. Eight years later, it changed its name to the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation after Robert S. Kaplan, the former vice chairman of Goldman Sachs and professor of leadership at Harvard Business School, joined as co-chair. 

With offices in Menlo Park, Boston, Dallas, the Hague and Nairobi, the foundation has funded over 200 organizations and plans to increase that figure to 300 by the end of 2024. According to its 2021–2022 annual report, it had $54.3 million in net assets, earmarked $7.08 million in direct program support and disbursed $5.15 million in direct grants and program-related investments. Here are a few things to know about the DRK Foundation.

The foundation joins grantees on the figurative “ground floor”

The DRK Foundation is one of a number of funders that use “venture philanthropy” to describe their giving. It’s a malleable term that can mean bankrolling a high-risk/high-reward program or, as it applies in the medical research space, investing “directly in for-profit companies,” according to the Milken Institute’s FasterCures.

The DRK Foundation notes that Draper and Richards Donohoe’s “successful venture capital partnership” informed what can be described as a purist approach to venture philanthropy. Specifically, it provides nonprofits with three years of critical unrestricted funding totaling $300,000, as well as what it calls “rigorous ongoing support” by joining their board of directors for the three years and partnering with the leader to help them build capacity and scale their impact.” The foundation also funds for-profit organizations, typically providing them with an initial investment of $150,000, followed by another $150,000 “depending on the achievement of certain organizational metrics and milestones.”

Venture capitalists talk about joining a start-up on the “ground floor,” and here again the DRK Foundation doesn’t disappoint. “Our model is truly unique in that, in every case, we take a board seat — as an operating partner — working hand-in-hand with our leaders to drive their mission home,” said CEO Jim Bildner via email. “We work day and night with our entrepreneurs, opening our networks, facilitating meetings, convening critical resources and working side by side with each leader to help them reach their full potential and build their organization to scale.” In many cases, the foundation is the recipient organization’s first institutional investor and “outside” board member.

Like any good venture philanthropy, the foundation is keen to drum up follow-on funding. “More than 28% of DRK’s active portfolio organizations have received transformational prizes including a Skoll Award, Audacious Project [grant] and many more, totaling more than $1 billion,” Bildner said. MacKenzie Scott provided grants ranging from $3 million to $12 million to 38 organizations in the DRK portfolio between 2020 and 2022.

The foundation also takes a VC-like approach to achieving scale. “Though at the time of our investment, these organizations are relatively small, they have gone on to accomplish amazing impact,” Bildner said. “Of our 210 investments to date, 57% of the DRK portfolio are impacting 10,000 lives or more; 44% are impacting 50,000 lives or more; and 26% are impacting 500,000 lives or more — directly impacting, in the aggregate, more than 300 million lives.”

Its doors are wide open

Nonprofit leaders will be pleased to learn that the DRK Foundation has a year-round open application process. That said, it lays out some precise eligibility criteria, which you can check out here.

Overall, the foundation prioritizes organizations that provide “evidence of focused alignment, systemic social change, data-based decision making,” leaders who are “committed to advancing justice, equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging for all,” and organizations designed to achieve impact at scale. The DRK Foundation also casts a wide net in terms of its priority areas. Of the 212 organizations funded from 2002 through 2022, the top corresponding priority areas were health and education (18% each); followed by economic development and social justice (16% each); civic engagement, systemic poverty, and environment and climate change (8% each); food and agriculture (6%), and arts and culture (2%).

Organizations can submit an application here, but be warned — the foundation selects only 25% of submitted applications for an initial interview. Organizations that make the first cut can expect a six-month evaluation process, which the foundation lays out in more granular detail here.

Bildner highlighted a handful of organizations that have joined the foundation’s portfolio in the last 18 months. One is the REACH Institute, which provides primary care providers, therapists and healthcare institutions with training in the best evidence-based therapies to diagnose, treat and manage child and adult mental health issues. There’s also Represent Justice, a social justice organization using the power of media to reimagine the criminal justice system, and Reboot Rx, a nonprofit start-up focused on fast-tracking the development of affordable cancer treatments by repurposing generic drugs using proprietary AI technology and strategic partnerships. We recently wrote about Reboot Rx’s innovative model and its funders, which also include Arnold Ventures and Lyda Hill Philanthropies.

Disruption and top-down systems change are not its north star

In conference halls and Zoom meetings across the country, philanthropic leaders are carrying on the age-old debate of whether they should prioritize trying to achieve systems change from the top down by setting up new infrastructure and programs, or instead, if they should “work within the system” — to belabor a somewhat clichéd term — by focusing on repurposing existing infrastructure and distribution channels.

Last year, the Stanford Social Innovation Review published a piece by Bildner and DRK Foundation Managing Partner and COO Stephanie Khurana addressing this question, and its title, “Instead of Disruption, Leverage What Already Exists,” gestures at the foundation’s answer. The DRK Foundation took a close look at more than 30 of its most impactful portfolio organizations over the past six years and found that “organizations focused on leveraging existing infrastructure and distribution systems had nearly three times greater direct impact than organizations focused on disruption as their primary lever.” Moveover, the pair wrote, “the cost per direct life impacted by these ‘leverage-first’ organizations was 15 times less expensive than those who tried to disrupt the system from the outside.”

Bildner and Khurana attributed this finding to the fact that fundamental top-down systems change “was simply unattainable in the toxic and polarized political environment that has become the new norm, inhibiting new social policies from being enacted (let alone the funding mechanisms needed to pay for them).” Similarly, organizations that tried to disrupt from the outside “often failed to attract adoption or capital to last long enough to see the disruption take hold.”

Bildner and Khurana cited the work of Recidiviz, a nonprofit grantee working to reduce incarceration safely and equitably. It’s an unfortunate fact that underfunded criminal justice agencies lack the data and tools to effectively fulfill their responsibilities, such as alerting individuals that they are eligible for early release. Recidiviz addresses this problem by working with states to provide agencies to identify and release eligible individuals. To date, it has helped release 65,000 individuals “who were eligible by statute but had become invisible and would otherwise have remained incarcerated,” Bildner and Khurana wrote. “Recidiviz didn’t need to radically disrupt the system to have immediate effect; it just needed to provide the data to execute agencies’ existing authority.”

The foundation’s unexpected findings will guide its grantmaking moving forward. “To be honest, this realization was a surprise to us,” Bildner said. “Like so many others, the allure of disruption and systems change from the top down was hard to ignore until the facts showed us something had changed. And it was undeniable.”