Creating high social impact with low, low overheads: Our interview with the charity CEO that won the Telstra Australian Business of the Year, Suzanne Hopman

At Spark we recognise the power of sharing the stories of incredible change makers to inspire a community of impact leaders. We sat down with the CEO of Dignity, Suzanne Hopman. Dignity received both the Telstra Australian Business of the Year and Social Change Maker Awards in 2019. Suzanne shared her wisdom with us, on what it takes to be an innovative, sustainable and impactful charity winning coveted, national business awards.

John (Spark): Hi Suzanne! Could you please tell us a bit about yourself and your role at Dignity?

Suzanne (Dignity): I’m the CEO and Founder of Dignity. I worked in social services for a long time, and could increasingly see there were ways to do things differently. I reached a point where I asked myself ‘why not give it a go?’. I found a group of like-minded people and that was the start of Dignity. We opened our first house for women and children in NSW’s Southern Highlands in 2015, which has now grown to 27 properties.

What problem does Dignity exist to solve and for whom?

All people experiencing homelessness – we don’t use the term ‘homeless people’ as it is not their identity, only something they are experiencing at the time. Our youngest guest was 4 days old – straight from hospital. The oldest was 94. We don’t solve people’s problems, our focus is to empower people by providing basic needs. Doing this allows individuals to look at  developing the right solutions for themselves. We are NSW-based, although we have been asked if we would look to open in Victoria but financially we can’t do this right now.

What makes Dignity different?

We are agile and able to respond to need quickly. We are agile because of how we have developed our governance structure; a collaborative model where everyone has input, but our systems allow us to move quickly as opportunities arise.

You are a charity that won Business of the Year – why do you think that is?

To be a successful charity you need to be an incredible business. Every dollar saved can be spent on helping people. This also means that every dollar wasted is a lost opportunity to make an impact. Business often gets this right, and I think our focus on the financial bottom line stood out to the panel.

In your award acceptance speech, you said part of your success is that Dignity remains “totally focused on our why.” How do you ensure your staff keep that focus?

We constantly question one another and bring all decisions back to our why. It’s a big part of our culture. Referring to our why makes decision making easier. As with any business, tough decisions do need to be made – keeping the why at the heart actually helps make tough decision making easier.

You have a very efficient business model. How do you ensure it is financially sustainable?

We seize opportunity and are constantly exploring ways for new income streams. Our business model is not the traditional donor driven model.

You keep your overhead costs down to 3%. There are some organisations out there that wouldn’t believe it. What are the top three things that you do differently to achieve this?

We don’t have any office space, we work remotely. We harness technology and are heavily cloud-based. We use technology to meet our needs, not put our needs into technology. We do this by scanning the providing market for solutions to our problems. If an appropriate solution doesn’t exist, we create our own. Finally, we have a moveable workforce with minimal management in our structure. This means we can keep a high optimisation of staff and keep management overheads low.

Would you pursue a high-yield venture unrelated to your mission?

Everything comes back to our mission. When presented with a new idea or opportunity we ask ourselves – is this in-line with the mission and is it Dignity? Then we ask… does it help create impact?

How do you assess and demonstrate impact and success?

As well as winning the Telstra award we were also finalists in the Social Impact Measurement Awards. Beyond measuring outputs and outcomes, we measure changes in feelings and wellbeing of people who have used our services. We use our safety scale to measure our impact. It is self-driven, so has a variety of applications by simply asking our guests ‘how safe are you feeling today?’. They can interpret this in the way that is meaningful to them. We use different contact channels at different times – depending if they are a current guest, or 6-12 months later in follow up.

What do you see happening in the homelessness space in the coming years, for better or worse?

I think we are on the right pathway by embracing Housing First principles, although there is still work to be done here. Challenges in counting homelessness in the census makes it difficult to measure and forecast trends. I am pleased that homelessness has seen an increased profile in the media, and in people’s hearts and mind. I am confident that more resources will be applied to solving this complex social problem.

How can individuals and organisations can get involved with Dignity?

Jump on our website or on social media – this is where we post calls for help such as links to volunteering opportunities.

If you had a message for other charities, what would you say?

Stay focused on why you exist – not keeping the lights on.

Spark Strategy thanks Suzanne for giving her time to talk to us. If you know of a great, contemporary leader shaking things up in the social sector, feel free to get in touch and nominate them for an interview. If you are a not-for-profit leader and considering how to increase impact, or develop a more sustainable, efficient business model, reach out to for a conversation.



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