Request for Information

The challenge – why we need your support

At the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), we’re dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights, and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people. Our 17,000 colleagues work in 134 countries around the world, from major capitals to remote and often dangerous locations, ensuring that everybody has the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge.

The people at the UN Refugee Agency have built a long history of adapting in the face of challenging circumstances. This is one of the reasons UNHCR’s Innovation Service built the Innovation Fund, which aims to support UNHCR colleagues as they test novel solutions to pressing problems in their context. We provide teams of colleagues with funding, support for experimentation and mentorship in order to nurture innovation and adaptability within UNHCR.

Over the past year, we’ve reshaped the design of the Fund to make sure it’s relevant to the needs of our colleagues. In our conversations with them, we’ve learned about the enriching experiences, but also the pain points of the programme. As we continue to improve how we best serve UNHCR, we want to redesign the Fund to make sure it’s delivering the best possible outcomes for our colleagues, and ultimately, displaced people. 

That’s why we’ve launched this Request for Information (RFI), which is a process we use before launching an official call for partnership. The Request helps us to mine the trove of insights amassed by thought leaders in response to some burning questions we have and to use those insights to shape our creative specifications for the official call for partnership in the coming months.

We’re particularly interested in receiving responses to this request from design agencies that put user experience at the center of their work, and public sector organizations that have built successful innovation programmes, including funds, of their own. Responses from individuals (particularly in academia), research institutions and private sector organizations with internal innovation programmes are also encouraged.

Current state – where we are today

We launched our first Fund in mid-2016, and our second in 2019. We ran both funds for a year and supported over 45 teams to identify pressing challenges in their context and experiment with novel solutions. Teams organized Refugee Food Festivals, developed machine learning models to strengthen the legal briefs in refugee status determination efforts and designed new homes using recycled material that can withstand the harsh conditions of the Sahara.

The Fund made it possible to provide the social and financial capital for these teams to experiment safely, and it allowed us to nurture their innovation capabilities. While we’ve met some of the goals we set out to achieve with the Fund, we’re continuously striving to do better for our colleagues and displaced people. We recently launched an independent evaluation of the Fund that will be completed by June 2020, but until then, here’s what we’ve been told about what’s working well and what can be improved:

Pain points
  • Diversity of applications: We want the Fund to be accessible to everyone at UNHCR – from our drivers who facilitate our day-to-day interactions with refugees, to Heads of Office who manage large-scale operations. We’ve struggled to target and personalize the calls for applications to match the diversity of roles in the organization. 
  • Invisible barriers to innovation: While we strive to have a robust selection process in place, we believe there are invisible barriers and beliefs that prevent people from applying to the Fund. Some have the potential to be great innovators, but don’t see themselves as capable and never apply. A narrow understanding of who can be an innovator also leads some managers to prevent their teams from applying.
  • Unclear milestones and overstretched teams: There are milestones in place to encourage teams to build, test, and learn. Teams have told us that the value of some of the milestones is unclear, and that they overstretch to meet these milestones. Everyone wants to learn and apply creativity to their work, but the day-to-day is overwhelming and the Fund project is sometimes deprioritized by teams. Since we also provide hands-on support to teams and are overstretched ourselves, we also falter under the pressure to provide timely advice and feedback to all teams to facilitate their learning.
  • Ambiguous metrics of success: Since funds are released when a project is first awarded a grant, clear success metrics are not required to progress through all milestones. Without the right metrics and results, some teams end up  with an under-developed evidence base that hampers collective efforts to learn and sometimes leverage external funding to continue experimentation.
  • The sandbox: The Fund provides UNHCR teams with the ‘space’ and know-how to experiment with new approaches in their context. Because projects are led by a UNHCR staff member with the involvement of others, including refugees, teams have the ability to ensure no one is harmed.
  • The capital: Managers don’t need to reallocate funds from their (slim) budgets to support early-stage, riskier projects. They can continue allocating their budgets to life-saving and rights-building activities, while the Fund provides the capital to support testing new solutions.
  • The learning: The Fund equips teams with new ways of doing things, like building value propositions. Teams have gained value from using design methods and creative thinking to tackle stubborn problems, generating new learning that translates into better impact for refugees.
  • The recognition: We showcase the innovative work of teams on social media platforms, and leverage our position in the Executive Office to inform Senior Management about great projects and the people behind them. This boosts the motivation of our colleagues to keep doing great work and challenge the status quo. The recognition also serves as a tool that can be leveraged by teams to push for additional investment in innovation projects.

The future – why we’re doing this Request for Information

In 2020, we intend to launch a third iteration of the Fund, and we will look to partner with one or more organizations to help us mold it into its best version yet. Combined with the independent evaluation of the Fund, your response to this Request for Information will help us shape our creative specifications when we launch and approach you with a call for partnership in the coming months.

To design agencies: We’ve enjoyed working with vibrant agencies that contribute their unique experience in bringing services and products into the world. By submitting a response to this Request for Information, you’re letting us know that we can contact you once we launch an official call for partnership. Your responses will also shape the creative specifications of the call for partnership, so that they capture emerging design standards and promising practices.

To public sector innovators: Nothing brings us more joy than when our peers share the highs and lows of their mission-led innovation programmes. We’ve made good design changes to our Fund based on your experience, and want to highlight your work on our platforms and within our organization. For those interested, we can also look to establish partnership agreements to collaborate on the redesign of the Fund.

The above list is by no means exhaustive. Responses from individuals (particularly in academia), research institutions and private sector organizations with internal innovation programmes are also encouraged. We want creatives, thinkers, experts, and amateurs alike to share in shaping the future of our Fund. 

Our questions to you

Questions for creative agencies

We’d like to learn more about your creative approach and process. You’re encouraged to draw on memorable and relevant case studies to illuminate your unique experience. 

  1. Walk us through your design process – how do you approach the design or redesign of a product or service, and how do you work with user testing and research?
  2. How are you altering your design process to facilitate remote engagements given the challenges presented by Covid-19?
  3. What type of roles do you imagine would support the redesign of the Fund – from technical to creative and others?
  4. What’s your approach to personalization? Specifically, how can you help us deliver a personalized experience to project teams?
  5. How do you measure the success of your designs? What metrics, if any, do you like?
  6. How do you like working with your clients – how frequently and in what ways do you involve them in the ongoing design work?
  7. How do you structure the cost of the design process?
  8. What do you wish prospective clients would add to their creative specs but never do?
Questions for public sector organizations

We’d like to learn more about how your organization builds and nurtures its innovation capabilities. You’re encouraged to draw on memorable and relevant case studies to illuminate your unique experience.

  1. What funding and learning programmes do you use to foster a dynamic innovation ecosystem, including the ability of your colleagues to welcome experimentation? In what way do these programmes support cross-disciplinary innovation?
  2. How do you involve a wide range of employees, including under-represented groups, in defining the challenges they innovate around? Similarly, in what way do you involve them in monitoring progress toward solving these challenges?
  3. In what way do you enable employees to actively communicate about their experience innovating?
  4. What’s your approach to portfolio management? How does it encourage patience, learning, and trial and error?
  5. How do you gauge the impact of projects before investing your resources? What are factors that point to success/impact? For early-stage investments, how do you decide which projects to support when only scant information is available about their innovation?
  6. How have results and experiences of the individual projects, positive and negative, been captured and analyzed at the project and portfolio level?

Your response

We will accept responses from 14 April 2020 until 22 May 2020.

To help us benefit from your responses, please keep the following in mind:

  • Be concise and respond in plain language. Your response should be comprehensible to those with no domain expertise.
  • You can be as creative as you like and choose any structure or layout to present your information, as long as you share it in PDF format and keep it under four pages. 
  • We encourage you to respond to all questions, but you can choose to respond to some or all of the questions. Don’t forget to indicate which questions you’re responding to.
  • If you’re including proprietary information, mark it clearly or place it in its own section.
  • Use the online form below to upload your response, and only email us at [email protected] with the subject line “Innovation Fund RFI” for any questions, suggestions or friendly interactions.

Since this is an RFI, please remember that your response isn’t considered an offer and it doesn’t create a contract between you and UNHCR. To benefit the humanitarian and innovation communities at large, we may publish some of the (non-proprietary) information you provide.


*This timeline is subject to change due to the COVID-19 situation. This site and timeline will be updated accordingly to reflect any changes

Online Form

Request for Information

  • Accepted file types: pdf.
    Your submission must be a PDF formatted for A4 paper size. It must not exceed 4 pages. Maximum file size: 3MB

Additional information and resources

The Innovation Service, which sits within the Executive Office, strives to create an enabling culture for innovation to flourish by equipping staff with the knowledge, resources and skills needed to ensure that they can increasingly draw on innovation to solve the most pressing challenges. 

The Service manages the Innovation Fund, which seeks to provide the necessary funding, support for experimentation and mentorship in order to nurture innovation and adaptability within UNHCR. The Fund does this by supporting early-stage, novel projects that fall outside the scope of normal UNHCR operations, through access to social and financial capital.

The objectives of the Innovation Fund are:

  1. Create the budgetary and experimental ‘space’ to stimulate and nurture innovation in UNHCR by providing financial and non-financial support to teams solving difficult problems; and
  2. Support UNHCR teams working on early-stage innovations to test their solutions and build an evidence base to support their work.

The scope of the latest iteration 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 crisis-affected people for generations to come. Given the importance of decision making, the Innovation Service wants to encourage staff to develop novel solutions that correspond with four underexplored and underutilized decision making methodologies. These 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 and other non-traditional or underutilized methods to meaningfully engage affected populations in UNHCR’s work.
  3. Modelling & Simulation: Computer models and simulations to analyse 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 modelling and robust decision making. 
  4. Storytelling & Culture: The application of creative stories and anecdotes that harness the powerful role emotions play in driving decision making, and which can lead to sustained, positive behavioral change. Examples in these areas of work include public interest communications and storytelling campaigns to refine, strengthen or reimagine UNHCR’s organization’s culture.

UNHCR Innovation Service website: