Learnings from our experience with the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award

Sana Mustafa and Diana Essex-Lettieri standing shoulder-to-shoulder in front of a yellow wall

By: Diana Essex-Lettieri, Vice President and COO & Sana Mustafa, Director of Partnerships and Engagement at Asylum Access

As a family of national civil society organizations, Asylum Access believes in the power of “proximate” solutions: we know from our experiences that those closest to experiences of displacement are best placed to confront the obstacles that face their communities. As the movement for refugee leadership in response to refugee issues grew stronger, and the calls for refugee participation made it into prominent spaces–like the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR’s 2019 Global Refugee Forum–Asylum Access looked inward and asked: Where do we fit? How do we help? By our assessment, the calls for change were surface-level and lacked pathways for implementation. We needed massive investment for system-wide change. At the time, it was hard to envision unlocking that kind of funding.

Learn more about Asylum Access’s commitment to refugee leadership

Enter Lever for Change and ICONIQ Impact with a call for proposals sponsored by donors Chris Larsen and Lyna Lam. The call was simple but bold: put forth a solution that was big, would lead to long-term change, and could be done with a hefty $12 million. The call didn’t specify which strategies or geographies were most important. It offered freedom to think big. With these flexible specifications, light bulbs lit over our heads: could this be the chance to think about how, in practice, we could contribute to the movement for refugee leadership in refugee response?

The call encouraged partnerships. So, we approached the design of the application together with five refugee-led organizations around the world (Basmeh & Zeitooneh, StARS, RAIC, Refugiados Unidos, and YARID). We pulled the group together and shared the simple specifications of the award on a single PowerPoint slide. After the initial pleasant surprise that we didn’t have to box ourselves into categories like “humanitarian,” “development” or “human rights” parameters, we started to brainstorm. It’s fun to look back on that moment now — there was so much daunting work ahead, but it was the start of something truly transformative for all of us on both personal and professional levels. It was the start of building a family; it was the start of funding a movement.

Read our press release on the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award

We leveraged the significant application to build a cohesive coalition. Together, we identified the problem: proximate organizations know what needs to be done, but don’t have the funding or access to scale their efforts. Together, we identified the solution: drive funding to refugee-led organizations (RLOs) all over the world and support them to absorb that capital. The way we saw it: money is power. If RLOs had resources, their leaders would more organically be positioned to engage with the decisionmakers that set the policies and laws that dictate the ways in which refugees are treated, including what rights they have. We put these ideas on paper, built a budget together, assembled the package and sent it off with a hope and a prayer.

Normally, fundraising is about who you know. We didn’t know anyone running the Lever for Change program, and there weren’t opportunities to connect. Information was provided via the website and webinars. It was a lot of work to put in without knowing if we had a chance. But, there was comfort in the distance too; it meant this wasn’t about who you knew, and anyone had a shot. We need more opportunities like this that strive to be unbiased in their approach. 

When we found out we were a finalist, we were unbelievably excited. But, in the spirit of honesty, when we found out we would undergo four months of “proposal strengthening” we were hesitant. We’ve endured extreme donor due diligence before and were nervous about the possibility of wasting energy. We can honestly say that our time with Lever for Change’s partner, Bridgespan, was immeasurably helpful. They were extremely wise, offered criticism with care, and for a pre-designated time, became members of our family. With the support of these experts, we unpacked our complex project and learned to talk about it in a way that would resonate with others. We have a Bridgespan catch-up call coming up soon, and we are, quite frankly, excited to see their supportive faces.

As we announce our win, we can see the tremendous work done by the Lever for Change team in promoting our solution, and the solutions developed by our fellow finalists. We see and admire the Bold Solutions Network, and acknowledge the role they are playing in the philanthropy ecosystem to find and support truly bold solutions. Our optimism about the future grows as we join this Network, not just because of the resources within it, but because we’ve come to know the people who run it. Their values match our own and that feels so good.

In our experience, Lever for Change has provided one of the more inclusive fundraising efforts that we have ever been a part of. They didn’t prescribe strategies or geographies, paid for translation services, encouraged partnerships, and accommodated time zones. They thought deeply about inclusivity and bias prevention in terms of finalist selection through peer and expert reviews. They are an example to build on, and we are excited to see how the sector continues to grow because of it. Onward, together.