Comic Relief: providing funding for frontline organizations

Emergency preparedness & response

Comic Relief: providing funding for frontline organizations

Funding frontline, grassroots organizations that can be responsive to rapidly changing situations.

Contact details

Submitted by: Emma Stevenson, Head of Learning and Strategy

Email: [email protected]


Twitter: @comicrelief

Introduction to the project

Location: Middle East and North Africa, Europe, UK




Comic Relief is a UK-based global funder, which uses the power of entertainment to raise awareness and public funds towards achieving a just world free from poverty. It was founded in 1985 and has been funding in the refugee and asylum space for more than 25 years. The charity started its funding engagement in Europe for the first time in 2016, in response to the refugee crisis and specifically the situation of those in need of international protection based at the Calais camp in France at the time.  In response, the organization took a multi-faceted approach to its engagement in the area of asylum and refugees, essentially aiming at expansion of the protection space and third country solutions for refugees and asylum-seekers in the UK. They did this through:

  • Funding frontline, grassroots organizations that can be responsive to the rapidly changing situation on the ground;
  • Opening up safe and legal routes for family reunion in the UK, using existing but untested legislation, such as the Dublin lll Regulations
  • Advocating for vulnerable unaccompanied children with no family in the UK to be transferred (under a section of the Immigration Act, referred to as the Dubs Amendment, which was championed by Lord Dubs, a child refugee from World War Two); 
  • Funding advocacy and campaign work to transform the UK asylum system;
  • Convening other funders and organisations to explore opportunities for greater collaboration around “Children on the Move”;
  • Exploring Comic Relief’s unique role as a popular brand to help shift public opinion and attitudes and counter the hostile environment.


A range of organizations including:

  • Safe Passage International
  • Help Refugees
  • British Red Cross
  • Refugee Action

Results of the Good Practice 

  • Although children are still dying trying to reach the UK, the work of the charities Safe Passage and Help Refugees and their partners gives more children the opportunity to arrive legally and safely, as well as being supported to claim asylum in France
  • Safe Passage developed a unique model for opening safe and legal routes, combining individual case work, litigation and community organisation to support family reunion. In cases where they are involved there is a 95 per cent success rate compared with 5 per cent when they are not. 
  • Similarly, the funding provided by Comic Relief to Help Refugees helped secure the transfer of the first “Dubs Children”, including a group of vulnerable Eritrean girls. Funding is essential to keep the pressure on the government to honour commitments under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme and the Dubs Amendment. 
  • The effects of campaigns and influencing work are being seen, with an increase in successful asylum claims following the Stand Up for Asylum Campaign, which puts refugee voices and experiences at the heart of campaigning. 
  • Comic Relief has engaged with other funders in bringing further funding into the space, including for an Access to Justice Fund, funding grassroots organizations along a route and the ongoing Families Together Initiative 

Learning in the past two years from this good practice has led to Comic Relief to launch a further £8 million investment programme, funding strategic approaches and grassroots organizations along the migratory route from the Middle East and North Africa MENA to Europe, including the UK. 

Main activities of the Good Practice

Funding: August 2016 – August 2018 Comic Relief has awarded £3.570m for:

  • Two UK charities, Safe Passage and Help Refugees, which were funded to test existing legislation and open routes for child refugees to come to the UK from Europe.
  • Funding Help Refugees and their French partners to safeguard and protect children during and after the demolition of the Calais camp in 2016, including psychosocial provision
  • Contributing to the funder’s coalition for family reunion and integration under the Families Frist Initiative, managed by the British Red Cross;
  • Support for the UK-based charity Refugee Action to combine their frontline integration work with their Stand Up to Asylum Campaign, putting refugees at the heart of the work.

Influencing: Comic Relief has used its unique role as a popular Brand with 90 per cent public recognition to raise awareness and influence attitudes and behaviours:

  • In October 2016 it made a short film about the Calais camp narrated by the actor Masie Williams (prominent in Game of Thrones). The film was shown on several platforms including YouTube.
  • Worked with an education consultant to develop resources for primary and high schools in line with the national curriculum, including two films about children in refugee camps, teaching materials and ideas for how pupils could campaign and raise money. Comic Relief has reach into 60 per cent of UK schools
  • The 80th Anniversary of the Kindertransport, which brought 10,000 children fleeing the Nazis to the UK during World War Two, also saw an increase in activity and awareness to bring more children to the UK. Including a Comic Relief BBC film, narrated by Olivia Colman.
  • Co-hosted with Elevate Children’s Funders Group a funders’ meeting on collaboration and Children on the Move

Challenges and how they are being overcome

The key challenges involved with driving this work forward have been:

  • How to effectively counter the increasingly hostile rhetoric, especially in such a polarized context as Brexit – Comic Relief is addressing this by being informed by research on how messaging resonates with different audiences. There are several organizations carrying out research such as the Frameworks Institute, British Futures, Migration Exchange. In addition, Comic Relief has completed its own audience segmentation analysis to ensure its storytelling and messaging is targeted effectively. 
  • How to fund organizations that can be agile and responsive to rapidly changing situations on the ground – Comic Relief is aware that, as a London-based funder, it is not always best placed to understand the situation in countries where they are not based. To address this, it reaches small grassroots organizations through intermediary funders who understand the local context. To ensure service delivery is meeting need, it is also committed to its investments being driven by people with lived and worked experience. It has embedded that requirement into its new £8 million funding called “Across Borders” as well as offering flexible and core funding to help strengthen civil society.
  • How to ensure both frontline delivery work and sustainable systemic change are achieved – Comic Relief has learnt that funding service delivery work only is not enough to create sustainable change. It is therefore funding campaigns, strategic litigation and offering longer investments alongside direct service delivery. It is also exploring providing core or unrestricted funding.