Change makers: Oxfam

The charity's Give a Man a Fish campaign marked a shift to a 'more progressive view of aid'

Oxfam's Give a Man a Fish campaign
Oxfam's Give a Man a Fish campaign

The early 1990s heralded changes to the way charities were able to communicate with the public.

The sector was allowed to advertise on television for the first time, and charities were beginning to solicit small monthly donations instead of one-off gifts.

Oxfam's Give a Man a Fish campaign was designed to capitalise on both of these developments.

Paul Vanags, head of relationship marketing at Oxfam, says the campaign - which combined advertising and fundraising - was the brainchild of the charity's direct response agency WWAV. It was based on the saying "give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime".

Vanags says: "A few years after the Ethiopia famine and Live Aid, Oxfam was becoming more professional. We wanted to move the debate on from 'feed the hungry'. We were taking a more progressive view of aid - one that did not view the recipient as passive and helpless, but instead talked about sustainable outcomes and poor people working their way out of poverty."

The challenge for the charity was to communicate this in a straightforward, memorable way that people could grasp quickly. The "give a man a fish" proverb was considered to be the perfect metaphor.

Today it is considered to have been a breakthrough campaign, but the initial burst of activity was not very successful. "It was a straight cash appeal for a one-off donation, but it was only when the 'give £2 a month' element was brought in that the campaign started to take off," says Vanags. "This was a last roll of the dice before the campaign was to be ditched, which shows that sometimes you have to persevere."

The campaign then ran for a decade and built up a huge base of regular givers for Oxfam that has endured to the present day. "Almost half a million people signed up and it is worth pointing out that, although TV recruited large numbers of people, cold direct mail and inserts recruited even more."

Vanags says the campaign's enduring appeal has helped to shape Oxfam's ethos about communicating with the public. "We believe in representing the people we help positively," he says. "We continue to explore ways to inspire the public to support our work through campaigns that show the impact of empowering people who live in poverty."

EXPERT VIEW: Lara Samuels, director, The Communications Hub

Lara Samuels, director, The Communications HubI remember this advert more clearly than any other charity campaign I can think of - you might call it a triumph in the field of unprompted recall. Of course, the "give a man a fish" proverb wasn't invented by Oxfam, but it does feel like this campaign is what made it so iconic. The phrase itself has almost become the charity equivalent of "it does what it says on the tin", in the sense that it has become part of modern parlance.

The great thing about this campaign was that it stopped us thinking only in terms of donating money for immediate outcomes and simply throwing cash at a problem. It provided a positive message - showing the beneficiaries not as helpless, but as people with whom we might identify, and who want the best opportunities for themselves and their families.

The advert set a new tone with the concept of a future and a viable hope that, actually, things might change for the better if we approach the issues with a longer-term view.

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