Cultural fit, industry understanding, communication skills, adaptability and goal-orientated. According to an international leadership search and development firm called Y Scouts, these are the top five traits to consider when searching for a new director. Faced with this very task earlier this year, the board of U-turn Homeless Ministries found these and many more exceptional qualities in the newly appointed Jean-Ray Knighton-Fitt.
In an email sent out in April to industry supporters, outgoing director Sam Vos announced he had formalised his departure with the board in January and that his last day would be on Friday 30 April (“Time for a change of direction”, People’s Post, 27 April).
“After a rigorous interview process, the board appointed Jean-Ray Knighton-Fitt to replace me, ably supported by the strong team of Jon Hopkins, Joanne de Goede, Chris Dippenaar, Rowen Ravera, Damian Bosch, Sarah Simpson, Hudson McComb, Annakie Gammon and, of course, Jacquie Bessellaar,” Vos wrote in his farewell message.
A quick look at Knighton-Fitt’s CV, and it is easy to see why the board found him such a good fit for the registered Christian non-governmental organisation (NGO) focused on the rehabilitation of street people.
Knighton-Fitt completed a theology qualification at Cornerstone Institute in 1995. He then worked in IT for a bit before joining City Mission in Cape Town in 2000. Working his way up, he became acting CEO of City Mission in 2005 and CEO in 2006. During his time there he held several portfolios, including managing the work with children living on the streets in the Claremont and Cape Town CBD areas in 2004/05. He was also board treasurer of the Western Cape Street Children’s Forum at the time, and has been a member of several other boards since, including the City Mission World Association.
In 2007, he moved to Westville Baptist Church in Durban where he was charged with setting up the Church Alliance for Social Transformation Trust (CAST). For the next 13 years, he grew CAST until it operated developmental services in 17 locations across five cities. He decided to step out of that ministry in mid-2020 and return to Cape Town.
Having grown up in Kenilworth, Knighton-Fitt says he first crossed paths with U-turn in 2005 when City Mission worked in partnership with them. He explains that, having developed an interest in the way U-turn approached the challenge of homelessness, he kept tabs on the ministry’s growth and progress even after he left for Durban. When a colleague with Cape Town ties forwarded him the advert for the director position at U-turn, Knighton-Fitt decided to apply.
“It is such a great organisation. Sam Vos did an incredible job building it up,” he says, adding there were a number of things about U-turn that appealed to him.
“One of these is the emphasis they place on data. Keeping track and looking at data and then drawing conclusions based on that. A lot of NGOs are all about heart, and you need it, but you also have to critically look at whether what you are doing is working or not.”
The father of four says what attracted him to the organisation as well was the former director’s great vision for U-turn. Vos’s goal was to expand U-turn’s services not only in Cape Town but throughout South Africa and, ultimately, the world.
“I always see the director as the custodian of an organisation’s vision, someone who continues to shape and grow it. The ministry I used to work for in Durban also had a big vision. I believe if we don’t think big, if we don’t plan big, then we just limp along.”
Another huge drawcard was the U-turn team members, whom Knighton-Fitt describes as thought leaders in their field.
“U-turn pioneered certain areas. Before them, no one thought to use occupational therapy in the rehabilitation process with people living on the street. Traditionally, organisations use social workers. They opened the door to ask, ‘Are there other professionals we should be bringing into this space as well?’ They are saying, ‘Let’s not just do what everybody else does, what always has been done. Let’s find ways to solve the problem.”
Although Knighton-Fitt formerly stepped into the role of director on Sunday 1 May, he began at U-turn on Monday 19 April as an “observer”. He describes his first few weeks at their head office in Kenilworth as both an amazing start and an information overload.
“I have also sensed the tremendous support we enjoy from the community and I am looking forward to building on that,” he says.