Sally O'Brien

A lifetime of service

University of Auckland alumna Sally O’Brien epitomises what it means to be a volunteer. From humble beginnings serving the Southland community, this rockstar graduate now inspires others to give back in her role as Employee Volunteer Coordinator for Volunteering Auckland. We sit down with Sally to learn more about her story and hear her thoughts on why volunteering matters.  

Tell us a bit about your volunteering journey, Sally. When and how did you first get involved with volunteering?

I grew up on a farm in Southland where there is a strong sense of community. I was a kid in the 1980s, which was a pretty brutal time for farmers. People would often pull together for the local school or Girl Guides event. Other times people would just rally around each other when farming got really tough. We had to work together to survive.

The message of service was a cornerstone of my family’s values through my farming parents and the community around us. I carried this on by volunteering with Students Against Driving Drunk throughout high school and as a Youthline counsellor at university.

After my studies, I moved to Rotorua and started a family. This meant that I found myself involved in a parent-run kindergarten, the local Plunket branch and an arts board. These were incredible volunteering experiences that sharpened skillsets I didn’t know I had.

What motivates you to volunteer?

Service was instilled in me from a young age, so I view volunteering as a way of being. I enjoy seeing how my small actions can improve someone else’s situation and have made some great friendships along the way.

There are also a lot of skills I’ve picked up that I may not have otherwise been exposed to. These include great governance skills, financial literacy, policy reviews as well as employing and managing staff. Sometimes it can be a rollercoaster and time management skills can be honed.  

What do you find the most rewarding about volunteering?

It’s the magic that happens between the volunteer and the person or group that is being helped. So often we think of not-for-profits as getting the most benefit, but I have seen lives changed from people’s volunteering experiences. There can be a moment of realisation about how others experience the world or recognition that they are capable of a greater connection with others than they expected.

My contact with the business sector has given me incredible insight into how already very busy people working full-time still want to volunteer. I have been impressed with the increasing number of businesses who incorporate a day or two of team volunteering into their business value systems because they see the real benefits for their staff and their local community. It’s such an easy win for everyone.

Tell us about a special story or moment for you as a volunteer.

I once got to spend a day with a group of volunteers helping out at a Special Olympics basketball day. One of the jobs was to referee games and no one amongst the volunteers had played basketball, let alone knew enough to referee.  

The volunteers realised that it wasn’t about whether or not they knew how to do something but that they gave it their best shot and stepped up to make sure someone else had a great sports day out. It was so cool seeing people come forward and put their nerves aside to make the basketball day work.  

The obvious sense of pride and satisfaction that came from that group of volunteers was really touching. Despite their perceived lack of skills, they are now hooked on the endorphin hit that comes from volunteering.

Tell us a bit about your role with Volunteering Auckland. What do you do there?

I am the Employee Volunteer Coordinator for Volunteering Auckland. This means I broker the relationship with our business members and not-for-profits. I spend time with not-for-profits to understand their purpose or mission, articulate their needs and help them construct projects to offer the Auckland business community.

I also help teams of employees in over 28 businesses (and counting) to identify these projects and assist with getting them signed up. This may include using our fantastic team of volunteer photographers to capture their day, and sending feedback and data to use in their corporate social responsibility reporting.

What are some of your favourite things about your job?

I love the face-to-face contact I have with people, the opportunity to get to some of the most beautiful parts of our city, and learning about how much voluntary work keeps Auckland connected. Sometimes I wonder how cities would keep running without volunteers!

I also like the problem solving aspect of it. The real relationship-building starts when you can help people resolve barriers to volunteering and facilitate a successful day. Teams feel they have helped others and enjoy being with their workmates.

What advice would you give to members of the University community who are thinking about volunteering for the first time?

Volunteering is transformative when it comes from a good place in you. Start with looking at causes close to your heart and volunteer in those areas. Talk to people around you to find shared values and build momentum from there.

Recognise that you have cultivated a set of skills by virtue of being a University of Auckland graduate. Share those skills and enjoy the ripple effect of collective service through your volunteering efforts.

Failing that, contact me at Volunteering Auckland. Go on, give volunteering a go!

The University of Auckland is partnering with Volunteering Auckland on Volunteer Impact Week. To find out more information on how you can get involved, check out our latest volunteering opportunities here.