The Concept of Grand Challenges for Social Work

Written by Kathern Felton Paige

Who came up with this idea

In 1900, German mathematician David Hilbert presented 23 unsolved “mathematical puzzles” to an international society of mathematicians. According to the Grand Challenges for Social Work, his list galvanized the efforts of mathematicians for the next 100 years. It is their belief that we owe the concept of the grand challenge to Mr. Hilbert. 


The Grand Challenges for Social Work is an initiative spearheaded by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (AASWSW). The initiative was modeled after a challenges initiative led by the National Academy of Engineering. You can check out the history of the Grand Challenges, learn about how the AASWSW developed these challenges for Social Work, and meet the leaders of the Grand Challenges for Social Work initiative.

How did they get started?

In 2013, the Grand Challenges for Social Work leadership invited national social work organizations, interest groups, and academic institutions to conceptualize and outline the Grand Challenges initiative. Challenges were identified in partnership with sister organizations, including the National Association of Social Workers, Council on Social Work Education, Society for Social Work and Research, Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work, National Association of Deans and Directors in Social Work, and the St. Louis Group. The 12 Grand Challenges were announced in January 2016 at the Society for Social Work and Research annual conference in Washington, DC.

What Are the Grand Challenges?

“The Grand Challenges are ambitious but achievable goals that harness science, technology and innovation to bring about transformative, lasting social change. The Grand Challenges define a bold, science-based social agenda focused on improving individual and family well-being, strengthening our social fabric, and creating a more just society.” 

Individual and Family Well-Being

  • Ensure healthy development for all youth
  • Close the health gap
  • Stop family violence
  • Advance long and productive lives

Stronger Social Fabric

  • Eradicate social isolation
  • End homelessness
  • Create social responses to a changing environment
  • Harness technology for social good 

Just Society

  • Eliminate racism
  • Promote smart decarceration
  • Reduce extreme economic inequality
  • Build financial capability for all
  • Achieve equal opportunity and justice 

If you are interested in learning more about the Grand Challenges for Social Work, please fill out our information form.