The Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award was designed as a $10 million competition to fund refugee initiatives. It ended up drawing $24.25 million, funding five programs and sparking a movement.
More than $31 billion flows through the global humanitarian support system every year. Refugee-led organizations receive less than one percent of it.
Those two numbers indicate how funding can be well-intentioned yet misdirected at a time when it’s increasingly clear that local, community-led initiatives are highly effective at solving societal challenges.
The story of the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award shows the power of taking a different approach and shaking up the status quo.
Launched by ICONIQ Impact and Lever for Change, in partnership with philanthropists Chris Larsen, Lyna Lam, and the Sea Grape Foundation, the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award aimed to surface visionary organizations helping create a more sustainable future for refugees.
The Award was initially designed as a $10 million grant competition to fund what was expected to be a single project. However, the Award quickly ballooned to $24.25 million thanks to the generous support of philanthropists in the ICONIQ community. That generosity helped ensure that all five finalists received funding and laid the groundwork to draw more, ongoing support.
“It was the ideal situation. When we launch these competitions, we really hope that they can be tools for collaboration among different donors—a model to channel philanthropic funding to these organizations—and the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award exceeded our expectations.”Muhsin Hassan, Awards Director, Lever for Change
The competition’s structure was unique, said Chief Executive Officer Sana Mustafa and Development and Communications Director Lisa D’Annunzio of Asylum Access—the coordinating organization for Resourcing Refugee Leadership Initiative. A coalition of five refugee-led organizations, RRLI was the recipient of a $10 million grant from the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award.
An important feature of that structure was the Award’s relatively open guidelines, which fostered innovative thinking among participants, Mustafa said. Also, the consulting support from Lever for Change and ICONIQ Impact throughout the 15-month competition was an “amazing” feature that helped groups refine their ideas.
In addition, the rigorous analysis of the ideas made it clear to prospective donors that the proposals had received thorough vetting, Mustafa said. ICONIQ Impact and Lever for Change working as intermediaries with funders also “mitigated the power dynamic” of participants interacting directly with funding partners, she added.
Said D’Annunzio: “The competition funders were asking for something bold and something different, something that was going to shake things up and that’s what this process produced. So, I’m not at all surprised that the prize money doubled.”
Asylum Access and its partners “obviously were extremely excited” to win $10 million, D’Annunzio added.
“But for us, it’s about building the movement,” she said, “and to know that more organizations were being supported was absolutely fantastic.”
Rigorous Vetting and Community Centered
As of May 2022, the UNHCR, the United Nations’ Refugee Agency, reported that the number of individuals forcibly displaced worldwide totaled 100 million. In late 2016, that number was 65.6 million.
“This means,” UNHCR stated in its Refugee Data Finder earlier this year, “1 in every 78 people on earth has been forced to flee—a dramatic milestone that few would have expected a decade ago.”
Launched in January 2020, the goal of the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award was to find actionable ideas that would create long term, positive transformation in the lives of refugees and other forcibly displaced people. Three of the four criteria for successful ideas were conventional: the ideas had to be impactful, feasible and evidence based.
The fourth was bold in refugee support: the idea had to be community-centered, a requirement Mustafa said was crucial.
“Movements led by those most affected are successful, impactful and ethical,” she said. “Asking for these ideas to be centered in the community guarantees long-term success because, if these are your community issues, you’re going to address them. It’s not like when you just switch jobs if you don’t like your employer.”
The initial Award sponsors—Chris Larsen, co-founder of Ripple, and his wife Lyna Lam, executive director of A Khmer Buddhist Foundation and herself a former refugee—provided $10 million and were soon joined by the Sea Grape Foundation, which contributed an additional $2 million.
The competition drew 88 applications from nearly 30 countries and featured another important twist on the conventional competition model: a round of peer-to-peer reviews in which five fellow applicants assigned a score to each applicant and provided feedback. The three-month review ended with a final analysis from a panel of 56 experts knowledgeable in global refugee and migration issues.
The Award’s rigorous sourcing and vetting is consistent with that of ICONIQ Impact—ICONIQ Capital’s global platform for collaborative philanthropy. Established in 2019, ICONIQ Impact helps donors in the ICONIQ community—many of whom are new to philanthropy—think more strategically about their giving. The platform convenes ICONIQ’s network of families, founders, and entrepreneurs to catalyze collaborative philanthropy for giving at scale.
Throughout the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award competition, Lever for Change partnered with ICONIQ Impact to provide expertise and guidance.
“For us, one of the most important things about philanthropy is this idea of leverage. If you’re a philanthropist, you want your dollar to go as far as possible and have the most catalytic impact, but it can be hard to vet and therefore trust, the solutions out there. Collaborating with and bringing more donors to the table to fund highly vetted but overlooked and underfunded solutions is crucial to achieving that leverage goal."Matti Navellou, Head of ICONIQ Impact
“Working with Lever for Change, which brings deep sourcing, diligence expertise and rigor to the process, is a wonderful way to do that,” she added. Since the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award, ICONIQ Impact and Lever for Change have launched two additional awards together—the $22 million Stronger Democracy Award and the $10 million Maternal & Infant Health Award.
Beyond rigorous vetting, an important reason why the original $12 million grew to $24.25 million was the convening power of ICONIQ Impact, Navellou said. In April 2021, ICONIQ Impact hosted an online event, inviting more than 20 philanthropic families in their network to hear Lyna Lam speak about her personal experience as a refugee.
Her inspiring story helped garner an additional $12.25 million from The Patchwork Collective and other members of the ICONIQ Impact community—support that allowed the funding of the five organizations that had proposed powerful ideas but would have been left out.
“It absolutely says that all these ideas were creative,” Mustafa said, “and something that the sector was longing for and missing.”
While Chris Larsen and Lyna Lam selected Resourcing Refugee Leadership Initiative to receive their $10 million award, Sea Grape chose to give its $2 million to DREAMS for Refugees, a program that Village Enterprises leads in partnership with Mercy Corps and IDinsight.
An additional $11 million—provided by The Patchwork Collective —was spread across four initiatives:
- DREAMS for Refugees, which received $8 million.
- Global Education Movement, which received $1 million.
- New American Cities, which received $1 million.
- Unlocking Skilled Migration Solutions for Refugees, which received $1 million.
In addition, David Karp, founder of Tumblr, and Samantha McManus gave $1.25 million for all five finalist organizations to share equally. Lever for Change outreach efforts also led to an additional $4 million for two of the finalists, RRLI and DREAMS, which received funding from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.
“These solutions were amazing,” D’Annunzio said. “It would have been such a waste if everyone had developed these incredible proposals and then not have received funding to be able to focus on the impact. I’m so glad that funders stepped up but also, how could you, after seeing all these wonderful solutions developed, say no?”
Another benefit of funding more organizations is that “it promotes a more abundant mindset” that fosters collaboration instead of competition among the groups, Mustafa said.
And the $12 million original award and rigorous vetting that drew more funders has built momentum, opening doors to additional prospects, Mustafa said. One recent example: In 2022, philanthropist MacKenzie Scott contributed $4 million to Asylum Access, $15 million to Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and $3 million to Talent Beyond Boundaries, all awardees of the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award. Also in 2022, DREAMS for Refugees, received an additional $7.5M from IKEA Foundation.
For philanthropists and other funders who remain reluctant to support refugee-led organizations, Mustafa said it’s important to view this moment through a historical prism.
“This is a chance for donors to do things right, to really resource and work with these communities and their people and change the course of history,” she said. “Which side of history do you want to be on?”
‘We are building a movement.’
Beyond demonstrating how a competition can leverage almost exponential growth in fund support, the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award showed the agility and strength of the work refugee-led organizations bring.
“The bottom line is those who have experienced the problem know the best solution,” Mustafa said. “They did not learn how to do this. They have lived this. If you haven’t, that wisdom and understanding just are not there.”
That lived experience also yields long-term, dignified solutions, she added.
The key to large institutions’ effective participation in sparking potent, rapid change is working with refugee-led organizations in an empowering way, Mustafa said.
In only one year, the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award has shown how that occurs.
Five of the refugee-led organizations in the RRLI collaborative have delivered comprehensive support, such as humanitarian aid, education, health services, economic empowerment, legal aid, and resettlement, to nearly 190,000 people, according to RRLI’s 2022 Impact Report.
Those initiatives included:
- YARID preparing and enrolling more than 1,400 children into Ugandan schools.
- RAIC submitting 19 applications for private sponsorship to Canada.
- StARS reaching more than 10,000 children with holistic wraparound services.
- Refugiados Unidos supporting 317 families in submitting legal status applications.
- Basmeh & Zeitooneh offering 9,810 displaced people community-based legal services, case management and psychosocial support.
Beyond those numbers, research on RRLI’s efforts found that community members of all races, ethnicities, religions, gender identities and abilities felt safe, understood, and respected while receiving services from these refugee-led organizations.
And RRLI is kickstarting long-term financial support as part of its plan to expand the refugee-led movement. In 2021 the collaborative made 80 connections between refugee-led organizations and donors, interactions that already have yielded $1.7 million in new funding to three high-impact refugee-led organizations.
RRLI’s five-year goal is to unlock at least $40 million for the organizations.
Mustafa said she also hopes to establish refugee-led intermediaries as conduits between funders and refugee-led organizations—all of it necessary work, considering the rising numbers of forcibly displaced people across the globe.
She and D’Annunzio are optimistic, based on what Mustafa called “the solid ground” of the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award funding and growing numbers of conversations the coalition has had with donors, governments, others in powerful positions and fledgling refugee-led organizations.
“We are changing hearts and minds and ways of working,” D’Annunzio said. “I see it happening. The light bulb is going on. We are building a movement.”