Each year, the Wilson Center and the Center for Careers, Life, and Service collaborate to carry out the Spark Tank Social Innovation Challenge, which provides a platform for students to extensively collaborate with local partners in developing solutions for social problems within the Grinnell community. Spark Tank aims to showcase a mixture of innovative ideas, stimulate discussions about change and its definition, and foster collaborations among Grinnell College students and community members through dialogue, workshops, discussions and mentoring. Spark Tank helps students develop as leaders in social innovation and entrepreneurship.

Though Kayla Estes ’18, a sociology major, participated in the Spark Tank challenge last year, she was not among the teams that received funding from the Wilson Center. Nevertheless, the array of strategies and tools that Estes and her teammates developed through Spark Tank inspired two community organizations, Grinnell Mutual Reinsurance Agency and the Ahrens Family Foundation, to fund Estes’ continued work with the Grinnell Community Daycare and Preschool Center.

Estes and her Spark Tank team’s objective was to find a way to increase staff wages at the daycare without raising tuition or threatening the center’s ability to offer sliding scale tuition to those who cannot afford the full cost of daycare. Estes and her team assessed multiple avenues for achieving this goal, conducting research and speaking with professionals in the field. Initially, they decided that creating a diversified grants portfolio along with support in grant writing would be the best possible solution of increasing staff wages and keeping daycare affordable.

Estes began her summer work by tapping into a variety of resources to develop her grant-writing skills. She reached out to professional grant writers, utilized available online resources such as the Foundation Center and Grant Space, and attended personalized finance and writing workshops.

Estes came to realize that increasing income could not be done from grants alone. She also met with leaders from the Office of Community Enhancement and Engagement and the Greater Poweshiek Community Foundation to consider the possibility of developing an endowment through a targeted fundraising campaign. “With additional income from the endowment, we could provide staff with a significant pay raise or some other benefit such as insurance or paid time off,” Estes remarks.

Working with a local organization allowed Estes to embrace the challenges associated with leadership and broadened her understanding of how the Grinnell community functions. “I was able to see what it’s really like to get funding, to be working within that system, and to learn about the different actors in the community. I now have greater awareness of how communities and nonprofits run.”

Currently, Estes is continuing her work at the center and hopes to create an economically feasible plan that involves both grants and fundraising campaigns.

The Wilson Center seeks to inspire and prepare students as innovators and leaders through courses, professional development, and events that emphasize experiential learning.

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