December 3, 2020

Building a Durable Future for Refugees with the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award

Meet the five finalists of the first ICONIQ Impact Award: a $12 million grant sponsored by Chris Larsen and Lyna Lam, with support from the Sea Grape Foundation, to provide impactful programs for refugees.

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The global refugee crisis is at an all-time high. According to the UN Refugee Agency, the refugee population is currently at its most severe peak since World War II, with more than 70 million people forcibly displaced by war, conflict, and persecution.  To put this in further perspective, the current number of global refugees is more than the entire population of the United Kingdom, and nearly half of these refugees are children.  Despite the intense need, programs to help refugee individuals and families rebuild their lives in stable and nurturing environments are critically underfunded.

Amidst this backdrop, I am delighted to introduce the five finalists for the first ICONIQ Impact Award, focused on securing a durable future for refugees: Asylum AccessLutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS)Southern New Hampshire University’s Global Education MovementTalent Beyond Boundaries and Village Enterprise.

This is a major milestone for our collaborative platform to help ICONIQ Capital families identify meaningful giving opportunities, pool resources to amplify impact, and give at scale to social issues of their choice.

When we launched ICONIQ Impact last year, our ultimate goal was to create a platform to help our clients unlock philanthropic capital and guide it to proven social entrepreneurs and organizations with scalable models that provide outsized, measurable results. ICONIQ Impact is a natural expansion for ICONIQ given the firm’s demonstrated ability to leverage the collective experience and intelligence of its global network of incredible families, entrepreneurs, companies, institutions and social change agents. This network allows us to effectively build donor collaboratives in specific areas like climate change, gender equality and democracy to break down silos in philanthropy and increase donor impact.

A central pillar of ICONIQ Impact is our collaboration with the MacArthur Foundation’s Lever for Change, an organization that helps philanthropists identify and vet giving opportunities through customized grant competitions in the philanthropic area of their choice.

Through this collaboration, ICONIQ Impact launched its first philanthropic competition in January 2020. The Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award is a $12 million grant award sponsored by philanthropist Lyna Lam and business leader, investor and co-founder of Ripple Chris Larsen, along with a $2 million donation from the Sea Grape Foundation. Chris and Lyna worked with ICONIQ Impact to shape an award that matched their desire to help better the lives of refugees around the world. Chris and Lyna’s decision to sponsor this Award was driven by their passion for improving the lives and experiences of refugees, inspired by Lyna’s own experiences living in refugee camps while emigrating from Vietnam with her family in the 1980s, and eventually immigrating to San Jose, California in 1983.

The refugee cause is one that is close to many hearts within ICONIQ, including my own. My mother was born in Cairo to Jewish parents. In 1956, during the Suez crisis, my mother and her family were expelled from Egypt for being Jews. They were only given two days to pack their belongings and flee, obligated to abandon their beloved home and required to agree to the confiscation of financial assets as they set out for Brazil. Her family later emigrated to the UK and worked incredibly hard to find employment opportunities, as well as access to good, affordable education for my mother in a country where they didn’t speak the language. Many of the finalists of the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award are focused on providing access to these same opportunities and skills that my family needed sixty years ago so that refugees today can secure their own futures.

Each of these finalists are non-profits focused on providing, innovative solutions in a critically underfunded space. We asked them to shed some light on their mission, motivations and unique perspectives on the refugee crisis resulting from their impressive track records in the non-profit space.

I hope you enjoy learning more about these fantastic projects.

What is your organization’s mission statement or primary goal?

Talent Beyond Boundaries: We are building a world where refugees and other displaced people can move internationally for work, leveraging their own skills to secure their own futures. TBB is a catalyst to unlock labor mobility pathways for displaced people as a route towards restored self-reliance and safety. We strive for refugees and other forcibly displaced people to have equitable access to international employment and skilled migration opportunities.

Global Education Movement: To provides learners affected by conflict and economic disinvestment the opportunity to earn accredited bachelor’s degrees and pathways to meaningful employment. We are particularly focused on refugee populations and the need to develop a durable solution to the growing scale and length of human displacement. With a program model focused on building social capital and learning marketable skills for 21st century challenges, GEM is unlocking the potential of a new generation of leaders whose successes inspire hope and empower graduates to benefit themselves and their communities.

What motivates your team to come into work every day? where do you draw inspiration from?

Asylum Access: Together, our coalition works in Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mexico, Thailand, Turkey, Syria, and Uganda. As a majority refugee-led organization ourselves, we come from and support both prominent and forgotten refugee communities all over the world. Our collective experiences have taught us that refugee communities — above all others — are solving their own problems, but are not resourced to maximize impact. Together, we can change this.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service: Our team is deeply inspired by our core values of welcome, prophetic witness, integrity, innovation, and interdependence. Our team comes to work every day because we are inspired and motivated by the resiliency and strength of the refugees and immigrants we are privileged to serve. We are also inspired by the commitment of our partners, volunteers, community members, donors, and congregations who are dedicated to this important and life changing work. Together, we are proud to create welcoming communities where refugees and immigrants are welcomed and pursue the life and goals they deserve.

What do you think is the most pressing challenge refugees currently face, and how is your organization seeking to address this? 

Global Education Movement: With the average duration of displacement being more than 25 years, entire generations of refugees are spending their lives in camps and urban slums with few opportunities to make a better life for themselves. This is sowing powerful seeds of despair and discord. We see higher education as a critical gateway to upward social and economic mobility. Research shows that it enables access to higher skilled, better paid positions and our own impact evaluation bear this out. That is how the GEM program emerged from two successful pilot programs in Rwanda to the 11 sites we have now in five countries across Africa and the Middle East.

Asylum Access: The refugee response system directs the distribution of billions of dollars annually, convenes world leaders and engages international financial institutions on aid packages. Despite the enormity of the system’s power, it rarely deploys efforts that result in refugees living safely, moving freely, working legally or accessing public services. On the contrary, most of the world’s refugees remain at risk of detention, deportation, and exploitation, and lack access to education and health care. This is especially devastating when considering that refugees are living in their host communities — most often without foundational rights — for decades.  Luckily, there are solutions, and they are most often led by refugees themselves. Our coalition will unlock the resources they need to scale their efforts.

What do you think is the most surprising or least discussed aspect of the refugee experience that would help people better understand why refugees need more resources and support?

Village Enterprise: The refugees we work with are reliant on food distribution.  They hate this dependence, but lack the skills, knowledge, land and other inputs to run a business.  Added to this, the market is broken.  For example, a refugee may need soap, but a donor in Kampala provides her with oil, along with all the other refugees in need.  As expected, she sells the oil to buy soap, but the middle-man only accepts a very low price given the market is flooded with oil.  The middle-man transports the oil back to Kampala, sells it back to the donor, and the whole cycle starts again.

Talent Beyond Boundaries: Imagine having years of training and experience in your field and an urgent desire and need to work to support your family. Then imagine having no permission to hold a job in the field you were trained in or no job at all, and no permission to move to a country where your skills are in high demand. That’s the reality for thousands of refugees around the world. The cumulative impact of this exclusion of refugees from the international labor market and from regular migration pathways is to marginalize generations of conflict-affected people at the fringes of society. This is an unbearable cost for refugees to bear, and a pointless waste of human potential.

What is the biggest obstacle you find as an organization to carrying out your work?  how would this award help overcome that obstacle?

Global Education Movement: One word. Resources.  We have partners in many new locations who are eager to do this work with us.  There are thousands of displaced people across the globe with no access to higher education. What they do have is the drive and the will to do it.  Marketing this program is not the challenge.  The challenge is covering the cost of the degree, which we provide for free.  And what better return on investment than building global leaders by supporting Bachelor Degree attainment for under $15,000/student, compared to an average of over $25,000 per year at US universities?

Asylum Access: The 2019 Global Humanitarian Assistance report shows that of the nearly $30 billion USD that cycles through the humanitarian system annually, 0.1% is going to local NGOs.  Though there is no data on this available, it is clear to us in the field that RLOs are receiving just a small fraction of that 0.1%. This award would resource our coalition to disrupt funding flows. Together, we will ensure funding is available and distributed to 50 RLOs across 10 countries, reaching ~2,000,000 with community-designed, community-led solutions.

How does your organization or team measure success in your work for refugees?

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service: We utilize a variety of evidence-based monitoring and evaluation techniques and tools to measure success in its programs. These include conducting home visits and interviewing program participants about their experience, reviewing case file documentation, holding community-wide forums, providing transparent avenues for participant feedback, and using data to inform programmatic decisions. For now, success is defined as self-sufficiency, but through New American Cities, we aim to use even more robust measurements to demonstrate social cohesion, refugee wellbeing and economic contributions to rebuilding cities.

Village Enterprise: Our team employs rigorous internal monitoring and evaluation systems to track impact, outcomes, and outputs.  Through baseline and endline surveys with participant households, we track average increases in household income, savings, assets, perceived well-being, access and participation in host community markets, value chains, sense of community and trust across refugees and host communities. Through this award, our evaluation partner – IDinsight – will validate findings through a rigorous externally-led evaluation providing evidence on whether this program was meaningfully able to transform refugee lives.

We are blown away by these five finalists, who each show impressive dedication to improving the lives of deserving individuals and families. The recipient of the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award will be announced on March 5th, 2021. Though there will only be one recipient of this Award, ICONIQ Impact, Lyna and Chris hope to inspire other philanthropists to join their efforts, so that all five of these critical organizations can be funded. You can learn more about the finalists or ways you can get involved as a financial sponsor on

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