The Essl Foundation and the Zero Project

For a world with zero barriers

The Essl Foundation MGE gemeinnützige Privatstiftung is an Austrian non-profit organization. It was founded in 2007 by Martin and Gerda Essl and their children. The mission of the Foundation is to find, promote, and support the implementation of innovative solutions worldwide that can significantly improve the lives of disadvantaged people. In 2008 the Essl Foundation initiated the Zero Project, which has been its leading programme for over a decade.

Other activities by the Essl Foundation

In Austria, the Essl Foundation is particularly committed to the education and employment of people with disabilities and develops target programmes to engage with employers, policy makers, and the media.

In addition, the Essl Foundation also supports the development of the philanthropic community in Austria. For example, it has co-founded several networks of foundations and philanthropists, such as the Sinnstifter Association, the Verband für Gemeinnütziges Stiften, and the Sinnbildungsstiftung.

The House of Philanthropy in Vienna was co-founded by the Essl Foundation; it now houses the Zero Project Offices.

In the field of promoting inclusive art – with all its facets – the Essl Foundation has also been increasingly developing innovative programmes in recent years.

Internationally, the Essl Foundation is a United Nations-recognized NGO (with ECOSOC consultative status) and also a member of the European Association for Non-Profit Foundations (Philea).

Essl Foundation Board Members

  • KR Martin Essl (Founder, Chairman)
  • KR Rudolf Humer (Deputy Chairman)
  • Gerda Essl
  • Prof. Dr. Michael Fembek
  • Dr. Peter Konwitschka
  • Prof. Dr. Dieter Waldmann

A brief history of the Zero Project

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Here are some of the most important milestones, since a precursor of the organization — the Essl Social Index — was founded by the Essl Foundation in 2008. Since its beginnings, the Zero Project has focused on the rights of persons with disabilities, and the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD).


The United Nations Office at Vienna (UNOV), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and the Essl Foundation are proud to celebrate their 10-year partnership anniversary. Established in 2013, the partnership has been critical in realizing the United Nations commitment to building a better world for persons with disabilities. 


The Zero Project launches the Zero Project Database, which allows the public to access a vast database of proven solutions from around the world that remove barriers for all.


The Zero Project extends its official partner network by joining forces with the European Network for Accessible Tourism and by becoming a founding partner of the global WeThe15 initiative.

The Zero Project Conference 2021 moves online for the first time amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting 71 Solutions from around the world on the topic of Employment and ICT.


On November 18 and 19, Fundación Descúbreme organizes the first Zero Project-Conference for Latin America and the Spanish speaking communities, due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, it is a virtual event: “Conferencia de Zero Project Latinoamérica, el Caribe y el mundo hispanoparlante sobre educación inclusiva”.

As part of the cooperation with Fundación Descúbreme, the Zero Project launches its first Zero Project Report in Spanish Language: “Educación Inclusiva". (Download the Report by clicking on this link)

The Zero Project Conference 2020 becomes the biggest Zero Project Conference yet: 800 participants from 80 countries gather at the United Nations Office in Vienna to share and discuss solutions for Independent Living and Political Participation.


The Zero Project Conference 2019 highlights 66 Innovative Practices and 10 Innovative Policies concerning Independent Living and Political Participation from around the world and gathers more than 600 participants from more than 70 countries at the United Nations Office in Vienna. 11 Zero Project Impact Transfer fellows are trained and presented


The UN Flagship Report on Disability and Development is launched, referring more than 40 times to Innovative Practices and Policies identified by the Zero Project.

The Zero Project Conference 2018 highlights 68 Innovative Practices and 15 Innovative Policies concerning Accessibility from around the world and gathers more than 500 participants from more than 70 countries at the United Nations Office in Vienna, also celebrating its fifth year in the U.N. by revealing the Zero Project Artwork and presenting the Zero Project Anthem.


The Zero Project Conference 2017 highlights 67 Innovative Policies and Innovative Practices concerning Employment from around the world and gathers more than 450 participants from more than 70 countries at the United Nations Office in Vienna.


The Zero Project headquarters move into the newly founded “House of Philanthropy” in Vienna, jointly with several other Austrian foundations and co-initiated by the Essl Foundation.

The Zero Project Conference 2016 highlights 98 Innovative Policies and Innovative Practices concerning Inclusive Education and/or ICTs from around the world and gathers more than 450 participants from more than 70 countries at the United Nations Office in Vienna.


The 4th Zero Project Conference gathers more than 400 participants at the United Nations Office in Vienna. For the first time, the Conference includes the Award Ceremony for Innovative Policies and Practices.


The Essl Foundation that founded the Zero Project is awarded ECOSOC status, which allows NGOs to participate fully in the UN system.

The 3rd Zero Project Conference takes place, for the first time, at the United Nations in Vienna. More than 300 participants from 50 countries are attending.


The Zero Project research is presented for the first time at the United Nations, in a side event organized by the Austrian Permanent Mission to the United Nations, at a session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The year’s Zero Project Conference takes place for the second time in Palais Niederösterreich. Over 250 persons from 30 countries participate.


For the first time, the Zero Project is presented outside Europe, at a conference on Disability and Work organized by McGill University in Montréal, Canada.

The Zero Project decides not only to concentrates its work on disability and the implementation of the UN CRPD, but also to focus its research for the year only on the employment issues addressed in the UN CRPD. Research is undertaken during spring, summer and autumn of 2012.

This year marks the inaugural Zero Project Conference. Organized in Vienna, it takes place in the historical Palais Niederösterreich, on January 22-23, 2012. Over 200 practitioners and experts on the rights of persons with disabilities from 30 countries take part and discuss innovative solutions for the advancement of the rights and daily lives of persons with disabilities.


The first Zero Project Report is published on December 3, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

The Essl Foundation decides to expand its activities to include the research and selection of both Innovative Practices and Innovative Policies, and to include them in its annual report. It also decides to rename the initiative THE ZERO PROJECT – FOR A WORLD WITHOUT BARRIERS taking into account the broadened scope of work and growing potential.


It is decided to establish a cooperation with the World Future Council, an organization founded by Mr Jakob von Uexkull, with experience in identifying and spreading effective, future-just policy solutions.

The Essl Foundation also decides to join forces with Ashoka and social entrepreneurs supported by Ashoka, especially those working in the field of disabilities.

The first report, entitled ESSL SOCIAL INDEX PILOT STUDY 2010, is published and mailed out to NGOs and service providers in Austria. It is also mailed to decision makers, governments and others in the countries that have been surveyed for the report.

The first research using the newly developed social indicators is undertaken in Austria and 15 other, mostly European, countries.


Late in 2009, before the active research on the indicators begins, it is decided that the Essl Social Index should measure the implementation of the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (the UN CRPD). At the time, the Convention is relatively new, Austria having only ratified it in 2008. By the end of 2009, 14 indicators have been defined that measure the implementation of the UN CRPD.

The Essl Foundation starts to research and create a whole new set of indicators called, at that time, the Essl Social Index. These indicators are to provide both individual country evaluations and country comparisons. The initial set of social indicators are to be designed around persons with disabilities as the first group of disadvantaged persons, to be followed by others such as the elderly, the homeless, children, women, migrants and others.


The Essl Foundation does a preliminary study on existing data related to persons with disability and other disadvantaged groups.

From historic milestones to breaking news

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