Why Ted Caplow shuns traditional philanthropy

    A mother carries her child in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Ted Caplow is giving away $1 million to find innovations that deal with children's health and lower rates of child mortality. Photo by: IFPRI-IMAGES / CC BY-NC-ND

    Ted Caplow was deeply affected by the birth of his children, as all parents are. But for Caplow, who spent months watching his triplets struggle for survival in an intensive care unit as newborns, the experience spurred him to take action on a global scale.

    When he learned that more than 18,000 children under the age of 5 die each day, many of them from preventable causes, he knew he wanted to do something to put a significant dent in that number.

    But Caplow, an engineer and entrepreneur, was unconvinced that traditional philanthropy would allow him to have the impact he wanted. So he decided to work outside traditional aid and philanthropic channels and create a $1 million prize for the most credible and cost-effective action plan to save children’s lives.

    Caplow’s foundation says that the Caplow Children’s Prize is the largest prize dedicated specifically to saving children’s lives.

    By the prize’s first deadline in May, the foundation had received 565 entries from non-governmental organizations, universities, companies and individuals in 70 countries. A panel of judges narrowed the proposals to eight finalists, announced in November. The winner will be announced in December.

    “Our goal with the prize was to create a level playing field,” Caplow told Devex. “Really, anyone in the world could apply to this on an equal footing.”

    “I believe by opening the contest as widely as possible, we provide an opportunity for ideas and initiatives that might not be funded by the current flow of aid and generosity that people are providing in this area,” he said.

    The application form was fairly simple, only two pages long and disseminated through social media to reach as wide an audience as possible. And Caplow said the contest was purposefully designed to be goal-oriented, without any preconceived notions of what path the proposals should take.

    “There’s a tremendous amount of variety and creativity in the entries, and that’s very satisfying to see,” said Caplow.

    While finalists generally focus on children’s health and are based in countries with high rates of child mortality, their strategies run the gamut from seasonal malaria prevention in Burkina Faso to clean water access in schools in Angola and the distribution of affordable emergency breathing machines for infants in Malawi. Several of the finalists are international NGOs, while others include individuals, academics and a university.

    Cost-effectiveness is also extremely varied between the plans, although Caplow says that is not the only factor being considered. The plans have been narrowed down to the most realistic proposals, as the average “cost per life” has become more expensive.

    The winning project, he said, would be monitored over a two-year period to ensure it delivers on its intended outcomes.

    In addition to bringing attention to innovative and cost-effective solutions for child mortality, the Children’s Prize, Caplow hopes, will serve as an example for other philanthropic endeavors as an effective way of delivering results and empowering donors.

    “We’ve made a lot of progress in child mortality over the last few decades, but there are still a tremendous amount of preventable deaths around the world, which tells you that there’s still a lot of opportunity to improve the system of aid and interventions that we have,” he said.

    Donors who are considering their own prizes, he said, should be very clear about what they want to achieve through the contest.

    “It’s critical to define your goals,” Caplow told Devex.

    Read our previous #innov8aid.

    About the author

    • Paul Stephens

      Paul Stephens is a former Devex staff writer based in Washington, D.C. As a multimedia journalist, editor and producer, Paul has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Washington Monthly, CBS Evening News, GlobalPost, and the United Nations magazine, among other outlets. He's won a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for a 5-month, in-depth reporting project in Yemen after two stints in Georgia: one as a Peace Corps volunteer and another as a communications coordinator for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

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