Leading with Purpose: Oxfam interim CEO Aleema Shivji in conversation – PODCAST

Join us in this episode of Knowing Not For Profits, where we discuss Aleema Shivji’s personal journey to leadership in the charity sector, the vital work Oxfam is doing to end poverty, and the broader challenges faced by the sector.

Leading with Purpose: Oxfam interim CEO Aleema Shivji in conversation – PODCAST

Join us in this episode of Knowing Not For Profits, where we discuss Aleema Shivji’s personal journey to leadership in the charity sector, the vital work Oxfam is doing to end poverty, and the broader challenges faced by the sector.

Meet the authors

Ruth Wilkinson

Sustainability, Purpose and Impact Lead

Aleema Shivji

Chief Impact Officer

In this episode of Knowing Not for Profits, host Ruth Wilkinson sits down with Aleema Shivji to discuss the importance of stakeholder engagement, the complexities of corporate partnerships, and the evolving landscape of the not-for-profit sector. With a focus on measuring impact and the power of authentic storytelling, this conversation sheds light on the transformative work of Oxfam and the future of humanitarian efforts.

Listen here or read on for an edited transcript.

Welcome to Knowing Not for Profits, a podcast series where Clarasys consultants will be talking through some of the most pressing issues from the not for profit world. Bringing together thought leaders and industry experts to discuss their real life experiences on these topics. 

Ruth Wilkinson: Welcome I’m Ruth, I’m one of our Purpose and Impact leads at Clarasys, and my background pre-Clarasys has been in the charity sector, with my last role as Sustainability and Impact lead at a large UK children’s charity. And I’m delighted to be joined today by Aleema Shivji, the Interim CEO and Chief Impact Officer of Oxfam GB. Welcome Aleema. 

Aleema Shivji: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Ruth Wilkinson: In today’s episode, we’ll be hearing from Aleema about her journey to leadership in the charity sector, more about Oxfam’s work and the challenges that Oxfam and the sector as a whole are facing, and what they’re doing to tackle these challenges. So, to kick us off, we’d love to deep dive into Oxfam and your journey, Aleema, to your current role. So let’s hear about you and your journey so far. Are there any key moments that have led you here today? 

Aleema Shivji: I suppose the biggest key moment is actually my childhood. So I’m a first generation Muslim Canadian. My family has a history of migration originally from India with a migration movement to Eastern Africa, to Tanzania, and then to Canada in the seventies.

And I’m very aware through that journey, and I was increasingly, much more aware of the choices that my parents had in front of them when they moved to Canada. They left East Africa when things were going really, really south for Asians in Uganda, and there was a lot of worry and fear in neighbouring countries that the same might happen.

And so they were able to move to Canada, to a country that was very welcoming of migrants and refugees. And because we came from such a global background and quite a strong faith-based background, I’ve always been part of a global community. I’ve always known that I’m not just Canadian. I’m a Canadian woman, Muslim, global citizen with roots in two different continents outside of where I grew up. 

And I think that that was maybe not explicitly, and I don’t think I knew it at the time, but I think it was a real driver for where I am today in terms of understanding that not everybody has the choices that my parents had. Not everybody has the opportunities that therefore opened up for me. And I think that really was a driver for me of wanting to work as part of a global community, trying to solve global challenges and work and walk alongside people in different parts of the world. So that’s probably my starting point. 

From Physiotherapy to International Development: A Path to Leadership

Ruth Wilkinson: Wow. That’s amazingly powerful. I can just hear how that experience for you has been so core to kind of your purpose. How did that lead you to making kind of decisions around your career? 

Aleema Shivji: So interestingly, I think I never really thought about it from a career perspective and that I never really thought, oh, well, you know, I grew up fundraising. I grew up supporting both local and global initiatives. One of the big things when I was growing up in Canada was Jump Rope for Heart and we did skipathons and things that we were raising money for local issues.

At the same time, we were raising money to eradicate global poverty in Asia and Africa. But I never really thought about any of that as a career. It was just something you did alongside work. And I then trained as a physiotherapist. I suppose it came from probably my desire to support other people, help other people.

And it was a sort of a gradual transformation, this recognition that as a physiotherapist, I worked in Canada, I worked in Australia, I worked in New Zealand. There was a wider world out there. And maybe I could have more of an impact working in lower income countries with communities in poverty. And so it was a sort of gradual transition to working first in Asia.

I had an incredible opportunity to work with BRAC, which is one of the world’s largest NGOs based out of Bangladesh. And it really opened my eyes to the sort of world of international development, international solidarity.  And from there, I sort of worked in various roles. really bridging my physiotherapy background to the sort of international solidarity development world, mostly through engaging with people with disabilities, supporting people with disabilities.

And I suppose at the heart of it, ensuring that people with disabilities had their rights achieved, that they had voice and they had power. And I think that piece, that sort of baseline piece around inclusion, about voice, around power, is the golden thread right through to Oxfam, tied to my real passion and desire for systems change, that we can’t solve the world’s problems if we only look at small pieces.

We’ve got to sort of work collectively in a more systemic way. And that’s been a driver for me through every role that I’ve had, whether that was working on, you know, what’s the role of a funder in that space when I was at Comic Relief, the many, many years I spent at Humanity and Inclusion as an ally of the disability movement, being a founding trustee at the Start Network, where we’re really looking to transform the humanitarian system and various other pieces that have got me to where I am today at Oxfam.

Ruth Wilkinson: Wow. I think one of the things that made me reflect on is actually how you’ve lived and worked in many different places in the world. How far do you think that’s informed your kind of knowledge and understanding of that system piece and recognising the need of different organisations and to play different roles?

Aleema Shivji: I think it’s definitely informed me. I think it’s given me an opportunity to work alongside communities. I think one of the critical things I learned very early on, when I was working with BRAC is a real understanding and a real appreciation of the depth of capacity and knowledge and agency and support available in countries and communities.

You know, we often, when people are sort of being, I suppose, negative about the international development sector, sort of that sense of paternalism or that sense of I’m coming in to solve a problem, I think because my first experience was with a national organisation, it was very much, it was  I’m coming in as a Canadian to learn and I’m surrounded by these incredible, amazing Bangladeshi colleagues that are doing incredible work.

And I think that has always sort of stayed with me. You know, when I worked alongside disabled persons organisations, disability rights organisations, for me, it’s always been about being in partnership,  listening to them and doing what I can to enable and support. 

Ruth Wilkinson: Have you seen a shift, do you think, in not for profit organisations and other organisations thinking more in line with their beneficiaries and their stakeholder needs and kind of co-creating with them and working in partnership? Do you think some of those kind of challenges have existed in the past? And have you seen any change in that over time? 

Aleema Shivji: Well, I’d say the challenges still exist today, not just in the past. I think there is a change and I think part of it is there’s an increasing call from Global South civil society organisations saying, hang on a second, we know our communities, we know what our communities need, we’ve got solutions.

And we want a bigger state and this real challenge, therefore, to INGOs to change. And I think that’s coupled with other things like the horrific murder of George Floyd a few years ago, which has also led to a reckoning in many organisations around how does racism show up in our organisations and our societies.

And what does that mean specifically in the international aid sector, particularly with such a strong history of colonialism for many international organisations because of the societies from which we come, not least here in the UK? 

Ruth Wilkinson: Yeah, completely agree and agree that I’ve seen that, that shift, the language changing around it. Do you think that organisations are rising to that challenge? 

Aleema Shivji: I think many organisations are, and if I kind of bring it a little bit back to Oxfam, it’s the reason I wanted to join Oxfam. So I’ve only been at Oxfam for about 14 months now, I think, end of ‘22.  And really my desire to join Oxfam was because Oxfam was rising to the challenge.

You know, since I think 2020, we launched our strategy and it was very much centering the values of being anti racist, feminist, and safe. And really thinking about what does it mean to shift power? Both within the Oxfam movement, as well as alongside the thousands of partners that Oxfam works with, that are closer to the communities.

So I think there is a movement. I think it’s very uneven. I think there’s some of us that are actively leaning into this and actively acknowledging our history and history of the societies that we come from and wanting to be and do differently. And that’s really positive. And if you have that movement, others then follow as well.

And I definitely don’t think Oxfam’s at the front of it. So that’s not what I’m saying. I think it’s just, Oxfam is part of this movement of organisations that is.  

Oxfam’s Work and Approach to Ending Poverty

Ruth Wilkinson: Yeah, let’s talk a bit more about Oxfam. Obviously a lot of people will have heard of Oxfam and your mission to end poverty, which is obviously a colossal endeavour.

Is there anything you can share about how that purpose has evolved over time and kind of how you get your arms around it as chief impact officer and interim CEO? 

Aleema Shivji: I think, as you’ve said, you know, Oxfam’s mission is to have a world essentially free from poverty. And I think we’ve always, as I understand the history of Oxfam, we turned 80 not that long ago, it’s always been about challenging the systems  that hold people in poverty in different ways.

I think that has really strengthened.  And I think the nuance that’s come into that in the last period has been, we will never be able to eradicate poverty unless we can fight. and challenge the injustices and inequalities that fuel it. A really strong focus on what’s actually holding people in poverty.

A lot of it is inequality. A lot of it is injustice. And so until we start looking at all these power imbalances  and inequalities, we’re not going to resolve poverty. So really getting stronger on that and acknowledging, and that comes back to what we spoke about just a few minutes ago, is that we can’t change what we do unless we also change how we are operating as an organisation.

So there’s a piece around what we’re doing. externally,  trying to tackle some of the inequalities and injustices that fuel poverty, and also looking internally at how we actually operate as an organisation to be more in service of, and support local agency. In terms of how we’re kind of wrapping our arms around that, that’s a really good question. I like the way you framed that.  I think it’s acknowledging that we are part of a system of change,  that we need to work increasingly, and we do work increasingly in collaboration with others. To achieve more systemic change. It’s looking at where we can really amplify and use our voice. So we know, for example, that in the UK, there’s a lot of  very large private sector organisations.

I’m sure some of them are your partners and they have a very big global footprint. And one of the inequalities that fuels poverty is the treatment of people in the supply chain when the race is to have the cheapest  items on the shelves of Brighton or London or Newcastle.  And so we have an opportunity here in the UK to really hone a focus on challenging and also walking alongside corporations to change practices.

So that’s an example of where we’re sort of really leaning into areas where we feel that we can add value and using our voice as an organisation. 

Ruth Wilkinson: That I think, you know, we would completely agree with the drive there to try and change the system and the market through which the kind of true cost of goods and services is being passed off into people in communities that are marginalised, including nature. And I’m really interested to hear how your stakeholders respond to that kind of shift towards system change and maybe influencing market and lobbying change. Have your stakeholders kind of welcome that journey. And I’m talking kind of your donors, your board, your, you know, people that are really kind of probably often setting the direction of travel for philanthropic and NGO based organisations. 

Aleema Shivji: I definitely think we have a lot of support And it shows up in different ways. So a board that’s fully committed to our vision of a radically better world that is also kinder, fairer, more equal. That is definitely, we’re all supportive of our strategy and that’s really powerful. We’re all moving in the same direction.

I think in terms of stakeholders, it depends who we’re talking about. I think there are some donors and partners that are also on this journey. And so there’s an excitement about being on it together and learning from each other. There are others that know that the world is changing around them, and therefore they might not be leading that change, but they’re part of that change, whether they like it or not.

And so I think working with an organisation like Oxfam enables us to kind of also influence them as we go on the journey. I think interestingly, in terms of our sort of support from the UK public, We have incredible levels of support from the UK public and many of the people that support Oxfam are sort of global citizens.

You know, they’re people that really believe in what we believe and that there is a fairer, kinder, more equitable world possible. And whether that’s an alignment on the climate crisis and the work we’re doing on climate justice, or whether that’s the work that we’re doing to challenge economic models, or whether that’s speaking out in times of crisis, we have incredible support from our supporters. And I think part of it is having really clear messages and creating an enabling environment for people across the UK to feel like they can make a difference. 

Ruth Wilkinson: I’m so glad to hear you articulate it like that. I think that sounds really motivational. I guess one of the things that I’m reflecting on is that there will be people in corporates, particularly who have, you know, In the past supported charities like Oxfam when they themselves are contributing to the asset stripping of our nature and society.And so there is that tension I imagine of how do you navigate those corporates and support them to improve their impact? while also ensuring that you can continue to do the work that you’re doing almost to mitigate their impact. Have you seen that tension play out at all? 

Aleema Shivji: Maybe speaking to my broader experience, it’s because it’s not limited to Oxfam. I think that tension always plays out, and I think the key thing for every organisation is think about what are your ethical principles? Who do you want to work out with? Who do you want to call out? Sometimes they’re the same thing. Sometimes they’re different. What’s your role and your purpose? And who do you engage with where there’s enough value alignment? So that it feels like it’s a positive partnership and that together you can make bigger change. So that’s sort of my broader point on that. 

I think interestingly, a few years ago, Oxfam ran a campaign called Behind the Barcodes, and it was really looking at UK supermarkets and assessing them against a whole range of criteria, looking at supply chains, gender justice, equity, a number of different metrics. Very public campaign. And obviously it was a, you know, naming and shaming and naming and celebrating kind of exercise.  What’s been really interesting in that exercise is you then have partners, or you then have corporates who then come to us and say, well, okay, you know, you’ve named us. Can you help us move forward on our journey? And we’ve got examples of where actually that public behind the barcodes campaign has led to change in corporates. And some of that, we’ve walked alongside them and some of them, some of that we haven’t. So sometimes it is the right thing to do to sort of fall out. I think it’s also the right thing to do, not for every organisation, but certainly for Oxfam to say, “and we’ll, we’ll help you on your journey.”

Challenges facing the Not-For-Profit sector

Ruth Wilkinson: That’s amazing. Okay. So now I was thinking we could step back a little bit and think more broadly about the challenges that Oxfam and the INGO sector might be facing. What do you think those big challenges are right now and how are you tackling them? 

Aleema Shivji: So I think there’s a few, first of all, the world is on fire, as we all know. I mean, it’s not just the climate crisis, which is obviously devastating and really worrying for future generations and for us as well. There’s also issues around shrinking civic space and rollback of rights, fundamental rights, whether they’re women’s rights, whether it’s the LGBTQIA plus community in different parts of the world, a massive rollback of rights and increasingly  more crackdown on civil society organisations.

There’s so much conflict going on in the world. You know, I’ve just come off a call earlier around, you know, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Oxfam is very active in Palestine. We also are in a context, as we know, that we’ve got a cost of living crisis and spiralling costs, which affect not just people in the UK, but all around the world. And, and that’s also in a context where many governments are reducing their funding. So got a world on fire, more demands, less resources. That’s a huge challenge. What we’re also seeing is inequality has grown between what we call the global North and the global South for the first time in 25 years. So this sort of coming back to the sort of what’s driving poverty, inequalities are growing massively.

And then we’ve got a rightful demand from grassroots organisations around the world for Northern led international NGOs to change, to cede power, to decolonise, to rightfully return agency to communities. And that’s sort of in a context of persistent racial and gender injustice. You know, coming back to something we were talking about as we were preparing this, in the UK and in many parts of the world, we have a colonial legacy and we can’t ignore that history of where we’ve come from and many of the organisations that exist today were born out of the colonial legacy. Again, that is our history. We have to own it. And the question is, what do we do with that? And so I think there’s also this sort of reckoning within organisations and by others towards us of what are you doing about the legacy of colonialism? What are you doing to decolonise? What are you doing to tackle the racist structures and systems that exist in our societies and, therefore, in the organisations that operate within them? So there are a lot of really big challenges. Some of these also apply very relevantly for UK-facing organisations as well. Some of them slightly more international facing. 

Ruth Wilkinson: Yeah, I completely agree and can see those huge challenges organisations are facing. And I think it’s incredible that you’re able to kind of articulate that, explore what those look like for you.And that means that you’re more likely to be able to make transformation within the organisation to tackle those challenges.  One of the things I’m really interested to understand is how do you kind of measure that transformation and or communicate, explore it, share it with your stakeholders and report on it, especially as you may be kind of challenged around what you put out in kind of PR and marketing that you might be washing, you know, greenwashing, purpose washing, however you, you know,  misrepresenting basically the efforts. How do you do that authentically? 

Aleema Shivji: It’s a really good question and I don’t think there’s a really simple answer. I think the type of work we’re talking about is, again, very systemic, very transformative, and very much we are contributing to that. to change. We’re not driving the change on our own. I’m quite a fan of the contribution, not attribution approach, so acknowledging that we contribute to something wider. So I think that’s part of maybe the measurement piece is where are we contributing? One of the things that we use in our learning agenda is what we call signs of change. They’re trying to identify where are signs of change that we think we’ve contributed to. 

I was talking to one of my peers in Brazil not that long ago, and she was talking about an activist that Oxfam supported years and years ago that is now an MP in Brazil, and we engaged with her at a very young age. Do we think that it’s because of us that she’s an MP? No, but we’d like to think that maybe something that we did was part of what’s taken her on her journey.

We’ve got countless examples like that in Zimbabwe. There’s been lots of work happening on looking at what a more sort of feminist approach to policy would be, something that shifts the narrative around care work, which is a very feminised industry. And, you know, government is now asking for support from Oxfam and its partners to think about policy.

That’s an example of where, again, we’re not the only voice on that topic. We’re one of those voices, but it’s an example of a sign of change. So I think that’s something we’re trying to do more and more.  I think there’s also something, so we’re part of a thing called the Pledge for Change and the Pledge for Change, I think we’ve got 16 signatories now, and it’s essentially a southern led initiative led by an organisation called ADESO,  the small organisation that is working alongside, or challenging us and working alongside international NGOs to change, change how we do things.

So for example, there’s a real, one of the pledges we’ve all made is to have more equitable partnerships with our partners. We have another pledger on authentic storytelling and through that, we’ve been talking about, well, how do you measure that? And one of the things I’m really excited about is that it’s not just about us measuring ourselves, but it’s others actually looking at us.

So one of the things we’re thinking about right now and progressing on is the stories that we tell, the narratives that we share publicly, the campaigns that we run, having some of our partners from the global South actually reviewing them, looking at them, measuring them and saying, well, actually, yeah, we think this is authentic. We think you are telling our story authentically, you’re not putting your name first, that sort of thing. So I think there’s different ways that we’re looking at that.  I think then there’s the piece around, you know, that’s all of that is quite outward facing. I think the critical thing is that we can’t change the world outside if we don’t also change the world inside.

And that’s really important to Oxfam that we’ve got to walk the walk internally. So when I think about some of our work on racial justice and decolonising, we haven’t quite worked out what the measurements are yet, but we’re thinking about how do we actually demonstrate that as an organisation, we are changing how we do things for the better. So Oxfam’s a very large confederated organisation. It has a wider family. There’s a footprint in around 80 countries. It has 21 affiliate members, Oxfam GB being one of them. And so one of the things that actually sits in my substantive team that they lead on is sort of  the feedback we get from the countries that we support.

And what we want is for them to think of us as a partner of choice. That they want to come to Oxfam GB to partner with them on various things that they’re leading on. And so I think, again, it’s about a number of different ways of measuring progress, maybe not always about impact. It all leads towards impact, I think, but it’s how do we demonstrate that we are shifting over time?

Ruth Wilkinson: Yeah, I completely see that need for the authentic voice of the people that you’re working with and alongside telling your story and the impact that you’re having and the outcomes you’re helping deliver, and I love that idea of contribution, not attribution. So often we talk about attributing outcomes for impact and it is, we always say that you’ve got a little slice in the big pie of change. 

I guess one of the challenges that I imagine is playing out and from my background, I was fundraising in the charity sector, is that traditional funders and donors and the public want to see emotional stories. They want to see you churn out amazing impact measures, and demonstrate kind of your change, your creating and your name stamped on things so that they can feel confident they’re donating to the right cause and so that they can compare it amongst what might be considered kind of competing causes.

And that’s really difficult to play within that space. And also, as you’re saying about the need for systemic change, that there must be a tension between the two, you know, authentically talking about your impact while still fundraising and garnering support from stakeholders. How do you see that tension playing out and what does that look like?

Stakeholder Engagement and Corporate Partnerships

Aleema Shivji: So I think a couple of things that we’ve been doing and trying at Oxfam. Looking back to the one year anniversary of the Ukraine conflict, which is now a while back, but I’m thinking about it because I was talking about Ukraine just this morning, is the video that we used that we shared with our supporters, the majority of it is in the voice of our partners.

Every single partner is named. which is not something Oxfam would have done years ago. It would have sort of attributed all the change to itself, even though it was probably already working with partners. Again, I’m making a supposition here, but that’s probably a wider charity sector approach that I’ve definitely seen.

And today, many of the stories we share with our donors are first hand from our partners. So that’s a change that we’re making. So they’re still getting Stories that tell them of what’s actually happening, but they’re getting it firsthand from the partners that are actually doing the work that we are enabling and supporting through the resources we can raise and the support we put around them. So that’s an example of where we’re trying to change. We spoke earlier about sort of donors, maybe larger donors. I think it’s about taking them on the journey with us. So colleagues in our strategic partnerships team really work and walk alongside our stakeholder partners to explain to them what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, why it’s important and how they can be part of that journey. 

And when you bring them along on the journey, it’s very hard to, you know, sort of say, well,  I think you should be doing direct delivery or whatever that is. I think they do support that. And sometimes you might have a partner that says that this isn’t for me and that’s okay too, because I’m not sure it’s the right thing to partner with somebody where the values are potentially not aligned. So I think we are able to take our stakeholders on the journey with us. 

I think the third thing I would say is that we’re also coming back to the UK general public. Like every charity, I think it’s really important that we’re very clear who is our target audience. Who do we think actually wants to engage with our cause and our mission and our purpose? And really tailoring our communications, our messaging to connect with those individuals. And so for us, we connect mostly with people who have a global outlook, who are engaged in global issues and who want to see bigger change happen.  That’s not for everybody and that’s okay.There’s millions of people in this country and it’s about being really clear about who we’re trying to engage with and they’re supporting our messaging. 

Ruth Wilkinson: That’s really useful and interesting, I think a reflection on how charities can operate and can speak to their audiences and many organisations I’ve seen not take that stance in the face of very competitive and challenging environments for funding for not for profits.

A question I’m really intrigued by is how do you identify where and what in the system you want to change when so much is already happening? How do you find your role that you have the kind of most unique strategic contribution to? 

Aleema Shivji: That is a really good question. I think there’s something around clarity of purpose, which is really important. And some of that needs to tie to where’s your history as an organisation, so these are more general comments. They apply to Oxfam, but I would say they would apply to anybody operating in our sector is, you know, what’s your history as an organisation? What are you known for? What is the world’s asking of you? Where do the opportunities lie? How do you bring all of those things together so that you can have a clarity of purpose?

And for some organisations that will be very, very, very narrow. And that’s the right thing for them. I think because we’ve always been about fighting poverty, we’ve taken a stance that if we’re going to tackle it, we need to tackle the injustices and inequalities that fuel that, which naturally takes you to a very wide mandate.

And I think what we’ve sort of looked at to say, okay, where can we add the most value? So we know that we can add value in the areas of economic justice. We know that we can add value on climate justice. We know that we can add value on gender justice and being really clear on our added value.

And then, I mean, that’s very global, then it’s about being contextual to where we’re operating. So, you know, what Oxfam looks like in Kenya will probably look very different to what Oxfam looks like in Iraq and what Oxfam here in the UK looks like in terms of our domestic work. So it’s about understanding your context as well and where the opportunities lie.

Measuring Impact and Transformation

Ruth Wilkinson: Yeah, that makes complete sense. You just said that we know we add value in specific areas. How do you know, how do you measure? We talked about sort of telling stories authentically from your partners and beneficiaries, talking about the work that you do with them. Do you try and measure your impact, kind of quantify it, or qualitatively track it? So how do you know you’re measuring value? And have you ever used that information to shift away from something or towards something else? 

Aleema Shivji: So we’re increasingly using a methodology called signs of change. which is really around how are we capturing the stories of change that we think we’re contributing to. So I suppose it speaks a bit to what we spoke about earlier, which is this idea of contribution or attribution. Yes, there are some hard numbers as well, in terms of number of people reached in a particular context, particularly when there’s a crisis going on. There are obviously some hard numbers and sometimes that is useful. 

I think increasingly we’re trying to measure things in a more nuanced way. So as an example, one of the things that in Oxfam GB we are piloting is a women’s rights fund and it’s providing core unrestricted funding to women’s rights organisations. So we’re very much on their terms. And one of the measures of success of that is how much money they are unlocking from other funders. 

Now we don’t directly contribute to that. We don’t work with them to find other funding necessarily, unless they ask us to support them. But it’s a really good sort of  way of women’s rights organisations themselves demonstrating their sustainability. So it’s sort of thinking differently. There isn’t one answer.

I think that would be my key message is that we have to feel comfortable that there isn’t one proxy indicator or measure of progress.  And depending on what you’re working on, you might have different ways of measuring that things are progressing and that you’re achieving impact.

Ruth Wilkinson: That makes a lot of sense, but I think I’ve seen a demand for kind of methodology that all organisations that do kind of purpose work can use to track their impact and can compare against each other. So it does make it tricky. Do you think there’s a possibility of a future where we could build a methodology as a purpose-led organisation, kind of community to be able to consider impact as a whole and aggregate that thinking? 

Aleema Shivji: In an ideal world, that would be amazing. Is that practical? Does that make sense when there’s such a diversity of not for profits  doing very different things and many for profit organisations, companies also operating in the purpose led space as well? I don’t know is my honest answer actually. I’m not even sure it’s the right thing to do because again, we are such a diverse group of organisations working in so many different ways with communities and people in so many different ways. I think certainly coming back to the Pledge for Change, as I mentioned earlier, we are testing a number of ways of learning and getting feedback collectively, and there might be some gems that might come out of that. So I mentioned earlier having global self organisations look at our storytelling. We’re also looking at how we can test different ways of getting feedback from our partners on how we’re doing. Some of that I think could lead to some broader approaches that, hopefully more and more organisations can join onto.

I suppose my only caveat is  we need to make sure that it doesn’t become so simplified that it actually hides the important detail. That is really about the change we’re seeking and making,  or contributing to. 

Ruth Wilkinson: I completely agree. And I was sort of provoking a little bit, because I agree that that has huge danger behind it if we simplify it too far, we lose the nuance and the depth that people will have achieved.

I think coming towards the end of our conversation now, I really wanted to know, is there anything you’d like to see the not for profit sector or the international sector doing specifically? Is there any advice that you’d give or anything that you’d really love to see the sector moving towards? 

The Future of the Not for Profit Sector

Aleema Shivji: I think what I would say is that the system within which we operate needs to change if communities are truly going to be the owners, leaders, and shapers of the solutions that work for them. And then there’s all these layers around that and therefore we all need to lean into what needs to change. And it’s not just for the sector, I think some of your listeners are in the private sector and you’ve got public sector as well. We all need to change. Many organisations, Oxfam included, get money from institutions like the UK government or the United Nations or, you know, other institutions, and operate in a wider system. Every layer of that system needs to change if we’re truly going to be able to support and enable communities. So I think it’s everybody to look at what’s their role in this system. And, you know, we’ve been speaking a little bit more about not for profits, but there’s also massive changes that need to be made in the global debt system, international financial institutions, taxation, you know, that we could have a whole other podcast on all those topics. 

But change and transformation is hard.  We feel it at Oxfam. It’s not a linear, simple journey. There isn’t just one answer. It’s about innovating, trying things, testing things, learning. It’s hard and it’s painful. It can also be really exciting. And it’s about leaning into that transformation and leaning into the uncertainty, not being scared of it and just jumping in and trying to change. 

One other point that I would also like to make is that it’s really important to listen, engage with your people and with your partners and with communities. Really listen and understand where they’re coming from, what they’re looking for, and lean into that. We haven’t spent much time on this podcast, talking about our people, but ultimately organisations, we are people. And I suppose as an organisation that signs up to and really believes in the feminist principles. It is about really working alongside our colleagues and our partners. There are loads of brilliant ideas sitting in organisations and in our partners and,  and it’s about all of us working together and listening to each other.

Ruth Wilkinson: I think humankind, that’s super natural to do. But when we come to work, I think we often shed that. And we believe that we have these roles to tell and sell. Rather than listen and learn, we sort of artificially generate this, I need to tell and sell as part of my job and as part of my interaction with people at work. We’re part of a community of practice called the purpose in practice, community of businesses, trying to be more purpose led, and something that we did around shared understanding was explore this kind of model of moving from tell and sell, to listen and learn. And it was something that was so clearly identified that was required to authentically deliver for your purpose. So couldn’t agree more, and I’m really glad that you raised that point. 

Okay. That’s all we have time for today with Aleema. So grateful to you for coming in. I think some of the key takeaways for me that you shared that were really powerful is around how you as an organisation have considered the system you’re operating within, and use the learnings that you’ve had to help define and refine your work to identify the need within the system and where you have a really unique role to play in making change. And I think building on that,, you shared that piece around how important it is to listen to your partners, to your people, to the beneficiaries that you’re working with and using that learning that you get from the listening exercise to help you. Design work that the ideas will come from out there, they don’t need to come from within the organisation necessarily. And then the link you made when we talked about measuring impact and sharing impact and telling an authentic story of the difference your organisation is making. That was so powerful for me that you’re actually using that listening exercise and sharing what you heard straight through.

You’re not sort of applying your own narrative. You’re not telling your own story. Others are telling your story for you. Straight to your donors, straight to your stakeholders. That allows them to understand your work and your impact, you to know that you’re doing what you’re doing well and where you’re going to grow and change, and hopefully continuing to garner that support to do what you do best.

And the final bit that you shared around transformation and how hard it can be and how kind of daunting it is. I guess I’d just love to finish this podcast by asking you what’s great about transformation, what feels really good when you’re doing it? 

Aleema Shivji: I think what feels really good is when you have colleagues and partners saying, we see the change, we see the impact of these transformations you’re making. That is the best feedback you could ever get. I think what’s also great is it keeps us on our toes. We learn every day through transformation. It helps us challenge our own mindsets and our approach to things. Now, some people love that. Some people don’t. I think it’s really powerful. 

Ruth Wilkinson: That’s amazing. Thank you so much, Aleema.

That is definitely all we have time for. Thank you so much for listening. Please do join us for another Knowing Not for Profits podcast. And if you’d like to find out more about Oxfam, have a look at their website. They have their strategy documents live on there and lots of stories as you’ve heard from Aleema as shared publicly on the website. 

Thank you so much, Aleema. 

Aleema Shivji: My pleasure. 

Thank you for listening to Knowing Not for Profits. We hope you enjoyed it and look forward to welcoming you back on our next episode.  If you have a topic that you would like covered on the show or want more information on the topics discussed, please drop us an email at podcast@clarasys.com. We’d love to hear from you. 

You might also like