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Oxfam - Good Guys or Bad Guys?


Yesterday, I went into my local Oxfam shop and spoke to the woman volunteer behind the counter about how she was finding the situation. She beamed at me and said, “We’re the good guys!” Regardless of the evil that has been perpetrated in the name of the organisation that she represented, she was clearly intending just to keep on being a ‘good guy’!

Organisational and personal failures do arouse divided responses. Thousands of people have decided that reports about Oxfam’s ‘bad guys’ mean that they must withdraw their support from an organisation which has clearly failed to safeguard against predatory behaviour by some of its staff. Others have seen Oxfam as a flawed organisation of mostly ‘good guys’ who need their support. One day last week, an Oxfam spokeswoman reported, “that the number of regular gifts to Oxfam was the highest since March 2017”.

It is certainly tempting to follow the binary, tabloid-news distinction between the ‘good’ guys and the ‘bad’ guys. Basically, I believe that, it is true that the voluntary sector is full of ‘amazing, brave, committed staff and volunteers’, as Oxfam chief executive, Mark Goldring, called them this week.

But my experience of working for voluntary organisations (including the church) teaches me that life is not quite as simple as that. When you are working in organisations who profess high ideals there are always organisational shadows to watch out for.

  1. The pursuit of high ideals can be a flight away from personal difficulties. Many people in both voluntary organisations and the church seek escape from personal problems in service for others. And that may be a good thing. These ‘wounded healers’ can often have profound insight into neediness. But they are also likely to need as much care and support as those for whom they are caring. The value of skilled mentoring and coaching in voluntary organisations may not be underrated but it is often neglected for fear of increasing costs. Workers and end users are the healthier for it.

  2. When members of one group of people see themselves as ‘deliverers’ or ‘rescuers’ or ‘saviours’ of another group of people, there are always difficulties. These may come from those in the rescuing group who will exploit or abuse the power of their position. And/or there may be those in the ‘rescued’ group who may exploit or manipulate those who wish to help them. If ‘rescuers’ and ‘victims’ get their personal issues confused with the primary ‘helping and being helped’ contract between them, many organisational hours can be spent unravelling the problem.

  3. Donors to organisations don’t always have time to know or understand the complex nature of the problem which they want to help solve. Every organisation I have ever worked for must strike an impossible balance in their fundraising. On the one hand, they need people’s generous response to simple issues of poverty whether it is homeless people on the streets of the UK or starving children in war-torn countries. On the other hand, there needs to be wise use of donated funds by knowledgeable, trained professional people who understand the complexities of the problems their users face. And those professionals need to live, to use transport for their aid etc. etc. Whom would you most want to be helped by – someone who understood the roots of your problem and knows the resources to give you a hand up - or someone who would give you a handout?

  4. Resources spent on the exercises of accountability and safeguarding are not a waste. Nor are they a recognition of an organisation’s weakness – rather of its strength. Or, to put it more directly - It is never enough to believe that everyone who signs up to your organisation is totally trustworthy. As far as the church and other Christian organisations are concerned, it is puzzling to me that we so often preach human sinfulness and so rarely know how to safeguard against it or deal with it when it inevitably manifests itself in real life!

But… back to the woman in the Oxfam shop. There’s a lot to be said for a continuing determination to be one of the ‘good guys’. The existence of flaws in organisations and individual human beings is endemic. The only response in the power of most of us is to do things as well as we can, with all the love we can and all the professional wisdom we can. To withdraw support from caring organisations would leave even more people in need.


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