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UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency

The Challenge

How do you create an effective digitally-led model for global supporter acquisition?

The Insight

An audience-led crisis rapid response model allowing for insights, creative & media to be activated quickly across markets, languages and platforms.

The Solution

Engage and activate audiences quickly in response to humanitarian crises to raise funds for UNHCR's work with people forced to flee their homes.

Around the world men, women and children are being forced to flee their homes due to conflict and persecution. 

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is a global organization dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for people forced to flee. 

For seven decades, the organization has been protecting refugees globally. Today, with more than 100 million forcibly displaced around the world, their work is more important than ever before. 

Since 2019, we’ve been working with UK for UNHCR  as their digital media partner, helping them build stronger and more powerful creative and develop a ‘test and learn’ model that improved their donor conversion rate three fold. 

As a result of the local success, the global team at UNHCR approached us in 2020 and, after a competitive process, we were delighted to be appointed as their lead digital media agency tasked with helping them acquire and retain supporters around the world.  

In the two years since taking on that role, the world has seen more emergencies than we could have imagined – the COVID-19 pandemic, humanitarian emergencies in Afghanistan and Ukraine amongst others as well as natural and climate disasters such as the recent Pakistan floods. It has been our privilege to work alongside UNHCR, especially in these critical times. It has been our privilege to work alongside UNHCR in these moments and beyond helping them connect with new audiences, test emerging channels, shape new products and raise more income. 

Our model and results have allowed us to increase the number of markets engaged with the global team from twelve to 25+ but of course we recognize much is still to be done to ensure the most vulnerable in the world get the support they need – a need that is only continuing to grow.

A strategic framework to think long term

Regardless of the size, UNHCR is prepared to respond within 72 hours of an emergency. When working  in this environment, it can be difficult to look outside day to day delivery to consider how all the components fit together. In our first few months working at a global level, that’s what we were keen to do with UNHCR. 

We consulted with UNHCR, analyzed data, reviewed documentation and sought to better understand the audiences, challenges and growth areas that would allow a fundraising foundation to move to a model of innovation in the next three years.

UNHCR Strategic framework towards how they reached their overarching goal of raising $1 billion through growth, engagement, and innovation pieces

Bringing together global insights with local nuance

As their global media partner, it is crucial for us to ensure we can collate insights, best practices, learnings and emerging experiments across markets to help them be as effective as possible not just in times of urgent need but as they seek to grow their income to match the rapidly escalating refugee crisis.

Image of a world map colored in orange and blue for areas where Blue State has contributed in wider markets for where we've delivered creative and strategy projects only (orange) and markets where delivering media, creative and strategy (blue)

Building audience insight

Much like many of the non-profits we work with, audience data and measurement is often focused at the end of the journey, as this helps the organization understand how and when they convert and allow for meaningful onward journeys as individuals become donors. In our partnership with UNHCR, we were keen to explore how insight could help shape intent earlier on with awareness initiatives to inform channel use and underpin our creative and ideas.

“We have successfully partnered with Blue State, which has helped us respond quicker and with more capacity in times of an emergency. We have worked closely on our objective of transforming our digital performance and engaging with new and existing audiences to increase support for people forced to flee.”

Polly Gilchrist, Global Digital Fundraising Specialist, UNHCR

Partnering with UNHCR Italy, we were keen to understand audience perceptions of Sahel to inform how their winter campaign should develop. Almost 3m people have been displaced in the Sahel region of Africa due to poverty, climate change, food insecurity and political instability and as a result are facing unprecedented humanitarian needs.

Our approach brought together social listening to understand public audience data with an audience survey to understand over 15,000 engagements around displaced communities. Only a fraction (0.1%) mentioned Sahel. We uncovered a several insights to help shape future messaging and creative:

  • Whilst not engaging with Sahel people were mentioning the regions within 
  • A connection was drawn between vulnerability of refugees and winter promoting a time to be with family and in the community in the country
  • There was the potential for a 70%+ audience response rate for the topic areas of children and education

An added value rapid response model

Moving quickly at a time of crisis is crucial for many non-profits and none more so than those working in the humanitarian sector. From working with the UK for UNHCR we had seen success in helping to improve response rate and approach in times of emergency, something we were able to build on a global scale in this new partnership.

Working closely with global and regional teams, we developed a UNHCR Emergency Design Toolkit to allow the organization to move quickly, have an adaptable set of templates to work with and to give rapid response and emergency moments a point of consistency.

A live document shared with teams around the world allowed them to access high resolution and working files with guidance for adaptation in design systems. We built on our sector and experience working with the brand to create optimized templates and invited markets to share their thoughts and feedback to ensure the output was as helpful as it could be.

We hadn’t imagined having or needing to use the UNHCR Emergency Design Toolkit quite so quickly – within a few weeks of approvals, the Ukraine refugee crisis had emerged and  markets were able to use the templates to start fundraising. quickly.  

Our role as the lead global agency throughout the emergency was to ensure both global teams and markets had all they needed to create effective fundraising  appeals as well as drawing into our wider network and parent agency, WPP, to help secure corporate and pro bono support.

Blue state supported UNHCR for the Ukraine Emergency with almost $6m with employee donations, pro bono placements, and corporate from across the WPP network. UNHCR collectively raised over $94m from digital channels alone.

Screenshot images of Instagram stories supporting the UNHCR Ukraine Emergency campaign
Screenshots of paid media ads on various news outlets - VICE, CBC, InStyle (left to right) - for UNHCR Ukraine Emergency campaign

Shaping new products and platforms

The breadth of work we’re able to partner with UNHCR on has allowed our teams to come together across technology, communications, strategy, creative & media. Outside of campaigns and emergencies, we’ve also been proud to be able to help the organization define its positioning in new topic areas including climate change and refugee education.

The scale of this crisis, now unprecedented, is driving us to find new ways to help bring audiences together and drive support amongst not just the general public but also corporate partners.

Building capacity with deep dive webinars

We believe the success in our work and partnership so far lies in our ability to work as an extension of UNHCR’s team helping them to bridge gaps in capabilities and allowing them to scale where needed. 

Regular deep dives, which often seen more than 150+ attendees from their team, allow us to assess and reflect on topics that may help support their teams in coming months be it a cookie-less future and how that may impact website support and optimization, building out their mid level donor pools to help accelerate income, or exploring the role data capture can play in supporter retention and building meaningful relationships.

We are proud to have worked with and supported UNHCR, so they can reach their fundraising targets. UNHCR’s budget for Ukraine is expected to exceed $1.4 billon, 89% of which was raised through government and private donations. We hope this is just the start of our work together.


  • 3:1 avg. Return On Ad Spend (ROAS)
  • 185% YOY increase in ROAS
  • 25+ markets engaged
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