The Sapling Nursery

Staff involved in the 2020 Ebola response in Democratic Republic of Congo workshop how to improve MSF's response to future epidemics. Caption
Staff involved in the 2020 Ebola response in Democratic Republic of Congo workshop how to improve MSF's response to future epidemics.

Ideas from Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) staff have the potential to revolutionise the way we work, in big and small ways.​

Apply for an exploratory grant

​The Sapling Nursery helps MSF staff explore, develop and test innovative new approaches to challenges in our projects, to ultimately give people better access to medical care.​

Successful applications for the Sapling Nursery receive mentorship and financial support, as well as opportunities to connect with individuals inside and outside of MSF who could contribute to building out your idea.

In 2022 the Sapling Nursery is encouraging applications that address the strategic topic:

New innovative ways to engage with patients and/or relatives, caretakers, individuals, or communities.​

Applications for the Sapling Nursery which address this strategic topic will be prioritised. ​MSF staff can apply for an exploratory grant which supports you to design and build out your idea over a period of three months.​

What is an exploratory grant?

It can be difficult to structure ideas, turn them into solutions and test them in a way that we know they have had an impact and can be replicated elsewhere. Therefore:

  1. Sapling Nursery staff will guide you or the team through 12 three-hour workshops, held weekly across a period of three months.
  2. We will link you or the team with a mentor, with whom you will be able to engage for additional support when/if needed.
  3. If your idea is successful, we will support you in writing an application for further funding to test your idea.

All costs associated with the support activities will be covered by the Sapling Nursery fund, as part of the exploratory grant.

Apply today

Applications for exploratory grants are open until 15 December 2021. Download the application form below and, when complete, email to:

Application form >

Examples of Sapling Nursery projects

When Yaashe, a six-year-old noma patient from Borno state, and her family arrived at the Sokoto Noma Hospital, they felt isolated because they don’t speak the local language. 

The mental health staff helped them integrate with the other patients. Yaashe fell ill two months after Boko Haram killed her father and her family had to flee their village. 

“Yaashe was a healthy and happy girl, but then suddenly she got a fever and after just three days she developed a hole in her face. When I saw her coming out of surgery, I thanked God. I love her very much" remembers Yagana, Yaashe’s mother. 

Her daughter finally received surgery six months after arriving at the hospital. It’s the first of several operations she needs because of the severity of her injuries. 

Sokoto, Nigeria.
28 October, 2017.

Stories of change

How can story-telling help communities fight disease? Find out more from Kate Hughes.

Jaqueline, 72, in Bulengo IDP camp near Goma, North Kivu: She lives here with two of her grandchildren - their parents were killed in the late 2000s, near Bukavu. She has an injured leg and spine when she fell from a bridge near Bukavu. 

'It's very difficult to live here. We haven+t received any help at all. We have nothing. People spend the whole day searching for vegetables. If someone takes pity on us, they can give us a bit of 'fou-fou' or some beans. My grandchildren were sent away from school because we have no money for the school fees. We don't even have money for soap, to wash clothes. It's only if someone gives us a few francs that we can buy some soap. I can't cultivate with my injuries, I can't even carry a jerrycan of water...

Menstrual hygiene management

How do you manage menstrual hygiene in a humanitarian crisis? Chiara Domenichini attempts to solve the problem.  

Who can apply for the Sapling Nursery?

All MSF staff contracted through MSF OCA, OCBA, and OCB, both in country projects and in headquarters, can apply to the Sapling Nursery.

However, if your idea requires testing or collaboration with operational staff or patients, you need to be based in a country project or have confirmed that a country project team will collaborate to build out the idea to apply.

All MSF staff need to have approval from their functional line manager and if based in a country project, their project coordinator.

The 2022 strategic topic

Can we use innovation to fundamentally change what we as an organisation understand as inclusion? We at the Sapling Nursery think so, but we need your help with this!

In 2022 the Sapling Nursery is looking for new innovative ways to engage with patients and/or relatives, caretakers, individuals, or communities in the work we do as an organisation. 

Ideas to consider: 

  • Approaches that help MSF to understand how patients and communities experience and engage with MSF, and how we can integrate these learnings to improve our work.
  • How to involve patients, communities, and service users in the creation of health activities and interventions, and in setting the strategic health priorities, and the medical agenda of MSF. 
  • Removing barriers to patients accessing healthcare by identifying aspects of MSF's work that could be made more inclusive. Examples include intersectional barriers caused by stigma; gender inequality; age; or [dis]ability. Correspondingly this creates environments in which patients are empowered to overcome challenges relating to their treatment and/or conditions.
  • New ways to find out more about the problems communities face and whether there is potential for innovative solutions for these problems. Additionally, how MSF could adapt the products we offer, medical or otherwise (eg. food supplies and hygiene) to the preference and needs of the communities we serve. 
  • Involving patients and community members in quality improvement

It is important to understand that while applications not related to this topic are welcomed, those which align with the strategic topic will be prioritised for Sapling Nursery grants. 

Q&A: Applying to the Sapling Nursery exploratory grant, opening early 2022

You are an individual or group of MSF staff that have identified a barrier to inclusion. You think you have a solution to solve a problem but need help exploring and framing the idea so it can be tested and adopted. 

This grant will help you further develop your idea and, if showing promise, help you access further funding opportunities to put your idea into practice.  

The application needs to be endorsed by your functional or hierarchical line manager and project coordinator. This endorsement must include in writing explicit approval for time devoted to the weekly three-hour workshops.

If the application is successful, the work must commence within four weeks of the approval date. If the work is to be delayed longer than four weeks, it will be rescheduled to commence in the next year.

You or team members need to be available for three hours per week during the agreed three-month period. You or team members will also need to dedicate additional time outside of the workshops each week to complete the tasks assigned.

You or team members need at least one project location actively involved. This can be your own or another project location. This collaboration needs to be confirmed in writing.

The application must be led or co-led by a project staff member.

The application must be led by MSF staff currently on post.

Sapling Nursery staff are here to help. We can:

  • Support if you want to discuss your idea before applying.
  • Put you in contact with people you may need to fulfill the project.
  • Suggest development and management tools.
  • Innovation: Is your idea creative and unique in MSF or the context you work in?
  • Capacity: Do you have the skills, expertise, and time commitment to make your idea a success? 
  • Quality of the project: Do you propose a solution to address a need or issue? do you have an existing relationship with necessary partners or collaborators? Does your proposal align with the strategic topic?
  • Value of the project: Does your idea bring value to a particular community, and/or address an internal need? Will your idea remove barriers to equity of opportunity or generate a more inclusive environment?
  • Sustainability: Does your proposal have the potential to allow MSF staff to develop a new set of knowledge and skills? Could this knowledge be transferred across MSF, to different projects, headquarters and operational centres, becoming a part of the normal way of working for MSF?

Always begin by clearly identifying a need or a problem. Then summarise your idea to address this need or problem. One key outcome to addressing the need or problem is that it demonstrates the benefit to MSF operations, and our patients and communities.

If you think you have a solution but need help to strengthen the proposal that is ok; Sapling Nursery staff are here to help you. We can work through your proposal for the problem and solution, and also provide support to search for alternative approaches if your initial idea is not workable.

Keep ethics in mind. Check the Ethical Framework for Innovation to see if your project requires research ethics oversight.

Good project management is key. Make sure you have good project management techniques in place.

Always seek to learn. Projects that fail to learn or share lessons are failed projects (evaluation, and sharing the evaluation, are key).

Be prepared for innovations falling short of their ambitions. The most important thing is that we can collate lessons learned and that the skillsets of those involved have developed in the process.

If you have questions or want support with writing your proposal, please contact Cesc Galban and Natalie O’Connell at