How Canva empowers UNHCR to visually communicate in times of crisis

About UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency

UNHCR(opens in a new tab or window), the UN Refugee Agency, is a global humanitarian organization dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for people forced to flee their homes because of conflict and persecution. They work in over 130 countries, protecting millions of people by responding with life-saving support, safeguarding fundamental human rights and helping them build a better future. Their programs offer critical assistance for refugees including aid, education, and healthcare, as well as shelter and transport for those fleeing or returning safely to their country of origin.

UNHCR has more than 17,000 staff working towards their mission across the globe. Together with the support of donors and fundraising partners, UNHCR has been able to help to save lives and build better futures for millions forced from home over the past 70 years.

UNHCR uses Canva’s Brand Kit to control and access their brand assets

The Challenge

According to recent data from UNHCR, there are now more than 103 million forcibly displaced refugees worldwide in 2022(opens in a new tab or window), a figure that’s at an all-time high. This even excludes people displaced in the most recent emergencies, such as Ukraine which has seen more than 8 million refugees forced to flee in the wake of recent conflict, and a further 5million people internally displaced.(opens in a new tab or window)

Driving awareness of fundraising campaigns and initiatives is critical to supporting UNHCR’s emergency programs. Brand consistency – or in this case, ensuring UNHCR branding is widely known and recognized – is critical to ensuring legitimacy and trust with donors. Any fundraising content that appears off-brand or illegitimate can deter people from donating to a worthy cause.

With UNHCR staff and volunteers stationed across various locations and time zones, delivering high-quality, on-brand, and localized information quickly and at scale has become increasingly important to support their important humanitarian programs, both internally and externally.

Quotation mark
With Canva, we can make sure our colleagues no matter where they are, for example, in an emergency or working in HQ offices, will have easy access to our templates to share critical information at speed.

Russell Neal

Senior Digital Design Officer, UNHCR

UNHCR required a design solution that would support their global teams to visually communicate their brand and mission effectively so that they could continue to operate quickly.

The Solution

Senior leaders within UNHCR discovered a number of employees were using a personal Canva account for their work projects, or departments were paying for their own Canva Pro accounts. UNHCR saw this as an opportunity to integrate Canva more broadly across the organization, and is in the process of giving global employees and teams access to a centralized design solution and communications platform in order to achieve their goals.

“We are currently working with Canva to start rolling out the platform more globally to employees around the world, and that directive has come out of the UNHCR HQ office in Copenhagen. The idea behind this is to create easier and smoother processes for communication products and campaigns. With Canva, we can make sure our colleagues no matter where they are, for example, in an emergency or working in HQ offices, will have easy access to our templates to share critical information at speed,” said Russell Neal, Senior Digital Design Officer, UNHCR.

The benefits of Canva at UNHCR

Vesna Collins is one UNHCR employee who’s been using Canva for the majority of work projects.

As the Associate PSP IG Officer for UNHCR’s Asia and the Pacific Regional Office, based in Bangkok, Vesna’s role requires closely supporting regional teams across Asia on the digital content strategy, communication and marketing for all online fundraising campaigns and initiatives.

“As part of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, Asia Pacific regional office, I am involved in the development and responsible for the implementation of the digital strategy to support UNHCR's digital communication and fundraising initiatives,” she said.

Vesna’s personal journey with UNHCR started as an infant, after she was born in a Thai UNHCR refugee camp where her parents were seeking refuge after fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Vesna and her family were safely relocated to Perth, Australia, through UNHCR’s resettlement program. She later began working with Australia for UNHCR in digital marketing and fundraising roles, before making the move to her birth country, Thailand, in 2018.

Giving teams the flexibility to design with ease

With her remit across several Asian countries, including Singapore, India, Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Pakistan, Vesna’s role involves identifying new opportunities for digital fundraising campaigns and testing those that may be suitable to roll out to her teams in other markets.

While UNHCR does have a global design team and agency, resources are often prioritized to align with larger initiatives, resulting in longer wait times for internal teams on design assets.

With access to UNHCR’s logos, brand colors, and fonts, Vesna and her team have the flexibility to create on-brand social media templates, such as paid Facebook posts, and visual email banners to communicate with existing donors, that support fundraising initiatives, ultimately cutting down on wait times and internal approval processes.

“Canva allows me to take an idea and create and test the design, and get a result fast. And from that, I can build and make it a better campaign. Because I have the freedom to be creative, it's helpful I don't have to go through headquarters [in Copenhagen] which a lot of designs do,” she said.

Supporting this autonomous approach, UNHCR brand assets, including logos, Brand Kit, and core design templates, are in the process of being set up within the UNHCR Teams account as a one-stop centralized resource for global staff to access, equipping employees with the branded materials they need to create on-brand content more efficiently and consistently.

Supporting localization for global teams

As a global organization, giving teams capacity to create localized on-brand content that considers each market’s language and cultural differences was also a huge priority for UNHCR.

Vesna has seen success in creating content tied to timely events and fundraising moments, such as Chinese New Year, that can be easily shared and adapted to suit each market. “I’m not based in multiple countries, so I need to know my team understands the nuances of the local region and culture and can easily update their designs [in Canva] as needed,” she said.

“Localization is really big for UNHCR. Localization is everything for all our content and for our countries.”

And in terms of staff located on the ground in emergency response situations, reporting local updates and information back to headquarters and global teams is important for UNHCR too.

“Our teams are on the ground working directly with refugees. So we’ve taught them how to make videos with their phones, which our team can then edit easily and distribute,” Vesna said.

Local content from field staff has traditionally been sent directly to UNHCR’s global media library for wider teams to access. As part of the Canva rollout, UNHCR has the capacity to streamline these distribution workflows by centralizing content within UNHCR’s Canva folders, enabling teams to source local images or video and quickly drop these into branded design templates, such as social media posts or presentations, staying within the Canva platform.

Visually communicating with speed

As seen with the recent Ukraine crisis, global emergency situations can escalate rapidly, which means UNHCR teams need to move quickly to disseminate and communicate information both in the field and via their global offices. Providing accurate and timely visual communication to multiple audiences is a critical factor during any humanitarian response, be that through social media platforms, donor updates, or sending speedy briefings to staff and partners.

To give teams the tools to visually communicate at speed, UNHCR works with their internal designers and digital agency to create branded templates that can then be uploaded into Canva and made available to wider staff to update and distribute quickly during times of crisis.

“Our organization is really at the forefront. If there's an emergency situation, we’re planning ahead and we’ll have templates made for us from our global creative or digital agency to be ready. As soon as we have the green light is when we go out with all the communication,” Vesna said.

From a fundraising standpoint, getting this vital information and content out quickly allows Vesna and her teams to immediately begin driving initiatives to support those affected.

“We know the needs are huge for people fleeing, so we need to constantly make sure our information and our communication is up to date, because it changes so fast,” she said.

Quick shareability

Increased confidence and creativity

In addition to moving quickly and more autonomously, another win for UNHCR teams using Canva has been the increase in confidence producing professional-looking designs with ease. Whether it’s for a presentation internally, or social media content, Canva allows staff to have more scope to be creative in the way they’re visually communicating data or information.

Elizabeth Grady, Head of Philanthropy & Partnerships at Australia for UNHCR based in Sydney, has seen a positive shift in how her team approaches designing internal communication documents, such as reports and presentations using Canva.

“I think that Canva gives people more confidence. For example, I might ask my team to create a presentation, and I think that they feel a lot more confident in doing it because they know that they can work faster and that the end product will be better. They’re much more confident using Canva,” she said. This is something Vesna echoed as well by starting inspired within Canva from all of the pre-existing templates for all forms of communication and current events.

“Canva is so intuitive and user friendly, you can create anything on it, and it's easy to share designs. It makes it easy for people to be creative. I love using this platform that allows people who don't have technical design skills to make really professional-looking creative content easily,” Vesna said.