'Volunteering is the best thing I ever did'

ABC producer and journalist Nick Sas says his year in Solomon Islands changed the direction of his career, and his views on what's important in life.

A group of people gathered outside a building, with a sign that says 'S.I.B.C Radio Happy Isles' behind them. The people in the photos are smiling and laughing.

Nick Sas is the executive producer of the Pacific Local Journalism Network, leading a team of ABC journalists based in the Pacific Islands. He was working at a major newspaper when he signed up to volunteer at the Solomon Islands’ national broadcaster. Here’s his story.

I was working as a technology and business reporter at the West Australian. I had been at the paper for a while and was reaching a point where I needed a new challenge.

I’d heard of the Australian Volunteers Program through a friend. When she came back to work after volunteering I was intrigued by her stories and experiences. It stuck with me. When this role as a digital media trainer come up, it seemed like a really good fit for me, so I applied.

All the training you get before you go is great, but nothing can prepare you for when you are in country.

There were times in my first week in Honiara where I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do this’. It was a big culture shock. But you just learn to roll with the punches, and eventually you get there.

Developing trust

My main objective was to train and develop the journalists and program makers in digital media. When I got there, the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation (SIBC)

SIBC had a Facebook page and a website, but the sites weren’t being fully utilised, and there was an opportunity to build the audience for these platforms and eventually generate revenue from advertising.

The best advice, which I got as part of my pre-departure training, was to try to develop relationships for the first three months.

We can get caught in that Western-style thinking of needing to achieve this, achieve that. I learnt that it was so much more important in those first few months to develop trust by talking to the staff and getting to know them.

'We saw a 20-fold increase in traffic to the website'

Together with my colleagues, we ran organisational-wide training sessions, developed digital strategies and offered content no-one else had, like short videos and photo galleries. The analytics showed that it worked!

We saw a 20-fold increase in traffic to the website. When I started, we had 3,000 followers on Facebook and when I left there were about 15,000.

I was able to help shift the journalists’ philosophies on what was newsworthy. It’s easy for them to forget how amazing their cultural stories are, but I was able to talk to the staff about how their cultural stories can be just as important as a hard-news or political story.

Volunteering was a learning process for me the whole time.

There were definitely challenges. Solomon Islands is a long way away culturally as well as physically, from Perth, and that was difficult at times. The electricity would go out a lot, and sometimes you’d go to five different places to get stuff for dinner. But I learnt so much from the people I worked with.

It’s hard to define in a word or a sentence, but I think humility and appreciating what you’ve got, is the best way to sum it up.

I was really proud at my farewell dinner. As a surprise, my colleagues got up one-by-one and made a little speech about what we’d done and what it had meant to them. I was really emotional. You hope that you are actually making an impact, but sometimes it’s hard to quantify.

'Volunteering changed my values and priorities'

When I came back to Perth, there was a bit of reverse cultural shock; it was difficult in the first two or three months to readjust.

I spent some time freelancing before being offered a job at the ABC in Sydney. Volunteering has changed my values and priorities, and I now feel more aligned to the ABC charter. It’s given me the opportunity to get involved in the PACMAS program and the ABC’s Media Development Initiative (MDI), which run short-term training courses with media professionals in Pacific countries.

It’s been really rewarding for me personally to be able to continue to do what I did in Honiara.

'Just do it!'

I definitely apply the skills and values I learnt while volunteering to my work – in terms of building relationships and being patient. That was one of the major takeaways for me - learning that sometimes it’s important to take a deep breath and relax.

Volunteering in Solomon Islands is the best thing I ever did, full-stop. I developed a lot of skills that I never would have been able to get without doing a volunteer assignment.

To other people out there working in the media industry, if you’re thinking about a volunteer assignment, I’d definitely say just do it!