Going beyond grants: How HGC’s support enables innovators to thrive

Creating Hope in Conflict: a Humanitarian Grand Challenge (HGC) sources, supports and scales  life-saving or life-improving innovations to help the most vulnerable and hardest-to-reach people impacted by humanitarian crises caused by conflict. Working to improve the delivery of humanitarian assistance to people in vulnerable, inaccessible, and conflict affected communities creates a unique set of challenges that requires a unique support structure.

In this piece we’ll hear how HGC’s partners at the World Food Programme Innovation Accelerator and the innovation consultancy Brink, provide vital technical and community support and explore the unique toolkit of skills, opportunities and connections the innovators are provided with.

We’ll talk about how 4am meetings and country-led meetups are helping this diverse community to connect in unpredictable environments as well as the ways in which the pandemic has impacted them. We’ll hear about how these initiatives benefit not only individual projects led by innovators but also the exciting things that can happen when innovators connect and begin empowering each other to take on new challenges.

Going beyond grants: How Humaniarian Grand Challenge enables innovators to thrive


Hi Bryony and Emma-Lee. Can you introduce yourselves and tell us a bit about the organizations you work for?

Bryony Nicholson: I’m a community manager at Brink, a consultancy based in the United Kingdom and East Africa that supports entrepreneurs and organizations to work in an innovative manner and adaptively. Our approach is underpinned by the belief that ‘together is better’; by creating spaces for people to support one another, learn from each other and collaborate we believe that more value is created for innovators, their innovations, and ultimately the people they are in service of.

Emma-Lee Knape: I work with the World Food Programme Innovation Accelerator, based in Munich, Germany. We provide innovation acceleration programs, coaching, mentorship and in some cases funding to innovators working to further the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For HGC specifically, we provide technical support and coaching, the mentor network and collaborate together with Brink to strengthen the innovation community. 


How does the Humanitarian Grand Challenge work as a collaboration between your organizations?

E-LK:  We began talking to HGC in June of 2019 about providing innovators with support beyond the financial. We had quite a lot of independence in terms of codifying what that meant and what it could look like. We used our experience accelerating innovation with other WFP projects and other organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other UN agencies like UNFPA, to tailor something for the Humanitarian Grand Challenge. We’ve taken a very open-minded learning and collaborative approach and we continue to iterate what we do and we work closely with the Humanitarian Grand Challenge to see how we can improve. 

BN: Brink was contracted at the same time as WFP, and it really began with a kick off meeting with the first cohort of innovators in Munich in 2019. That was really about discovering what we could do If we supported them to talk to one another, to learn about what everyone else is doing and to seek opportunities for collaboration. To some people that may sound like an obvious thing to do, but actually it’s quite unique in this kind of work!


You say that’s quite unique. So what would you say prompted the Humanitarian Grand Challenge to bring you in for this project?

BN: Many innovation, development and humanitarian funds simply provide funding for projects, it is very unique to have additional supports being offered by donors or grant agencies, which is why it’s been so fantastic to work with the team at HGC. The Humanitarian Grand Challenge is a partnership of USAID, FCDO, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands and Global Affairs Canada, with support from Grand Challenges Canada. While Grand Challenges Canada supports many innovators, the team at the Humanitarian Grand Challenge knew that operating and delivering aid in conflict zones is incredibly complex and poses unique challenges. Innovating to reach those who are not currently being reached by the traditional humanitarian aid system is, arguably, even more challenging. The team was very intentional and realistic about the supports that would be needed to help innovators meet their goals, and that involved more than just the financing aspect of it. By creating an innovator community and ecosystem of support, with mentors, peers and colleagues, workshops, tailored content through the Acceleration Weeks and more, it is the hope that supported innovators learn more and are able to feel better supported throughout their innovation journey. Conflict zones are not static, they are constantly evolving and shifting, so it’s natural that responses would be reflective of that, and the Humanitarian Grand Challenge team prioritizes flexibility where possible to allow supported innovators to thrive with their work. 


Can you talk about what the day-to-day of supporting Humanitarian Grand Challenge’s supported innovators looks like?

E-LK:  What we’re doing now has changed quite a lot from when we started. We’ve tested, innovated and evolved our roles throughout the program. 

We took inspiration from the previous six years of the WFP Innovation Accelerator’s work for HGC Innovation Acceleration Week. That’s where we bring innovators from across the globe together for a learning and connection experience, as well as providing an opportunity to network with each other and connect to mentors and other organizations.


Supported innovators attend the first Acceleration Week and Pitch Event. Photo Credit: Sebastian Widmann, 2019.


After that week, innovators receive ongoing support from us in the form of workshops and coaching on topics of innovation. Those topics can be around performing user research to design products or services in the field; it could be around sustainability and thinking about where future funding is coming from; or it could be around storytelling and pitching ideas to different audiences. All of this culminates in a pitch event where each team gets to share a three-minute version of their project with the external community of donors, funders, support organizations and investors.

Of course, the support we give is going to be different and tailored depending on the project and depending on their specific needs. More often than not those needs come up on a non-regular basis. Because although we provide a standard timeframe for our coaching, challenges arise all the way through and you never know when they might come in or what might be needed. 

BN:  As Emma-Lee mentioned, WFP are supporting innovators with quite ‘technical’ things. Brink is hearing from innovators what they need, responding to that and adapting the community to meet those needs.

What we do as a community looks quite different now to what it did a year ago or even six months ago. The more that I get to know supported innovators and their innovations, the more I can make good connections and further my own knowledge of what will help them. For example, I recently connected two innovators in the medical field: one of whom is a doctor who could offer feedback on the other’s’ health innovation (a backpack-sized device that inflates creates a completely sterile surgical environment). I was able to make this connection as I had recently spent time with both innovators, learning about their work.


What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced over the past few years?

E-LK:  I think the biggest challenge is faced by the innovators themselves, who are working in some of the most complex environments of conflict and fragility, and testing new innovations in that context is challenging! From a support point of view, we have the challenge of supporting the diverse needs of the innovators as they are working through their projects and coming up against roadblocks and needs for support.

So, over the last two years our challenge has been to build a support service that can be accessed by all these innovators in different time zones, with different needs, with different internet connectivity and to create the motivation for them to be part of the offering in this ‘new world’ we’re operating in.

BN:  As our communities have diversified we’re not necessarily convinced that getting everyone together in a room would make everything much more cohesive because there’s so much difference in needs. Which is part of the magic of what we’re doing, as well as one of the main challenges! We are trying to create a support platform, but the dynamics of who we’re trying to reach are shifting all the time. It’s about really adapting each time and just recognizing that has to happen.

E-LK: The virtual world has created opportunities too. For example, saving costs on flights and accommodation which can then be invested in innovation. We can also access a whole range of people much more easily. We can jump online, connect innovators with experts to have coaching sessions or have a workshop much more quickly than we ever could before. Also, we now have the ability to share the pitch event beyond a physical room, so there’s much more of a global conversation. It’s really broadened what we can do with the same amount of funds. Or even less funds!


How have you managed to overcome some of these challenges?

BN: Just in the last six months we’ve been able to be much more adaptive in terms of time zones. I’m very conscious of running things at different times. We always try to mix things up so that some of our events are accessible to our team in Melbourne, some are accessible to people in Seoul, Goma, Bogota… We’re also recognizing that, even if I can’t be on the call because it has to happen at 4am UK time, then we can still make that connection happen. I recently introduced a group of innovators who were based in Turkey, South Korea, Australia and Greece!

It’s also important to think carefully about how to make those introductions. Be clear about why you’re making the connection, suggest next steps and outline clear roles for taking those steps. This will make the connection much more likely to be successful, and don’t be afraid to follow up if you think there’s potential for impact!

If we set up for success we can trust innovators to go into breakout rooms, to connect via email or to have the conversation in a way that best suits them. By connecting groups of innovators across multiple countries and timezones using my introduction principles outlined above, you help facilitate new ways of potentially working together and collaborating on new projects or solutions. 


How do you create that environment that creates connections, either formally or serendipitously?

E-LK:  The first week of the programme, Innovation Acceleration Week, which I mentioned above, definitely helps build connections. When it was an in-person event we had coffee breaks to allow people to connect almost randomly, and now that things are virtual, we make a big effort to connect people serendipitously and related to what they are working on. Beyond that a lot of work goes into figuring out what people need, what their common challenges are and who they should talk to. 

BN: Everyone is different. Some people prefer mixing in breakout rooms, while others struggle if they’re put in a virtual room with people they don’t have an existing connection with. So there is something around recognizing that you’re not going to meet everyone’s needs at the same time, but making sure you make efforts to meet everyones needs in different ways. 


What would you say have been the stand out success stories since you became involved with the Humanitarian Grand Challenge?

E-LK: The one that comes to mind immediately is the story of NeedsList, Field Ready and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. The three project leads all met in Munich during our first Acceleration Week. Just several months after meeting one another, the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, and this group of three innovators applied for a second round of funding for a project relating to COVID-19. They’re now working together to help get PPE and other medical supplies to frontline workers in the hardest-hit countries. The program helps humanitarian responders match their COVID-19-related needs to local manufacturing capabilities in Bangladesh, Iraq, Kenya and Uganda. Manufacturers there make the PPE where and when frontline workers need it, and deliver it to them better, faster and cheaper than traditional aid so responders can save more lives while protecting their own. Those three organizations wouldn’t have connected and created a whole project and got funded by HGC if it were not for this program. I think that’s quite a powerful example of the innovation ecosystem at work.



The Rainmaker Enterprise is working in Tonj, South Sudan, increasing food security and climate resilience. Their solar-powered rip irrigation system is creating two growing seasons, and providing sustainable water for local year-round farming. Photo Credit: The Rainmaker Enterprise, 2022.


Another example would be the project led by the Rainmaker Enterprise, who are building solar-powered drip irrigation system, providing clean water for consumption and agricultural use. They participated in our first Pitch Event, where the WFP South Sudan Country Office first saw them and decided that they wanted to work with them to develop the project in South Sudan to help them scale. That’s quite a neat example of organizations connecting and what the ecosystem can do to help projects scale. 

BN: One other cool example is how people have been sharing job ads and helping each other fill roles, because it’s really difficult to find people with the right skills in some of these areas. That question of ‘how do we find the right person for this particular role?’ comes up all the time with the innovators that we work with.

There is another benefit to what we do, and that’s making sure people don’t feel alone and that they feel connected to other people. Of course we’ll never be able to quantify that exactly, but we’ve had a lot of conversations around things like mental health, innovating through COVID-19, the pressures of scaling a business when you’ve got young family, what it’s like to be a woman in what is still very much a man’s world. And while we’re never going to be able to say “…and therefore the innovation was 10X times more successful because someone was able to talk to someone else in the community about how they really felt,” it’s still important to call that out as part of the support HGC is able to offer.


What about the year ahead? What are some of your hopes, ambitions and goals for 2022-23?

BN: We’ve realized this year that we can’t meet everyone’s needs at the same time and, actually you don’t need to. As a result I’ve been focusing on more specific conversations. I’ve been looking at what happens when we get, say, everybody who is working on health innovation in Yemen on the same call talking about which hospitals they are working in and what they’re doing. Those are the types of calls that pop with collaborations because it’s so much easier to find common ground. 

This year I would love to support more of that and start connecting innovators locally. To find out what happens when we do that in person. Can we get innovators together to have conversations themselves? What I’d love to see more of is innovators bringing their own ideas and starting to run these local events themselves, because they are ultimately the experts.

E-LK:  From our side, we’re now moving to a rolling cohort.  So, for us, it’s about redesigning the support because timings are going to be quite different. For example, we won’t have a big innovation week anymore. Instead we’ll also be looking at what’s most valuable for the different stages of innovation.

Also, we would like to bring in more expert organizations and mentors that can help specifically with the challenges. So our goal is to better understand the needs of the projects and try to bring the right kind of support at the right time to the innovators as they solve complex challenges in the field.



If you’d like to connect with any of the supported innovators mentioned here, or find out more about this HGC community you can contact Bryony on [email protected]

If you would like to learn more about the WFP Innovation Accelerator’s support for the HGC cohort, or if you have an offer for support, you can contact Emma-Lee on [email protected].

  • Bryony Nicholson
  • Emma-Lee Knape
  • Zeba Tasci