UNHCR’s funding mechanism for innovation-driven projects, the Innovation Fund, has received 102 applications for its first-ever call for proposals. The initiative is part of a wider effort spurred by the UNHCR’s Innovation Unit to support innovators who wish to bring their ideas to life. “It’s something that hasn’t been done before within UNHCR, and is part of a cultural change that we hope will clear the way for new ideas and processes at every level,” said Chris Earney, UNHCR Innovation’s Co-Lead. Recipients will be awarded up to USD 60,000.

The call for proposal was launched on June 27th and ended on July 15th. The applications, totalling USD 3.5 million, came from various locations across the globe, with more than half coming from African bureaus. The ideas submitted focused on virtually all areas of assistance to refugees, including education, livelihoods, water and sanitation, health and more.

Selection criteria include the type of challenge being addressed as well as the project’s capacity to utilize innovative tools or techniques, or adapt existing ones to different contexts. Also taken into consideration is the priority level of the issue at stake, the participation of refugees and host communities, feasibility, potential for impact and the ability for the project to be mainstreamed into daily operations on a long-term basis.

The Innovation Fund, modelled on the seed funding used in the start-up world, has been designed to facilitate the development of innovative projects and solutions for UNHCR operations, units and bureaus by providing funding to innovators who wish to design, test or scale up their ideas. It provides UNHCR operations worldwide an additional source of funding to focus on activities that may not be prioritized otherwise in emergency contexts, such as research and development, but may yield high-impact solutions to improve operations and better assist people of concern.

“While innovation is becoming increasingly mainstreamed into core activities, UNHCR operations don’t always have the funds to encourage their staff to take chances,” Chris Earney said. “We recognised the need for a safe budgetary space, and within that space an extended permission to fail.”

The call for proposals is just one of several funding streams offered by the Innovation Fund. Financial support is also provided to projects via the Innovation Fellowship and UNHCR Ideas – UNHCR’s crowdsourcing platform. Projects ideated by UNHCR Innovation Labs, as well as UNHCR staff and operations, may also apply for financial support on a rolling basis, depending on the availability of funding.

The Fund is currently financed by the Ikea Foundation, and many  more donors have expressed interest in contributing, including more traditional donors to UNHCR. “I think the direction in which the Fund is heading is may be to have a blend of public and private funds for innovation, which is an interesting model,” Chris Earney concluded. “I don’t think that’s ever been done before in the UN.”