Innovation Fund

We support UNHCR colleagues to test novel solutions to difficult problems in their context by building their capabilities and investing in their solutions.

About the Innovation Fund

At the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), we’re dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights, and building a better future for forcibly displaced and stateless people. We’ve built a long history of innovating in the face of challenging circumstances. But as the problems we face continue to grow in complexity, the rate at which we have to adapt to fulfil our mission is accelerating.

This is where the Innovation Fund comes in – we provide teams with funding, support for experimentation and mentorship in order to nurture innovation and adaptability within UNHCR.

More than money

While we invest funds in promising solutions, we invest in the people behind them above all else. As a result of the mentorship and community provided by the Innovation Service, the Fund encourages building, testing and learning as a means to nourish the capability of UNHCR colleagues to co-design impactful innovations.

Together with our Innovation Fellows, the teams supported by the Fund make up a vibrant innovation community of people in UNHCR committed to exploring novel solutions that safeguard the rights and well-being of forcibly displaced people.

Bright spots

Innovation is often borne out of adversity, and as we respond to the highest levels of displacement on record, we are witnessing the emergence of novel paradigms of thinking and building led by a new generation of exceptional people. Over several years, we have been lucky to support some of these teams through the Innovation Fund.

Here are some of the bright spots among the Fund portfolio, and the people behind these projects:

  • At Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Iris, Cornelis and Jawid developed machine learning models to automate annotations of legal documents. Their solution supports legal aid workers to rapidly find relevant information to build a strong legal case for refugee status determination. Learn more about this project here.
  • In France, Celine worked with Marine and Louis to develop and scale the Refugee Food Festival worldwide. Michelin-starred restaurants and family eateries alike cook alongside refugee chefs to support the integration of refugees in their communities. Some of the chefs have gone on to open restaurants of their own, and the project has been awarded ‘Event of the Year’ at the World Restaurant Awards. Learn more about the project here.
  • In Ecuador, Jean-Laurent, Gabriela and Carleen developed a solution to extract, analyse and visualise vast quantities of qualitative text produced by humanitarian actors responding to the displacement of Venezuelans. Their solution is being used to enhance coordination and timely decision making, including the Covid-19 response in the country. Learn more about this project here.
  • Promoting inclusion and courage within UNHCR through storytelling was the mission for Natalia, Caroline, Joel, Mariko and Maren. They designed internal events and a storytelling masterclass to enable their peers to tell stories with intentionality and skill. Since stories transmit culture, they are embedding bold values in the stories we tell each other to help transform organisational norms and culture for the better. Learn more about this project here.
  • In Algeria, Juliette, Francois, Otis and Yamina supported Tetah, a Sahrawi refugee, to develop and test a shelter design using recycled material that can withstand the harsh conditions of the Sahara. Tetah’s design is functional and environmentally-friendly, and the widespread media attention it garnered has helped highlight the interminable conflict that has been affecting his community for over 45 years. Learn more about this project here.
  • Irene, Abdallah, Brian and Hani built a GIS facility in Za’atari Refugee Settlement, Jordan, that trained refugees to create professional-grade, digital maps of their environment. The facility is now operated by refugees, who create maps that are relevant to problems faced by their community. The maps are frequently used in decision-making processes related to service provision and emergency planning, and the team is now testing the use of story maps for community advocacy. Learn more about this project here.

Stories and perspectives

Explore a collection of stories, perspectives, and lessons learned from the Innovation Fund’s project portfolio and the people behind the projects.

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The Innovation Fund: What we do and how we do it. All your frequently asked questions answered here.

Are we eligible to apply?
To apply for the Innovation Fund, you are required to:

  • Apply as a team. Teams must comprise a minimum of two people – but a maximum of four, including the project focal point;
  • Be a current UNHCR staff member or part of the affiliate workforce; and
  • Have the drive and interest to develop a proof of concept, in line with the Innovation Fund milestones.
Do we need approval from our Representative(s) or manager(s) to apply?
Each context is different, therefore we don’t expect you to have approval from the Representative or even your Regional Office unless your context demands it. We recommend getting approval from your manager(s) and other individuals whose approval is necessary for allowing the project to happen before submitting your application.
Can the budget cover personnel costs? What about Project Partnership Agreement (PPA) related costs?
Yes, but priority will be given to project submissions that utilize most, if not all of the funds to procure products and services to test their solution using direct implementation. It’s not possible to charge administrative (ABOD) costs to the Fund, including travel and/or temporary personnel assignments.
Since there is a character limit in the application, can our team submit an attachment with additional information about our idea?
No – the character limit ensures that teams provide thoughtful and concise answers to the evaluation panel. We recommend that you start your application early and take time to review and edit your answers for brevity and clarity before submitting your proposal.
How will you select which teams to fund?
Project proposals will be evaluated according to the following criteria:

  • The project team: A diverse and multifunctional team.
  • The problem/challenge: A sharp, but evolving understanding of the problem the team would like to solve.
  • Impact: Both immediate and future impact on affected populations and/or the organization, particularly on internal processes and decision making.
  • Idea/solution: The creation of new tools, processes or techniques, or the adaptation of existing ones in new ways or in new contexts.
  • Feasibility: The probability of success in testing the solutions and achieving the desired results, including potential risks.

Please note that refugee/community engagement is not one of the evaluation criteria, but is looked upon very favorably.

What is the application timeline?
Our latest call for applications was for 2019. We’ll update this space when a new funding round is open.
What is the maximum budget we can apply for?
USD 80,000.
Can I submit our application by email instead of using the online form?
No – applications which are not submitted using the online form will be deemed ineligible. If you would like a copy of the application questions in .docx (Microsoft Word format) so that you can work collaboratively on your answers before submitting online, please email us and we can provide the application questions.
My team applied to the Innovation Fund before but we weren’t selected. Can we apply again?
Absolutely. There is no limit on the number of applications a team can submit, so we highly encourage your team to submit a new application.
What are the reporting requirements like?
We aim to keep the reporting requirements as light as possible so that your team can focus on building its proof of concept. We do, however, expect continuous engagement with the Innovation Service and for the team to document progress against the Innovation Fund milestones using a number of canvases and templates we will provide.
What do you mean by testing/experimentation?
For more information on experimentation, read this.


Are you working in the humanitarian innovation or financing space and have interesting perspectives to share? Do you have questions or want to know how to be part of UNHCR’s Innovation Fund?

Get in touch at [email protected].

UNHCR’s Innovation Fund is supported by the Federal Government of Belgium.