How has Oxfam’s approach to Influencing evolved over the last 75 years? New paper

Oxfam ‘Greek Week’, 1943

Oxfam has just published a reflection on how its approach to ‘influencing’ has evolved since its foundation in 1942. Written by Ruth Mayne, Chris Stalker, Andrew Wells-Dang and Rodrigo Barahona, it’s stuffed full of enlightening case studies and should be of interest to anyone who wants to understand how INGOs developed their current interest in advocacy, lobbying, campaigns etc. Some extracts from the exec sum:

‘The paper defines influencing as ‘systematic efforts to change power relationships; attitudes, social norms and behaviours; the formulation and implementation of official policies, laws and regulations; budgets; and company policies and practices in ways that promote more just and sustainable societies without poverty’.

Influencing has been part of Oxfam’s change model from its foundation in 1942. But, as Table 1 illustrates, its approach to influencing has evolved over time.

Future Directions

INGOs are facing a series of challenges that have been described as an existential threat. Externally these include shifting global power relations, the fragmentation of civil society groups around myriad single issues and changing funding landscapes. Internally their integrity as change agents is challenged by institutional demands such as growth, funders’ priorities, brand visibility, and reporting. They are also criticised for being cumbersome, slow, and – like most large institutions – unable to ‘white-water raft’ through turbulent times. There are currently three main proposals for how INGOs might respond to such challenges:

  • Stay big and grow as the only way to remain relevant, and provide a counterbalance to the powerful vested interests of market concentration by big business, and to global elites;
  • Become more agile by downsizing, going local and supporting spin-offs in order to support partners and develop, test and spread local solutions;
  • Act as a hub to facilitate global networks that build power from below and link local, national, regional and global efforts as part of a global movement for change – an approach currently being pursued by much of the Oxfam confederation.

Size, agility and networks all matter greatly to organizations’ futures. But care is also needed not to inadvertently jettison INGOs’ established strengths. For example, Oxfam’s history of tackling the structural causes of poverty has generated a set of influencing competences that are as important as ever. These include: its global reach and relationships; its ability to catalyze international solidarity; its holistic multi-level and multi-pronged influencing capacities and strategies; and its ability to make visible the human impacts of macro policies, among others.

Davos Week 2019

Such competences remain essential, but the rise of chauvinism and authoritarian populism also highlights the urgent need for new approaches and strategies. INGOs could help build a powerful constituency for change in both the South and North, while still being consistent with their missions, if they could:

  • Coalesce around a positive shared vision and narrative aimed at creating a fairer, more inclusive and sustainable world. This will require much closer and longer term collaboration with and between both domestic and international movements and with development, human rights, labour, single issue, identity and environment groups, than has been seen so far.
  • Jointly prioritize and assign a proportion of institutional resources to collectively address with allies the key structural causes of current system challenges – such as power and gender imbalances, corporate (lack of) regulation, or the capture of governments by elites. This will require greater use of multi-level, multi-pronged influencing strategies to tackle visible, invisible and hidden power;
  • Broaden communications and public engagement strategies to engage a much wider section of society, rather than mainly focussing on existing active supporters. This would mean complementing the traditional focus on the poorest and most vulnerable, with strategies that address the anxieties and wants of wider sections of society affected by precarious employment, stagnant wages, the withdrawal of essential services and environmental destruction, South and North;
  • Balance critiques with increased effort and investment to identify, model, promote and communicate solutions that can benefit wider sections of society. I/NGOs will need to stand ready to hook solutions to windows of opportunities as they emerge;
  • Increase efforts to cultivate long-term active citizenship and organizations in the North as well as the South, rather than simply mobilizing people to support pre-defined branded campaigns. Doing so effectively will need a combination of new creative online and offline (face-to-face) participatory methods and support for training and mentoring;
  • Increase understanding of, and support for, grass roots associations, women’s rights organizations and social movements (while taking care not to impose agendas or inadvertently co-opt them);
  • Spend more time directly and actively listening to, learning from and finding common ground and shared solutions with a more diverse range of individuals and organizations;
  • Continue to strengthen the legitimacy, accountability and the internal cultures and practices of NGOs and CSOs, as important goals in their own right, and also to ensure the social mandate to operate. The stakes could not be higher. If I/NGOs can learn from past success and failure to strengthen their influencing strategies, they can help to channel the current wave of public disenchantment towards humane, just and sustainable solutions; if they don’t, others will inevitably do so in more regressive and chauvinist directions.’
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5 Responses to “How has Oxfam’s approach to Influencing evolved over the last 75 years? New paper”
  1. Hugely grateful for the synopsis on this and fascinating to see the evolution and now the scenarios going forward. #3 Hub model is something other INGOs are toying with. In my experience the creativity and the impetus required to test new models exist, and to ultimately turn decades of good learning into practice. The funding models for these are less clear and the sector still carries that burden around in terms of securing sustained new sources of funding, given Govt development funds will continue to drop in some parts of the world (although perhaps rise in others). Is Oxfam looking at merger and acquisition strategies alongside structural/governance ones? It often feels like new donors/investors would like to see joint working (INGOs together – and also INGOs with NGOs, which is perhaps more established). These types of peer to peer collaborations between INGOs do exist but wondering if doubling down on that as a sector wide strategy is worth considering?

  2. Ruth Mayne

    Thanks Tim. Personally, I haven’t heard much discussion about INGOs mergers and acquisitions. I can see a benefit in terms of coordination but some of them seem large and complex enough as they are and therefore if anything may need scaling down or streamlining? But I would be interested from hearing from others on this.

    • Penny Lawrence

      Hi Tim and Ruth – great paper Ruth and co

      Oxfam International came from like minded organisations collaborating on campaigning …..Oxfam, Novib, Intermon, CSW all gradually grew closer and closer and have changed their names to Oxfam. In more recent years I’m aware of at least 2 possible mergers/acquisitions that were seriously explored but didn’t result in mergers in the end.
      More generally many commentators in the charity sector have asked why there aren’t more mergers…too much money flowing? There are of course notable examples like Merlin merging with Save the children, Help Age and Age Concern, a number of cancer charities and the learning disability network Dimensions …. but I also understand the Esme Fairburn trust fund set up to encourage mergers is also underspent this year!
      You don’t of course have to merge or aquire to partner and collaborate…..

  3. gawain

    I’ve personally felt that the INGO sector should be actively looking to do mergers/acquisitions. Especially during the financial crisis, it seemed like a ripe time for INGOs to bring onboard innovative organizations and approaches – and also powerful networks that were underfunded. There a huge economies of scale and redundancies in business operations that could be had. Also the ability to reduce or channel competition and broach new markets/functions/capabilities. I saw a bunch of important but small and underfunded organizations go under (esp in womens/feminist sector) and I was really sad about it. But I observed that very few actually happened or were even considered.

    The truth is there’s a lot of failure in mergers and acquisitions – this is well known in the corporate sector. So there are risks and very real costs. The opportunities/benefits aren’t always as clear or proportionate. Incentives to do mergers are few, especially for managers/directors who should be slimmed in the process. Would help if some philanthropies and donors would make a point of supporting this kind of thing (but not being heavy-handed or tying to force it).

    Mergers also run cross to the general trend towards niche, purpose-built organizations that a lot of philanthropists want now. Building bigger, “full-service” institutions is very out-of-date. Takes a lot of faith and loyalty for donors – which is waning.

  4. wzong

    Apparently, large “northerner” INGOs, who have saved countless lives in well over 70 years of their existence and practice, are suddenly “not fit for purpose”!? It suddenly seems that only “southern” NGOs and CSOs have “know how”, with magical formula how to alleviate poverty and suffering!? That’s an ultimate rubbish!

    “Global south” has played it way better lately, managing to grow that famous “neocolonialism and guilt” chip that is now more than ever pressing the shoulders of northern organisations. Playing on that card, and on a premise “we know better what is needed in our country(ies)”, southern campaigners are essentially (and effectively) calling for “give me money and back off” modus operandi. Why is the INGO community afraid or ashamed to talk about countless examples of corruption and fraud that INGOs have suffered from, whenever they made a mistake of trusting locals with resources? Why nobody dares to talk about an issue that nearly all financial losses and scandals inflicted on northern INGOs are originating from local partners and individuals from “global south” due to their DNA rooted corruption, nepotism, bribe culture and incompetence?

    It is no surprise that most vocal champions of “shift to the south” narrative are those individuals from the south who are benefiting most from this call – either those who established a local NGO as a great way to scrap large amounts of money from silly northerners or privileged employees who want to secure their lucrative positions. But when those are entrusted with leading on a response, they end up being the only beneficiaries (in addition to their family members, friends and/or mistresses…). Yet, regardless of this rampant practice, northerners are afraid to mention this largely prevailing trend as it is not politically correct and may put them on a stake of shame.

    Big INGOs from the north shall draw the line and prevent the southern scum from playing this game. Instead, focus on continued delivery of humanitarian aid directly to those who are truly vulnerable instead of supporting vicious agendas of few entitled and privileged southern parasites!