About the Prize

About the Prize

History of the Grinnell Prize

The Grinnell College Innovator for Social Justice Prize, or the Grinnell Prize, directly reflects Grinnell’s historic mission to educate men and women “who are prepared in life and work to use their knowledge and their abilities to serve the common good.”

Grinnell was founded in 1846 by a group of transplanted New Englanders with strong Congregational and social-reformer backgrounds. They organized as the Trustees of Iowa College — originally in Davenport, Iowa. In 1859 the trustees moved the College to newly settled Grinnell, Iowa, where their abolitionist sentiments were more welcome. At the time, Grinnell was an important stop on the Underground Railroad that secretly transported slaves to freedom.

Grinnell’s social consciousness blossomed during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, when graduates Harry Hopkins 1912, Chester Davis 1911, Paul Appleby 1913, Hallie Ferguson Flanagan 1911, and Florence Stewart Kerr 1912 became influential New Deal administrators.

Today, Grinnell’s commitment to social justice continues through a strong philosophy of self governance and personal responsibility, as well as programs and initiatives that encourage students to learn about the world beyond the campus and effect positive social change.

For example, Grinnell’s Social Justice Action Group works towards peace, justice, and positive social change with efforts that fight hunger, promote volunteerism, and build understanding. The Wall Alumni Service Awards provide financial support for Grinnell alumni to engage in service projects, programs, and organizations dedicated to improving the lives of others. Under Grinnell’s Expanding Knowledge Initiative, the College has introduced curricular innovations in the areas of environmental challenges, human rights, and human dignity. The Liberal Arts in Prison Program, a collaborative effort by Grinnell students, faculty, and staff, engages incarcerated adults in courses in the liberal arts. 

With the creation of the Grinnell Prize, the College is extending its educational mission beyond the campus and alumni community to individuals anywhere who believe innovative social justice programs create a better world.

Through student internships and staff fellowships, student and staff members have the opportunity to work with the Prize winners and their organizations. Explore the Past Winners pages to learn more about these opportunities and Grinnellians' experiences working with these outstanding individuals and organizations.

President Kington elaborates on the Prize's creation and other innovations on his blog.

Defining Social Justice

The College does not have in mind one specific definition of social justice; instead, the College recognizes that there is more than one definition for social justice and it should be interpreted broadly. For purposes of administering the Prize, it would be up to the nominator (ideally, in collaboration with the nominee) to make the case as to how his or her nominee effects positive social change. Through thoughtful deliberation and consensus, the Prize Selection Committee will determine whether an individual is effecting positive social change in an innovative way that he or she should be recognized as a force for social justice.

Video of What is Social Justice?

Finally, one of the goals of the Grinnell Prize is to generate a robust discussion on this very topic. A symposium in September 2011 entitled, "What is social justice?," which preceded the October symposium and award ceremony with the 2011 Prize recipients focused specifically on the definition of social justice. When Prize recipients visit campus, they offer their unique definitions of social justice, shaped by their life experiences and perspective on the world.


The Prize is funded with discretionary funds from the College's endowment. Targeted donations also support the Grinnell Prize program.

Does the Grinnell Prize impact student financial support?

No. The Prize effort in no way compromises the College's commitment to its students. The College continues to meet 100% of demonstrated need for domestic students, limits the loans students need to take out, and offers one of the highest discount rates and the lowest comprehensive fees of its peers. In fact, the Prize strengthens the educational experience of our students and draws attention to the College's unique dual focus of providing first-rate liberal arts education and highlighting social justice. There is an annual on-campus symposium and award ceremony to maximize Prize winners' interaction with the College community, and there are exciting opportunities to further partner with winners to offer student internships, teach short courses, or collaborate on course materials.

For Students and Alumni

The Grinnell Prize is open to all individuals who meet the eligibility requirements and criteria, including students and alumni. In addition, there is a grant specifically for alumni: the Joseph F. Wall '41 Service Award (the "Wall Service Award"). The Wall Service Award was established during the College's Sesquicentennial celebration in 1996 to highlight the College's tradition of 150 years of social commitment. The $30,000 awards are named in honor of the late professor of history who always inspired an ideal of service in his students. Any graduate of Grinnell College is eligible to apply for a Wall Service Award so long as the alumni applicant will act as a principal in the proposed project. Two grants are awarded each year.