You may not meet a more enthusiastic or passionate accountant than Kate Ruff. She is so passionate about accounting that she not only thinks “it’s the coolest invention of humanity”, but she believes through accounting, she can help save the planet—or at least, make it a better place.

Kate Ruff, Sprott School of Business

We know what you’re thinking: Accounting? But after talking with Ruff about her inspiring and leading-edge research program we were convinced. Moreover, we were convinced that Ruff’s story is about how she is one of the most genuine, passionate, and tenacious humanitarians the world has to offer and she’s going to contribute to the greater good alongside a team of experts, conscientious companies, major funders—and with the power of numbers.

Ruff didn’t start out thinking her life would be dedicated to the accounting world, in fact, her life had a completely different trajectory. After an undergraduate degree in Marketing and a few unexpected life events, a job offer to work in Nepal changed her life. For two years, Ruff worked as a marketing consultant, immersed in the world of social enterprise (companies’ whose main goal is to achieve social change), witnessing the transformative power of this business platform. However, she also observed, first-hand, the very thin line that existed between those companies that genuinely worked for social change and those that were “social-washing”—the pursuit of profits first, with a disingenuous attempt to be socially conscious.

Coloured flags on the summit of a mountain in NepalBut, how does this all lead to accounting? Through life events and her years in Nepal, Ruff recognized how strong accounting information kept managers attuned to their financial bottom line, and an absence of strong social and environmental data relegated impact-focused actions to the backburner. It was at this time—an epiphany perhaps, that Ruff knew she wanted to be part of social policy change to keep social and environmental objectives part of the story.

To achieve this, Ruff got a master’s degree from the London School of Economics in Social Policy and Planning. Her research gave rise to a hugely influential and highly popular paper on the subject: The Next Frontier in Social Impact Measurement Isn’t Measurement at All (Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2016). But it wasn’t until two years later, while reading the Economist that part of a sentence: “…before there were income statements,” that caught her attention, and another epiphany! “Maybe accounting hadn’t always been so straightforward; maybe there was more to learn about how standards emerged.” She found herself in the basement of the Harvard University library learning everything about the emergence and history of accounting.

From Nepal, to Harvard, to becoming an accountant; through this culmination of wisdom, Ruff discovered that, not only had no useful system worked to unify impact measurement standards since the invention of accounting, but she learned why—the missing puzzle piece—two puzzle pieces in fact. She learned that for a social impact measurement standard to be successful, it must have bounded flexibility, and it must involve the creation of an ecosystem. It works like this: to create data—numbers—that tell an important story about the value of social and environmental impact, the numbers need to be malleable to the principles and values that exist around the globe. It’s a bit of a “Goldilocks” scenario—for standards to be successful balance must be struck between loose standards that have no guided boundaries and rigid ones that thwart innovation.

The second piece to a successful social impact standard is creating an ecosystem. “It’s really about the group of enterprises who agree to stay aligned and stay in communication about the standards and how they will evolve over time. It’s about a community working together to keep that standard relevant—and this is so much more important than what ever gets put on a piece of paper.”

Close up of paper with part of the title showing that reads, "Impact Measurement"That brings us to today, where Ruff is exactly where she wants to be. And one may argue it was due to her passion and dedication to her mission in life, she is now spearheading one of the largest projects ever done in Canada to create a social impact measurement standard. Ten years to the day from that final epiphany, she was one of a select few invited by the Government of Canada to submit a proposal to create a social impact measurement standard. And she won. She is now creating a highly valuable flexible standard that can be managed across a broad band of Canadian social enterprises. It’s the first of its kind, and it’s major; it’s called: The Common Approach Project. Funded by the Employment and Social Development Canada, Ruff is working alongside an all-star team of partners including leading academics in Canada from various fields including, Information Technology, Impact Investing, along with charities, not-for-profits, and social enterprises.

The success of this project will ensure that socially- and environmentally-conscious consumers and investors have effective data that provide disclosure of, and one that will tell the true story of, firms’ social and environmental impact—and therefore help consumers make good and informed decisions on how to invest ethically and sustainably. This is Ruff’s life’s work; her mission.

Here’s to the most passionate and enthusiastic, humanitarian accountant, this world has seen!

Monday, March 23, 2020 in , ,
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