Raising £1 million to help children live happily ever smarter

10th September by Sofeena Lalani

Published on


Sofeena Lalani, Director of Development & Communications at United World Schools (UWS), below shares the extraordinary journey her team have been on through their first UK Aid Match appeal. Integration and focus on test and learn have been key to the success of building their #HappilyEverSmarter campaign from humble beginnings to a fairy-tale ending of over £1 million raised for education in South East Asia.

Sofeena picture

Like many charities who have been weathering the storm of the pandemic, at the beginning of 2021 we knew we had a challenging time ahead. Despite this, we had an opportunity for significant growth, and to change the landscape of education in rural South East Asia.

Our first UK Aid Match appeal was initially set to go live in November 2020. Given that one of our key audiences was UK schools, we decided it was better to hang fire, and launch once schools had reopened.

Not only was the UK experiencing lockdown, but Nepal - the focal point of our campaign and its schools were in lockdown too, having a major impact on our content planning from the outset.  Two deferrals and lockdowns later, we decided to brave fundraising in the COVID-19 landscape, and creatively rethink our appeal to have the desired impact. 

The campaign offered a fantastic opportunity to not only raise vital funds for the global education crisis but more importantly to build brand awareness and reach new audiences. With these objectives in mind, the focus was unlocking marketing investment for the first time.

The initial target was to raise £426k though we knew that with appropriate investment, we could exceed this, setting us up with ambition from the start. To date, the appeal has raised over £1.4 million, a 211% increase on our initial target. Here’s how we did it.

Two girls playing

Unlocking investment

With limited resources, the first step was convincing the 'organisation' and board to invest in marketing. Nascent until now, I knew this was a tall order, particularly considering the uncertainties of the pandemic and having only joined the organisation in March 2020. Bold investment was the key ingredient to achieve cut through, engage new audiences and ultimately reach our ambitious goals. With a backdrop of having maintained income levels in an unprecedented year (2020) and growth of our philanthropic income streams, the board had confidence and provided the much needed investment. With this, I was able to bolster my team temporarily, drawing on external creatives, commissioning high quality content to tell the stories of the children UWS supports.

The opportunity for the team to test & learn was exciting; this included dipping our toe in digital and new product development, something the organisation had never done before. The creative inspired the brand and content for a stand-out campaign. In bringing on external expertise, a good fit with team culture was key. I wanted the team to learn, I knew it would be a great opportunity to upskill and build capacity for the longer-term. They provided communications support, creative direction, PR (media & public figure engagement) and digital marketing expertise.

Harnessing digital

To stay relevant and drive meaningful supporter engagement, we embraced digital. We took our portfolio of events online, used high quality video content to bring our work in Nepal to our supporters digitally. We launched a campaign film produced by multi-award winning Partizan studio and voiced by Amanda Redman. We also began our journey into paid search and social, taking a test and learn approach to our digital content. We capitalised on this moment to complement our other channels and have now added a valuable stream to the fundraising mix.

With no benchmark, we set a modest target for the first pilot. We developed and tested different user journeys for the first time, conducted A/B tests on PPC adverts, and paid social, packing years of digital growth and learning into weeks.  Recognising the limitations of our website and budget, we were focused on optimising what we could, increasing total donation value by 243% and driving new donations by 2,040% in web donations in the last 6 months.

It has been great to see the team embrace digital, and their willingness to learn and adapt. It has been particularly exciting to see the growth across all our social channels, two of which have received no paid investment (Twitter and LinkedIn).  Over the campaign period, Facebook reach increased by 5,7% with Instagram reach increasing by a whopping 4500% Twitter impressions increased by over 60% through organic activity alone.

Our fail fast strategy enabled early market engagement, we quickly adapted and the results have been outstanding and highly motivating for the entire team.

Cartoon of child

Investing in creative

High quality content and storytelling was key to our brand building objective.  Previously, we had not invested in high-quality content collection, so we commissioned a local photographer, videographer and storyteller to help capture the stories of UWS students in Nepal. This content collection exercise was vital to us cutting through the saturated marketplace, as well as securing PR opportunities.  

Happily Ever Smarter sought to take a fresh approach to international development, taking a solutions focused angle. The name took inspiration from the well-known fairy tale ending, turned on its head and referencing the power of education to transform children’s lives and help achieve their dreams.

Our ideation highlighted early that we needed to do something different to stand out and achieve cut through in the COVID-19 world. We used a combination of illustration and imagery to bring stories to life and demonstrate the impact of donations. The PR opportunities that our content garnered are testament to the value of investing in creative and content. Our campaign film was championed by The Sun and shared extensively during the campaign in over 130 additional media outlets and has now received over 13,000 views across all our digital platforms to date.

Boys playing football

Forming impactful partnerships

Our first product, the 180 challenge, (inspired by a young child's 180 min walk to school) invited supporters to turn a 180 on the education crisis, it fuelled our online presence and provided a ‘hook’ for our community audiences. To complement this, we curated and delivered a portfolio of events and key moments supported by communications partners including a mix of public figures such as Jenna Coleman, Nina Wadia, Amrita Acharia who all lent their voices to three films showcasing the stories of girls in Nepal.

The campaign has helped build a community of UWS champions through its outreach with public figures. Mehreen Baig, teacher turned TV presenter, Prue Leith and high-profile children’s illustrators (including the Gruffalo's Alex Scheffler who supported our Secret Sale event, drawing on creative stories of children in Nepal) have all supported the campaign, increasing brand awareness and generated a diverse range of media coverage resonating across all our supporter audiences. 

Extensive Media Coverage – creative content at the heart

Considering the context and low brand awareness of UWS, media was an enormous success with over 169 media pieces promoting the campaign, features in the Telegraph, Independent, The Sun, Metro, Educational media and children’s media (reaching our school audiences); First News, The Week Junior, BBC, The Guardian and diverse press including Asian media (Eastern Eye), fulfilling our objectives of driving new audiences and brand recognition.

As a small charity, we chose to go bold which was risky but paid dividends. This is testament to the strength and collaboration of the team, their creative drive, focus on learning and sheer determination to make this a success combined with focus on insight.

The focus is now harnessing all this excitement, learning and building on this for future growth.