UNHCR Innovation Fellowship

The UNHCR Innovation Fellowship is our annual innovation learning programme for UNHCR’s workforce and members of select partner organizations.

The Innovation Fellowship focuses on building the innovation skills and competencies of participants, in addition to supporting them to engage with colleagues, partners, and refugees to bring innovative approaches into their operations or divisions.

Over the course of the programme, Innovation Fellows learn and practice innovation methods and tools, embedding these new approaches into their everyday work. They focus on problem solving, ideation, and experimentation to develop innovative solutions to real-life challenges in the field or at headquarters.

Fellows are UNHCR’s ambassadors for innovation and lasting positive change both within and outside the organization.


If you want innovation you need to focus on people – and that’s the very basis of the Innovation Fellowship.

Eager to learn about innovation?

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Voices from the programme:

Innovation is a continuous process, a mindset, and it can be taught. Innovation is a way of life: seeing a problem, coming up with ideas with others, making assumptions, designing solutions, and experimenting over and over again. All of this is scary, it’s not easy – but innovators continue to do it, over and over again!


This was a real paradigm shift for me, because learning about innovation brought me to think very differently about working with refugees. I realized that the existing framework for assisting refugees doesn’t leave much room for thinking outside the box and for self-criticism. This means we risk replicating the same mistakes, or not prepare adequately for change. By contrast, the innovation process allows us to think independently and address problems in a very efficient and timely manner.


One of the main principles with innovation is that diversity is important. Being able to empathise. So seeing people’s, whether that’s staff or persons of concern or whatever, from a different perspective, I think is important. We need all the perspectives.


The Fellowship taught me a structured way of approaching innovation. I still fall in love with ideas and get carried away by them, but now I have a toolset to channel that passion. And the Fellows are a bunch of sweet and interesting people – so it feels really good knowing I can always rely on them for inspiration and support.


I think of myself as part of a new generation of UNHCR managers. Slowly but surely as new colleagues are being recruited…we have the opportunity to show them a different arc. To show them from the get-go how things work here and let them know we’re all about change and innovation. We don’t want to stay still. We want to make the most we can with the least.


I believed my idea was so brilliant and that obviously once we deployed this platform, it would revolutionize the refugees’ lives. But after going to the Innovation Fellowship workshop, one of the first things they taught us was not to be married to our ideas and to test assumptions. Following the innovation process made me rethink my approach.


In order to get sustainable innovations and make the organization better, you do need to focus on mindset and culture. Organizational culture is not something to be dealt with when everything else is done, but it is a foundation of everything. It is about how organization’s people interact and work.

Innovation Fellowship Programme Manager


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Archival material and further details on the evolution of the Innovation Learning Programme can be found below:


Follow along on the innovation journey, from learning how to solve complex problems to understanding that the inclusion of diverse thoughts and experiences is crucial for novel ideas, and that an optimistic mindset is always welcome.

The zipper that keeps us together – innovation is all about trying things out

Once upon a time, there was a peaceful community living in the middle of an ocean. This community had a giant zipper that joined their two lands together. One day, the zipper broke causing panic and chaos…

The emotional journey of an innovator

The innovation journey can be long and winding, filled with a variety of emotions and fears. So what does the path of innovation actually look like?

Collaborate with inclusion and diversity in mind

Innovation requires collaboration – no one can go at it alone. The journey is better when a diverse group of people is working together.

Bridging the gap with collaboration – but how to get others onboard?

Collaboration led to a new idea! It is simply great. But do others think the same? There’s always resistance to change – can we get them on board with our ideas?


What happens during the Fellowship?

The Fellowship involves a full curriculum of real-life assignments, online workshops, webinars, open-house calls, peer-support group sessions, and alumni mentoring to support Fellows as they work on their independent projects.

To advance these projects, Fellows follow a loosely-scripted approach, working their way through nine tasks that guide them through the different stages of innovation. This process begins with a collaborative approach to narrowing down problems Fellows have identified and possible solutions to those problems. Then, each Fellow rapidly tests their ideas, before honing in on a particularly promising solution. Fellows aren’t expected to produce a perfect final product from this journey; instead, they’re expected to go through a process that evidences their learning and that they can continue with once the Fellowship is over.

Is the Fellowship delivered online or in person?

The Fellowship is delivered fully online, with hands-on assignments stemming from practical challenges and opportunities for innovating in UNHCR. Although the programme involves plenty of workshops and opportunities for Fellows to interact, we unfortunately do not have any in-person modalities at present.

If I’m successful, how much time will I need to dedicate to the Fellowship?

Innovation doesn’t happen without time and dedication. We ask Fellows to spend roughly 20% of their work week on innovation throughout the duration of the Fellowship. This time can be allocated in many ways – whether you set aside one day per week or an hour or so each day. Time management can be discussed during the programme.

Is the Fellowship about technology?

Absolutely not! Fellows learn how to address operational challenges using an array of innovation methodologies (such as experimentation and testing). These methodologies can involve high-tech, low-tech, and even zero-tech solutions. Innovation is an approach and a mindset that is accessible to everyone, regardless of the technology available to you.

Can I apply if I’m from outside the UNHCR community?

Every year we accept a number of participants from selected UN agencies and/or partner organizations. If you do not currently work for UNHCR, you can only apply for the programme if your organization has been invited to nominate applicants.

How does having an Innovation Fellow on the team benefit operations?

Having an Innovation Fellow on board is an awesome opportunity for any country operation or division. Fellows go through intensive innovation training, and they’re supported to facilitate innovation with their colleagues, partners, and displaced communities. The skills and mindsets they bring to the wider team will lead to innovative solutions and positive change. Managers play a crucial role in innovation, by investing in their team and enabling them to take the time and space they need to facilitate creative approaches.

How can I get buy-in from my supervisor?

Innovation takes time! It’s very challenging to make that time if you don’t have permission to innovate in your daily work. So, it’s important to get buy-in from your supervisor, and to ensure they understand that the operation as a whole will benefit from your participation.

Additionally, together with colleagues from GLDC’s MLES, we are happy to speak with your supervisor and provide them with information to help them help you. We will also host information sessions during the application process, to which you can invite your supervisor.

Can I send a joint application with a colleague?

Collaboration is key to innovation, so it’s wonderful that you want to work together! However, each applicant must submit an independent application, and each application will be reviewed individually. You can, however, let us know about your plans to collaborate in your application.

I have an innovative idea and I need funding to implement it. Can the Fellowship fund it?

So great to hear that you already have a fully fledged idea! Innovation is about so much more than great ideas, though – and the Fellowship is designed to help colleagues learn how to tackle operational challenges using innovation methodologies.

However, you should check out the four Innovation Funds run by the Innovation Service. They are: the Digital Innovation Fund; the Refugee-led Innovation Fund; the Environment and Climate Action Innovation Fund; and the Data Innovation Fund.

I want to attend a conference/event. Can the Fellowship fund this?

The Fellowship does not sponsor travel to individual conferences and events.

I love workshops! Can I join yours without being part of the Fellowship? Or become a Fellow just to come to them?

We love your enthusiasm for learning – but unfortunately non-Fellows aren’t able to join Fellowship workshops. And, if you do join the Fellowship, you are committing to the entire programme of learning, not just the workshops. The core learning opportunities that the Fellowship offers lie in the independent innovation work that Fellows conduct in their own operations/divisions. The workshops are conducted to support that work. 

If you’re excited about innovation and learning but aren’t able to join the Fellowship, we have good news for you: we’re working on an open innovation webinar series! Be the first to hear about upcoming events by leaving us your email address here.


Get in touch at [email protected]