Giving the Gift of Education with Sarah Brown of Theirworld

December 21, 2023

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Sarah Brown is Chair of Theirworld and Executive Chair of the Global Business Coalition for Education.

Since she founded Theirworld in 2002, its campaigns, advocacy and ground-breaking programs have been rooted in the belief that every child deserves the best start in life, a safe place to learn and skills for the future.

John Shegerian: Do you have a suggestion for a Rockstar Impact Podcast guests? Go to, and just click, be a guest to recommend someone today. This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy, and is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider, and cybersecurity focused hardware destruction company in the United States, and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit This episode of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by closed-loop partners. Closed-loop partners is a leading circular economy investor in the United States with an extensive network of fortune 500 corporate investors, family offices, institutional investors, industry experts, and impact partners. Closed-loops platform spans the arc of capital from venture capital to private equity bridging gaps and fostering synergies to scale the circular economy. To find closed-loop partners, please go to

John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I’m John Shegerian and I’m honored to have with us today Sarah Brown. She’s the chair at Theirworld, and also the executive chair at the global business coalition for education. Welcome to the Impact Podcast, Sarah.

Sarah Brown: Thank you so much for having me join you.

John: Technology has a lot of good and bad things but it makes it wonderful when we can connect. I’m sitting here in Fresno, California, and you’re across their world in Scotland, so thank you for your time. I know it’s a going into the evening there, it’s all the in the morning here in Fresno, so thank you for taking the time tonight to share this important journey that you’re on at Theirworld.

Sarah: Pleasure being here.

John: Before we get talking about all the great work you and colleagues have done for over 20 years at Theirworld, and for our listeners and viewers who want to find Theirworld, they can go to Sarah, can you please talk a little bit about your background a little bit? Where you grow up, and how you get on this fantastic and important journey of making the world a better place?

Sarah: Yes, of course John, thank you. I was born 60 years ago, I grew up with British parents. My father was a Scott, my mother’s English and Welsh so truly British, but we set off when I was very young to Tanzania. My first school was halfway up Mt. Kilimanjaro, and then later on in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania’s capital, so that was my starting view of the world, and later on came back to the UK when I finished my schooling in North London before going off to do a degree in psychology, and after that I’ve worked in the corporate sector, I’ve worked with the nonprofit world for a long time, but also along that journey, I had the opportunity to live right in the heart of government and I mean live in the heart of government because my husband Gordon served as prime minister in the United Kingdom, he was Chancellor for a decade before that. We were there living in 10 Downing Street in London during the height of the Global Financial financial crisis for those people that remember those days 2008, 2009. [inaudible]

John: I’m a little bit older than you, and I do remember those days very well. How was it? Was it the [inaudible] that sometimes from the outside to a layman like me makes it seem like, or did you enjoy that period in your life?

Sarah: It’s a period where nothing ever stops, and I suppose any head of government going into whatever period will have had something under their watch. It’s very few heads of government I think that go, “yeah, it was fine, not much happened.” Global financial crisis fell during the time that we were there, which meant that that was the primary focus to make sure that the bank’s didn’t run out of money, that people savings weren’t lost, and also for world leaders to come together. When the G20 was hosted in London, I was there as the host to arrange the program, all the G20 leaders came, it would have been present Obama and Mrs. Obama who came, I had some wonderful visits with Mrs. Obama taking him to visit some extraordinary chart and Charities and nonprofits in London, [inaudible] to the Royal opera house we saw some wonderful dance, but all knowing that the backdrop was that the leaders were meeting, and talking about how they would work together, and it was one of those very special moments, I think where we saw leaders working together and outcomes that happen, and we’re living in quite a polarized world at the moment. Lessons can be learned from what you can achieve working together. I certainly found that.

John: That’s well said, and you’re right. I do remember that time now that you bring it up, of such unity and togetherness and it just feels in just a very short period we’ve gone in another direction, and that doesn’t feel good anymore unfortunately. The polarization does not feel good.

Sarah: Around the table came together with their differences, with different opinions, though definitely some squeaky moments that went on. I think lots of people have written biographies and autobiographies since that. If you sat and read them all you’d realize they were some different perspectives from different people around the table, but in the end they came together with an agreement, and it brought a financial stability to the world, and it was a stability that we needed because we’ve certainly as a world gone through lots of ups and downs with the pandemic, and now conflicts in many many places that need to be addressed. The quicker people start talking to each other and working together the better I think.

John: It’s true, and we need to have more voices like yours who say that more and more often because we’ve lost our way on that respect, and here in the United States for sure, we feel it more than ever, and it’s sad. It’s just sad because people we were used to working more together whether it was Ron Reagan and Tip O’Neill, and so many other bridges across the waters, it’s just where we are today is a little bit sad, but we’re here to talk about something really important and really great today, and really positive. Now in 2002 you started Theirworld. How did you even have your “aha” moment and came up with the concept for Theirworld, and what motivated you to start this wonderful and important organization.

Sarah: Well, over 20 years ago I actually started a small nonprofit that was there to work in the UK, the central thinking was about how to unlock slightly bigger change, and I was keen at that time to go to the people who was working at grassroots levels, the nurses, the midwives, the teachers who might have an idea for something that they thought could unlock a bigger difference, or could take in and do something more interesting rather than it always just being the leaders, the doctors, the scientists, not that their work was an important, but it just was a way to unlock some of the grassroots ideas. That was just a small germ of an idea it started with, we have some great projects that we ran back at that time, but over a period of time, some of the health projects we worked on, some of the education programs, the ideas would grow, and that you would realize we would do it not just in the UK, that we could take it to other other parts of the world, work with refugees, work with other groups, we certainly went to work to support Syrian refugees during that war through the host countries there.

Step-by-step, our work grew, our name grew, we actually became Theirworld. We weren’t called Theirworld, originally, we had a different name but it evolved. During the time after we came out of government in 2010, I had lots of ideas for things that I was going to do. I suddenly had time back the gift of time, but Theirworld has become something that has taken up the vast majority of my time because the work we do has been so transformative. I work with a phenomenal team. I wouldn’t have known 20 years ago that I would still be part of this organization nor did it would be the global organization that it is today, but its projects have grown, its impact has grown, the team has grown and we continue to focus on how we can unlock big change.

That [inaudible] of thinking is still there, but we’ve redirected our focus directly on to education because what I’ve seen and what other colleagues saw, was that education is what transforms outcomes for most things. That I’d come from a background working with global health campaigns attending to young girls and women and how they would create better health, how they reducing maternal mortality, ending child marriage, and you realize the thing that will contribute most substantially to that is education. But I talk to somebody who’s passionate about climate change or passionate about LGBT plus equality or passionate about economic opportunity, and the answer every single time, if you want to create bigger change is education. At Theirworld, we’ve come squarely behind that and what we want to do is make a substantial impact on how we end what we see as a global education crisis.

John: Truly, you’re trying to democratize education, and bring it make sure everyone has access to all the wonderful information that exists out there now. Comparatively speaking to when we grew up with with books and the analog world, with the digital world, that’s even more accessible than ever before. You now want to democratize that information, that education for everybody.

Sarah: It should be accessible, but there’s parts of the world that don’t have access to the internet, or parts of the world [inaudible] conflict, or your life is turned upside down because of climate crisis or natural disaster. [inaudible] may not be so good for that period of time that we need to be quite creative about how we reach that opportunity. When I meet families whose lives have been disrupted for any reason in any country, as soon as they find a point of stability and safety, the first thing that family are doing is looking for opportunities for education for their children. [inaudible]

John: How do you evolve your organizations out? You started in London, you now have offices around the world, or is it still London-based and you just work there globally from London?

Sarah: We have a base in London. We also have a base in New York where we set up the global business coalition for education to bring in the corporate sector to be partners in this great effort. We have local partnerships everywhere. What we don’t do is sit in London or sit in New York and decide how other people should do things. We’ve never done that. But what we do, is we have partnership programs everywhere we work, so that we’re working with local organizations and local people who are driving what works for them.

John: Who put up the original money to start Theirworld? How have you evolved your fundraising opportunities to include more bigger tent and create more stakeholders to help support the great work you’re doing at Theirworld?

Sarah: It’s a great question. We’ve divided the work that we do into three buckets. We say we want the best start in life, so we focus on early years and early learning. We have a safe place to learn, which a lot of that work is around children whose lives are very much disrupted by conflict or climate crisis. Then skills for the future, and I’m sure we’re going to talk about that, I’m sure. But the skills piece is so important when you consider, if you’re not educating children, you have to ask yourself what they’ll be doing as adults. Around those three areas, there are people who have great passion. Our funders have been trusts and foundations, we get great support from the Postcode Lottery group.

We get support from the Hilton Foundation. We get support from Dubai Cares, all of whom who give us grants for different projects that we do. We all [inaudible] bake cakes, run marathons, go on walks, do all things to be able to contribute into what we do. The bit that we don’t do, is we’ll start with a project that’s a great idea, we’ll look at the innovation, we’ll see how it works, and when something’s really working and we can know it can go to scale, that’s not Theirworld who’s going to be running it day in day out. We connect in with the UNICEFs to save the children’s the international rescues. The organizations that are there and ready, they really roll out something large scale and be there day in and day out, whether it’s a humanitarian crisis or running programs for children, delivering education and of course governments will pick up and run with things when there’s a good idea. We have lots of examples of that in our work.

John: Sarah, so if I understand this right, it’s a good mixture of good government NGOs, and business are your main stakeholders. Businesses and foundations.

Sarah: We’ve got stakeholders, but we don’t take any government funding at all. We might early on, which meant that we’d never be the biggest nonprofit, but it means that we can be the noisiest. But we’re not beholden to any government. We’re not connected into a contract where we don’t feel we could use our voice because we need to play nice to deliver a contract. I think it’s important that you have different organizations for different purposes, but it’s why those big organizations leave[?] a big programs and become real specialist at doing that, can take on those very large contracts. We’re there to be a little more nimble and a little more vocal on occasion when it’s needed.

John: For our listeners and viewers who just joined us, we’ve got Sarah Brown with us. She’s the chair at Theirworld and also the executive chair at the Global Business Coalition for Education. To find Sarah and her colleagues, and all the important work they’re doing, please go to As you laid out the different areas of focus, the first thing you mentioned were areas in the world where there’s conflicts. Obviously, we have areas today and these rarely your time as you well pointed out earlier, Sarah, that is rarely a time where there’s not something going on some crisis on the planet. Right now we know we have the two big crisis in Ukraine and Gaza. How does Theirworld take action when there is a conflict anywhere on the planet to help support the education of our precious children in those parts of the world where the conflicts are happening?

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Sarah: We do two things. One is we’re there to campaign and be a central voice, and will speak up for where education is and mobilize things. At the moment, our biggest mobilization is around the early years. We’re leading on the ACT early years campaign really trying to get the G20 meeting now to reboot a commitment they made in 2018 to invest more in early years, absolutely critical part of education will work. That’s our big change piece. Then we’ll have parts of the world where we know we can work with local organizations, we can make a difference. During the war in Syria, we moved very quickly. We knew that with somewhere where we had a lot of connections that we could mobilize very quickly. We introduced an idea that was innovative and hadn’t been used before, which was to use double shift schools. But when you have Lebanon who were overwhelmed with the numbers of Syrians coming into the country, but wanted to help. They were able to use the school buildings. They had twice in one day. No need to build a new school, use the same building twice in one day. It sounds a very simple idea but no one had actually proposed it…

John: [inaudible]

Sarah: … [inaudible] be well there. It was also taken up and adopted in Turkey who had a lot of Syrians there, immobilized the world’s largest education petition, back in 2015 where we were calling for funding that the humanitarian effort where there was an emergency. Back then, you couldn’t actually fund education in middle of a crisis, like that. Because traditionally for humanitarian crisis, you’ll have stability medical care, shelter and food. Whenever you try to introduce education, the powers that be would go “whoa,” hold back. Now, let’s deal with the important critical stuff that we must do right now. But the world has changed, you’re talking about the number of conflicts in the world. The amount a years a refugee is a refugee is more than a decade, 12-plus years on average though. That’s a very different trajectory for a child caught up in a crisis. Though [inaudible] they’re at the front of that, we took our 11 million strong signature petition up to the UN. We picketed the secretary-general, we mobilized. There’s an organization now called Education Cannot Wait, that UNICEF now raises hundreds of millions of dollars every year to fund education in humanitarian crisis.

John: [inaudible] them 11 million signatures. That’s a huge amount of support. Good for you. How long did that take to get those 11 million signatures.

Sarah: Got it during course of a year, but we always have this focal point of September when the United Nations countries meet in New York. That’s our deadline of what we’re taking there. But it was very moving. There were stories that came through of the ragpickers children in India who would sign mission with their thumbprint because they couldn’t actually write yet. One of our global youth ambassadors from Theirworld got in a canoe in central Africa and canoed up to collect signatures from local villages. People wanted voices coming in from all over the world.

John: That’s amazing. Speaking of the UN 2022, Theirworld spearheaded the Let Me Learn campaign at the United Nations. Can you explain to our listeners and share what that meant?

Sarah: Well, we needed to unlock some commitments to education, and we [inaudible] development goals at the United Nations where with all the countries that are members, which is pretty much every country in the world were about three signed up to sustainable service, sustainable development goals to say they would reduce poverty and [inaudible] great gender equality. They would have Global Health, they would take action on climate change, and the education goal is right there saying that there will be early learning for children. They’ll be getting every child into school and they’ll be providing skills for the future. We mobilized around Let Me Learn because we sometimes think as a community of people who care about education, not just Theirworld, but many other like-minded NGOs that it can slip a bit. It feels the one that’s less urgent.

A vaccine save a child’s life today. Other action you need to mobilize to get done. Education feels something that can wait, but it can’t really because it will be the solution for all those other girls too though. We mobilize that campaign to take it through to the United Nations. We had a huge visibility. We had the wonderful opportunity of the Omnicom group gave us a half a million dollars worth of advertising creativity and skills, influence, all provided pro bono. When you went around the UN at that time, you would see it on all the digital Billboards, on the top of the taxi campaign. Wherever a world leader was going, they were going to spot that campaign.

John: That’s wonderful. Talk a little bit about life as a philanthropist and being an executive at such an important impactful organization. How much of your time, Sarah, is doing the amazing and creative and great work that you’re doing? Some of the examples you just us are from 2015-2022. But then how much of your time is also spent raising capital? I’m always fascinated by that interesting high wire act and balancing act that you have to pull off doing this important impactful work that you’re doing.

Sarah: You’re right. It is a balancing act. I started off being much more involved in executive way with leading programs. We now have our president just in Van Fleet who will lead on that, and I’m merely the chair of the executive board now. More falls to me, you look at where that fundraising is happening. Look at where they’re staffing and very talented team come from looking at, balancing all of that, and perhaps was the case before. But I think we’ve been able to work quite modestly as an organization where we’re not a huge deal, maybe number 50, 60 people but then extend out into partnerships. Also we have our Global Youth Ambassador Network. We have 2,000 strong young people around the world who we train as activists for education, they in turn amplify the work that we do, which makes are campaigning more effective.

Though there’s a small core but it ripples out more broadly. The fundraising time is interesting. We’ve always felt very fortunate that we’ve had some very secure core funders from the big trusts and foundations who’ve really believed in our work and stayed with us for the long term. Postcode Lottery Group have been a phenomenal supporter for us, which is players of the Postcode Lottery across Netherlands, U.K, other parts of Europe who will, knowing that the vast majority of the money will go to the causes and that’s helped us and many other NGOs. I think they’re now the world’s third largest private [inaudible] in the world after Gate But Hilton Foundation here in California have been huge supportive [inaudible] Now, we’ve had other funders come on board and stay with us for the long term. But the other thing that has helped us is we had a law firm come on board, Reed Smith, American Law Firm. Give us office space, give us pro bono legal work.

We have Omnicom group, who the last five years has given us creative work, and calms work, and research support. Again, that’s another chunk taken care of. The wonderful thing about that from my point of view is, when our donors are running a marathon or raising funds for us, we’re not spending it on our legal, our rent. We’re spending up much more on the frontline work or on our talented staff who are actually creating and delivering that work everywhere. That’s how we’ve done it. That model doesn’t necessarily work for every NGO. But that’s how we built it. Then of course, we took the decision not to be the people that run the big government grants. But we work alongside those big organizations, and if we have a big campaign will go and talk to UNICEF, International Rescue and say, you want this to happen, so do we. Let’s use our voices together. That’s been effective too. Always comes back to partnership.

John: Yes. But it sounds you’ve built some great ones and you continue to build those great partnerships, and that means your organization will continue to grow and make the important impacts that it’s making. As you say, you’re not spending the money on overhead, you’re spending the money on actually making an impact in the world, and that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day. You mentioned when we were talking earlier, when I asked you about, what are the key principles of Theirworld? You mentioned skills for the future. Now you and I, we didn’t get to grow up iPads, and tablets, and all the fancy gadgets that exist today. But now that those things do exist. Talk a little bit about, what are the skills of the future? Is it coding? Is it this whole AI trend? I’d love to hear what focus that Theirworld has in terms of impact in the education of our youth around the world.

Sarah: What really unnerves me, and what I think really makes us come behind the education cause, is to think that by the year 2030, which is not an arbitrary date, it’s the date that the UN has set as when the all these sustainable development goals will be re [inaudible] all the country. Young people won’t have the skills, who earn their own living, get a job, part of contributing to the global economy. Though to us, we have to take that back and look at what that means for the education journey that they can go on, and what we can do to [inaudible] that. What worries me, because I worry about those young people, but I also worry about who they are and what they become as young adults when they don’t have skills and what the impact is on on everybody in the world. Everybody needs to play their part in that. Though we know that we can campaign with governments, we know we can work in cooperation and partnership with other NGOs, large and small, but there’s a really significant role for the corporate sector today, and the [inaudible] sector also, in the end the main provides us that technology that were talking about. That connectivity, that distribution, whatever that learning tools around the world.

Someone’s making it, someone’s providing it, someone’s sharing it. It’s not all just public sector. There’s a huge part for the corporate sector to play, for the business community to play. When Theirworld reached its 10th anniversary in 2012, we set up the global business coalition. We set it up in New York as a 501c3. We have brought together, we now have over 150 large-scale private sector companies and we’re on board. A lot of the big tech companies have come aboard, a lot of the big consulting’s. We’re working with Dell and Deloitte. We’re working with Microsoft and HP. We’re working [inaudible] At large Gallery, these companies will come on board to help. We use are mustering point of that UN meeting in September where we can gather everyone together. But that team are working hard all year round. Let me give you one example of what needs to be provided. When the Ukraine started, we knew this was somewhere that we could move. We’ve worked in Lebanon. We worked in Turkey. We worked in the Greek Islands helping unlock education there. When the war in Ukraine started, we thought there’s something we can do. We put out a call to our Global Business Coalition companies and said, that anyone wants to step up, what can we do?

HP answered our call and said, we’ve got about 70,000 laptops the Ukrainian keyboards. If you can think of a way to provide them for education we’ll help make it happen. But wait, computers are no good without software. We then phoned our friends at Microsoft and said, you want to chip in the software for this, and just contribute that because we all hands on deck to help the Ukrainian children who were being displaced from their own homes, either within Ukraine with the host country’s surrounding. Microsoft said, yes, of course, they would. But not to forget that each laptop needed to be uploaded individually because that’s how software works. You have to your laptop, you have to unload your software. We then worked with our other organizations, work on distribution, work on how we would mobilize and get them there. We reached out to the first lady of Ukraine’s office, and we used the connections that we had there. We’ve worked with the Elena Zielinska Foundation, [inaudible] fantastic raging[?] was to work out how to reach all the communities and places in Ukraine where displaced children are.

Then we used our own network of nonprofit contacts to reach Moldova or Poland or countries where who were hosting Ukrainian refugees, including the United Kingdom as well. We’ve created a distribution network. During the first year of the Ukraine war, we were able to distribute all of those laptops. They have gone out through a network of nonprofits who’ve been able to be there, to deliver them to children and teachers, and we know that we have directly impacted one and a half million children who’ve been affected by that conflict. 38,000 laptops were inside Ukraine, which was complicated to get them in, and the rest have been to the host countries outside. That is an example of where government nonprofit and the corporate sector are working together. It’s also an example of making sure that we use the days technology to share learning the children. Otherwise, [inaudible] missing out.

John: I’ll give a shout-out to HP and to Microsoft for their support in your great organization. That just is wonderful. It’s always easy to turn on the news and hear folks, wherever they’re coming from bashing these big and important organizations. But they don’t hear these great stories, and all the important things they do behind the scenes with important organizations like Theirworld. Thank you for mentioning them. I think that’s really important to highlight really responsible and civic-minded corporations as well. What’s coming up? You’re 20 years plus into this. You started this in 2002, Sarah. What’s coming up for Theirworld? For our listeners and viewers who want to find Theirworld, please go to

Sarah: Well at 20 years was a good moment for us to do a stock take on what we’d achieved and really understand the impact that we’ve made. The whip on our core mission, we’re very focused on that needs to address the global education crisis. They have that best start in life, they’ve places to learn and skills [inaudible] We’re building a stronger cohort of global youth ambassadors. We find that the young people who come on board, we have a program now that’s running that’s training them in communications and how to create change themselves, but also to work together with each other. They’re in 103 countries around the world. They run through a two-year program. We have an intake of 1000 per year.

We’re building up a very powerful alumni program too, but that’s a big piece of our work to build up what they’re doing. Business Coalition is driving activity of the members and supporting that because we’ve realized with our Ukraine project just how powerful and effective that can be. This month, we just announced the winners of our Big Ideas Bright Cities Program, which is at UK, U.S cities, who competed for a $100,000 prize, but it’s an innovation prize where we know we’re back to how we started as looking at people on the ground with the ideas that they have. Those groups in American cities have ideas that we know we will help create for [inaudible] through the US, but also some of those ideas might go around the world too. That’s another big focus risk coming up. Then taking all of our programs, all of our expanding what we’re doing, we’re just not going to stop, we’re going to keep moving.

John: One thing I like to do, Sarah, is I want to always leave our listeners and viewers with some actionable items. If they want to get involved and support Theirworld, how can our listeners and viewers support all the great work that you and your colleagues are doing in Theirworld?

Sarah: We have a Weekly Newsletter that goes out where we share stories about what we’re doing, what our partners are doing, what interesting that’s happening in the global education space. It’s free. Go to, just put in their own email and they’ll be sent that newsletter. If they change their minds and they don’t want any more, they can turn it off. But we find that we get a lot of positive feedback from that newsletter. I think the team that write and send it out make it really a good inspiring read, and goodness knows we need them. Good news and inspiration these days.

John: We do need some good news. Thank you for your time today, Sarah. This is really good news that wonderful people you have created great organizations like Theirworld, and again for our listeners and viewers it’s Sign up for the newsletter. Get involved, donate if you can, please be involved. Sarah Brown, thank you for your time today. I wish you a happy and healthy holiday season. Thank you and your colleagues at Theirworld for making the world a better place.

Sarah: Thank you, John.

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