Setting up a funding call to support scale for humanitarian innovation

Ian McClelland
Feb 6 · 6 min read

This blog is the first part of a collaboration between Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) and the Humanitarian Education Accelerator (HEA). The second part has been published on the HEA Learning Series. Special thanks to Clara Van Praag and Charlotte Jenner for their contributions.

In January 2020 the HIF launched the second round of Journey to Scale and the HEA will launch its new round of funding soon. Both initiatives support humanitarian innovations that are ready to scale, with the aim of increasing the impact and reach of solutions addressing complex problems while generating and sharing learning on how this happens.

Each round of scale funding launched by the HIF and the HEA is preceded by months of discussions to determine how best to shape the call so that we find the innovations with the greatest potential for impact, and with the foundations in place to succeed. In part one of this blog collaboration, we share insights into some of our key considerations. In part two, on the HEA Learning Series, we focus on lessons learned for refining selection criteria and shaping an accelerator.

Evidencing problems and solutions

As an open call, a key criteria for Journey to Scale is evidence for the humanitarian problem that is being addressed. We want applicants to make the case that they’re addressing a real and recognised problem that underpins demand for the proposed solution. Although the HEA is focused on the problem of ‘education in emergencies and crisis settings,’ applicants still need to show an understanding of the root causes of the challenges within the educational context they are working in, and what this means for scaling their solution.

Detailed evidence of the problem, in terms of breadth (number of people affected) and depth (the degree to which they’re affected), is important for understanding the potential reach and impact of the solution. Here, it’s important to note that we are not just looking for large numbers. Our preference is for realistic and well-considered estimates based on sound reasoning. We also want to see an understanding of the barriers to addressing the problem, and potential enabling factors.

As both Journey to Scale and the HEA are targeting innovations that are at the beginning of the scaling journey, both require applicants to have undergone an independent evaluation. This is to ensure that they have reached a stage where the innovation is being tested in real-work humanitarian environments and they have generated impartial evidence of effectiveness. Depending on the situation, this could either have been undertaken by an independent consultant or uptake partner, or by in-house specialists in the same organisation, as long as they are independent of the originating team (for more information about the requirements for Journey to Scale, please see our FAQs).

Understanding pathways to scale

As well as providing evidence of the problem and solution, the HIF and the HEA also want applicants to demonstrate their understanding of potential routes or pathways to scale. But as Elrha’s Too Tough to Scale report explains, the sector’s collective understanding of pathways to scale is limited and there is a lack of experience of developing and delivering on scaling strategies.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of a scaling strategy, Elrha’s Pathways to Impact Framework outlines three ways innovations can scale and achieve their full potential:

  • Through direct implementation by the originating organisation
  • Through adoption by others
  • Through influencing sector-wide policy and practice standards.

The pathways are not mutually exclusive, and within each pathway multiple possibilities exist. This simple model is an attempt to demystify scaling, but in reality each innovation will be different and will have its own unique pathway(s) to impact.

A key consideration is the degree of ownership of the solution that the innovation team wishes to — or might need to — retain as the innovation scales. Teams within implementing agencies may retain control of their innovation by scaling operations directly through the organisation. Adoption by others can constitute a wide range of relationships offering different levels of control, such as service provision, strategic partnerships, or social franchising. An influencing route with much less control might include activities such as developing toolkits, offering training or advocating for a particular approach.

Entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs

Both programmes are interested to know about the team behind the innovation, including the relevant capabilities that the team already has, and the capabilities that will need to be added. Importantly, we also want to know whether your team is a small, stand-alone organisation or part of a much larger organisation. So-called ‘entrepreneurs’ or ‘intrapreneurs’ are likely to follow quite different pathways to scale which will significantly affect their support needs.

By ‘entrepreneur,’ we mean someone who wants to bring new goods, services and ideas to the sector, for example, a start-up NGO or a private company. From an entrepreneurial perspective, scaling is often focused on accessing large agencies, either to develop joint ventures or to directly sell goods and services. The latter may involve getting into procurement catalogues for goods or making the case for a new kind of service. Because entrepreneurial operations are typically small by nature, scaling might require growing the organisation and bringing in new areas of expertise.

By ‘intrapreneur,’ we mean someone who works for a large agency and wants to drive change from within. From an intrapreneurial perspective, scaling within a large bureaucracy has particular challenges related to organisational culture, power dynamics and change management. Among other things, this may involve integrating into wider systems, restructuring teams and job functions, and mainstreaming new ways of working. This is why Journey to Scale requires demonstration of buy-in from senior management from those based in large organisations (see the Journey to Scale handbook).

A third —more unusual— category of potential applicants would be consortia, in instances where multiple humanitarian agencies are invested in the innovation without a genuine single ‘owner,’ and the innovation itself will likely be scaled through the different member agencies. This category may involve challenges from both the ‘entrepreneurial’ and ‘intrapreneurial’ perspectives, in terms of developing and structuring the various partnerships involved, and in changing the way large agencies work.

The role of partnerships

Journey to Scale is explicitly asking for applications from single organisations. We believe that partnerships are critical for scaling, but in many instances partnerships can change and grow over time. We want to give the projects we fund the opportunity to explore different possibilities over the duration of the grant, and we want to know that they have sufficient flexibility to do this.

As Elrha’s recent review of partnerships in humanitarian innovation explains, the primary focus of partnerships management during this stage is often on developing new partnerships or vendor relationships that support uptake of the innovation. The flexible funding that the HIF is providing through Journey to Scale means that grantees will have the resources and opportunity to invest in partnership development.

In instances where the innovation might be driven by a consortia, and in which uptake by members of the consortia might be considered the primary pathway to scale, we still require applications to be submitted by a single organisation. If selected, we would then work with this organisation to map the involvement of different members of the consortia in the scaling strategy, and to help put in place any relevant agreements.

A key difference for the HEA is the critical role of partnerships between the innovating teams and the Ministry of Education (MoEs) in the country of implementation. As such, the HEA plan to imbed an assessment of their applicants’ alignment with national education systems and their capacity to partner with MoEs into their support to innovations.

In touching upon evidence, pathways, teams and partnerships, we’ve offered a brief — but far from comprehensive — overview of the conversations that have gone into planning these funding calls. Clearly, there’s a lot to consider in selecting projects for both Journey to Scale and the HEA, and not all of this can be easily captured in an application form.

In order to create the space to gather more in depth information about shortlisted projects before our respective independent funding committee and reference group make their final decisions, both Journey to Scale and the HEA are introducing an initial 4–5 month inception phase. This phase will also include the provision of tailored support for each team to develop their scaling strategy. In part two of this collaboration, the HEA take a closer at how both programmes are structured.


We are Elrha.

Ian McClelland

Written by

I work for Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund, making connections and sharing learning between people looking at new ways to tackle humanitarian challenges.



We are Elrha. A global charity that finds solutions to complex humanitarian problems through research and innovation.

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