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A coffee with… Sam Johnson MInstD

Solving problems is the motivation for this young director, award winner and Student Volunteer Army general.

By Alexandra Johnson, freelance journalist
17 Dec 2021
read time
2 min to read
Sam Johnson smiling, wearing shirt and grey jacket.

2010 Christchurch: The city has been torn asunder by earthquakes and the public are instructed to stay at home.

One young student, however, has a better idea. Through social media, he mobilises 11,000 students to sweep, scoop and shovel 360,000 tonnes of silt and sludge from the city’s streets. The Student Volunteer Army (SVA) was born.

Sam Johnson MInstD, Young New Zealander of the Year 2012 and founder of the SVA, had quite a ride after his “army” formed. He worked with the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction and with major charities around the world. He contributed to disaster responses in Japan, Nepal and around the Pacific. He dined with the Dalai Lama, danced with the Duchess of Cornwall and hosted many dignitaries, including David Attenborough.

Fast forward to 2021 and Johnson is the chief executive of the Student Volunteer Army (SVA), has been a founding member of several other charities and altruistic businesses, and has become an IoD member.

Resilience and reaction

Today, his SVA continues the values and ethos of the original volunteer earthquake response.

“That’s the vehicle through which we have completed projects around the world and worked with organisations and governments on how to better utilise volunteers in a crisis. Institutions are typically not very good at letting people help at the very moment they are willing to do so,” Johnson says.

He says disaster response was the first chapter of SVA, but that it has since shifted focus.

“The second chapter, and what I’m more interested in, is preparedness and resilience to crises and disaster. We now focus on the volunteerism pipeline and design interventions that create communities where people naturally help each other.”

Johnson describes himself as a civic entrepreneur. He defines that as someone who exploits opportunities that create value for society.

 “It’s opportunistic. It’s looking at ways you can mobilise people to achieve change, whatever that change may be. It’s about creating a solution for a problem.”

When it comes to volunteering generally, he says many people are cause-focused and would like to do more, but don’t know where to start.

I don’t think we make it easy; I think we have underinvested in volunteering over the past 20 years.”

“New Zealand has a problem where we rely on an official or expert to assist with every issue rather than people having a sense of agency to take responsibility. How do you give people the sense of permission to work on the projects that they care about?

“My favourite saying is: ‘You are the “they” in they should do something about that’.”

SVA’s work is about instilling that value in people.

Start ’em young

The organisation has established the SVA School Volunteer Programme, which provides tools and resources to teachers to help kids in primary and secondary schools find a project, build a team, and run a volunteering project in their community.

Johnson says the programme is not just about inspiring kids to contribute to their communities but actually teaching them project management and coordination skills.

“We teach them how to work with someone, who is not your best friend, to get a project done. What we want to teach them is if you see something you want to see changed, you can do it. Even if it is something controlled by government, go and advocate, write a letter.”

This same ethos is carried through to tertiary students and by the end of 2021 he estimates 120,000 young New Zealanders would have been through SVA’s programmes.

“Tech is a major enabler, people want volunteering instantly, they want it recognised, they want to know they can help, and they want to be valued. So, it is our responsibility as NGOs to make sure our technology is what people expect it to be.”

Tech solutions

At the start of the covid-19 pandemic in 2020, Johnson and his colleagues saw that supermarket delivery services were overwhelmed.

“Last time it was shovelling silt. This time we saw food delivery was a problem. So we decided to use volunteers to deliver groceries.”

SVA partnered with a group of Kiwi tech entrepreneurs “and in about ten days we built a grocery ordering, purchasing and fulfilment system through which people could order food which would then be purchased by SVA from New World.”

He says SVA is the only group that caters to people who can afford food but struggle to access it.

“At the start of the first lockdown, we had three people working at SVA, that went to 98 during 2020. And now with this [Auckland] lockdown, we have used the system more than ever. We have 300 volunteers working across Auckland, delivering largely to older people and people who don’t operate a computer, as it’s a telephone operated service as well.”

He says there’s a big gap in charities utilising technology.

“Tech is a major enabler, people want volunteering instantly, they want it recognised, they want to know they can help, and they want to be valued. So, it is our responsibility as NGOs to make sure our technology is what people expect it to be.”

At the NZ Tech Awards this year, SVA and partnering tech company Custom D won the 2021 Best High-Tech Solution for the Public Good award for a volunteering mobile app, a social infrastructure platform that is the backbone to SVA’s work.

“It helps people find opportunities to volunteer and improves students’ employability. As it records what they do, it helps them get ahead”.

“We’ve got great skills around the boards in New Zealand but I think directors should actually be responding to what the world is going to be like in 10 years, rather than how it is now.”

Brave boards

Johnson believes directors are key to driving change and help organisations develop. But board members need to be prepared to take risks, he says.

“We need to back ourselves to deal with the consequences, whether it goes well or badly. When you look at disaster risk reduction, forecasts clearly indicate things will go wrong, much more than they have in the past. So how are we dealing with that? What opportunities are there within a crisis? A crisis is also an opportunity for change and growth and to do things differently, but unfortunately only some people recognise that.

“We’ve got great skills around the boards in New Zealand but I think directors should actually be responding to what the world is going to be like in 10 years, rather than how it is now.”

He sits on the board of the Prince’s Trust NZ, a youth-focused NFP that helps young people set themselves up in business, and is a trustee of the Isaac Theatre Royal in Christchurch.

“And I’m on the Westpac Sustainability Advisory Panel, which is a quasi-governance role looking at the bank’s sustainability. It’s a very diverse group of people who come in and challenge the bank’s executive team on their thinking, on anything from how it can be challenging for some people to get a bank account through to what more should they be doing about climate change. The bank has a set of policies and the role of the sustainability panel is to hold a mirror up to them.”

How much change has come about as a result of the panel?

“I’ve been on it for four years and the level of ambition within the bank, and the willingness of the leaders to take risks has grown. And in terms of my governance career, that’s been really informative to me, how do you have those conversations? How do you make an impact in a different way? Having the diversity of thought and a proper discussion on the direction of an organisation has taught me how to make decisions collectively and how to focus on the right issues, not just the big ones.”

His background has made Johnson a huge fan of board diversity. “And I don’t just mean a woman, a man, a brown and a black person. I mean diversity of ideologies, of skills, of people who have come from different backgrounds and have different stories to tell.”

A diverse board is more likely to come up with unexpected ideas, challenge accepted wisdom and deliver what Johnson expects good governance to deliver.

“I just like to solve problems.”