Sightsavers blog

Learning through innovation

Sightsavers, September 2015
A girl holds her glasses up to her face and looks at the camera.

“Sightsavers aimed to challenge the status quo and change how programmes are developed”

Sightsavers’ strategy stresses that learning and innovation are essential to improve the quality of what we do. 

Our strategic funding from the UK government’s Department for International Development (DFID) has given us the opportunity to take a leap forward in exploring potentially innovative approaches to the challenge of addressing eye health, inclusive education and social inclusion in developing countries at scale.

We ringfenced funding for Sightsavers’ Innovation Fund where  we could explore new, breakthrough and untested approaches and projects that hold the promise of effective large scale change and contributing to global learning. We hoped that the fund would allow Sightsavers to support programmes with a potential to generate new evidence to inform of good practice and guide future implementation approaches. We proactively moved away from usual programming practice in order to seek new ideas that can come from anywhere.

In 2011, we restricted the first round of funding to programmes designed and run by Sightsavers’ Country Offices and funded five initiatives ranging from eye care to working with people with disabilities to help ensure that policies and infrastructure exist, which take into account  the needs of disabled people in the event of a natural disaster.

For the second round of funding in 2012 we launched a call for proposals, inviting applicants from other Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs), academic institutions, the private sector and disabled people’s organisations to apply to our Innovation Fund to help overcome specific challenges faced by the eye health and social inclusion sectors in developing countries, which had been identified by our technical people. We hoped that by bringing different organisations together to overcome these barriers, we could create lasting large-scale change. Thanks to this approach, we supported nine operational and five research projects over a period of 18 months ending in 2014. All were new and untested ideas to specific countries or regions.

An independent evaluation carried out in 2014 demonstrates that the Innovation Fund has been successful, with 10 of the second round projects promising enough to take them forward to the next phase of the Fund – either to fully replicate or test more rigorously. To help determine which projects were to be tested further through replication or to be scaled up, the evaluators looked at which innovations had already demonstrated success at a small scale.

The evaluation looked at what the intended innovation was, whether this has been demonstrated and to what extent the project was aligned to the DFID definition, including risk taking. In all cases approaches were not new as such, but were novel in the contexts in which they were being tested. The Rajendra Prasad Centre in India was innovative in demonstrating the use of low cost cameras to screen for diabetic retinopathy. This has been fully demonstrated and the government is using the method in mobile screening units, lowering costs and making the service more accessible for training optometrists, rather than ophthalmologists, to perform the service.

The project also used voluntary groups and NGOs to sensitise people on diabetes through door-to-door visits, which is a useful low cost way to promote awareness.

It was great to be able to invite all the Innovation Fund projects to present their work and share experience and learning at a Sightsavers-organised ‘Innovation Day’, held in 2013.  Projects also successfully shared their learnings through Sightsavers’ bi-annual learning journal focussed on learning from innovation.

Importantly, the fund has also been a starting point and driver of an important institutional change process aiming to strengthen innovative thinking across the organisation. Sightsavers aimed to challenge the status quo and change how programmes are developed. Programme strategy has now been separated from programme implementation and innovation now sits in the programme strategy team – which is where programme design starts.

The Fund has also broadened the partnerships Sightsavers has beyond those established through country programmes, as a result of working with almost all new organisations during Round 2. This has challenged us to think more broadly about different kinds of partnerships.

While there is a need not to overpower innovation practice with extensive requirements from grantees for monitoring, evaluation and learning, we still think more can be done to ensure that results are backed up with quality and robust evidence to help demonstrate the innovation itself. We will reflect more on getting the balance right for our next phase of the Fund.

Innovation is a specific area where the UK Government for International Development’s strategic funding has been used to add value to Sightsavers’ work. We are now designing and implementing our next innovation phase, which will focus our ability to use learning from the Innovation Fund to improve results.

We also want to share with you our learning so far. In order to do this, our grantees have written a series of professional blogs to detail the initiatives’ successes, failures and key learnings. So please do read on and leave us your comments and thoughts.

By Susan Pieri, Institutional Funding Officer at Sightsavers.


Sightsavers’ Imran Khan has been involved in two Global Health Innovation Q&A’s for the Guardian:

Live Q&A: what innovations will revolutionise global health by 2030?

13 steps to game-changing health innovation.


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