Our history

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. Photo: Oxfam

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, DC, 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 US government grants and to instead try to build broad-based, grassroots support that would remain independent of government foreign policy.
  • Oxfam America resolved that its appeals for support would avoid promoting a condescending attitude toward poor people; communications would be thought-provoking rather than emotional.
  • Oxfam America determined that grants would focus on small projects that could serve as models for others.

To develop a US 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 US. 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.

From 1976 to 1979, Oxfam America's structure evolved to allow the agency to more clearly define and expand the roles of staff and board members. The board hired an executive director and elected a management-oriented chair, who introduced strategic, annual planning and divided functions among departments: overseas, fundraising, development education, and administration. It was also during this time that Oxfam America became both financially and administratively independent of Oxfam Great Britain.

The crisis in Kampuchea (today known as Cambodia) in 1979 demonstrated the importance of Oxfam America's decision to not accept US government funds. The organization found itself in the national spotlight and realized a tenfold increase in revenues. This increase led to a tripling both in the number of staff and in accompanying demands for management and systems. The 1999 crisis in Kosovo and the 1998 Hurricane Mitch disaster spurred further growth.

The 1980s marked the start of campaigns designed to educate the US Congress and the American people about such issues as the Khmer Rouge and "empowering" approaches to relief and development. Such efforts 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, DC, in 1994, and the organization now invests in a popular campaigning infrastructure.

In 2010, Oxfam America celebrated its 40th anniversary. Although 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 our work—legacies passed down through three decades of staff and board members.

Essays on Oxfam America’s first 40 years.

  1. Briefing paper

    Change not Charity

    Essays on Oxfam America’s first 40 years.

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