"We honor him not only for the [Dodd-Frank financial reform] law that bears his name, but for a lifetime of tireless effort – zealous pragmatism, as he calls it – to eradicate discrimination, promote affordable housing, and drive unscrupulous lenders out of the marketplace," said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the conference.
"To get the Humphrey Award means a great deal," he said. "I am really very moved."
He then noted that when people get into politics, they tend to accumulate a number of awards from a wide range of groups, and offered simple advice for handling those prizes.
"Never throw anything away less than one mile from where it was given to you," he said, adding that this award would avoid that fate.
"No award I have received or ever will receive is less likely to be thrown away, no matter how far away I get," he added.
Frank became the first openly gay member of Congress after he came out publicly in 1987. In his remarks, he acknowledged the struggles of various groups seeking equal treatment over the years, while urging for the use of pragmatism in pursuit of those goals.
"I am never asking anybody, any group, which has been victimized by racism, bigotry and prejudice to be graceful, because there is less of it than there used to be," he said.
At the same time, he maintained that the pursuit of ideals must done pragmatically, and that an "all or nothing" approach does little to advance any cause.
"Ideals without pragmatism serve only to make the idealist feel better," he said. "They don't make anybody any better."
Frank cited the Occupy Wall Street movement as an example of an idealistic movement that fell short in terms of achieving actual progress.
"If you are engaged in trying to further a cause about which you care deeply and you spend almost all of your time engaged in activities which make you feel good and warm and reinforced ... you probably are not doing very much to help," he said.
The annual award has been handed out to a number of politicians over the years, including former President Clinton and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) received it in 2010.