Transforming National Societies, one innovation support system at a time

by Solferino Academy and Henry Cáceres | Nov 2, 2023 | Innovation Stories

The IFRC Solferino Academy has embarked on an ambitious journey of innovation within National Societies. By helping these organisations establish their own innovation support systems, tailored to their unique needs, contexts and objectives, they are sowing the seeds of transformation within the IFRC network.

During the last few years, the IFRC has promoted a series of very successful youth innovation programs or challenges that have attracted a large number of young volunteers around the world. This has illustrated that volunteers are motivated to participate in developing or exploring new approaches or models to address humanitarian challenges with innovative and sustainable ideas that have the potential to help transform both communities and National Societies.

However, many National Societies do not yet have suitable spaces to promote youth and volunteer innovation or are just beginning to explore how to develop these. Furthermore, experimentation and innovation approaches are still largely not part of the organisation’s culture, which presents challenges for volunteers, especially youth, to materialise their initiatives, or where good ideas are developed, to grow and mainstream within the organisation. 

How can National Societies implement approaches and systems that enable greater youth-led innovation that enhance youth engagement strategies and foster effective and efficient impacts within communities? 

Deep dive into the story of these National Societies and their innovation support systems journey, with this interview with Henry Caceres from the IFRC Solferino Academy, the driving force behind the programme. 

Local support and local space to innovate 

“When the first edition of the IFRC Limitless Youth Innovation Academy finished last year, we collected feedback from the different donors, communities and participants. We wanted to understand how the program impacted what they are doing, but also how this could be translated into a more accurate or better-designed idea that is important for the communities. We learned that:

  • National Societies with some kind of support system or innovation approach already built into their organisation were more likely to design better and more disruptive innovation initiatives that delivered more significant impacts for the community.
  • Participating in a global innovation support system like the IFRC Limitless academy has been very good for the participants, for providing a space where they could grow, learn, experiment, and receive support. Participants were learning new ways of working and different approaches, however some struggled at the local level working within systems that weren’t very supportive of innovation. Some even decided to stop working on their innovation projects. 

A number of National Societies reached out to us for support on developing stronger systems and cultures that would help them promote innovation among their volunteers and staff. This led us to develop the Innovation Support Systems (ISS) program.

How does the programme work 

The programme helps National Societies in creating their own innovation support systems, based on their needs, their context, the problems faced by their communities, with a specifically adapted approach. It includes two stages, and usually takes a total of three months. 

Capability building

First, three to five people are identified inside the National Society and become the core planning team, in charge of designing and implementing the support system. In this phase, we help them to develop the basic skills and knowledge in order to do so. Themes include innovation ecosystem and support system, leadership and innovation, innovative volunteering, agile culture for innovation, case studies, mentoring and peer support, innovation approaches, and partnering for innovation. 


Then with the knowledge they acquired during the first phase, participants start applying some innovation methodologies to design their innovation support systems.

By the end of the process, we conduct feedback sessions with experienced National Societies so that participants can improve their design ideas and start implementing their support systems. 


  • In the short term, newly established innovation support systems are useful for National Societies to support volunteers who are taking part in the IFRC Limitless Youth Innovation Academy. 
  • In the medium and long term, the innovation support systems provide safe spaces for volunteers, staff or senior leaders to start experimenting or exploring new ways of doing things. 

Who is taking part

Six National Societies are currently part of the programme, and two more will soon join. Six other National Societies are contributing to support this process.

The Guidebook

We received support from some National Societies in designing the content and providing some success stories. 

The Netherlands Red Cross, Botswana Red Cross Society, Kenya Red Cross Society, Australian Red Cross, French Red Cross and Ecuadorian Red Cross supported in designing the guidebook that contains information you need to know in order to begin to create an innovation support system. For now, what we have is a beta version; we will get a more complete version soon with feedback from the National Societies who are currently building their innovation support systems.

The Programme

In the beginning, four National Societies were selected, Honduran Red Cross, Bolivian Red Cross, Uganda Red Cross Society and Rwandan Red Cross, and started the pilot programme. 

The first thing we noticed is that things did not go at the same pace. Depending on many factors, some teams went faster than others did. While Uganda Red Cross Society and Bolivian Red Cross have already finished the programme and created their own Innovation hubs and systems, others are still ongoing. 

When we saw what was happening with the first cohort, two additional National Societies were later included in the programme, Colombian Red Cross Society that is going to complete the programme and present their ISS next month, and Portuguese Red Cross that is starting with the first stage. 

The Mentors

The whole process was built with capability building and mentoring approaches. It means that alongside National Societies that are participating, learning and designing, there are also mentors, including external experts and other NSs. 

We asked three National Societies with an innovation system already in place to support the process. 

Kenya Red Cross mentored Rwanda Red Cross, the Netherlands Red Cross mentored Uganda Red Cross, and Ecuadorian Red Cross mentored Honduras Red Cross and Bolivia Red Cross. Portugal and Colombia National Societies, which arrived later, are working directly with the IFRC Solferino Academy. We are also going to welcome two other National Societies in the programme, one from Africa and one from Asia, that are going to be mentored by the Netherlands Red Cross. 

A Continuous Transformation Process

We wanted new National Societies to learn how to start their journey of innovation, but we realised along the way that this program also supports more experienced National Societies that are also learning from fresh and different perspectives when they start working with new participants.

For example, after working with the Honduran Red Cross, Ecuadorian Red Cross realised that using technology to promote innovation is a different and interesting way to promote and boost their own ISS. Another learning came from the Colombian Red Cross Society that decided to first build branch level innovation support systems, and later spread the knowledge and structure with the other branches, rather than implementing it first at a national level. 

In short, mentor National Societies are learning from different approaches and perspectives, and improving what they already have in place.

As we look ahead, it’s clear that these initiatives are not just about promoting innovation but about fundamentally reshaping the National Societies to meet the evolving demands of a rapidly changing world.”

Join the programme

If you or your National Society are interested in joining the programme, please reach us at [email protected] 


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