Ideas that matter – with Sam Johnson

Ideas that matter – with Sam Johnson

Sam Johnson’s career has focused on mobilising people around ideas that matter. Sam is the Founder and Chief Executive of Te Hunga Tūoa Student Volunteer Army (SVA) and is well-known for his socially entrepreneurial work that continues to make significant differences in the lives of others. Sam leads a team that designs and operates projects that impact over 65,000 volunteers each year at a primary, secondary and tertiary level across New Zealand. We caught up with him ahead of his keynote address at Future-Fit Aotearoa.

Where do your project ideas come from?

Ideas come from problems. Problems fascinate me, and I love looking at solutions for them. I look for issues that our unique network can make a difference to and wrap a revenue model around it. Much of the work the SVA does is identifying resource and motivation points and combining the two to make good things happen.

How did you come up with the idea of developing a student volunteer army?

I had an allergic reaction to being told to stay at home when there were people with significant problems on the other side of town. I knew a heap of students from the University of Canterbury would want to help and that the council wouldn’t have the capacity or focus on the silt in people’s homes and gardens. I just took that germ of an idea and made it happen by building a team.

What sort of plan did you come up with in the aftermath of the earthquake?

The plan was to turn up, offer help, do the work, and get home safe. Pretty simple, really. The key to most projects is keeping it simple and building a team with people who have different skills from yourself. We’re experts in New Zealand at overcomplicating simple ideas. There certainly will be complex pieces in every project, but the success of the SVA is in making things simple.

How do you deal with people who say “it will never work”?

We work as a team, and I do receive some pretty honest feedback from them at times. This type of team culture keeps us all on track. Getting feedback, I think, is positive as people are cautious about giving negative feedback. When starting any project, I write a list of why it won’t work and answer those questions first, rather than proving your existing hypothesis which we typically do.

Do all your projects meet expectations?

I think expectations on project delivery correlate to the work you put in. One of the values at SVA is “do the mahi”, which in my job means I need to show up, help, plan, hold to account and ask for help. Managing the expectations of others, especially volunteers, is hard. We have to work extra hard to motivate students to show up, or in most cases, not pull out if it’s raining or if they get a better offer. We also consider their engagement, sense of control and “what’s in it for them.”

How do you define success?

My recipe for defining success is a topic that I will deal with during my keynote address at the conference. I sustained a pretty severe head injury two years ago, which has resulted in some dramatic changes to my life. I don’t have the energy I used to and see the world slightly differently. Success for me is keeping myself and my team employed, being a good husband, and working on projects that interest me. People assume that because I work in the volunteering sector, I’m not interested in wealth creation. We are a business like any business and work hard to have a whanau culture that can lift those who do more for their community. Success for me is seeing those people get ahead.

What do you love about your work?

We developed a very effective grocery delivery service last year during the COVID lockdown. We started the service with a team of three, but it grew to involve a core team of 93 who coordinated the delivery service. From a zero starting point, we progressed to delivering 3,000 grocery orders nationwide from 55 New World supermarkets while the volunteer team grew to 3,000 people.

It turned out to be a fantastic project which came together through a partnership with some very clever people and the support of New World supermarkets and Citycare.
We are currently involved in the development of a COVID vaccine driving programme. It includes putting together a group of volunteers from around the country who will drive people to vaccination centres. I just thought that people who have access to a car might have some spare time in the evening, and they could assist with the COVID vaccine rollout.

Is there an inspirational person in your life?

There’s a couple; HRH Prince Charles and my Mum, Lizzie. HRH lives a life of service and has high expectations of what we can achieve as a population. And my mum because she loves every day of her life and has taught me to do the same.

I’m slightly biased on both as I’ve met Prince Charles several times and serve on his trust in New Zealand, the Prince’s Trust. It’s amazing what can be achieved if you keep lifting the bar on performance and expect execution which he does to us.

And of course, Mum is Mum, the person I call when I am just a bit flat or need to know how to cook something. She’s the best recipe book, way better than the internet, which describes the food rather than telling you how to make it.

What are your next projects?

Playgrounds. Way too many old ones go to the landfill, so watch this space, and be prepared to be asked at the conference to help build one in your area (physically and financially). We just launched our new SVA App into 230 secondary schools and six tertiary institutions. We’re also able to let companies use the app to organise their internal volunteering.

We’ve been on quite a journey over the past ten years, taking us from being an organic movement to a more progressive organisation. We now have a new chair and board members who are helping me progress from being the Chief Executive of a good organisation that has been involved in a series of significant projects to a great organisation. That’s the journey we are on now, and it’s become the most fulfilling part of my work life. I’m learning a lot, and I love it!

Sam Johnson

Next steps

Hear Sam speak at Future-Fit Aotearoa by registering