From charity to teacher, Oxfam sets sights on MBAs

Oxfam believes its ethical workshops will influence future generations of business leaders

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Oxfam charity shops are an everyday sight along Britain’s high streets, but for Park Won Soon, a Korean studying at the London School of Economics and Political Science, they were a revelation. Inspired by the charity shops he passed on his daily commute to the LSE, Mr Park took the idea of recycling donated goods and clothing for sale and started Beautiful Store. The charity chain introduced fair trade products to South Korea and now operates 105 shops in the country, with 300 paid staff, 5,000 volunteers and an annual income of about $20m.

Now, almost 20 years later, it is Mr Park’s turn to inspire, prompting Oxfam to develop ethical trade workshops for MBA students in UK business schools, with a particular focus on overseas students. The non-
government organisation hopes that by targeting the next generation of business leaders, it can influence them to make good decisions on ethical issues – from global supply chains to alleviating poverty – when, like Mr Park, they return home.

The workshop is already a core component of Oxford Brookes’ MBA but Oxfam says it is also in discussions to take the workshop to London Business School, Judge, Saïd, Ashridge, Cass and Nottingham University Business School.

Led by Oxfam ethical trade manager Rachel Wilshaw, the Oxford Brookes workshop introduces MBA students to the concepts and benefits of fair and ethical trade and uses case studies of businesses that have faced issues on product labelling, risk assessments and responsibilities.

Students learn how to read product information critically from a consumer’s point of view, they study ethical risk management and how, in practice, supply chain managers assess multiple suppliers, often scattered across the globe with limited direct contact.

Dan Ganly, MBA programme director at Oxford Brookes, says: “We see its significance as being so important that we have asked Oxfam to deliver the same workshop to our MBA alumni as we feel they may have missed out on a really important part of their development. We believe that if we can influence the values of our MBA students – who come from more than 60 countries – then we can influence their behaviour when it comes to making decisions about procurement.”

This is the first time Oxfam has worked directly on teaching inside business schools. David McCullough, Oxfam’s trading director, says it is the result of a change in board-level strategy (see box).

“Like lots of other NGOs, we’re shifting towards working with, rather than against, the private sector since it is the private sector that creates wealth and jobs,” he says. “If we could influence the way business leaders carry out their business, that would have great impact.”

The idea for an MBA workshop, says Mr McCullough, grew out of conversations with Mr Park – with whom Oxfam has had a working partnership since 2002 – and Mike Kelly, a former director of Alcan who has worked as an Oxfam volunteer.

“We decided that influencing business students’ thought processes was a good place to start. And when they return home, we’re hoping for some kind of multiplier effect,” says Mr McCullough. “It’s a very long-term strategy but it could have a profound impact on a new generation of leaders in the economic powerhouses of the next 20 to 30 years. Oxfam works with major international supermarkets and retailers to improve their supply chains and build factories that are not only more productive but have a higher degree of ethical standards and give workers a living wage. So we have lots of practical examples we can tell students about.”

He admits encountering a few raised eyebrows when Oxfam started knocking on business school doors.

“Some people within the business community haven’t caught up with how far NGOs have travelled in recent years or the proportion of people with serious business experience who now work at senior levels of NGOs,” says Mr McCullough.

“But the business schools seem to like our ability to connect the ethical issues with a voice that understands business, while the students are always fascinated by how small changes can make a substantial difference – how a few thousand pounds in factories can leverage changes for thousands of people.”

Sharon King, who worked in marketing and strategy roles before taking an MBA at Oxford Brookes, says the workshop illustrated “how difficult it can be to tell what is ‘ethically good’ as many companies’ labels are not clear”. She suggests the workshop could be refined. “It would also be interesting to have businesses represented at the workshop, highlighting the changes they made and the resulting costs and benefits to their businesses of cleaning up their supply chain – and what they do to maintain those standards.”

Knowledge-sharing partnerships with business schools are a good way for NGOs to develop too, says Mr Park. “Many NGOs are small in terms of staff and budget. But capacity-building through partnerships such as knowledge-sharing or specialised programmes are a good method for NGOs to improve themselves.”

Mr Park is best known in South Korea for his challenge to individuals and companies to donate 1 per cent of their income or time to a charitable cause of their choice. To date, more than 26,000 people have signed the pledge. “We call it geumulko in Korean – everyone and everything in the world is linked together and
cannot exist without each other.

“Alone, an NGO cannot do anything,” says Mr Park, who is now social director at the Hope Institute think-tank. “Sharing knowledge is sometimes even more powerful than sharing money – though sharing cash is still very useful.”

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