Employees: 4, 500
Operating Revenues: £310.5 million ($528 million) (2006)
NAIC: 624190 Other Individual and Family Services; 813319 Other Social Advocacy Organizations
Oxfam GB is the founding member of Oxfam International, one of the world’s leading and most well-known charitable organizations, providing aid and development services to victims of war, poverty, and natural and manmade disasters. Oxfam provides both direct and infield aid and assistance, develops public awareness campaigns, coordinates assistance and relief efforts, and solicits charitable contributions. The company operates a national chain of charitable, volunteer-based thrift shops, as well as a growing number of used bookstores, and the fair-trade chain of Progresso coffee shops. Oxfam GB also oversees its own publishing unit, producing a series of internationally recognized country guides. Much of the organization’s financial funding comes through such bodies as the European Commission, the Department for International Development, the United Nations, the Big Lottery Fund, Comic Relief, Vodafone Group Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Disasters Emergency Committee, and many others. Donations and legacies accounted for nearly 38 percent of the group’s operating revenues of £310.5 million ($528 million), while government bodies and public authorities provided more than 15 percent of the organization’s funding. The group’s retail operations generated 20 percent of its total income during that year.
Oxfam GB, based in Oxford, also provides the coordinating secretariat for Oxford International. Other members in the worldwide organization include Oxfam units in the United States, France, Germany, Belgium, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, the Netherlands, Ireland, and Hong Kong. Oxfam GB’s operations are led by Director Barbara Stocking.
The origins of Oxfam can be traced back to the Allied blockade of Nazi-occupied Greece and the resulting famine there. British war policy of the time was conducted along the lines of “total war,” which made little distinction between civilian and military, and placed the burden of caring for an occupied population on the occupying force. As a result of this policy, the British government insisted on maintaining a hermetically sealed blockade of Greece, allowing no civilian aid or relief from Britain to enter the country.
The first signs of famine in Greece had appeared by 1941 and by the end of the war, the country had witnessed death rates as high as 1, 500 people per day. In Great Britain, a growing number of people had become alarmed at the situation in Greece, and had begun to demand that the British government alter its total war policy in order to allow relief to get through to the population. By 1942, a growing number of Famine Relief committees, created in large part through the efforts of Quaker activist Edith Pye, had begun to appear throughout the United Kingdom. In Oxford, a group of local scholars, clergymen, and pacifists joined together to form the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief toward the end of 1942. Leading that effort was Gilbert Murray, a professor of Greek at Oxford University, and Canon T. R. Milford, of the University Church. Another founding member, Cecil Jackson-Cole, provided the committee with needed business experience in his role as honorary secretary. The committee formally registered as a charitable organization in 1943. In that year, the committee organized its first “Greek Week” campaign to raise awareness and funding. That effort enabled the group to generate donations of nearly £13, 000, a significant amount given the penury of the times, toward the relief effort in Greece. Because of the British government’s continued refusal to allow British aid to penetrate the blockade of Greece, that sum was turned over to the Greek Red Cross.
The Oxford Committee, which increasingly began to refer to itself in the shortened form of “Oxfam,” continued to solicit donations and to appeal for a relaxation of the Greek blockade throughout the war. With the Nazi defeat in World War II and the end of the blockade, the committee wound down its Greek Relief Fund. During the immediate postwar years the Oxford committee, together with the many other local relief committees established during the war, continued to collect donations in order to provide funding for relief operations being set up across war-torn Europe. In 1948, the Oxford committee established its first office, on Broad Street in Oxford, to serve as a collection center for donations. At that time, the committee borrowed an idea pioneered by the Salvation Army in the United States, and opened its own retail charity gift shop in the storefront below the office. This became the United Kingdom’s first such permanent charity shop, and inspired the creation of a national chain of stores. With its donations increasing, the committee then turned to supporting the relief efforts underway in the Middle East.
The creation of the Marshall Plan, which oversaw the European-wide relief and reconstruction effort starting in 1949, led a large number of the British relief committees to wind up their operations that year. The Oxford committee, however, chose to pursue operations, and adopted a new mission, directly opposed to the principles of total war and establishing the goal of providing “the relief of suffering arising as a result of wars or other causes in any part of the world.” The committee’s campaign helped play a role in defining the newly redeveloped Geneva Convention, passed in 1949 and providing explicit protection for civilians during wartime.
Into the early 1950s, Oxfam’s operations focused especially on the European region, and in particular in providing funding for the continent’s refugee relief efforts—the last of the European refugee camps was to close only in 1959 after campaigning from Oxfam and other relief organizations. By then, Oxfam had expanded its geographic focus to a global level. Already in 1951 the committee provided funding for the famine relief effort in Bihar, India, following a natural disaster there. Two years later, the committee launched a collection effort that ultimately provided £60, 000 for relief efforts in war-stricken Korea. The group also began developing its international network during this time, starting with a partnership with the future Oxfam Australia, established in 1953.
Oxfam had also developed a keen sense of marketing and promotion, helping to raise its profile not only among the British public, but throughout the world. By the end of the 1950s, Oxfam was already pulling in more than £1 million in donations per year. The committee played a major role in the development of a new vision of charitable organizations in general and of international relief operations in particular, targeting the endemic poverty in regions that became known as the “developing” world. In 1960, for example, Oxfam joined with a number of other international bodies, and most notably the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, to launch the “Freedom from Hunger.” This effort broke away from traditional charitable activities to instead focus on providing training and tools for people to grow their own food. Over a five-year period, Oxfam’s efforts helped that campaign raise more than £7 million in the United Kingdom.
Oxfam’s Purpose: Oxfam works with others to overcome poverty and suffering.
The Oxfam name was formally adopted in 1965. By then, the group had already evolved from an organization accepting charitable donations to an active relief organization. The start of this change stemmed from the group’s decision in 1961 to send its first field director to southern Africa in order to coordinate its relief and development spending with local relief operations. Increasingly, however, Oxfam sought to become involved directly in the relief effort. This led to the group’s first direct relief action when famine struck Bihar, India, again in 1966. In response, Oxfam sent a team of volunteers in order to operate a food distribution program. By the early 1970s, the organization had become involved in more than 800 projects in 19 countries, and included 11 dedicated expatriate staff members.
Oxfam’s operation model had also begun to catch on internationally in the 1960s, leading to the creation of the first international Oxfam International affiliates, in Belgium and Canada, both in 1963. An affiliate was created in the United States in 1970, followed by the creation of Oxfam Ireland in 1971, and Oxfam Quebec in 1973.
At home, in its gift shops, Oxfam promoted sales of handicrafts made by small-scale producers in developing areas, providing training and funding, and guaranteeing fair pricing. This effort, originally launched as the Bridge Programme in 1964, later evolved into the Oxfam Fair Trade Company. By the early 1970s, the gift shops had become Oxfam’s primary source of funding, selling both donated goods and handicrafts from around the world. A steady string of new Oxfam stores opened throughout the United Kingdom. The organization also launched a successful mail-order operation in the 1970s, which grew into a £1 million-per-year operation by the 1980s.
Fund-raising for the organization took off in the 1980s as well, in particular through such highly publicized global events as Band Aid and Comic Relief. In 1984 alone these efforts helped boost Oxfam’s total income past £50 million. At the same time, Oxfam began taking steps to build its retail wing. In 1985, the group created a central clearance center in Ipswich, which took on remaindered items from the organization’s retail network. In this way, the group slowly transformed the image of its chain of charity shops from a somewhat dusty, often shabby collection of odds and ends to a more modern retail format. As a result, the retail division’s sales grew strongly into the 1990s, allowing the organization to step up development of the network. By the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, the operation boasted more than 750 stores.
Oxfam also began testing out new retail areas. In 1988, the group opened its first used bookstore; it was not until nearly a decade later, however, that this format became truly successful. By the 1990s, Oxfam had begun to roll out a chain of used bookstores, becoming a major challenger in the British retail book market. By then, too, Oxfam had opened its first furniture stores, in 1989. During the 1990s, the group branched out into retail fashions, launching the Nologo and Original fashion stores in London. By the end of that decade, the group’s used bookstore format had begun to catch on with British consumers, and by 2005, the group rolled out plans to open as many as 20 bookstores per year. At that point, Oxfam was already the second largest seller of used books in all of Europe.
At the beginning of the 1990s, Oxfam took a role in the establishment of the fair-trade movement. The company helped establish the Cafédirect fair-trade coffee branch, launched in partnership with Traidcraft, Equal Exchange, and Twin Trading in 1991. The following year, Oxfam joined in the formation of the Fairtrade Foundation, in partnership with CAFOD, Christian Aid, Traidcraft, the World Development Movement, and New Consumer. These efforts ultimately led Oxfam to rebrand its Bridge Programme shops under the Oxfam Fair Trade Company in 1996.
- Oxford Famine Relief Committee (Oxfam) is established to aid civilian Greek population during Nazi occupation of World War II.
- Oxfam establishes offices in Oxford and opens first charity gift shop.
- Company formally adopts name of Oxfam.
- Company opens first used bookstore.
- Oxfam Fair Trade Company is founded.
- Company launches Progresso chain of fair-trade coffee shops.
By then, Oxfam International, which based its secretariat in Oxford, had expanded to include a number of new affiliates, including branches in Hong Kong in 1984, the Netherlands in 1994, Germany in 1995, and Spain in 1997. In 1998, after completing a strategic review of its operations, Oxfam GB decided to restructure, splitting off its operations in Ireland into a separate organization. Oxfam GB continued to maintain oversight over the group’s operations in Scotland and Wales.
Donations and government grants and subsidiaries had come to form the majority of Oxfam’s total income into the mid-first decade of the 2000s, roughly 53 percent of the group’s £310.5 million income in 2006. Yet the group’s retail operations remained important both for their revenues, accounting for some 20 percent of total income, and especially for their role in raising and maintaining public awareness for Oxfam and its various campaigns. Into the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, Oxfam expanded its retail presence in two different directions. In the first, it formed a partnership with abebooks.co.uk, the world’s leading online rare books retailer, to sell its own books online. This effort was followed in 2004 with the opening of the group’s first Progresso coffee shop, featuring fair-trade coffee in a bid to rival coffee retailers such as Starbucks. By 2007, the company had established plans to open as many as 20 Progresso coffee shops throughout the United Kingdom. By then, Oxfam had established itself as one of the world’s largest and most respected relief organizations.
M. L. Cohen
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