An Interview With Ken Mallette, Director of Oxfam America's Annual Fund
In 1942, a group of Quaker intellectuals, social activists and Oxford academics formed the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief in response to the plight of refugees in Greece. After the war, Oxfam (a name derived from its postal code abbreviation) continued its work, sending materials and financial aid to groups aiding poor people throughout Europe. As the situation in Europe improved, Oxfam’s attention shifted to the needs of people in developing countries.
A group of volunteers founded Oxfam America in 1970 in response to the humanitarian crisis created by the fight for independence in Bangladesh. Oxfam Great Britain provided a loan for the group, and at first Oxfam America funneled funds exclusively through Oxfam Great Britain. Originally located in Washington, D.C., Oxfam America relocated to Boston in 1973, where its small staff worked out of a borrowed room in a West Newton church basement.
The next few years were pivotal as several key supporters made prophetic and significant decisions that defined Oxfam’s mission and principles:
- Oxfam America decided not to accept U.S. government grants and to instead try to build broad-based, grassroots support that would remain independent of government foreign policy.
- Appeals for support would also avoid promoting a condescending attitude toward poor people; communications would be thought-provoking rather than emotional.
- Grants would focus on small projects that could serve as models for others.
To develop a U.S. constituency and funding source, the Fast for a World Harvest campaign was begun in 1974 and has grown to become one of the largest anti-hunger campaigns in the U.S. It was an exciting and nerve-wracking time for Oxfam’s few staff, board members and volunteers, who did everything — including selling cards and dish towels outside a local department store — to augment the overseas budget and meet the payroll.
The 1980s marked the start of campaigns designed to educate the U.S. Congress and the American people about such issues as the Khmer Rouge and “empowering” approaches to relief and development. This trend led to a stronger advocacy focus at Oxfam America, where staff members took on such issues as debt relief and fair trade. An office was opened in Washington, D.C., in 1994, and the organization now invests in a popular campaigning infrastructure.
In 2000, Oxfam America celebrated its 30th anniversary. While the organization today is a very different place — one that has grown and changed to address both the times and the changing needs of developing countries — several things have remained steadfast: the commitment to addressing issues of injustice and poverty, and the set of core values that has informed its work through three decades of staff and board members.
FundRaising Success spoke with Oxfam America Director of Annual Fund Ken Mallette about the organization’s work and fundraising philosophy.
FundRaising Success: How do you fund your mission?
Ken Mallette: Oxfam America solicits donations from individuals, foundations and corporations to fund its work to create lasting solutions to poverty, hunger and social injustice.
FS: What are the biggest challenges your organization faces as far as fundraising is concerned? How do you overcome them?
KM: Certainly the economic crisis in the U.S. has posed challenges to our fundraising. However, we have seen that our donor base has remained very loyal. We have made some adjustments to account for this, and to date, we are in line with our projections.
Oxfam has staff and programs all over the world. By providing donors with up-to-date information on what is happening on the ground, we are able to create long-lasting relationships with donors who become very loyal to Oxfam.
FS: Do you foresee any big changes in the way you reach potential donors and other supporters in the near future?
KM: Social networking and online communications have changed the fundraising landscape drastically over the past few years. There’s no telling what’s next. It will be important to remain open to trying new approaches and technologies.
However, regardless of how you communicate with donors — be it a Facebook post or an in-person visit — the most important thing will remain creating an opportunity for people to engage in the work Oxfam does and learn about what is happening on the ground.
FS: How would you describe your fundraising philosophy?
KM: Oxfam America relies almost exclusively on private funding, and we are fortunate to have more than 250,000 individual donors. Among leading humanitarian organizations, we stand alone in our refusal of U.S. government funds, declining support from any sources that might compromise our independence. As conscientious stewards of our donors’ money, Oxfam America operates efficiently and aims to minimize fundraising and administrative costs. In 2008, we allocated 80 percent of our expenditures for development programs and emergency relief — a number that is well above the standard recommended by the American Institute of Philanthropy, one of the leading charity-rating organizations in the U.S. During this same period, at least 90 percent of funds designated by donors for humanitarian emergencies directly supported our relief efforts for those emergencies. We strive to exceed or maintain these standards each year.
FS: How do you reach out to supporters and potential supporters in ways other than purely fundraising?
KM: We engage supporters via Twitter and Facebook. They are both fantastic mediums to get supporters the latest information quickly. In addition, Oxfam’s fundraising efforts for its Haiti emergency response raised over $144,000 on Facebook.
FS: Can you describe a recent successful fundraising effort?
KM: Oxfam’s fundraising efforts for its Haiti emergency response have been very successful. To date, over $21.3 million has been raised for immediate relief and recovery work over the next three to five years.