Interview: Mark Goldring, chief executive of Oxfam

He began as a VSO volunteer and now leads a top development charity committed to fight inequality. Goldring talks to Tim Smedley about his career, charity campaigning and chief executive pay

Mark Goldring
Mark Goldring

Upon leaving university, young law graduate Mark Goldring had no idea what he wanted to do. A recruitment poster for VSO caught his eye – it read "Live now, get paid later". That felt like a good motto, he says. As an explanation for how he came to fill some of the biggest jobs in the charity sector, it seems almost apologetic.

Those years as a teacher for VSO in a small town in Borneo, on the mouth of a river and deep in the forest, changed him for good. A brief stint as a lawyer (on a contract for BP, of all outfits) only confirmed it. A blur of field posts followed for VSO, Oxfam, the UN and the Department for International Development, across Asia, the Caribbean and the south Pacific.

"Twenty years later my parents were still asking 'when are you going to get a proper job?'," he says. "I eventually convinced them that I already had one."

During those 20 years, Goldring went from uncertain graduate to chief executive of VSO. The top spot at Mencap followed. When he applied for the chief executive position at Oxfam in 2013, he says, he didn't believe he'd get it. Given his CV, this could be seen as a smidgen of false modesty. "At each selection stage, I kept not getting knocked out," he says.

What he offered was a very clear agenda for unifying Oxfam's global brand. Originally the Oxford Campaign for Famine Relief, founded during the Second World War, it was a very British organisation that worked overseas. Other Oxfams sprang up around the world, 17 in total, maintaining a loose and informal relationship. Even by 2013, says Goldring, this wider family hadn't been fully embraced.

He was recruited at the same time as Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam's international executive director. The two had a mandate to unify the confederation as one Oxfam, drawing up a shared strategic plan for 2013-2019, which ranges from the generic "Saving lives, now and in the future" to the more tangible commitment to an annual Oxfam INGO Accountability Charter.

Surprising step

Within a year of taking up the post, Goldring also took the surprising decision to appear in the TV documentary Undercover Boss – a long-running series in which chief executives don a disguise and work incognito with the rank and file for two weeks. Goldring didn't want to follow the typical narrative of a boss shocked to discover what really goes on: "I already spend a lot of my time visiting programmes, meeting volunteers, visiting our shops." Rather, he wanted to show the public what Oxfam actually does. "Britain knows of Oxfam, but most don't have a clue what we do or how we do it. People have got the sense of an old-fashioned volunteerism and amateurism. So I wanted to let the public see inside, warts and all."

And there were warts. During one day as a chugger, Goldring was harangued by a member of the public complaining about "people at the tops of these charities who give themselves huge payouts". Goldring, who was wearing a wig, was unable to address the issue directly without blowing his cover (the disguise caused his daughter Tash to comment off-camera "if a man looking like that sat next to me on a bus, I'd move"). But he agrees that pay is "a very significant public issue. If you've worked all your life on £20,000 to £30,000, then someone getting £50,000 to £60,000 is getting a huge salary. Over £100,000 and that's just an unreal world." Goldring is paid £121,294 a year. "But unless you're running a cooperative, you've got to have a hierarchy of salaries, and if you've got as many people with very highly developed skills, as Oxfam has, you've got to pay lots of people quite a reasonable salary. So you pay your chief executive slightly more, on that scale."

Rather than dismissing the need for the debate, he believes it's right that it's high on the agenda. "I don't find it at all delicate or sensitive," Goldring says. "I wouldn't allow a situation where I thought I was being paid an unreasonable amount, but we also have to work to educate, inform and be transparent with the public, telling them that you are not going to get a finance director capable of managing a £400m operation and pay them £25,000. It won't happen, and it would be irresponsible."

When you talk to him, he considers things with an even temperament and an open curiosity. He doesn't pull punches, nor does he let loose a flurry of fists. If he were a prize-fighter, he'd win by points, not by knockouts.

If Goldring is bitter about the tide of public opinion and politics currently flowing against charities, he certainly doesn't show it. Of the recent general election, he says: "Oxfam tackles poverty wherever we find it, and we also work within the UK. The explicit agenda of increased cuts wasn't going to be fundamentally different with a coalition or a different government; all parties have said we need to carry on making cuts. But the nature and extremity might well be different."

The lobbying act and CC9, the Charity Commission's rules on politics and campaigning, are also "clearly going to be interpreted differently by a one-party Conservative government", he says. When Oxfam tweeted a mock film-poster tweet proclaiming a "perfect storm" of damaging policies, one Conservative MP complained to the Charity Commission and Priti Patel – now a Conservative minister – called the charity "a mouthpiece for left-wing propaganda". In the event, Goldring says, "the Charity Commission found not only had we not been party political, we hadn't had any intention of being party political. What they found us guilty of was not taking sufficient care to avoid a misperception of being party political."

The tweet was based on a number of detailed reports, he says, and quoted from a diverse range of sources, including parliamentary committees. The fault was not providing links and reference to those reports, he says: "That was the mistake. It wasn't publishing the report and it wasn't challenging those in power. What we also learnt is that we had not sufficiently updated our social media sign-off processes."

As for Patel's charge, he says: "We're absolutely explicit in highlighting policies and practices, from whichever party, according to their impact on poor people. When Labour was in power from 1997 to 2010, Oxfam challenged government just as regularly. Nobody said at that time that we were pro-Tory." One gets the sense that were they not wagging a finger at Oxfam, he would be disappointed.

A move away from the sector?

Could there ever be a temptation to move away from charity status to avoid such regulatory and political pitfalls? "I think there's more to gain than to lose by being a charity," Goldring says. "We don't exist as an advocacy organisation - we exist with a mission to eradicate poverty, and our way of doing it is a combination of practical humanitarian response and meeting long-term needs. We're working hard to weave those two together rather than separate them. Being a charity allows us to receive in the way that we have from the amazingly generous British public for Nepal. It is fundamental to who we are."

This interview takes place only two weeks after the massive earthquake in Nepal that killed more than 8,000 people and injured 19,000. "That same day we had people on planes from the UK to support the team we already had in Nepal, without even knowing whether those planes were going to be able to land," he says. "We have worked on disaster preparedness in Nepal before, but of course the scale was very different."

With this and other emergencies, there is a tried-and tested approach for local coordination, says Goldring. Lessons have been learned from "horror stories" such as Haiti in 2008 – where, he says, many agencies were badly coordinated. (He also points out that "in most situations where people are living in poverty, there is too little help rather than too much".)

Cluster organisation

Now, he says, there is typically a "UN-led response system organised into clusters. So there'll be a water and sanitation cluster, an education cluster, a food cluster, a shelter cluster, and the agencies working in those come together to plan together. It's not foolproof, but it does work reasonably well."

If there is competition, Goldring says, it's for fundraising and publicity. Everyone wants to have the truck going to the village where the media are camped out. But the Disasters Emergency Committee – an umbrella group comprising 13 UK charities – mitigates that. "We were talking as a group of DEC directors on the day of the earthquake," says Goldring. "One day later, the chief executive of the DEC, Saleh Saeed, was already in conversation with the major broadcasters."

The DEC does not launch appeals for every emergency. There are three formal criteria: the scale of the emergency, the ability of the agencies to respond and the interest of the British public, says Goldring: "Yemen is a hidden emergency: it's not much in the news, even though many more people are affected than in Nepal, and we have to pay for that from our own funds. But it doesn't tick that third box".

Again, he remains pragmatic. If there is a simmering frustration, it's well hidden: "It's right that DEC appeals are tightly rationed – it's an amazing privilege to be able to say, at low cost, to the British public through dozens of different media channels 'please help with this'. It's also got to work for the broadcasters and not just make the public want to turn their televisions off."

Competition for public attention is a keen concern. Oxfam received £118.3m in voluntary income in the last financial year, up from £111.5m in 2012/13. Yet Goldring concedes that people are increasingly drawn to more specialist charities for their clarity of message.

"The single-cause ask is easier," he says. "This year we have increased the number of our donors, but that has not been the trend in recent years. You have specialist agencies – WaterAid, Sight Savers, Help the Aged – whose focus is in the name, whereas Oxfam is proudly generalist. We think that people who are living in poverty need a range of assistance to move out of poverty – they're being denied good education and good health, they're not getting enough to eat. So we deliberately take a broader approach."

Oxfam is also raising its voice geopolitically. Byanyima co-chaired the latest World Economic Forum in Davos: her rallying cry was that half of the world's wealth was now owned by just 1 per cent of the population, and she called for leaders to counter the growing tide of inequality. This prompted even the pro-austerity head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, to announce that "inequality is not conducive to sustainable growth".

Goldring wants policymakers to realise that we can't eradicate poverty if inequality is getting worse. This isn't a change of direction, he says, nor a sign of Oxfam becoming more ideological: "We have always worked on those big agendas. Our last big run-in with the Charity Commission was 25 years ago, when we shouted from the rooftops that apartheid was embedding poverty, and we were told that was too political.

"We're not trying to punish the rich or hold back business - we're trying to ensure that wealth benefits poor people and we don't rely on some disproven assumption that the poor will always benefit from the rich getting richer."

Maintaining a balance

The past two years as Oxfam's chief executive have, he admits, been "all-consuming". Coinciding with his two children leaving home to attend university, the job could have swallowed him entirely. But he maintains a balance, living with his wife on an island in the Thames. He recently cycled from Newcastle to Edinburgh with a group of friends. Not sponsored; just for fun.

Travel remains an important part of the job, however, and necessarily breaks into his attempts to keep one day each weekend work-free. A trip to Syria is planned, he says, a glint in his eye betraying the field worker of old. The forests of Borneo and the floods of Bangladesh offer not just memories but an ever-present motivation.

"We want to challenge inequality, the impact of climate change on poor people and the impact of conflict on poor people, and create mainstream approaches to how we support everyone to live with dignity", he says with a gentle, persuasive passion. He just has to convince donors that the breadth of that mission is an attraction, not a distraction.

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