William Stubbs On Defining Your Impact And How This Is Different To Your Outputs
William Stubbs is co-founder and Director of SPUR; a group of companies working towards a world that is fair, sustainable and well - including award-winning non-profit SPUR:PROJECTS and social impact strategy house SPUR:LABS.
SPUR:’s work focuses on understanding what drives human behaviour and shifting societies and communities towards better, measurable social outcomes. This work spans mental health, sustainability and civil rights.
This has included developing the world’s first real time mental health survey that tracked the emotions of 11,000 participants around the globe to construct and open-source database of mental health data, developing impact metrics for WWF’s Earth Hour campaign or developing a low-cost mental health aid kit for refugee camps.
William discusses why if you can’t measure your impact, he’d have to assume it’s not achieved, as well as providing insights into how he is trying to create a world that is fair, sustainable and well.
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Amedeo Watson] - To start things off could you please share a bit about your background and what led you down the path of social impact strategy? [2:18]
[William Stubbs] - That's an interesting question. I don't really know how I got here to be honest. It was never an intention. I think if you asked me in my early twenties or in my teen years what I wanted to be, this would not have been it. I think it was an accident that I fell into what I do, but a very happy one. I actually love what I do. I can't imagine being anything else. Basically, it came about when I was a kid - about 12. I got quite sick. I became quite depressed - quite chronically really - and became suicidal. I almost took my own life. But then I was quite lucky to get through that and to recover. Then in my early twenties, with that far behind me, I was introduced to a friend of a friend called Lee Crockford. Lee and a few other young guys in Brisbane had an idea to create a campaign to tackle mens suicide.
In Australia, if you're a man aged 14 to 44, the number one way that you will die is from suicide. So this mutual friend had known about my experience - I divulged that to him and he said, 'hey you should get involved. You should think about using that for something,' and I said, 'sure. Happy to give it a crack'. I thought I'd be doing something behind the scenes, but ended up as the face of the initial campaign called 'Soften the Fuck Up' and that campaign was aimed at getting young men in particular to reject the problematic teaching of masculinity, which is to be overly stoic, and instead understand that you can actually be soft at times and you have to seek help.
So we approached this campaign pretty much the opposite of every other campaign that was out there at the time. Most things were black and whites. They were very serious in tone. They were very clinical. Instead, we went from the angle of bright and bold colors, strong language in a way to identify and relate to the target demographic. That was the start of it and I think I really had no idea at that point that this would become my career, my passion, my life's work I suppose. Though who knows where I'll end up in another 30 years. So we loved that campaign. People loved the campaign. We developed a strong online following. We won some awards, but then we sat back and we looked at the campaign. We thought, ‘well, it's a good campaign.’ You know, it has a great name. It was quite engaging. People liked it. We wanted to share it and it reached millions. We had international news coverage, but what did it actually achieve?
We received some messages from individuals telling us that they were close to suicide or they were thinking about suicide and they saw this campaign and it stopped them from taking that action and saved their life. That meant so much, but those anecdotal stories were the only real impact measurement that we could see. So we decided to refocus the work that our then organisation - SPUR:PROJECTS - was going to undertake and made sure that every campaign or project we did henceforth was going to be very, very much focused on measuring the impact that we do. That then led to six plus years of running our own campaigns until we launched our consultancy SPUR:LABS. I think what we didn't realise at the time was that being self-funded and not having all the resources meant that for every campaign that we did we had to have a fairly solid expectation or understanding of what we were doing and how it was going to create an impact, how we could demonstrate that - because we didn't have the budget to redo it the next year.
That ended up meaning that I would have a really, really good education in practice of how to design social change campaigns and also how to design social impact measurement strategies, which has now led to the work across both organisations being solely around changing behaviour en masse for social good and then demonstrating that impact. So now we create our own campaigns through our non-profit, and we work with clients through our consultancy house - ranging from WWF, to government, to Anglicare. Whatever the issue is, as long as it's social impact focused and we can change that through behaviour, we'll take it on.
That's really interesting work. I'd love to hear more about SPUR: - specifically, what do you define as the organisation's purpose and vision?
Sure. So whenever I talk to anybody about what SPUR: does - and I refer to SPUR: meaning both the non-profit and the consultancy firm - it is important to note that all the work that we do through the consultancy is focused on social impact. At least five percent of revenue is devoted to the charity straight away, as well as 20 percent of employee time. So they're very, very much closely interlinked as organisations. The mission of the whole group though, is to create a world that is fair, sustainable and well. The reason that we chose those three goals is that when you look at the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the kind of work that we've done in the past or what we thought were the major challenges facing society in the world, it really comes down to those three things.
Fair in the sense of do we have equal opportunities for everybody? Do we have access to civil rights, gender equality, LGBT rights and so on? Do we have open processes for elections, for instance. Sustainable in terms of both environmental sustainability (i.e. are we taking more from the world than we are putting into it? Are we protecting our reefs, our forests and so on), as well as financial sustainability.
One of the big challenges for a non-profit is that especially these days you aren't guaranteed that you're going to have a budget and so a big question that we've seen for a lot of our non-profit clients is, well, how do I make my work more sustainable while still creating impact?
Then finally, Well, which really comes down to prosperity and health. So whether it's mental health and trying to reduce the suicide rate, or improving the health of children in developing countries or even mental health of people who are still in displacement camps around the world - it's those three goals that every single project that we take on in either of our organisations has to be contributing to in some degree. It has to push that needle forward. Otherwise we just won’t take it on.
I'd love to zone in on one of those three goals that you just mentioned. Sustainability. You were talking about sustainability in the environmental sense, and in the financial sense - an organisations ability to 'sustain' itself financially. In this world of social impact and social entrepreneurship, there is quite a stigmatism around 'making money' and that making money is 'bad'. What are your thoughts on that sort of thing and where does that thinking come from? [09:01]
I think there's a lot to unpack there from a cultural psychology, zeitgeist perspective of doing good means piousness and means that you should be giving. I think there's a lot there. That will take a long time to really unpack it is quite a sensitive issue, but I would say there is a strong theme theme that if you're doing good, then you should be struggling. Which to me is crazy.
I think a lot of nonprofits struggle with the concept of how do to do good while ensuring that you have the revenue to do good.
So let's say you're a hypothetical non-profit and you are just getting by in terms of your budget and let's say you're planting trees. You're planting trees and your budget this year means that you've been able to to cover your quota for 100 trees planted and next year you're hoping to get that same budget again. Well that's limiting how many trees you can actually plant.
So one or two things have to happen. You need to either look at your model for how you're planting trees and figure out how you can actually increase the efficiency of that, or look at how you're actually receiving revenue and increase that in some way so you can plant more trees. Otherwise you're capping your potential impact. That to me, is critical to understand.
Your resources - in most cases your revenue, your capital - is directly, indelibly linked to your impact. The more resources you have, typically the greater impact that you can have. So I think the challenge for the non-profits is to understand that you can't put impact above revenue, and you can't put revenue above impact. They have to go hand in hand.
Otherwise, and you see it in a lot of nonprofits now in the wake of the NDIS changes that are struggling and may not exist in a couple of years, which then means that those at their service, whether individuals, communities or parts of the environment will suffer.
I think you're right in that there is a stigma, as well as I think there's a 'Badge of Honour' to be the martyr or to be struggling in that sense and I understand that. I really do. I think it took us a long time to wrap our heads around that as well, which is where we realise that we've been asked a lot for advice on. 'Hey, how did you do that campaign non-profit?' People would buy us lunch and ask for advice. Then we realised we should probably be charging for that and then if we could charge for that, wouldn't that mean it would be much easier to fund the work that we're doing? Well, okay, we can do that and then the question is also, well, if we weren't charging for advice, what sort of work would we do that for? And so it became quite clear for us that the only clients work that we'll take on through our consultancy is social impact focused.
That means that we are doing good by taking on client work. That means that the money that we receive for doing that work allows us to pay bills and eat which is pretty important. But that also means that we can do the work that we'd love to do through our non-profit as well. And so it's a virtuous cycle in that sense. Being self funded in a nonprofit (or primarily self funded, I should say we've had some donations, we've had some sponsorship over the years but it's primarily self funded) means that we can try things that are more experimental. Things like the global mental health survey - nobody had done that before. If you're receiving funding, you tend to have your options limited and they want to see safety in your ideas, which means that innovation in the space is rarely seen.
So I guess my point is that if you are not thinking seriously about your revenue, then your expiration date is probably quite set. If you're receiving government funding for instance, and there is a government change, you can't control that. Then what are you going to go?
You are going to wake up and you won't have a budget for next year. If you're corporate sponsors no longer see the value in what you're doing and they take that away - you have challenges. If I were starting our non-profit over again and I was going back eight years to when we started, I probably would take a very different approach in those first few years about understanding how do we maintain our sustainability. How do we make sure that we have the biggest impact we possibly can? Because that requires resources. I would 100 percent admit every organisation is different in terms of how it raises revenue, how it sustains its impact work. So there's not an easy solution for everybody, but it is something I think we need to pay more attention to.
That's the financial side of the coin. I'd love to hear more on the impact side of the coin. Nowadays in the commercial world there's a lot of ‘impact washing’ or ‘purpose washing’ going on. What is real impact? What do you define as impact? [14:22]
That's a big question.
I think it comes down to a core understanding that what outputs your work creates or organisation creates is not your impact. So if you tell me for instance that you have built 100 wells in regional parts of the country, then I don't really care. That isn't an impact. That is an output.
It's an outcome of what work you've undertaken. If you tell me that you built 100 wells, my next question would be how many people have been drinking from each well? How much water do they get? How clean is the water? Why are you building these wells? Do they lack clean water in the first instance? If you drill it down, it probably is going to end up in the case that you're trying to reduce water borne disease in that region, in which case I'd want to know over time, and I'm talking over years, how have those waterborne disease instances reduced?
So I think from my perspective, from the perspective of this work that we do, impact is a long-term distinct improvement in the issue you're trying to tackle.
It is not something that is easily measurable as your social media engagement or your social media reach. How many people turned up to an event is not impact. Impact is not how many books that you provided for a school. Impact rather, is how many people have changed their behaviour over the longterm because of your work for the betterment of society or for their health or for whatever is the doing. How many kids have graduated from that school that you supported? How many people have changed their behaviour after going to that event? Perhaps if your event is immunisation or vaccine production, how many people have not died from Meningococcal?
This is hard, I will absolutely admit that. I guess it's why we do what we do, but it isn't as simple as telling me you've had a million people like your page. That's not impact.
The difficult thing is that if you want to see real impact, it takes time to measure it.
It also takes an understanding of what is causing that issue in the first place and all the factors that are impacted.
That brings me to the next question I had around the impact. Impact is arguably this very abstract thing that is hard to measure and I've seen that one of SPUR's beliefs is that 'if you can't measure it. It didn't happen'. Could you elaborate on this? [17:12]
Some would say it's a little bit controversial. I would actually just step back a little bit to what you said about impact being abstract. I would disagree. I'd say impact is actually quite clear. Is the situation better or not? So if you look at Gavi, an organisation set up by Bill Gates and a few other stakeholders to provide vaccines, their impact is pretty straightforward. If you provide X number of vaccines and you vaccinated X number of kids for disease Y, then your impact is the number of kids who have not died from disease Y over the next 10 years. That's not abstract, that's pretty clear-cut.
I think where impact can become murky is let's say you provided textbooks to a school for girls, in a region where girls wouldn't otherwise receive education. Your impact would be directly linked to how many girls then graduate from that school, but you're not the only one doing that, right? You're going to have teachers there. You're going to have people fund the school. So yes, that's when it can be tricky to figure out, well how much of an impact did I have? How much can I actually say 'that's because of me'? That's where it becomes tricky. There are ways to do that, but yes, it is tricky to pinpoint sometimes, depending on the situation.
In terms of 'if you can't measure it, it didn’t happen'. Yeah, we would absolutely agree and put forth that statement regularly. Thinking about what you said before about ‘impact washing’, I don't think that it's in the vast majority intentional. I think that it's hard to demonstrate your impact. So it's easier to guess or point to things that are more outputs or outcomes than actual impact. Whereas from our perspective, if you are doing something that you're hoping is going to improve the world and you can't give any concrete statistics and measurements to tell me that it has improved the world, then as far as you know, it hasn't improved. We would say maybe take a step back, look at what you're doing and understand - are you investing far more resources than you actually need to do that? Are you investing those resources for no real return?
Take the wells as an example - you spent all this time and money to build these wells and nobody's using it because of a cultural situation, a misunderstanding or educational problem that you weren't aware of. So the wells are just sitting there and you're telling me quite proudly that you built 100 wells that aren't being used. Then you're impact hasn't happened. But unless you measure the usage, then you would never know.
So yes from our perspective, if you can't measure your impact, we would have to assume its not achieved.
Fortunately though, now we are seeing a number of organisations having an impact, and making a real conscious effort to measure their impact. Why do you think that is occurring, that organisations are looking at their impact? How is strategy changing? [20:42]
That is a really, really good question and I agree. I think more and more it's necessary and it's considered really important to measure impact. I think a couple of things are happening. One - those are involved in impact investment and funding social change issues are asking for it. It all comes down to those that have entered the space, or a lot of the people in the space at least come from different backgrounds where it’s not just about wanting to feel good or tick a box, but it’s really about 'look, I've got money, but I want to know that my investment, which is a social impact investment, will have a social return. So tell me what I am getting back, or what society is getting back for that money'. Whereas I think in years past it was a 'look, we'll just assume that's going to happen'.
I think the second thing that's happening is that we have the tools and the resources to properly track that information. The world of data that we live in means that you can actually define what is actually happening. And so we just have better skills and tools for it.
I think the third thing is that... well, I would say that I hate the word disruption because it has been used to death in the startup and technology world - impact is now I think starting to become the new 'disruption'.
In the sense that there is this wonderful emergence of people who want something greater in their lives than just making money and building a startup. And that is fine, and I would say that with a strong asterix that there is nothing wrong with making money and building a startup. It's necessary for society. But more and more companies, more and more individuals are now interested in having an impact. So they are not only bringing in a new perspective on impact in terms of how through running a business you want to know what social return your impact investment is having, but they're also competing with each other. You could swing a cat now and hit a gazillion different mental health organisations now. Whereas when we started there were far, far fewer. So if you're in a sector where you are competing, you probably have a lot more pressure on you to actually demonstrate what you're doing. I think it's the combination of those three things... there are probably more but I'm not smart enough to identify them. But I think it’s just a very different landscape to what it was probably in that last decade.
That’s a really good lens over the private sector. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the public sector. What role do you think government plays in empowering individuals leading organisations and creating projects for impact? [23:54]
You know I think that is tricky. I've had a few debates with people recently about the role of nonprofits, government and corporates in the future of impact and 'world-bettering'. I would just put it simply as the world is in a much better place than it ever has been. If you look at a lot of the statistics around child mortality, poverty... everything you can really think of, things are almost all better. Things are good, but still kind of shit. The shit parts of the world, which are rather difficult to fix, are also problems that are quite complex and quite ingrained into our society in ways that are very hard to undo.
If you look at, for instance, the number of coffee cups that are consumed every single day; the number of single-use plastics that are clogging up our rivers and degrading all of our oceans, that are through species of fish we have (or what we have left). To change how the world consumes and uses plastic, I cannot see a government achieving. That is going to take a multi-stakeholder, cross-collaboration to achieve. To change that - much of what is considered normal but is inherently damaging - a government cannot do alone. A government cannot make legislation that bans those coffee cups and single use plastics and expect that the world is going to be cool with it. You're going to need corporates to come up with new ideas of how to provide those solutions.
I think similarly you’re going to need corporates to work with government on innovation and new ideas that government won't even see coming, and that then this will be released and will be a great idea on creating change.
I think the age of just relying on government to solve all the problems in the world is either gone or its quickly going. I think government should always be there - I mean it’s government, it should be in the best interest of the people. But it needs help.
And I think the future of the planet, if we go the good way where we all survive and we all have a good time and things aren't terrible, is going to rely on corporates being active, participating, corporate citizens. But the guiding star I think should remain as government, because it is impartial.
You’ve travelled quite extensively through your work, and you are part of a lot of global initiatives. What global initiatives do you believe are really leading the charge when it comes to fostering impact? [27:05]
I think especially over the last 2 or 3 years, our work has become much more global and my world view has also changed quite a bit. First, I would say to anybody who is in this space, you will not regret looking outside of your own walls. I think it's incredibly critical, and I’ll get back to your question, but I think it’s very easy to underestimate how important it is to get outside of your place and meet with other people over the world to understand what their life is like. Understand their perspective. Understand that we are part of one house, and your country or community might be a room in that house but it is all part of the same house. What we do does impact every single person in that house. That has definitely been something I’ve gained a true understanding about in the past few years.
In answer to your question, I am a Global Shaper, which is part of the Global Shaper community - an initiative of the World Economic Forum. A few years ago, I had no idea what that was. I was asked to join Global Shapers and I said ‘sounds like a weight loss group - what is it?’. Someone said ‘just join and you’ll see’. Global Shapers is non-profit set up by the World Economic Forum to enable the youth of our society to have an impact in local communities while also elevating their voices to have a greater say around decisions that affect us as a young generation, much longer than those who are typically making those decisions. So essentially it is letting us have a seat at the table. That community around the world is doing incredible stuff within their hubs. There is a hub in that set up a mental health clinic and a cancer ward, and these are people who have day jobs or are studying, and are in their 20s or 30s.
The Forum was something I’d never heard of. I was invited to its annual meeting in Davos in January this year. I really understood then, what it is trying to do, which is to create discourse amongst global players and people who have huge influence and huge power; organisations that make decisions for much of society, and allow them to meet and discuss, putting aside differences that may be important in front of a camera, but when you are sitting down across from somebody you can talk about issues that matter. The impact it has in bringing people together to create discourse who then go on to set up things like Gavi. Gavi is a non-profit organisation that facilitates immunisations and vaccines for children in lower-tier countries. It is funded by a combination of organisations like the Gates Foundation, a number of stakeholders and pharmaceutical companies that provide their medication at cost price to these countries. It is a great organisation but that only happened because of a meeting at Davos. So, the Forum I’m a big fan of. The Gates Foundation does incredible work - I’m going to an event for the Gates Foundation in New York later in the month. I think they do tremendous work.
But it isn’t just about the big shiny players. One of our client’s work is in the foster care system. I think a lot of organisations that provide care do provide significant impact, but we often don’t hear about it. You know, you and I are both young. One of us is a bit older than the other... we won’t say who (chuckles). We don’t often think about aged care, but we are going to go into that at some point in our life. It’s a few decades away and then boom - you start to think about that. Most of society doesn’t think about these sorts of things but it is incredibly important for us. Similarly, we haven’t been in a foster care system so we don’t think about it that much. We don’t think about being a foster carer. But these organisations provide these services that society largely doesn’t want to think about until they absolutely need it.
So I think there are global institutions that are doing incredible work. I think there are also local institutions that absolutely don’t get as much fanfare as the big name, shiny organisations. I think the difficulty is that public at large doesn’t necessarily think about impact the way that people in our sector do. So we are trying to convince them to get involved, or support organisations that can be hard to wrap their heads around.
What other inspiring organisations or projects have you come across recently that are effectively creating and measuring their impact? [32:42]
Early this year I met a woman named Doreen Kessey who grew up in a rural part of Tanzania. She has grown up to help found an organisation called Ubongo and they provide children's entertainment TV series for regions in Africa. Not only is their work amazing, and incredibly creative, but they track the education of those programs. So they know that kids who watch their show perform better in school. Doreen’s approach to this is remarkable and inspiring for me. We saw each other recently in Switzerland at the Global Shapers Summit. The sort of work that she does I think is easy to look at as just kid’s TV, but the reason they do it and the impact that they create in terms of improving education systems in that region is incredible. A lot of education programs might develop shows to help kids count or help them remain focussed on school studies or whatever, but the fact that they’ve gone to the step of actually tracking their impact and what those shows do for kids, that there is an X percent increase in performance at school, for me is incredibly inspiring. Doreen’s story too, of how she came to do that. I would encourage everybody to look up Ubongo. The work they do is amazing.
There is also the Global Himalayan Expedition. Basically they take people who want to go and see the Himalayas on a hike through the mountains, they pay a fee to go sort of like an adventure tour. The one catch is that you have to help carry solar-powered materials to villages. As part of this tour you bring the equipment into the village, you then help set it up and as a result, when you finish you have a village that for the first time in its history will have electricity. As a result the kids can then study at night. When you provide electricity to developing area it is not just about providing light but it means that if you have a washing machine you don’t have to spend time washing clothes by hand and so you can study. You can plant more food. You can do other things that contribute to lifting up that situation. The work they do is incredible and they just received a bunch of funding to expand that work. So that one is also incredible.
I think over the past few years I have become simultaneously, paradoxically terrified and hopeful. A few events, such as the Unleash Innovation Lab or the Global Shapers Summit has reminded me of the huge number of problems we have to solve and the huge injustices there are in the world, but then I also see there are just stacks of incredibly talented, passionate people in the world who do amazing things. It’s very easy to not think about the good news, but it’s stories like that and others you might not ever have heard about that I think are very important to take a moment and investigate. If you can help - great, do that. If not, be inspired by it. Think about these great things that are happening and what you could possibly do in your own life to make that job easier.