For people interested to work around social causes and in the development sector, there are many options available today with the emergence of technical innovation and social entrepreneurship. There are many different models how companies and organizations can be develop sustainable business models while also contributing to the sustainability of the communities they are working with. With funding opportunities everywhere, nothing can stop you from turning your crazy idea into a reality.
This excites a lot of innovators. But for impact investors and funders, having a crazy idea is not just the only important factor. There are a lot of considerations that an innovator might not know about.
Diinsider got in touch with ISIF Asia, a grants and awards program supporting creative Internet solutions that aim to address development needs in the Asia Pacific, to give you an insider background on how programs come about, how they choose projects they want to fund, and what their expectations are.
I chatted with Sylvia Cadena, Head of Programs of the APNIC Foundation which is responsible for the Information Society Innovation Fund Asia program (ISIF Asia). The ISIF Asia program has been running for 10 years, supporting 86 projects in 23 economies in Asia and the Pacific. They’ve handed 26 awards and 60 grants so far.
ISIF Asia Program
Photo from APNIC website https://apnic.foundation/isif-asia/
Gladys: Can you tell us about the ISIF Asia program? How did it start? What is its purpose?
Sylvia: ISIF Asia started 10 years ago to give back to the community and to highlight the positive, productive, useful, and interesting uses of the internet and its positive impact in people’s lives. Why are we focusing on the internet? That is because ISIF Asia was founded by the Asia Pacific Network Information Center (APNIC). As the Regional Internet address Registry (RIR) for the Asia Pacific, APNIC is responsible for the management of the critical number and addressing resources that are essential to the operation of the Internet across 56 economies in the region, supporting over 12,000 ISPs and other network operators, who together are building and maintaining the region’s Internet infrastructure. APNIC works for a global, open, stable, and secure Internet that serves the entire Asia Pacific community. APNIC started the ISIF Asia program to support Internet-based innovation, to highlight the positive contributions that Internet technologies can make to people’s lives. The program provides funding for different kinds of organizations, including small and medium enterprises.
I am originally from Colombia. When I moved to Australia I was tasked to start the ISIF Asia program. I’ve been working in the Internet industry for over 20 years now. In my previous work experience, I’ve been implementing projects on the field directly working with communities. I have a very good understanding of what the people who are receiving funding from a donor actually do on the field on a technical and community level. I used what I learned from this experience, to structure a program that makes more sense in terms of the needs of people working with the communities.
Gladys: As an awards and grants program, how did you get your funding?
Sylvia: The ISIF Asia fund is an alliance of interested partners. All the secretariat functions of the ISIF Asia program are run by the APNIC Foundation. The funding comes from different organizations. APNIC is a contributor along with the International Development Research Center from Canada (IDRC), the Internet Society, and a few other organizations.
I would say ISIF Asia can be described as a facilitator. We collect funding from donors to give funding to organizations working on technology for good in the field. 95% of the money we raise will go to the awarded community projects. We do not raise funds for the operation of ISIF Asia secretariat because that is provided by APNIC as part of the contribution to the Foundation.
ISIF Asia team with the award winners, and ISIF Asia partners and sponsors.
Photo from ISIF Asia
Gladys: How often in a year do you call for proposals and awards nominations?
Sylvia: We ran calls for grant proposals and award nominations at least once a year.
Gladys: Now I think this is the most interesting thing that everyone wants to know. Who are eligible to participate and how do you choose the winners and grantees? What should they possess to stand out?
Sylvia: In terms of those who can participate, our call for applications is open to governments, academia, private sector, non-profits and social enterprises. Basically, all types of organizations are eligible to apply for funding if they are engaged in the Asia Pacific region or if their community projects are to be conducted in the Asia Pacific region.
The application and selection process is done completely online. We have selection committees that are organized based on the categories that we are funding. These selection committees are composed of people with a very strong technical focus (for example on cybersecurity or network operations) working along with other that have extensive international development experience.
The selection process is done online through a tool that we developed that allows us to score the applications and comment on why that score applied for that particular project. After the selection is done, those applicants that were not successful can actually come back and ask for feedback so they would know what areas they need to improve for future applications.
The selection committee is looking at proposals in a holistic way. Let’s say, there is a proposal that is technically solid, very excellent in the technical side but it doesn’t have a business plan or it doesn’t have a community engagement strategy, or it’s just a crazy idea that doesn’t have any backing from any local organization. That will not be good enough for the committee. Even if it looks great on the technical side, we might not select it because we are trying to look for balance in each selection criteria.
After the selection committee has finalized the list of winning applications based on the score, senior management will confirm the final list of projects that will be funded, we run the process of due diligence, where we double check the organizations behind the projects: if they are registered organizations in good standing, if they have bank accounts, if they have experience managing funding so they can receive funding from us. We also check their technical limitations. If everything goes smoothly and no problems occur and contracts are signed, then we announce the winners on our website and social media pages.
Sylvia Carena (far right) with ISIF Asia 2015 award winners and ISIF Asia partners and sponsors.
Photo from ISIF Asia
Gladys: That’s quite a deliberate process indeed. After awarding, what’s next then for you and for the winning projects? How hands-on is ISIF Asia with them?
Sylvia: We are as hands on as they need us to be. As I’ve said, we have awards and we have grants. Awardees don’t need to give reports because we only give them recognition for the works they have already done. They receive a cash prize and travel package to our award ceremony and throughout the year, we promote their work and support them. We prepare recommendation letters if they wish to apply for funding or act as referees for other opportunities like mentoring, offered by other organizations. We also offer them help in building their proposals. If they are pitching in an innovation pitch, we listen to the pitch and we give them feedback.
On the other hand, grant recipients, by the contract, have to submit at least two technical reports. We only release half of the grant money at the beginning of their projects. They will need to send a technical report to receive the second disbursement which is 40%. When the final report is submitted, they will receive the remaining 10%.
Gladys: What if the project failed in the middle of the work? Say their objective hasn’t been met? What do you do with that?
Sylvia: Failure is part of innovation. If you have a good report that explains why it failed, why you were not able to achieve the objectives and approach that you took, for us that is not a failure. If you are honest with yourself and you report that information, it will be easier to design new strategies and approaches. If everything is in pink and perfect, then it’s really complicated to assess how real things are. We encourage people to document the process because it’s very important.
ISIF Asia Awards winner for Internet for Development Award 2017
Photo from ISIF Asia
Gladys: I’m curious if you have some challenges running the program. Do you mind sharing if there’s any?
Sylvia: One is the preconception of what the Internet is and how it works. There are people who think that the Internet is what companies like Google or Facebook do and that you are going to be very rich and make money very fast. This is the kind of stereotype that we are fighting. The Internet is a lot more. We can use it in a lot of decision making processes and we just need to understand how it fits into our culture and environment.
Fundraising on this sector is quite competitive. Now there are a lot of innovation challenges or programs focusing on Innovation. It’s getting to a point where it’s difficult to assess how effective those innovations are as the people get caught on the excitement of what they are proposing rather than the reality of what they can deliver. That is a problem for us because when we approach donors for funding, they say “Oh, another innovation challenge” and we we want them to know about the whole process and what we want to achieve to make sure the right steps are taken for the the Internet industry to keep growing, in support of development targets, to help people, to use technology to solve problems.
The other challenge is that our coverage is regional. Some donors have limitations to invest in certain countries, for example in Pakistan or the Pacific Islands, or that want to avoid how difficult it is for local organizations in India to receive funds from overseas, or like in Japan where they have a large tradition of funding activities themselves so there is limited experience in small organizations about how to receive funds from overseas.
Other donors are working with focus on specific countries, so let’s say we want to partner with a donor that can only fund projects from Cambodia and Myanmar. If they partner with us, that means we can only choose projects from those two countries. What if we don’t receive good quality applications from those countries? We want to select based on merit, not discarding great projects based on from where they are coming from. To tackle this problem, we have considered to start country-based ISIF; say for example, ISIF India, or ISIF Philippines, to go around that challenge of trying to find capital for regional coverage.
Gladys: To end this interview, do you have advice to those people who aspire to join competitions and grant awards like ISIF Asia?
Sylvia: My advice would be that participants should be thorough, do your research so you can explain your idea in a way that is clear and concrete, covering the technical aspects of the solution/research proposed and how you are planning to achieve it. If you have the information to answer those technical questions, then you will be well prepared to defend your ideas. I would also encourage young people to do their research and understand really what the problem is about before jumping to conclusions and think the problems we have today no one has tried to solve before. Most times, there are other reasons (political will, regulations, limited funding, technical limitations, to name a few) that have prevented problems to be solved. By understanding what has been tried before and learning from that, their proposals will be better placed to compete and be successfully selected.