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How a ‘Small Dream to Be the Change’ Grew Into a Charity With the Best Social Media Campaign in Uganda

Ugandan activist

The founder of 40 Days Over 40 Smiles Esther Kalenzi holding a baby during #BeSanta campaign. Photo used with her permission.

40 Days Over 40 Smiles Foundation is a Kampala-based, youth-led charity organisation committed to helping vulnerable children and communities to access quality, all-round education support and entrepreneurial training aimed at self-sustainability. The organisation relies on the use of social media as a platform for raising awareness and find solutions.

40 Days Over 40 Smiles started on 27 February, 2012, when Esther Kalenzi opened a Facebook page and then asked her friends to donate anything they had such as food, clothes, books, toys, money and join her during the Easter weekend to deliver the items and celebrate with the kids in two orphanages.

On Easter weekend, they visited two orphanages where they played with the children, ate, danced and made merry. They created over 40 Smiles.

I recently caught up with Esther Kalenzi to talk to her about 40 Days Over 40 Smiles.

Tumusiime Patrick (TP): Can your give a little background about yourself?

Esther Kalenzi (EK): I am a Ugandan woman who is passionate about positive change within my community. I use my friends, skills and networks to involve as many Ugandans especially the youth in improving the society which they live in.

TP: 40 Days Over 40 Smiles has been in the news both in the local and international media. Please share with us what it’s all about and why the name “40 Days Over 40 Smiles”?

EK: It is a confluence of youth who use fun events and social media to raise funds which support vulnerable children.

It is a registered organization that simply started as a small dream I had to ‘be the change’ I wanted to see.

The name came about in 2012 during the lent period (40 days of fasting) when I opened a Facebook group and encouraged friends and family to donate material towards those who were less privileged and would not have family over Easter. Over 40 smiles meant I was targeting 40 children or more. That Easter weekend, we visited and distributed items to 150 children.

TP: Last year, 40 Days Over 40 Smiles emerged as the best social media campaign in Uganda, beating other companies like MTN and Airtel which are prominent telecom companies in Uganda. How did you manage to pull it off?

EK: How did we pull it off? I have no idea. People voted us and we won! I think one of the things that stands out about us is that we are not commercial, we are driven by the need to help others. We have invested our time, energy and resources in this relentlessly. We didn’t think we could beat such household names but I guess we must have done something right.

TP: There are many ways to raise funds for charity, but 40 Days Over 40 Smiles mainly uses social media to raise funds. Why did you choose this option?

EK: Like I said before, the organization started as a Facebook group and did quite well. I thought we should continue with this winning formula. Additionally, it is cheaper, close to our target group who are the youth and it is also accessible.

TP: From all the social media campaigns 40 days Over 40 Smiles has been running for the past two years, which one has been the most successful and why?

EK: It is undeniably #BuyABrick. We raised 8,000,000 Ugandan shillings (US$3,024) in 10 days online as we raised money to build a dormitory. The team did a good job, we had a great plan that we executed and of course the support from the cyber world overwhelmed us.

TP: How do you manage to balance your personal social media activities and those of 40 days over 40 smiles?

EK: Hmm, that is a tricky one. To be honest the times I am most active on social media are when I am rallying people for a cause I believe in; whether it is 40-40, the cancer run or the story of a woman who succeeded against all odds.

TP: Please describe a typical process you go through to run a social media campaign, for example the ‘Buy a Brick’ campaign.

EK: Buy a brick for example had us think what the smallest component of a building is. Of course there are things smaller than a brick but it is easy to relate to. Once we had that, we came up with the hash tag and then discussed how to execute it using the available resources.

We can’t claim responsibility for all the success, we got so much support that we did not expect.

TP: Do you think Ugandans and Africans as a whole look at social media as a major tool for positive social influence?

EK: Yes. We are living proof that it works and shall continue to work.

TP: Many social media campaigns have not successfully lasted for more than a year. How has 40 Days Over 40 Smiles survived for two years now?

EK: To be honest we are overwhelmed by this. I strongly believe that the dedicated team I have and the fact that we are in it because we are passionate about the cause helps. We did not set out to gain popularity and leave, we shall still be here even when (God forbid) we have only one loyal supporter.

TP: What are the main challenges you’ve had to deal with in using social media as a tool to raise funds for 40 Days Over 40 Smiles?

EK: Social media is not always ‘honest.’ Some people might seem like they are interested in helping yet it is just ‘for show’ because they have an audience that they are trying to impress.

Additionally, there is audience fatigue, sometimes a lot is going on and people will not take interest unless they see a benefit for them.

TP: Do you plan on expanding the reach of the 40 Days Over 40 Smiles social media campaigns beyond the main social media platforms you currently use?

EK: Yes, we are already in the process. We realize the constant need of innovativeness and versatility. We would like to reach as many people as possible but above all, we need them to realize that this isn’t a onetime project; it is a way of life.

TP: Are there any particular people that you look up to for inspiration as you run the activities of 40 Days Over 40 Smiles?

EK: There are several leaders from our time or before our time who have relentlessly followed their dreams and managed to garner support even when it was not the most popular thought. Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela come to mind.

TP: What advice would you give to people out there that may want to do something similar to what 40 Days Over Smiles is doing?

EK: I would love for as many people as possible to follow their dreams, especially young people. Uganda is ripe with potential and we need to maximize the use of our very young population.

It does not have to be exactly what 40-40 is doing but I would love for us to inspire positive agents and dreamers whether in the arts, music or whatever. They simply need to get started. It always does seem it is impossible until it is done but if you believe in yourself and persist, you will see it come to fruition.

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