OxFAQ - an unofficial Q&A

Much of this is taken from observation in Bangladesh and Ethiopia in 2000, hearsay about other projects, talking to staff from Oxfam and other charities and non-governmental organisations, and reading Oxfam reports and accounts. It's an independent view and is not meant to represent the official Oxfam line. I'm not an Oxfam employee or beneficiary.

   Oxfam in a nutshell

1. How much money goes into admin?
2. What kind of people do Oxfam employ?
3. How do they work out how to use the money?
4. Isn't all the effort going into a black hole?
5. What about other charities?
6. Does Oxfam do anything wrong?
7. What's the best way to give?

    Visit the Bangladesh scrapbook

    Visit the Ethiopia photodiary



Oxfam in a nutshell:

  • It's among the largest and most effective international charities
  • Follows a long-term, flexible approach, helping local agencies to relieve poverty in 70 countries
  • Provides advice, training, supplies, morale and cash
  • Highly regarded on the basis of its long experience, integrity, global reach and tenacity in the world's poorest regions
  • Constantly consulted by governments and agencies
  • 99 per cent of employees are local (and most, highly qualified)
  • Ever seen a bad press story about Oxfam?

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1. How much of the money goes into advertising, marketing, salaries, administration, etc?

After feeding down through partner organisations, I reckon the figure comes out at around 30 per cent, and it pays for itself tenfold. It ensures a budgetable, steady income, a reliable infrastructure in times of crisis, high quality staff, and a committed long-term perspective.

Oxfam salaries are lower than in many other large charities and markedly lower than in the commercial world. And if you live in Britain and pay tax - and tell Oxfam that you pay tax - the 28p in every pound that the government adds via its new Gift Aid scheme covers it anyway. Similar schemes apply in other countries where Oxfam operates (including Australia and the US).

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2. What kind of people do Oxfam employ?

Oxfam is choosy, turning away hundreds of job applicants every year. Many staff are experienced, dynamic professionals with serious commercial backgrounds - this applies in all partner country offices too. The Chair is Joel Joffe CBE, previously Nelson Mandela's lawyer, and the man who founded Allied Dunbar, and he is one of many who knows who can bring most value to the organisation.

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3. How do they work out how to use the money?

High-level objectives are decided at meetings at central and grassroots levels, pooling local observation with opinion from experts in finance, health and education.

The same process happens at country level, incorporating input from other international charities and governments, to discuss and co-ordinate projects.

Local charities are often evaluated for 12 months before Oxfam decides to support them, following up with annual audits and constant monitoring (and support!).

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4. Isn't all this effort going into a big black hole?

Ignore, for a moment, the emergency work which Oxfam is famous for, and which might just appear to put off starvation/illness until next year's disaster. Far more resources go into non-disaster projects.

Oxfam always takes the long-term view. People are educated, instructed in contraception, disaster preparedness, income generation and basic health, among other things, and they are given particular hope and potential by affordable credit schemes. Individuals and villages grow over years, even decades, and become more resilient to disaster.

Another crucial and unsung aspect of Oxfam's work is its lobbying of governments and local authorities to deliver what they promise. It's like Amnesty International's advocacy work, only for the poor, and it gives great, tangible results (like new schools and doctors).

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5. What about all the other charities out there?

There are a lot of very well-run, effective and worthy charities. There are also plenty of inefficient and distinctly unworthy ones. A few of the best-known British charities literally have more money than they can spend, though of course they can't admit it.

Before you give, do a little homework, otherwise your well-earned cash might end up funding religious instruction, exorbitant director salaries or centrally-heated kennels.

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6. Does Oxfam do anything wrong ?

Well, it's possibly too worthy for its own good sometimes, shying away from aggressive marketing techniques which work so well for others. I'm sure there are some inefficiencies, some bad stories and the odd bit of dead wood, but if the staff I've met are anything to go by, no-one fiddles expenses, takes gratuitous sickies or nicks the pens, and morale appears to be high. So it's a tighter ship than most companies.

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7. What's the best way to give?

Donations to and purchases from the shops in the UK bring in a good income. One-off donations also account for a lot. But if you live in the UK and pay tax and want to keep the Oxfam project planners really happy, give regularly via the new Gift Aid scheme. All donations qualify for tax relief, so when you give £100, Oxfam gets £128.

Also, crucially, long-term giving means Oxfam can comfortably plan ahead, without wondering nervously whether Comic Relief will come up trumps again next year, or if one-off donations will disappear like they did in the last recession.

So what are you waiting for? Why not start giving right now online!

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