Grinnell College’s SPARK: Community-Based Social Innovation Challenge is a leading model for college and university innovation challenges.

SPARK Community Based Innovation Challenge – 2018 Awardee

In Grinnell’s challenge model, community partners identify challenges unique to the partner’s work and agree to work with groups of students to identify short and long term systemic solutions to their challenge.  It offers local organizations and students the opportunity to work together to address challenges faced by the larger Grinnell community.

Students first  apply to the program and, if selected, are placed in teams to work on a challenge identified by a community partner. They work alongside  their community partners, conduct relevant research, attend workshops, and utilize their community partners’ knowledge and connections to develop solutions that are innovative, address systemic issues, are practical, and ultimately beneficial to the long term well-being of the local community. A pitch contest is held where a panel of community judges determine which community partner will receive up to $15,000 of implementation funding.

Grinnell College’s vision for their ecosystem of service and social opportunities is to support mutually beneficial partnerships that are community driven and serve the common good. These partnerships leverage the unique expertise and interests of Grinnell’s community as well as that of their students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

Program Design

How long did it take to launch the first iteration of this program?

  • 3 to 6  months

How much annual funding do you receive for the program?

  • More than $15,000

The key players, strategists and supporters involved in creation and implementation include:

  • Staff
  • Faculty
  • Students
  • Alumni
  • Community members

The program is designed to impact:

  • Staff
  • Faculty
  • Administrators
  • Students
  • Alumni
  • Community members



SPARK projects have filled gaps in service, reinvented means for providing services, and begun to disrupt systems that undergird community inequities.  Even when an innovation doesn’t win, teams often forge forward with implementation.

Students report the work they are doing through SPARK has deepened their connection and understanding of our rural community and has informed their future policy advocacy decisions. Moreover, they report that they have gained interpersonal competence, have honed transferable professional skills, and better understand how their own values may drive their civic aspirations.


For more information, contact:

Susan Sanning

Asst. Dean & Dir. of Service and Social Innovation, Grinnell College

[email protected]

Innovation Awards

Ashoka U seeks to recognize globally relevant teaching, learning, and partnership practices that may be adapted and replicated across the field.


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