Operation Smile - Boosting Results in a Challenging Year

10th December by Jo Hastie

Published on


Recently, we have been focusing on those clients who’ve been able to meet the operational challenge of COVID 19 head on and transform this into an opportunity. Today, we put the spotlight on Operation Smile, a great charity that AAW Audience have had the privilege to partner with for the past year.  

AAW Insight caught up with the charity’s Head of Individual Giving & Legacy, Mairead O’Callaghan to discuss the work with AAW Audience and the creation of the ‘Caring Never Stops’ campaign, which is already showing fantastic results.

Operation Smile provides free reconstructive surgery all over the world to help children born with a cleft condition; children who may suffer from hunger and thirst, have difficulties with speech and suffer from social isolation and bullying.

You’ve probably seen the ‘before’ and ‘after’ images of children who have received cleft surgery from the charity, but below Mairead outlines how the new fundraising campaign had to broaden its focus to other critical areas of the charity’s work, as Covid brought a halt to medical procedures.

Mairead image

How did you come to work with AAW Audience on this campaign?

I first met AAW Audience at a networking event in Dublin some time ago and approached them for help dealing with some challenges we were having around retention. We felt that we needed to bring in some new expertise to inspire the programme and address some stagnation we felt we were seeing in our KPIs. We were also looking to establish a better connection with our donors, putting them at the centre of our communications across all our IG channels and to help tell our story better and in turn deliver more income. From a donor’s perspective, we wanted to ensure that our communications flowed together and reinforced each other, so that our donors would hear one consistent voice rather than several disparate voices.

It was also attractive to me personally that AAW Audience works in the UK and Irish markets, as we have aligned our programmes in both markets over the last few years. We wanted to have Ireland represented right from conceptualising through to implementation of an appeal, rather than tagged on at the end.

Can you tell us a about the process of working with AAW Audience on your fundraising programme and their insight-led approach?

AAW Audience’s approach to our fundraising has been really fun: the initial workshop with AAW Audience was a really nice experience for the whole team – we really enjoyed the process of working together to conceptualise the appeals, thinking up creative ideas and how to bring them together in a way that tells the donor a great story, but which also makes a nice appeal. We also appreciate the productive communication we have with AAW Audience – we know our business is taken care of, expectations are clear, and we know we are all working together towards very clear timelines. Follow up calls and other communication outside the workshops have been more geared towards getting the job done and, in a way, making dreams become reality.

One of the outcomes of our discussions with AAW Audience is that we loved the idea of having an overarching campaign that used consistent messaging that flowed over time, rather than having standalone pieces. We decided on a six-month campaign, to not look too far ahead given the current uncertain situation, called Caring Never Stops. The campaign was introduced to our donors in our July newsletter, which saw a big uptake in income, and then themes were incorporated into emails and direct mail communications by AAW Audience, and will be integrated into our telemarketing next year.

How is the campaign different to fundraising you have done before?

Previously, we spoke mainly about the before and after elements of our work; these are powerful stories and images that we can share with donors and which have worked well for us, meaning we have always been a bit nervous to tell any other stories. Doing anything in a different way comes with a risk but Covid, through necessity, gave us the opportunity to adapt and tell different stories about our tertiary care work that we deliver to our patients, rather than a single focus on surgery which has come to a halt as a result of the pandemic.

For our Autumn Appeal we decided to feature our work in Ghana, sharing individual stories from our team members focused around removing any barriers to children eventually receiving surgery in the future. That included providing nutritious sachets to severely malnourished children or specially designed bottles for babies who cannot breastfeed, to keep them alive and healthy until surgery can resume.

We based the appeal around the four key pillars of our work: find (identifying babies and children that need our help through medical missions all around the world), care (caring for malnourished babies and children), heal (carrying out surgeries once it is safe for operations to resume) and support (supporting recovery including dental treatment and speech therapy).  

The appeal has done incredibly well, tripling income from a previous appeal sent at the same time last year and bringing in significantly more than forecast.  

However, although income increasing year on year is great, it doesn’t really tell you if your underlying KPIs have improved. It could mean you just have more donors for example, but you really want to know if your response rate has improved, your average gift etc… measures that will show you whether you are doing better or worse than last year.

I’m happy to say that all our KPIs have increased since last year, with average gifts rising by a third.  

What do you think made a difference to the Autumn appeal’s success?

I think we created a campaign that was built around a very clear target and messaging, which was key from a creative point of view.

AAW Audience also did a lot of work on reviewing our data and segmenting our database – our offer was much more advanced in that there was a lot of variation aimed at specific segments, with different versions of the appeal for example for standard and high value donors.

AAW Audience also tested a more aggressive approach to our ‘ask prompt strategy’ and the amount we asked of donors, changing the way we used giving history to devise ask amounts. That approach helped to increase our income for our higher value segments, so we will continue to test and refine that.

The appeal was also supported with a series of emails taking the donor on the same journey around our broader work, where we tested video and email segmentation.

What does this increased income mean for the charity?

Our individual giving programme has been growing significantly and the ability to provide increasing unrestricted income from our supporters is incredibly valuable.

I think one thing Covid has taught us is the power of the people. You can raise millions of pounds in restricted funding which is great, but that is generally tied to a specific funding remit. But unrestricted income supports your infrastructure and allows you to invest in programmes that you feel are the best and what is really needed.

All charities have seen their corporate and grant income impacted, so these individual donors and merging of all their gifts will really make a difference and help sustain us through a difficult time.

Across the organisation, we were all quite nervous about how this year would go, so it has been great to be able to report back with these positive results.

The campaign will culminate in rolled out activities in January with a regular giving focus aimed at converting cash donors to join a ‘community of smile-makers’. We will also be asking regular donors to increase their gifts and asking lapsed donors to sign back up to a regular gift and continue to build on strong foundations.

Operation Smile’s Winter Appeal has just landed – here’s hoping it gets similar excellent results to go towards helping the millions of children waiting for care in the 34 countries the charity operates in.

To find out more about how AAW Audience can help your organisation, email AAW Audience’s Richard Yorke at richard@aawpartnership.com.