The Idea of Knology: An Interview with our Founder

Learnings from Knology's first decade.

by John FraserElliott Bowen
Dec 21, 2022

Since its founding, Knology has been led by John Fraser, the organization's CEO, President, and founder. To understand where the idea for Knology came from, and to get a personal perspective on what Knology is all about, Fraser sat down with Elliott Bowen (Knology's new communications manager) to discuss the organization's origins and development over the last decade. Below are some highlights from the conversation.

Where did the idea for an organization like Knology come from?

JOHN: I'm an architect and conservation psychologist by training. In the 1990s, I worked at the Oregon Zoo, and then went to the Wildlife Conservation Society in 2001. One of the primary goals of zoos and aquariums is to really promote a conservation mindset in our society, and to protect the nature on which all life depends. The thing I always came back to was "but what does the zoo do?"

There was a group of us who were focusing on the social change mission. A lot of mechanisms around how people learn were already in place, but what we really wanted to look at was behavior change. So as a conservation psychologist, I cut my teeth looking across disciplines. One of the things that I suggested as we were first meeting about what Knology could become, is that we wanted a group of people who think like this from many different disciplines. Sowe started with the idea that we would be a group of people coming from many different places, and many different disciplines that could convene to put our minds to problems. And so we just started hiring for people with different questions.

What were some of Knology's earliest projects?

JOHN: One of our first projects focused on an aquarium in Fort Fisher, North Carolina, that was about bringing kids from Wilmington, North Carolina to the ocean. They lived less than a mile from the ocean, but because of their family's circumstances, they just didn't go to the ocean. We looked at how this partnership with an after school program was helping both organizations be better citizens. It was a heartwarming project, working with those kids to think about how a cultural institution changes their lives.

What were things like during Knology's first few years as an organization? What did we learn about how to be a social science research nonprofit?

JOHN: So the zoo was sort of our prototype. But the approach we took really does translate across any kinds of cultural issues. Our sweet spot was that we could think at a more abstract level, and help people think about what they're doing as data, and use that data to understand the story of how they participate in social change.

One thing we heard from our founding board was that academic institutions don't map well to the lifetimes of cultural institutions, which need to move more quickly. They would like to do things that are academically rigorous, but they don't do that by advancing theory. What they're looking for is practical tools for social change. It's one of the reasons why I think we gravitated toward participatory action research as one of our models, working with community-based organizations.

We find our sweet spot focusing on effectiveness and efficiency. Capability is also under-attended to in cultural change. We ask the question, "are you actually capable of doing what you're asking; are the capabilities of the form mapping to the change you want to see?" What we've heard from other nonprofits that are doing social change work, is that we're one of the rare agnostic organizations that says we believe in social good, but we're not going to tell you what your mission is.

What's distinct about the way Knology works?

JOHN: Knology is a research organization. There's a big difference between being in a research organization and an evaluation firm. Some people think of evaluation very much like research, because both use the same techniques. But the difference is purposeful. Research is intended to find generalizable knowledge. When we do evaluation, we structure it to generate useful information that draws from other projects. We do comparative assessments. What we're doing is really practical. It's about social change.

We've been able to bring partnerships together. We've done a lot of brokering of relationships, because we can see that when you apply the social sciences in one area, it gives generalizable information that can help others. And that is the distinct way we work.

We're also committed to publishing a central core of our work. I've always believed that writing is research, and that writing is central to our brand and our organizational commitment.

What are some of the big changes you've seen through your work with Knology?

JOHN: There was a transition that happened after around six years. We were hired to do some work for National Geographic when they were selling their book publishing to Fox. I was still a little bit like, "Wow, that's kind of cool that people saw us as somebody that could step into that." After 11 years, you don't really realize how your assets are being seen and used by others until you start seeing people come to you.

That's been the really exciting thing for me, is that we are now a mature organization that has a stellar reputation. And some of the major federal funding agencies actually talk about us as a gold standard for some kinds of work we do. So that's sort of heartwarming for me.

Recently, I was in a meeting, and someone explained to me about this National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation. They didn't know we're associated with it. But they're talking about how to do this work, and they were and they were evangelical about it. And I get all excited that Knology made an impact.

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