UNHCR’s Innovation Fund

About the Fund

It may surprise you to learn that great innovations can emerge from the most challenging environments. Problems, restrictions, and challenges often force us to abandon outdated assumptions and ways of doing things, sending us on a quest for new ideas and solutions.

At UNHCR, we’re no strangers to complex challenges. Political, environmental, and economic problems impact the lives of forcibly displaced people every day. And since no one is immune to such ‘wicked problems’, UNHCR has had to build a long history of adapting and innovating in order to protect forcibly displaced people. But as the problems we face continue to grow in complexity, the rate at which we have to adapt needs to accelerate, and the spaces for innovation and experimentation need to expand.

This is where the Innovation Fund comes in. Our goal is to provide the necessary funding, support for experimentation and community in order to nurture innovation and adaptability within UNHCR. We want to get you through the first phase of testing your novel solution to a problem, which usually means getting you to the point where you’ve built something valuable enough in order to raise additional support to test or refine your idea.

While we provide funds to operations, it’s not only about the money. As a result of the mentorship and support provided by the Innovation Service, the Innovation Fund journey will broaden people’s horizons of how they view themselves and their work. We will support you and act as one of your biggest advocates, but we will also never shy away from asking the difficult questions and providing direct feedback when necessary.

What the Innovation Fund Offers

Financial and social capital

Support for experimentation


Two Things to Consider Before Applying

1. The Fund provides an opportunity for UNHCR teams to develop and deliver an innovation project in their operation. While we provide the social and financial capital to support you, it’s expected that teams can invest time into developing and testing a stellar proof of concept.

2. Since the Fund is an accelerated program, teams can expect to learn and execute rapidly against a set of milestones. If the milestones are not met to a satisfactory standard, we maintain the right to re-channel your grant and terminate support to your team.

Innovation Fund Milestones 

  • Research and Road Map
    Draft value proposition canvas and statement; and
    Draft road map outlining research and initial experiments, and roles and responsibilities for the proof of concept.
  • Proof of Concept
    Initial experimentation of solution;
    Establish feedback loops with users and metrics of success;
    Capture learning; and
    Refine road map and design criteria for field testing.
  • Field Testing 1
    Methodical testing of solution; Gather evidence on effectiveness, quality and/or efficiency of solution;Capture learning;Continue adapting solution; and Identify risks.
  • Field Testing 2
    Finalise testing solution;
    Finalise evidence gathering;
    Capture learning; and
    Design diffusion strategy (if necessary).
  • Final Report
    Complete and submit the final report to Innovation Service.

The Four Areas of Work

Data & Artificial Intelligence

Inclusive Intelligence

Modelling and Simulation

Storytelling & Culture

Application Process

The application process is comprised of three stages:

Stage 1: Submission of proposals 
After reviewing the information on this page, teams should submit their initial proposal here by 11 October 2019.

Stage 2: Shortlisting and development of proposals 
After reviewing all proposals submitted, the Innovation Service will shortlist teams with the greatest potential and schedule a meeting with them. The aim of this stage is to learn more about the team and to further develop and improve their proposals.

Stage 3: Submission of final proposals
Shortlisted teams who attended a meeting will have one week to submit their revised application, which will then be assessed by the Innovation Service. After this stage, we will make a final decision about which teams to fund.

Application Steps:

  • 1. The Fund is open to all UNHCR staff and affiliates. Colleagues from all countries, working in any sector can apply.
  • 2. What we care about most is that you can assemble a diverse team of people with a sharp, but continuously evolving understanding of a problem you’d like to solve.
    Innovation thrives in diverse and collaborative networks, where opportunities for connections between people exist, and where ideas can mature and connect to other ideas. Since this can’t be done alone, you must apply to the Fund as a team. Functionally-diverse teams often excel at seeing a problem or situation as it truly is, given the diversity of perspectives assembled. With different pairs of eyes on a problem, it’s more likely you’ll craft a novel and relevant solution to the problem you want to solve.
  • 3. Once you have assembled a team that knows which problem it wants to tackle, you’ll need to propose an idea (the solution) that you want to test/experiment. The idea proposed can either be totally new, or it can be an adaptation of an existing idea/solution in a new way or new context.
  • 4. Your proposed solution must fall within one of four areas of work we have defined. The scope of the Fund was defined to encourage innovations that can lead to improved decision making, since decisions made by UNHCR pertaining to international protection and humanitarian aid present profound implications for displaced people for generations to come. The fours areas of work are:
    • 1) Data & Artificial Intelligence: The application of computer science techniques to help us transform large volumes of data into information, and to turn this information into action. Examples in these areas of work include data mining and natural language processing tools and techniques.
    • 2) Inclusive Intelligence: Novel ways of engaging displaced people in decision making, particularly in framing the problems that affect them, defining priorities, and informing and overseeing the services we provide. Examples in these areas of work include service delivery monitoring, participatory budgeting, participatory risk mapping and other non-traditional or underutilized methods to meaningfully engage affected populations in UNHCR’s work.
    • 3) Modeling & Simulation: Computer models and simulations to analyze the potential consequences of different policies prior to taking action, and to identify actions which perform adequately across a range of future scenarios. Examples in these areas of work include agent-based modeling, robust decision making and adaptive policy and strategy modeling.
    • 4) Storytelling & Culture: The use of creative stories and anecdotes that harness the powerful role emotions play in driving decision making, and which can lead to sustained, positive behavioural change. Examples in these areas of work include public interest communications and storytelling campaigns to refine, strengthen or reimagine UNHCR’s organizational culture.

These areas of work are either underutilized or underexplored, and will allow us to test and learn about a range of strategies and processes that can better place UNHCR to work in an uncertain future on behalf of forcibly displaced people. 


Applying to the Innovation Fund: Tips from the Evaluation Panel

  • Start early and spend time on your application
    Your goal is to get us really excited about your team, and you can do this by submitting a thoughtful and succinct application. Long answers are difficult to read and follow, so starting early gives you time to edit your answers and make them concise enough to fit within the character limit. 
  • Create a document and collaborate with others on your answers
    Well prepared applications stand out, so before you submit your online application, work on a separate document with your team. It helps to write as you would to a friend – your answers should be easily understood by anyone in the world, with no domain expertise. We recommend that you find someone outside of the team to review your application for clarity and precision.
  • Tell us about your team
    We love learning about how long you’ve worked together and how you work together as a team. Show us why you want to solve a pressing problem in your operation, and why your team is uniquely qualified to do so!
  • Clearly identify and articulate the problem your innovation is solving
    Your problem statement should identify what the problem is, where and when the problem occurs, and who experiences this problem. You can use this template to help you draft your problem statement. It’s also important for us to learn how your understanding of the problem has evolved and deepened with time.
  • Demonstrate that you’ve secured organizational and user backing for your project
    It’s important to showcase whether you have buy-in from key users and ‘gatekeepers’ to test your innovation. Their backing is vital to your project’s feasibility. Check this resource if you’d like to understand more about securing buy-in from users and gatekeepers.

For shortlisted applications:

  • Propose a realistic timeline of activities
    Avoid general and overly ambitious project plans that can’t be realistically implemented in five months. Use the Innovation Fund milestones as your foundation, and break down your planned activities to test your proof of concept. These activities will likely change once you begin the project, but it’s important to start with a realistic plan. 
  • Propose a realistic budget for experimentation
    Like your timelines of activities, your budget will likely change but it’s critical that you propose a well-researched and justified budget. We want to see that you put effort into researching which products and services you’ll need to build a proof of concept. 


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.

If our proposal is selected, what is the deadline to finalize testing our solution, and expending the funds?

We expect your team to commit all funds allocated to them by January 2020.

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

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 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, especially for submission under the ‘Inclusive Intelligence’ area of work.

I have another question, where can I contact you?

You can contact us at [email protected] for any additional questions or technical support related to the Innovation Fund.

What is the application timeline?

Deadline to submit initial proposal: 11 October 2019
First round of reviews and shortlisting: 14 to 25 October 2019
Interviews with shortlisted teams: 28 October to 01 November 2019
Deadline to submit revised proposals (for shortlisted teams only): 08 November 2019
Final selection of proposals: 11 to 15 November 2019

What is the maximum budget we can apply for?

USD 80,000.

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. 

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.

What is innovation?

Please see our Innovation glossary for more information.

Ready to submit your proposal?
Click here to submit.

Deadline to submit: 11 October 2019

The Innovation Fund is possible thanks to a generous contribution from the Belgian Government, who are strong partners and supporters of innovation within UNHCR.