© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2021

Laura Johnson is a local young leader on the rise.

Laura Johnson - WOI
Laura Johnson, Finalist in Young Leader category  Nikki Carroll

The co-founder and co-director of the Christchurch based voluntourism business Purpose Projects, is one of 82 finalists in the 2019 Women of Influence awards, 11 of whom are from the Canterbury area.

Laura Johnson, 23, set up her organisation in 2018 because she wanted to change the way that young adults volunteer overseas. There has become a new industry of young people going overseas and volunteering. It has almost become like a market for international organisations to send people overseas because they can get such a high amount of money for each volunteer going. But the money is often not going to the in country organisations that the volunteers are working with.

When Johnson was 18 she first went overseas and got stuck in the voluntourism trap and ended up paying about three and a half thousand for three weeks overseas. However the organisation based in Uganda that she was working with saw about $200 of this.  "So for me, it was like, massive I was so, like shocked that this was a system and that was how it was working for young people" Johnson said.

Johnson then spent the next three years traveling back and forth to Uganda - understanding, learning, researching, developing, volunteering - seeing how it works in other countries, how it works in New Zealand, and trying to adapt a model that would work for young people. Purpose Projects launched last year based on the model Johnson had created with its main target being young people and making sure that their financial investment was transparent and going to the right places.  "Young people heard about our story through my travels back and forth, and were supportive of the organisation and what we're trying to do and came overseas. So we did our first project and now we're an official organisation" said Johnson.

Johnson grew up in Timaru and has always been passionate about causes.  In fact at the age of 14, she going to shave her hair off to raise money for cancer which her mum and granny were not happy about her doing. Johnson wrote to the local paper, got public support and then her family had to jump on board.  Johnson said "I actually did the same thing when I first went overseas to volunteer, because I knew what worked. They were not for it, so I wrote to the paper which supported me then the Timaru community came together in support of the campaign. And so my family had to support me going overseas in my first volunteer role."

After her first stint overseas Johnson moved to Christchurch to do a double degree in law and public health at the University of Canterbury.  During her studies she was also researching to set up Purpose Projects as she felt with the change in culture for young people - massive global awareness and environmental awareness - it was important for students who were going overseas on their study breaks and wanting to have meaningful travel to be able to do it in the right way. 

Laura Johnson - PP WOI
Laura Johnson, co-founder of Purpose Projects Purpose Projects

Johnson started Purpose Projects in January last year and took the first intake of about 30 trainee volunteers in February. The organisation's work model is that the volunteers fundraise for the flights and administration costs, which is the cost of living and the insurance. Then they raise an additional $3,000 as a donation which all comes together to pay for a project overseas. 

Last year, 18 people travelled to Uganda in November for a month. Then a second month long trip happened in January this year for the rest of the volunteers and together the donations funded an organisation that was implementing a local development plan in Koba village. The Ugandan organsation (Hopeline) had been donated 9.8 acres of land and the first project was a primary school which the volunteers helped to complete while they were there over the Summer.

Future plans for Purpose Projects include another two trips this coming Summer. And then in the 2020/2021 Summer, Johnson is hoping to take four trips and/or spread into Australia. The organisation currently utilises previous volunteers in their own areas and their own universities as the go to people, for others to talk to about how voluntourism works in Auckland, Wellington, Hamilton and Dunedin as well as Christchurch . 

Johnson does stress it is really important that young people aren't going in without qualifications into areas that they shouldn't be going to, into work that they shouldn't be doing; and with a realistic understanding that they're not going to save everybody. She also said that the volunteers need to remember "It's not about us. It's not about me, it's not about them going overseas and giving that service. You know, we're supporting a Ugandan organisation and their work and it's about them and their stories, and bringing those to the front"

Johnson is extremely humbled by her nomination in the Young Leaders category, which came from volunteers who had attended Purpose Projects first two trips, as well as her co-founder Stuart who joined her in the research stage in 2017.  The awards are being held in Auckland on Thursday, October 24.