UNICEF NextGen projects are inspired directly by UNICEF’s fundraising priorities. Our NextGen supporters are motivated by the stories and information they receive from UNICEF about the world’s children, and ask themselves what more they could do to help.
In 2016, Serena Guen, Gemma Bell and Clerkenwell Boy came together with fellow NextGen members to fundraise for UNICEF UK’s Syria appeal. They used their unique professional skills, their incredible knowledge of the food and restaurant industries, and their fantastic networks to launch #CookForSyria.
What started as an intimate supper club soon snowballed. In the months and years that followed, the team published two best-selling cookbooks, hosted several successful events internationally, and helped to put Syrian cuisine and culture front and centre – all with the support of the world’s most celebrated chefs.
It’s no surprise therefore that #CookForSyria made a huge splash. The team and the concept were featured on the likes of Sky News, and every media outlet imaginable – from Stylist to Country and Townhouse, from The Guardian to The Evening Standard.
It’s our pleasure to introduce you to Serena. In her own words, Serena tells us how #CookForSyria came to be a must-have feature on bookshelves up and down the country.
The concept went from a tiny dinner with one chef hosting it to a really big event with lots of famous chefs involved - from Jamie Oliver to Nuno Mendes to Melissa Hemsley.
Serena Guen, NextGen
We thought it would be really cool to gather the recipes from the chefs that were participating and put them on our website. Then we put them into a cookbook – and in eight weeks we had it on Amazon, and it became a best seller. It was amazing to see people at home cooking these dishes and helping to preserve a culture that was partially being destroyed by this horrible war.
Meanwhile, lots of people donating small amounts added up. The overall bulk of the campaign was made up of tiny donations. We would see children putting their pocket money onto our Just Giving page, and then their grandparents doing it because they were really inspired. It was little things like that that made it really, really special.
The movement spread around the world to different countries, to Australia, Hong Kong, France. A year later, we launched the #BakeForSyria campaign, co-founded by Lily Vanilli, who is a famous baker based in East London. She really led the charge on creating a cookbook featuring Syrian-inspired baking recipes.
We have sold out of the #CookForSyria cookbooks, but we still have some #BakeForSyria cookbooks for sale.
We had so many famous chefs involved in the project, and I think the reason we were able to do that was because it was so easy to get involved (as well as Gemma, Clerkenwell Boy and Lily’s extensive address books!).
One of the coolest moments was in 2016, just before we launched, Gemma, Clerkenwell Boy and I were at the Observer Food Awards, one of the biggest food awards in the UK. Chef Angela Hartnett was receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award, and she used her speech to tell everyone to get involved with #CookForSyria because it was such an exciting project. That was really, really moving.
How did you engage your networks and community around the project?
It was very easy, because the message was so clear – we wanted to help children in Syria and surrounding regions. Everyone could see how bad the situation was.
The asks we had for chefs and supporters were quite low commitment. Some people went above and beyond.
What advice would you give to someone looking to fundraise for UNICEF?
I would say, first, nothing is too small. Just go ahead and start somewhere. You can always build bigger.
But think carefully about your approach. You want to make sure the majority of the money goes to UNICEF, and not to huge costs for the event. We were so lucky because so many people were excited about our idea and willing to support us in many different ways, our financial costs were therefore really low.
How can people support the project today?
I think by continuing to celebrate Syrian cuisine – and really simply buying the #BakeForSyria recipe book, which you can buy through UNICEF UK’s online shop for example, as well as some local independent book retailers.