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Mark Goldring

The developer

Mark Goldring is no stranger to the Charity Awards podium. He was chair of rehabilitation charity Revolving Doors when it scooped the Overall Award for its link worker project in 2002. He graced the stage in 2004 as chief executive of VSO, when it won the international aid and development category for its projects to attract more volunteers from developing nations. And when Mencap carried off the Overall Award in 2011 for its campaign to get NHS staff to treat learning disabled people with more respect, Goldring was in the photos then too.

But the difference this time is that Goldring is being honoured for his own personal contribution to the sector, for an impressive career which began with a voluntary teaching post with VSO in Borneo in 1979. He’d got his law degree from Oxford University and was clear on one thing only – he didn’t want to be a lawyer. An ad for VSO piqued his interest. “It seemed very practical, action-orientated, and didn’t feel like a training scheme or a large company.” After two years he returned to London and fell into a job in commercial law – working, ironically, on a major piece of civil litigation for BP. This only served to reinforce his original opinion, and he decided to stick with international development.

So in 1983 Goldring rejoined VSO as an employee and spent five years working on and then running country programmes. “Perhaps the most dramatic three years of my working life were in the mid-80s setting up VSO’s programme in Bhutan,” he recalls, with evident fondness for the memory. “I arrived in this Himalayan kingdom with a pocketful of cash and a suitcase, knowing absolutely nothing about the place, to see how VSO could most usefully contribute.

“For the first six weeks I travelled around the country on foot and by landrover, up mountains, through valleys and forests, looking at how VSO could best help. That led to an amazing teacher training programme.” The first dozen volunteers, all experienced teachers, arrived four months later and helped deliver a massive transformation of Bhutan’s national primary education system.

When he left Bhutan in 1988 – accompanied by one of the first intake of volunteers who would become his wife – he completed a Masters in social policy and planning in developing countries, while volunteering for St Mungo’s. Then he joined the United Nations in Bangladesh, but this was a shortlived diversion: “I found the UN amazingly bureaucratic, slow, and struggling to deliver”, so he quit and joined Oxfam. “I had four very stimulating years as Oxfam’s country director in Bangladesh, working on issues of women’s rights, land rights, social justice, climate change and of course floods – in fact every kind of disaster you can imagine. I’d only been there a month when there was a terrible cyclone that killed 100,000 people.”

He then spent a year working for DfID before rejoining VSO, for his third stint, first as director of international programmes and then as chief executive. He remained at VSO for 12 years, and is proud of the charity’s award-winning work to augment the hierarchical, top-down structure in which volunteers from rich countries were deployed to poor countries, to also encompass a South-South model where volunteers from one developing nation volunteer in another, or their own. He’s now pushing through a similar initiative at Oxfam – where Oxfam GB surrenders its head-office power base in favour of an international network of independent Oxfams. “We welcome Oxfam South Africa and Oxfam Brazil as members of Oxfam this year, and we are starting preparatory work in Colombia, Ghana and a number of other countries,” Goldring says.

“The long-term goal is to have an independent Oxfam in every country in which we work.”

He concedes that on one level this can make it harder to get things done: “You lose some of your ability to control things and that presents its own management and governance challenges. But I remain convinced it’s the right direction, just as I was convinced it was the right direction in VSO.”

Measuring success

The ultimate test of success, says Goldring, is whether you are making a difference for the poorest, most marginalised people. Success can come in many guises, he says, sometimes through well-planned and executed projects, and sometimes by influencing others. “You can’t say ‘I did this, I achieved this’ – you’re part of a set of forces that are trying to create an environment and move an issue along. But you get a sense of whether you and your organisation are making a difference. That difference can really vary. In Ghana, at VSO, we used to have 50 VSO educationalists supporting the education system. When I left we were supporting several thousand Ghanaian volunteers, graduates without jobs who were supporting their own education system. That felt like success.

“And at Mencap, as well as providing really important services to thousands of people, we were fighting to get the government to take seriously the need for the health service to change and for residential services to change, to treat people with a learning disability with respect. We saw momentum change on that. It’s not job done, but it felt like success.”

The Mencap job was Goldring’s only executive role outside of international development. “I felt I wanted to do something different, so I was really pleased to get the job of CEO at Mencap and spent five years working on domestic issues around disability. That was an eye-opener. It showed me how little I knew about how my own country was run, who gained and who didn’t, the challenges, the battles for people who have got extra needs to obtain justice. And equally, how stretched often very well-intentioned service providers and local councils are in meeting those needs.”

Doing and talking

Goldring believes that you are much more likely to achieve success as a charity if you can demonstrate you are “part of the doing, as well as just part of the talking”. This belief has shaped his approach to all his roles over the years, and it’s something he keeps harking back to.

“You are always trying to strike a balance between making the world a better place for people today and changing the things that are keeping people poor or excluded in the long term. What I’ve loved about this sector, and tried to bring to each of the leadership roles I’ve had, is the combination of these two things. You can’t say to families, ‘Sorry, your kids can’t have schools today but it’s ok, we’re lobbying the government so schools can be built in the future’. You’ve always got to try and weave the two together, and I think it’s that balance of doing and influencing that is central to what I’ve tried to bring to my work, and central to the best role for a charity. Sometimes you can bring legitimacy by drawing on other people’s evidence, but I think you have more authority by being part of the doing as well as part of the talking.”

Governance and leadership

As well as holding down high-level executive jobs in the sector, Goldring has always made sure he had a seat on the other side of the table, as a trustee. “I’ve always been a trustee of at least one organisation, until I joined Oxfam this time. I joined Revolving Doors when I was working internationally so that I was also doing something domestically, and I joined the boards of Brac, the Bangladeshi development organisation, and Amref, the African health organisation, when I was working at Mencap.” He also volunteered for Sense while he was running Mencap. Today he is a trustee of the Humanitarian Leadership Academy, a new organisation established to support the training and development of people doing humanitarian work across the world, and chairs BOAG, the policy and advocacy forum for the biggest aid agencies.

“In healthy organisations, as a trustee you are mostly an adviser,” says Goldring. “You still have the governance responsibility but most of the time you are offering ideas and supporting management. Of course you have to act differently when things go wrong or when they risk going wrong, but that’s mainly what you do. Whereas in my executive role I have to make things happen.”

One gets the feeling that Mark Goldring rather likes making things happen, despite his outwardly mild and unassuming manner. As head of one of the world’s most vocal and provocative campaigning charities, he’s never far from the action, and is frequently on the receiving end of critical commentary from backbench MPs and right-wing newspapers who would prefer that charities stick to their knitting.

‘Twas ever thus

Goldring acknowledges the “increased pressure” on the sector over the last couple of years, but dismisses any suggestion that there is a crisis or conspiracy. “The combination of government, the Charity Commission, and people like the Information Commissioner’s Office all interpret the role of charities in ways that feel to me to be increasingly restrictive. It reminds you of that statement from the Latin American archbishop who said: ‘Why is it when I feed people they call me a saint, but when I ask why they’ve got no food they call me a communist’. There’s definitely an element of that. But I wouldn’t want to overstate it. Some politicians have never liked the work of campaigning charities. Oxfam was hauled over the coals back in the 80s for challenging apartheid – they said that was overly political. We were hauled over the coals back in the 40s for feeding Germany when starvation was setting in after the war. You can’t expect everyone to clap when you support unpopular causes but if you believe they’re right you’ve got to find legitimate ways of working.”

But he also believes that the sector has to get better at telling its success stories, in order to counteract the constant drip-feed of coverage from certain elements of the media committed to painting pictures of millions of pounds of aid money being wasted or the excesses of large charities – or both. “We have to tell a better story about the role of charities, not just the cuddly child and the celebrity but about the reality of that work, the successes of international development.” Just before our interview, Goldring was meeting with some journalists to try to persuade them to make a documentary about Oxfam’s recent work in Aleppo, which has brought water to over a million Syrians.

“Last year and early this year, Oxfam took out paid space to tell the story of a billion people lifted out of poverty over the last two decades. It wasn’t a fundraising campaign, it was linked to the announcement of the Sustainable Development Goals and the work we were launching in Davos, but it was intended to say ‘look, we are succeeding, help us carry on’. And by us we meant the whole sector, not just Oxfam.”
The other big challenge facing the sector’s leaders in the coming years is of course fundraising. Along with other charity CEOs, Goldring was hauled before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee last autumn and Oxfam is one of the big charities to have its knuckles rapped by the FRSB over its lack of supervision of fundraising agencies. Goldring remains pretty bullish about the whole affair – he has publicly apologised, but admits “we didn’t like this week’s (FRSB) ruling”, and is keen to point to the long list of actions Oxfam took ten months ago immediately after the negative headlines first landed.
The bigger issue, he insists, is how charities will raise money in the future.

“Telemarketing, direct mail, face-to-face – these all feel like they are not going to be growth industries. They’re not dead, but they’re not growing, so in three to five years’ time, how are we going to raise money? At Oxfam we are looking at a range of different things, but to me that’s the real story, rather than ‘are the big charities now complying’. It’s a very uncertain world to fundraise in.”

Full circle

Whether Goldring will still be ultimately responsible for Oxfam’s donor relations in three or five years is another matter. He still loves the job, but concedes that “the question is the pace – how long can you keep it going for”. And he has one last job yet to do.

“When I convinced my wife to leave her volunteer post in rural Bhutan and come and live with me in the capital all those years ago, she was very reluctant to leave because she loved what she was doing. So we made a deal – that our last job will be going somewhere overseas as VSO volunteers. So that’s how I will end my career, when the time comes – right back where I started.”

The Goldring years

  • 2013 – now Chief executive, Oxfam GB
  • 2009 – 2012 Chair, Learning Disability Coalition
  • 2008 – 2013 Board member, BRAC UK
  • 2008 – 2013 Chief executive, Mencap
  • 2007 – 2013 Vice-chair, Amref UK
  • 2001 – 2008 Founding board member, Accenture Development Partnership
  • 2000 – 2006 Chair, Revolving Doors Agency
  • 1999 – 2008 Chief executive, VSO
  • 1996 – 1999 International programme director, VSO
  • 1994 – 1995 Regional social development adviser, DFID
  • 1991 – 1994 Country representative, Oxfam, Bangladesh
  • 1990 – 1991 Assistant resident representative, UN, Bangladesh
  • 1985 – 1988 Field director, VSO Bhutan
  • 1983 – 1985 Field co-ordinator, VSO, East Caribbean
  • 1979 – 1981 VSO volunteer English teacher, Sarwak, East Malaysia