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Stepping back to step up as a leader

22 July 2019 at 8:16 am
Maggie Coggan
Sally Hetherington OAM is the president of the Human and Hope Association Incorporated, a grassroots organisation run by Cambodian locals providing education programs to vulnerable kids. She’s this week’s Changemaker.   

Maggie Coggan | 22 July 2019 at 8:16 am


Stepping back to step up as a leader
22 July 2019 at 8:16 am

Sally Hetherington OAM is the president of the Human and Hope Association Incorporated, a grassroots organisation run by Cambodian locals providing education programs to vulnerable kids. She’s this week’s Changemaker.   

It was in 2008 on a holiday to visit relatives in Myanmar that Hetherington learned about the devastating effects of Cyclone Nargis, a natural disaster that killed over 80,000 people. 

As her grandmother had been born in Myanmar, it really hit home that this could have very easily been her life if she hadn’t been lucky enough to be born in Australia. 

Leaving her corporate career behind, Hetherington moved to Cambodia intent on finding a way to help people living in poverty. But she soon became aware of the negative effects of “voluntourism”, whereby foreigners travel to low-income countries to help for a few months, before leaving organisations no better than before, and that she was directly contributing to it. 

In 2012, she met a group of Cambodian volunteers at Human and Hope Association, who delivered nightly English classes at a makeshift school, charging 50 cents per lesson. She built the organisation up so it could be entirely run by locals, and made herself redundant in 2016, moving back to Australia to oversee operations from afar. 

She was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for her efforts and has released a book about issues around voluntourism, with all profits going back into the Human and Hope Association.

In this week’s Changemaker, Hetherington discusses the challenges of moving from the corporate to the NFP sector, what she loves about her job and the power of stepping back as a leader.     

Was there a specific moment when you realised you wanted to work in the sector?

I think it was when I moved to Sydney in 2008 after I had graduated from university. I had no friends and no networks, but I met up with an old school friend who introduced me to Rotaract, Rotary for under ’30s. I jumped at the idea because not only was it a cool way to make friends, but an excellent way to help people. 

It was later that year though when I went to Myanmar to visit some relatives. Seeing the after-effects of the cyclone that had torn through the country, made me realise that could have been my life. Going through that experience really made up my mind about the sector I wanted to spend my life working in. 

Was this a bit of a change from what you studied at university?

I studied a Bachelor of Business majoring in human resources and management which has actually really come in handy. It wasn’t what I initially thought I was going to use those skills for, but it did equip me with the skills and knowledge for being in the charity sector, because as everyone knows there is a business aspect to running a charity.

How has your realisation of the negative impacts of voluntourism shaped you as a leader in the sector?

When I lived in Cambodia for five years, I came to a realisation that communities had to come up with their own solutions. It’s the most sustainable development because they’re there for the long term. So that taught me as a leader that I needed to step back. I needed to make sure that the other people in the team had the equipment that they needed, that they had an empowering environment and they needed to step up. In the meantime, I had to learn to step back and let everybody learn by themselves and learn from their own mistakes. It’s the best thing a leader can do. 

Did you see a positive change in the work you were doing when that happened? 

Definitely. We now have such a low staff turnover, because when the local staff look at their results, they can see that they did it on their own, and it’s their work that has achieved those 19 families moving out of poverty, that 90 per cent English pass rate, or the 100 per cent success rate of preschool students transitioning into public school. They just feel so proud that it was their solutions and their interventions and their work with the community that achieved that.

You previously worked in the corporate sector, what kind of challenges did you come up against when moving to the NFP sector?

There’s always a lack of resources, and that’s something that even today I’m really struggling with. But changes can still happen faster in a charity, particularly in a grassroots organisation because you don’t have to wait for people at the top to say, “okay, you can do this”. You can actually make that change then and there. 

What advice would you give to someone wanting to make a change as you did from the corporate sector to the not-for-profit sector?

Be willing to learn first. Because whatever you do in the charity sector, you need to make sure that you are listening to the people that you’re helping first. What I used to do is just shove my own solutions on people, and that was not the right way to go about it. The best thing you can do is first listen and learn. 

What do you love most about your job? 

I love knowing that even though I made myself redundant in Cambodia, I can still make an impact from Australia by fundraising and advocating for a local approach to development. It just goes to show people you don’t have to jump on a plane and go and teach English or build a house. You can make a positive international change from your bedroom, from your home, and from your community in Australia.

What do you like to do in your downtime?

I work from home so an issue I face is that I’m just always at my computer. Lately, I’ve been setting an alarm at 7 pm and I put everything down and I read a book, and I’ve managed to read 65 books this year. It makes me feel relaxed and energised for the next day, instead of just feeling tired when I wake up the next day. 

What are you reading at the moment?

I just finished reading China Rich Girlfriend, which is the sequel to Crazy Rich Asians. It’s such a great book to switch off to. I’m just about to start reading The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone, which is about the disappearance of three Australian girls in the ‘90s. 

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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