Sally Hetherington loves her work

Human and Hope Association (HHA) is a Siem Reap based NGO that practically supports Cambodians to build their own future. A few months ago, I got to see their work first-hand, and remain in awe of the dedication and professional commitment to elevate lives and deliver education, community development and vocational training. Back in Australia, I was keen to meet their President and CEO, Sally Hetherington – and after feeling the full force of her passion for HHA, wanted to hear what lead her to this point in her impactful, and relatively short career.


Thanks for being available to talk about your work Sally - to get us started, can you tell us about your role and how it came about? I'm President of Human and Hope Association Inc. It’s been around since 2013 and a registered NGO in Australia.

Sally (right) with HHA seamstress Sangorb

When I was 25, I moved to Cambodia, determined to make a difference in the world. I built up a grassroots community centre, HHA. The centre is amazing, and is now run entirely by locals who are leading and helping their community.

I’m back in Australia and transitioning to become part-time CEO of HHA Inc. I’m responsible for fundraising and awareness raising; educating people on the importance of local (Cambodian) empowerment and raising funds so HHA can continue its life-changing work.

What an achievement. Was your initial motivation to get involved because you saw something and wanted to change it, or was there something else? When I first moved to Cambodia I worked as a Volunteer Coordinator at a day centre for former street children. Initially I thought what we were doing was incredible but came to realise that while it had an impact on voluntourists, it wasn’t life changing for the children and for the staff.

Imagine what it’s like for Cambodians when foreigners come in and tell them how to do their job, with virtually no understanding of the work or the environment. That model is disrespectful, and just not sustainable. I realised that for Cambodia to develop, the NGOs needed to be led by Cambodians. They know the culture and the community and are there for the long-term.

I got introduced to HHA, which at the time was an English school run by Cambodian volunteers, and occasionally foreigners. I thought I could genuinely help, but I really wanted it to be lead and run entirely by Cambodians. When they offered me a role, I accepted it on two conditions: that I would stop the foreign volunteer program; and I would make myself redundant.

Sally speaking at HHA opening

Sally speaking at HHA opening

That is brilliant! How did you actually help HHA before you moved into fundraising? Many, many things. When I first started with HHA, half of the students were failing in the classes, largely because each class had too many students, up to 40 kids. So first up was getting them registered as an NGO, which helped get funds to promote the local volunteers to paid staff members. I used my training skills to deliver weekly workshops to the staff, and mentor them to ensure they had the skills to provide quality education. In addition, I began to raise funds for university scholarships.

We also initiated new programs, so we weren’t just helping children; but also providing adults with the skills to earn an income so their children could learn. It was a huge job to ensure we had the funds and resources for these programs, however the results were worth it.

That was a massive role - what did you do before you travelled to Cambodia? I used to work with Colonial First State. I was a team coach in retail administration.

A team coach? It was training a specific team on administration and customer service. I loved Colonial First State - they had such a good culture. My Managers were really committed and sent me off to various professional development programs. In addition, I was doing charity work and they were also really supportive of that. But while I enjoyed working with Colonial First State, at the time I just didn’t want to stay in a corporate environment.

That was a lot of clarity so early in your career. What was your first ever job? When I was young, I was quite the entrepreneur. I had Sally's Café at my house, which involved my parents buying the food and them then cooking the food and then me charging them for that. That worked really well.

Then, Sally's Bank where mum would invest $5 with me and I would give her $0.05 interest. She would have to pay me a fee - I did a lot of those little things as a child. My first real job was delivering newspapers in Newcastle, when I was 14.

Apart from when you were busy being Sally entrepreneur, do you remember what you wanted to do when you grew up? I’ve always loved reading, and I wanted to own a bookshop. I would spend my pocket money on Baby-Sitters Little Sister books, and I thought that if I owned a bookshop, I wouldn’t have to pay for my books.

So how do you feel about that dream now? I'd still love to own a bookstore. There was a period there where it looked like bookstores would become redundant, now some are actually thriving. I love paper books.

What does your work week look like? I’m a lark and get quite a lot done before 9am. That gives me flexibility to exercise or run errands. I used to work till 9-10 at night, but I put a stop to that and now usually finish up by 6pm, unless something urgent or important comes up.

My actual work is really varied – I work on grants, volunteer management, fundraising, marketing, general administration ... pretty much anything.

Sally and HHA Team May 2018

Sally and HHA Team May 2018

You've been doing this role for five years now - what do you love about your work? Yes, I've been involved with HHA since 2012, and I'm in it for the long haul. I love that I'm not needed in Cambodia, that they’re empowered and that I contribute positively from Australia; that the funds we raise helps alleviate poverty.

Also, I regularly get a platform to raise awareness about the unintended consequences of voluntourism, which I don't think that is effective for the local communities. I’m proud that I have made people think twice about how they get involved with helping those overseas.

Yes, I’ve heard your message and it’s an important one to keep on sharing. What are some of the challenges you face in your current role? Setting up HHA for success in the long-term! It can be challenging to get some people on board with that, something I expect many charities have to face.

At a personal level, it can be challenging to constantly get out there and make opportunities. I'm getting better at it, but the challenge for me is not being afraid of rejection. People say you shouldn’t take the rejection personally, but I am so invested in HHA, it is personal.

Given that personal investment, what’s been your proudest career moment? This will probably sound repetitive, but it was making myself redundant in Cambodia; passing on my skills and knowledge until they didn’t need me. Other proud moments? Last year my work was recognised with a couple of awards. These made me proud because it meant that others recognised the importance of our work.

Why do you think you were able to make yourself redundant? We were building from the ground up and throughout the process I was constantly saying, ‘I'm not always going to be here, so you need to solve that problem your own’. I really wanted the Cambodians to take over - it was just sheer determination.

If you could go back in your career, is there anything you would change? No, because it's all led me to where I am today. If you want the rainbow you have to put up with the rain.

Is there anybody else's career that you can think of that you admire? I really admire my best friend Melissa Abu-Gazaleh, who founded the Top Blokes Foundation. At 19, she felt that men were overwhelmingly being portrayed negatively in the media and she decided to do something to address the situation.

She literally taught herself how to create and build an organisation, which 12 years on is going strong. I admire her commitment for staying true to her passion.

Do you have a mentor? Melissa is my mentor, someone that I can bounce ideas off. She listens and gives me reality checks that really help me out.

That’s good to have someone who is so supportive, that you trust. Okay, so how do you unwind? I love to read. I set myself a challenge to read 52 books, so at the end of the day, I turn off my computer and have ‘me’ time. I've already read 22 books this year.

You are really focused, so what do you see yourself doing next? I really don't see past being successful as the CEO of HHA – I’m transitioning from a volunteer role to a part-time salary. In the future, I’d also love to run my own Foundation, focusing on providing grants for operating costs, which unfortunately are hard to come by.

What would you like more of in your career right now? And less of? I would love more connections, but there is nothing I would like less of.

As a child what would be one word, you'd use to describe yourself? Entrepreneurial

Given your description of setting up Sally’s Bank, think you might also have been very cute. How would you finish this sentence ‘If you knew me really well, you'd know …’ I'm not a naturally patient person; though I’ve worked on it and its improved a lot.

What kind of impact do you think you have on the people around you? I think that I inspire others to want to help, to get involved more effectively.

What about the impact you have on the life of the Cambodians? I think it’s an intergenerational impact. We're not just providing skills and education, we are positively influencing the behaviour, the values, the attitudes, that can be passed down from generation to generation.

That's what I saw when I was over there – HHA run a range of workshops for the community. Did you set them up? Through feedback, for example from sewing students, I identified the need and initiated the workshops but I didn’t run them. They need to be led by Cambodians. Some of the workshops worked, and others didn’t – but we just tried different things to see what the community wanted.

Other than work, what are you loving about your life right now? I like that it's summer because I love daylight savings and it being light out. I want daylight savings all year round. I find the darkness to be depressing.

Ok, to finish us off, some rapid-fire questions. What's your favourite song? Rather Be by Clean Bandit.

What's your favourite book? I really like The Help by Kathy Stockett

Favourite movie? 100 Foot Journey and I also like Chef. I just love how they incorporated the food into feel good movies.

And your favourite place? Siem Reap in general, and Angkor Archaeological Park in particular. I love imagining what it was like when people were building it and living there. It's just incredible!

Sally’s connection with Cambodia is inspiring. You can read more about Sally and her experiences on her personal website.

Also, Sally will be leading an amazing Purpose and Philanthropy field trip to Siem Reap, where amongst other exciting activities you will visit Human and Hope. I personally can recommend this adventure, as it has a similar itinerary to the trip I did in November, and I’m still raving about.

If you’ve found Sally’s story interesting, you can read about other people who love their work here.

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