Dr. Ruth Knight On The Year Of Accountability, Measuring Outcomes & Asking The Right Questions


Dr. Ruth Knight is a researcher and lecturer in nonprofit management and social enterprise at QUT’s Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies.

Ruth has extensive experience in not-for-profit leadership roles and has spent many years researching how workplace culture can achieve engaged workforces and organisational sustainability. Her special interests are measuring social outcomes and developing high performing leaders and teams. Ruth is on a mission to advance quality research and practice in the sector to enable organisations create effective strategies to improve their impact.


Ruth discusses the importance of building trust as a social entrepreneur, whilst highlighting how empathy can help organisations (and our younger generations) to create stronger impact.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to working in the philanthropy and nonprofit sectors?

[Dr. Ruth Knight] - I grew up in England in a family that was very aware of social justice issues, so even from my childhood I was very exposed to some of the social issues that the community was facing. In particular my parents were foster parents and they worked in the church and they worked in the community, so even from a young age I was exposed to some of these issues. Then I also took a trip overseas and went to India and saw the work of The Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa's charity. All of that really built in with me an idea that I should also do something around community health. So I went back to England after my trip to India and trained as a nurse and started to work in community health as well, particularly with homeless young people and really really loved what I was learning about homelessness.

Obviously that was a particular area that I was working in, and I spent nearly twenty years in youth work and homelessness and housing, and was thinking about, what the factors were that contribute to homelessness and what were some of the potential solutions to breaking the cycle of homelessness. So that's what got me working in this sector and a really big interest in social solutions and social elevation.

Its been a really interesting journey Ruth. So as postdoctoral research fellow at the ACPNS at QUT, can you tell us a little bit more about the Centre and the sort of research that you're undertaking there?

After twenty years of working in the housing and homelessness space, I was still really searching for answers myself, and really was trying to think about how we could become better leaders, become more successful organisations. I was doing a lot of consultancy at this point and talking to a lot of organisations, and what they were thinking about in terms of social elevations and outcomes, and that's what lead me to the Centre. The Centre opened nearly twenty years ago by Emeritus Professor Myles McGregor Lowndes, who was a lawyer, but also an academic, and he was grappling with a lot of the issues that the sector was facing with back then, so he decided to open the Centre to provide a place where professionals working in the sectors could come and learn about how to run their organisations.

He was particularly keen on governance, accounting, ethics and law, and this was nearly twenty years ago now, so it was really at the edge of when the sector was becoming much more professionalised and people where out there really searching for answers and confidence around how to run their organisations. So I was one of those people and I ended up myself here and just really found it a incredible place of like minded individuals who were both lecturing at the time and also studying. Because most people that come here are already working in the sector and they're on a leadership level of some form or they might be wanting to move into leadership. They come here really wanting to connect and discuss issues and think about outcomes and innovation and you know some of the latest research that's going on.

And so the Centre now has been doing this for twenty years and of course now I'm here after that long journey of being a student myself to being part of the Centre and now as you said, I'm also a lecturer here, as well as being a researcher. What we do at the Centre is really that two pronged approach. We use education as a way of building capacity and capability within the sector, and we love working with leaders and we offer courses in all sorts of some of those traditional things that everybody needs to know about like the governance, ethics and the accounting but we also do some really great pieces of research. People can come do that as part of their study, or we just get involved in different organisations who are thinking about research and how they can use data and insights from data and different types of research, to inform their decision about the design of their services or, in my case its culture and leadership. My PhD was all around how can we build thriving workplace cultures where people are open to change. Which, as you know, is critically important for our organisations who want to be entrepreneurial. They want to get better outcomes for clients and the community.

So that's our two pronged approach really, its really the education and the research. We get out there and try meet as many people as we can to understand what the sector is facing, but we also get out there to look at trends and what the future looks like for the sector as well, because we want to be really helping the sector flourish and thrive as we go over the next ten, twenty years.


So what are then some of the key changes then that you've observed? You spoke a little bit about observing these trends, so what sort of trends have you seen in this non profit sector and how have you observed non profits adapting to this changing environment?

There's been a lot of change over the last twenty years. I think for me the biggest one is really the sense of accountability. Twenty years ago, if you were a charity you were just considered good, because you were a charity and you worked with the community. There was this assumption you did good work and if you applied for a grant or if you asked for a donation, again, there would be some assumption that you were doing good. But I think over the last ten years that's really changed quite a lot.

I call it the year of accountability now. Donors, funders, the community and even our beneficiaries are starting to say "well, okay, you're a charity or you're in the non profit sector, but what actually are you doing to tackle this?"

Whatever it’s homelessness or domestic violence or environmental issues whatever it is that you're working on. People are actually starting to question and say "have you got evidence that what you're doing, your services, your solutions, are actually making a difference? Is it reducing what you're trying to solve? Is it improving peoples lives?” So I think that's one of the biggest ones I've seen.

A lot of people are talking about measuring outcomes, and how we report our outcomes. So that's another huge trend that has come off the back of this year of accountability, that we’re now having to really think about, “we believe we’re doing some really good work here,” or “we run a great program”… But how do we really know that? How do we collect the evidence that it is actually a good program, that it’s being effective, it’s being efficient with the money that people are giving us or the donations that are being given?

Measuring and reporting on outcomes is an incredibly important issue and many organisations are grappling with that. There's no "one size fits all." There's many different ways that you can actually measure and report outcomes, but it’s important to build trust.

We've done some work here at the Centre on trust and how our donors are trusting the sector, and if we want to be better funded, if we want people to invest in what we're doing, we have to build that trust, and measuring and reporting on our outcomes is one of them.

From a funding or philanthropy perspective then, do you believe there's a much higher expectation that there is that measurement of outcomes?

Absolutely. I think even funders themselves are also thinking about that. When you've got trust in foundations where are giving away their money, they are also thinking, ‘how are we reporting to our funders or our donors?’ because obviously that’s a channel of accountability. The foundations that we're working with are very much saying, ‘we want to give to community organisations or social enterprise, but we really want to know whether its a good investment.’ And so they're asking for theories of change, they're asking for measurement plans, they're asking for frameworks and asking these organisations to tell them how they will report back to them about the difference that they’re making.

Tom Allen, Dr Ruth Knight & Assoc. Prof. Wendy Scaife.

Tom Allen, Dr Ruth Knight & Assoc. Prof. Wendy Scaife.

How do you believe we can best build that culture of giving within our younger generations, because I know it's an area that you're quite passionate about as well?

Yes, lots of the research says that we really need to create that culture from a very young age in terms of philanthropy in giving and social entrepreneurship. I think that there's a few different things that we can do and I've got two little ones as well. I've got a ten year old and a twelve year old, so I'm really thinking very seriously about what I'm doing, and of course I've told you I'm from a family that built it within me.

One of your daughters stole the show at The Funding Network’s recent event in Brisbane. She was amazing.

She was so excited when she got asked by The Funding Network to give a report back about the organisations that had been funded the previous year to one hundred or two hundred philanthropists. She really loved that, but it really made her think about the role of younger people and children, and how they could really speak in that space of philanthropy. Before that Funding Network meeting, she went round all of her friends and asked them to give anything, so it could have been a dollar or it could have been more than that. She collected that money and she told them that she was coming to The Funding Network, and she told them that she was going to donate that money to these charities, and she told them about the charities and what they were doing. It really gave her a voice and it really allowed her to share with her friends why she was supporting these organisations and why she felt it was important to give some of her pocket money to them.


It would have been an important lesson for her and certainly influenced how she behaves down that track.

Yeah so in answer to your question, I’ll get back to your question! What I'm trying to do, and which I think that many parents perhaps can do, is really just make their children socially aware. You only have to watch the news for one night and you've got a plethora of topics to discuss with them. In terms of what's going on in the news, really getting them from a young age to critically analyse some of those stories, not just go, ‘ugh the world is terrible and is there a lot of crime and homelessness.’ You could just become a very negative person and just get them to be very judgemental. But you also have the option of really exploring it with them. I start to challenge them and say, ‘well why do you think we have homelessness, and why do you think there is crime, and why do you think that there's Indigenous issues'?’ It’s a really good way of getting them at an early age to start being empathic in why those situations might be occurring, but also to start thinking about solutions, and you never have to dampen their ideas. It doesn't matter whether it’s reality or not, but throwing it out there and saying, ‘how would you solve homelessness? What do you think we should do about this issue,’ or ‘what do you think your friends would say if you said, hey we need to solve a particular social issue.’

I think there's never a too young age to make them start critically analyse the situations that they're seeing in the news or social media all the time. The other thing is that I think we need to role model our concern to social justice. We need to role model that empathy as parents. We should really catch ourselves when we're being judgemental or when we've got certain bias. We really need to watch what we say and challenge ourselves first and foremost, and allow our children to see ourselves struggling with these issues and being honest with them, about our bias and about our perceptions, and if you've never been to a prison, or if you've never worked in an Indigenous community, or you've never met a homeless person.

We need to really challenge ourselves and say, ‘hang on a minute, perhaps we should think a little bit more about what's going on?’ Empathy; we should really encourage ourselves to role model that with our children.

There's some great reflections there Ruth. What advice would you give to the social entrepreneurs out there who are working really hard to create this positive impact?

The first thing is to just get better at asking questions. I think if we're social entrepreneurs and we're always looking for solutions, we tend to be very quick at trying to find solutions, we get really excited when we think about solutions, but the problem is then that we're often then not understanding the problem well enough.

So what we teach our students here at the Centre, is we really ask them to ask good questions and think about who they need to speak to. There are obviously people within universities who've researched issues for many years, but there are organisations, there are experts in the field and of course there are beneficiaries, clients, people within the community that are living these situations, and I think that we need to be much better at going and asking questions about their experience and the factors that influence them. So that we can then start when we're ready and we feel that we have a really good understanding about why these situations are occurring. Our solutions are then much more likely to be successful and make an impact.

I love human centred design. That's a methodology that we love here. Human centred design is obviously just one methodology, but it really is a good framework which stops people from rushing into that solution too quickly or investing too much in the solution that you really haven't tested, tried and evaluated, even on a small scale. I like human centred design because it really encourages you to co-design your solution, so really again not thinking it’s all about you and your ideas, but really going out and co-designing with business, government and beneficiaries, the community themselves. It really does remind us that…

as social entrepreneurs we need to just not rush into solutions, but we really need to spend time exploring the factors and the reasons [why something’s happening.] A systems view.

I take very much a systems view because these issues that we're facing today are long term issues; crime and homelessness and violence and domestic violence - all of those very complex problems that have been around for a long time.

There is no quick solution and we must really understand the complexity of them before we start rushing into things that we think might work. We need to make sure that they do.

That's some excellent advice there Ruth.

Are there any inspiring projects or initiatives that you've come across that you believe are creating some great positive social change?

Well there are a lot of great social enterprises and social projects that are going on at the moment, so it’s really hard to narrow it down, but I'd like to just share with you one which is a student of ours. She came here and got really inspired by the concept of social enterprise, and had already been doing a little bit, but hadn't been realising how to develop it into a full blown social enterprise. Her name's Leanne Butterworth and she started a social enterprise called Lose Your Mind. I just love her passion and her enthusiasm to use virtual reality to encourage people to have empathy with people with mental illness, and it’s a fantastic innovation that she's done. She’s already starting to work all over the world with people, especially those that work with people with a mental illness. She's working with families and she's working with the community in many different ways to break down the stigma of mental illness and also to have a lot more empathy with people who have mental illness.

The other little one that I really am inspired by goes back to how we can encourage young people and millennials to think about the impact they could make. Joshua is a fifteen year old entrepreneur who loves surfing, who really started to be aware of not only his own skin when he was out surfing and also the environmental issues of sunscreen. So he basically went away and developed his own sunscreen called Seagull Milk. Joshua has really put a lot of time and effort into developing an environmentally friendly suncream and he also invests some of the money that he raises through his product back into environmental issues, so very inspired by young people, like Joshua, who have seen an issue and said, ‘I can make a difference.’

Two great examples there Ruth. So finally, are there any books that you recommend to our listeners?

Yes! I'd love to recommend a few. I think one of the important things we need to do is always build our own resilience. Any book to do with resilience, read it. If it talks about building resilience of not only us as individuals, but also us as a community, I think we should be reading that. One that you might like to read is "The Resilience Factor" by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte. It’s a great book talking about how to build resilience, and if we're social entrepreneurs, we can very easily get burnt out and frustrated and you know it’s hard work, so we really need to build our own resilience. If we're going to continue being motivated to be social entrepreneurs, we need to read anything we can about innovation. And the one that I love is a book called "Design, When Everyone Designs" by Ezio Manzini. It’s a really great book that looks at the way social innovation can really guide our ability to think about sustainable practises and how we're looking after people, the people in our community, but also our earth and our world that we live in.

There's also another great book called “Navigating Change For International NGOs: A Practical Handbook.” I'd put that one out there for people who, aren’t necessarily working in international development, but its a really just a great tool book. It’s by James Crowley and Morgana Ryan and they've put together a really simple to read, informative book about encouraging change and being open to change.

And finally, I’d really like to offer a personal recommendation of a book that really changed my life a few years ago, and really is integral to a lot of my personal relationships, but also my work relationships. It’s called "The 5 Love Languages" by Gary Chapman. It’s a simple to read book and there's actually lots of them now. He's even done one for showing love in the workplace which I really love, but you can just get the first one which is just the basic course. You learn a lot about human connection, how we communicate with each other and how we show love and care and concern for each other. It really impacted me personally, but also professionally, and I've used it a lot in my work.


Initiatives, resources and people mentioned on the podcast

Recommended books


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