In the summer of 2015, a group of four friends in London decided they wanted to do something to alleviate the worsening situation for refugees in Europe. They started a crowdfunding campaign, with the aim of raising £1,000 and filling a van with donations to take across to Calais. Within a week, they had raised £56,000, and were soon receiving 7,000 items every day.

Fast forward to January 2018 and Help Refugees have helped over 722,500 people, managed over 15,000 volunteers, and have up to 70 projects funded across Europe and the Middle East.

Help Refugees began as a group of friends and developed into a highly networked movement. In just over 3 years, they have developed a charitable brand, worked with celebrity ambassadors, and manage a highly connected network of volunteers.

The Social Change Agency have conducted research commissioned by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to understand what factors led to Help Refugees success. These insights will be useful for any existing grassroots organisation or volunteer groups looking to create effective movements for change.

  1. The right message at the right time



Help Refugees decided to undertake what on the face of it might seem a fairly simple set

of actions: raise some money, collect some donations, hire a van. There are a few factors that led to this being a key decision that contributed to the growth of Help Refugees.

  • Timing: In the summer of 2015, media attention on the Calais refugees was high, with a strong tension between dehumanising language and human stories. Help Refugees’ message #ChooseLove cut through thenarrative of dehumanisation and fear to provide an alternative message of hope.
  • Providing a channel for action. By setting up a crowdfunded appeal, and an Amazon Wishlist for physical and financial donations, Help Refugees gave a simple channel to members of the public to take action. They provided an avenue for anyone who wasn’t sure how to help, but wanted to, and presented a simple action- focused alternative to donating to or volunteering with a large aid organisation.
  • Networks. The individuals who founded Help Refugees have a strong social media presence, as well as being well connected within political, media and musical arenas. Personal connections with musicians, TV presenters and celebrities as well personal links with the festival community in the UK enabled the call to action to happen quickly, and to receive early support from high profile figures.
  • Skill sets. The founding individuals had the right combination of skills sets to get the campaign and call to action off the ground, including digital Press, PR and Comms. The volunteers that joined through specialised networks brought specific skills too.


  1. Filling a gap.

Help Refugees met a pressing need that was not being fulfilled by other organisations. Being unhindered by the legal and financial structures of larger organisations, they were able to deliver aid quickly. This was both a blessing and a curse as it was a much steeper learning curve pretty much in all areas.


  1. Reactivity and flexibility.

Early on, Help Refugees found themselves with a large amount of money, not tied to specific funding priorities or charitable aims. This enabled them to react to direct need on the ground and to be flexible to emerging requirements.  


  1. Authenticity of message

Help Refugees had a strong style of communications from the start – collecting personal stories, connecting these to practical action and building viral campaigns online. The fact they were filling a gap and were reactive and flexible, enabled real-time collection of stories and demonstration of impacts.

Their storytelling was unfiltered and unhindered by any specific comms strategy or policy, other than to report back on what they saw – leading to authentic, values-led messages that resonated with the public. There was no message testing or conscious reframing of issues, no opinion or analysis, they simply acted as a conduit and a witness for those who were in the camp.


  1. Willingness to learn and ask for help

It is clear the founders of Help Refugees were taken by surprise at the initial speed and scale of donations. They recognised the need for structural support and sought the help of Prism the Gift Fund for assistance with back office management and governance. Several interviewees point towards the humbleness and willingness of Help Refugees to learn as a key factor in its ability to scale and develop networks in the early stages

  1. Volunteer management and Safeguarding

At the beginning of the work in Calais, Help Refugees was managing over 15,000 volunteers, with little or no experience in volunteer management. The founders became acutely aware of the need to learn quickly, not only in terms of organising volunteers, but also in managing risk and safeguarding while supporting their needs.

As the crisis evolved and became less of an emergency, volunteer needs have adapted to the situation on the ground. Right from the beginning safeguarding for volunteers and beneficiaries were key. Very early on in the camp, Save the Children were asked to run a safeguarding workshop by Help Refugees to help establish safeguarding procedures where there were none. From day one, potential volunteers were asked to fill in an application form, alongside being offered advice on planning their trip, a set of frequently asked questions to manage their expectations, and given a code of conduct to ensure they understood what was expected of them.


  1. Organisation and professionalism

The ability to organise and coordinate quickly and professionally was key to Help Refugees’ capacity to deploy volunteers and resources. They built on this initial level of organisation to capture learning, undertake risk assessments and develop documentation over time.

It was astounding to watch Help Refugees unfold into a highly networked, grassroots directed humanitarian movement in 2015 – and it was an even greater pleasure to conduct this research with them. Help Refugees developed at speed due to their timing, messaging and nimble nature. Their message was simple, consistent and authentic and they weren’t scared to ask for help when needed.


You can take a read of the full #ChooseLove report here XXXXX