Oxfam America is today one of 20 Oxfam affiliates, a global confederation working in over 90 countries. They create lasting solutions to protect human rights and reduce hunger, poverty, social injustice. Oxfams take on big issues: inequality, discrimination, and unequal access to resources including food, water, and land. But Oxfam's start in America in the 1970s was shaky.
Origins in Great Britain and America
Alarmed by civilians starving in Nazi-occupied Greece, a group of Oxford academics, social activists, and Quaker intellectuals defied Great Britain's Foreign Office in 1942 to form the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief to ship food through the Allies' naval blockade. After World War II, Oxfam continued sending material and financial aid to poor people throughout Europe. After Europe recovered, Oxfam shifted to helping people in developing countries.
In 1970, Washington, D.C., volunteers responded to the humanitarian crisis of Bangladesh's Liberation War, and, assisted by Oxfam Great Britain, started Oxfam America. But after the flood of donations receded, it moved in 1973 to start again in Boston, where a Unitarian Church offered a free basement room for its small staff. It attracted a small local Board of Trustees, of which I was one. Most of us had served in the Peace Corps. And several had served in East Pakistan or Bangladesh.
We resolved that fund-raising appeals would avoid condescending to people in distress; appeals should be educational and thought-provoking. Our 1974 experiment with Thanksgiving "hunger banquets," titled Fasts for a World Harvest, succeeded. Oxfam's annual Fasts continue today as one of America's largest anti-hunger campaigns.
But, however exciting, the mid-1970s were also nerve-wracking years for our small staff, board members, and volunteers. We did everything—including selling holiday cards and dish towels outside Filene's Boston department store—to meet payroll and fund our budget for overseas grants. Although rich in creative ideas, we were ragged in teamwork and execution.
First strategic planning
Since I worked with a management consulting firm, I was elected Board Chair and asked to lead efforts to improve Oxfam America. I report the story and our results in Chapter 2 of our early history, Change not Charity. Oxfam America chose the slogan "change not charity"