Innovating in a Recession

Innovating is something a progressive college such as Grinnell does continually.


The more times change, the more times demand — and reward — thoughtful innovation. Here are some thoughts on three innovative new steps we’re taking to better position the College for the future.

Defining our identity in new ways

On Nov. 29, we announced the creation of the new Grinnell College Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize. Following that announcement, some people have asked me why the College is undertaking an expensive new initiative now, in such challenging financial times. That’s a legitimate question. It's true that we’re facing tight times — all colleges are. Although Grinnell is in good shape overall, we have to adapt to a new financial world. The worst thing we could do, not being in real crisis, is to hunker down and stop doing new things. We have to reallocate resources in all sorts of new ways to do a better job of meeting the College’s mission in the future. The Grinnell College Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize is part of a broad plan to define the identity of this college based on its unique features. One of the strongest and most indelible of those is that Grinnell prepares students to change the world for the better. A focus on social justice in one’s life can mean anything from becoming a really aware and engaged citizen, to bringing a strong sense of ethics and community and accountability to running a business, to running a large social movement. We want to tell the world about that aspect of the College’s identity so we can continue to attract the kinds of people to the College who can best take advantage of that part of our mission and help move it forward. We decided we’d rather offer a prize that advances useful work and contributes more to the mission of the College than do other equally expensive things to build our prestige. There are large educational and social benefits of the prize: We’ll involve students in defining the concept and running the annual symposia, and give them, at a young age, a great deal of one-on-one exposure to outstanding people who are doing creative things to promote social justice. We can bring prospective students to the prize symposia to show them what the school stands for. We envision creating relationships with organizations that prizewinners are involved in, which could result in internships and other student learning experiences. We’re thinking about an online journal that focuses on young innovators. These kinds of synergies pull together three themes at the core of Grinnell’s mission: education, positive social change, and youth. That makes the prize a creative way to achieve many of the College’s goals even in a time of tight money — and to strengthen our future. Also, it’s in our best interests to be a good community member, and this is one of our contributions to the global community. We can never guarantee outcomes — from this effort or any other effort — but we can make thoughtful decisions, we can take reasonable risks in exploring new avenues, and perhaps most importantly, we can continue to learn as a community what makes us distinctive and how we can further our mission.

Understanding the College’s financial dynamics

One of the things we need to do differently and better is to explain our need for resources given our endowment. We need to tell people how much money is coming in, how much is going out, and why we use our resources the way we do — because without broader support from our community and our alumni, we’re not going to be able to help future students in the way that we’ve helped our alumni. We don’t want to — and we won’t — decrease our support for our students, but there’s a price for that, and we’re going to have to work harder to get resources for it. We have many students who have real need. And we have real need to offer merit aid as well, so that we have a balanced student body. Plus, in tough economic times, even students who originally came here with significant resources have seen those resources diminish — sometimes dramatically. Also, our alumni and other donors have been more careful recently about long-term donations. So, we need to put together a thoughtful, long-term plan to advance our core mission that is sustainable for the long haul.

Engaging our alumni in the ways they want to engage

We need to engage creatively with our alumni’s great passion for the College — even with those who are not in a financial position to give money at this particular point in their lives. Many of our alums go to grad school or into social services, education, or other fields that don’t generate large incomes early on. I want to offer all alumni a menu of options that allows us to recognize them and at the same time makes it easier for them to contribute not only dollars, which we want and need, but also time and talent. Many institutions’ rolls of giving list donors according to levels defined entirely by dollars, and I don’t think that’s fair. In some cases a commitment of time or other resources can be at least as valuable. We’ll share that menu of options with alumni soon — we hope in the spring of 2011. Meanwhile, I encourage you all to join me in thinking of innovative ways for Grinnell to continue to be the best it can be at achieving its unique mission.

Share / Discuss