The Student Volunteer Army (SVA) launched a nationwide pandemic response to support people most impacted by COVID-19.  Through their past experience with crises such as the Christchurch earthquakes they had the ability to mobilise a large number of student volunteers quickly.  They joined forces with other New Zealand volunteer groups, businesses, organisations and brands to support those in need by providing a reliable source of vetted and willing volunteers.
The major project has been Delivery Service which is now fully operational across New Zealand and we chat to Sam Johnson, SVA’s Founder and Foundation CEO to find out more about the programme that has been so successful, it will now continue beyond the COVID-19 lockdown.

How did the service begin?

We knew there would be demand from volunteers to help, so we worked with a number of businesses and organisations and put together a volunteer find/screen/ match process.  Our conversation quickly led to the most pressing need which was: How can we get food quickly to those who can afford, but can’t access, groceries.

What did you do to help make that happen?
We built an online shopping service and call centre thanks to the help of a team of kiwi entrepreneurs and developers, and partnered with key organisations such as TTF, New World, Hyundai and Z Energy. We now deliver groceries with a smile to hundreds of people across NZ.

How did SVA and TTF come to work together?
We’ve operated nationwide with our SVA Schools and SVA Service Award secondary school programmes for a few years now, but responding to COVID-19 is much more complex. TTF helped us scale the service quickly and keep both the volunteers and service users safe.  TTF also introduced us to Sam Morgan who also helped us extend the service to be able to pick up and deliver groceries for our target market anywhere in NZ.

Can you explain the service SVA’s delivers in more detail?
Customers place an order by visiting (or calling 0800 005 902), and order their shopping, paying via credit card. Within 48 hours (and often the next morning) a screened, trained, friendly volunteer will pick up the items and deliver it contactlessly to the customer.  Half of our orders are taken by ringing people that have been referred to us – we ring them and ask what they need and take their grocery order over the phone.   The other half comes from people that have contacted us directly. Each volunteer is given a shopping list for 2-3 customers and goes to one of the 40 New World supermarkets we’ve partnered with and picks the groceries off the shelves.  Having our volunteers do this also helps reduce workload for essential supermarket workers too and create a valuable task for a volunteer to do.  It probably takes around 2-3 hours of volunteers time depending on the distance travelled to deliver the groceries. We recruited a volunteer force of 2,500 for COVID19 and continually connect volunteers with needs as well as deliver groceries.

What difference has funding from TTF been able to make?
SVA Grocery Service isn’t about food, it’s about connection. It is about making someone feel like their community is there for them and cares enough about them to deliver their groceries. We’re now working with care agencies, DHB’s, disability providers and others who have said we are solving two very significant problems – how vulnerable people can safely get groceries and how to connect younger and older people to reduce loneliness and isolation.

Has it helped leverage any other relationships?
Yes, we’re working with other organisations now that we were not working with beforehand like KiwiHarvest and Maanaki20. We’re fortunate to have great partners and advisors who are helping drive student volunteering to be less about picking up rubbish and more about connecting people.

What sort of feedback have you received from the people you are delivering to?
One volunteer heard from the phone line team that it was the 80th birthday of one of her customers that day, and took the time to make a beautiful handmade card and sought out her favourite chocolate as a birthday gift. Needless to say, the birthday girl was delighted!
Another volunteer Karyn remembers volunteering with SVA after the earthquakes, after other charities wouldn’t use her skills. She couldn’t describe how much her mental health benefitted from helping others when she had lost so much, and felt very privileged to be part of the clean-up effort.
While the delivery remains contactless, we are seeing that both volunteers and customers are benefitting from the (appropriately distanced) social connection.

And feedback from your volunteers?
Our volunteers love getting out of the house and having a sense of connection to someone else.  The feeling that their skills are useful and they have something valuable to contribute to our communities has been immense.

What have you learned from this experience so far?
Loneliness and social isolation create significant health and mental health challenges and volunteering has a huge role to play. We’re learning that we have actually created an innovative solution to social isolation and loneliness; a problem the health and community sector have grabbled with for some time.

We are looking to add two additional offerings to sit alongside Grocery Delivery: 
1.    SVA ‘At Home’ Families, individuals, health care professionals or those living with a disability can request SVA help in the home. This may include unpacking groceries, help using the computer, internet or devices, or bringing in firewood for those most vulnerable in our society.
2.    SVA Buddy programme with a young person living with a disability or someone experiencing mild-moderate mental health challenges is referred to SVA to volunteer to deliver groceries to give that person purpose, activity and connection.

How can we find out more? 
If you know of anyone who may benefit from SVA’s grocery delivery service you can contact them on or 0800 005 902.  We are happy to take referrals.

‘I got my groceries today – 24 hour turnaround – awesome and a lovely young woman who brightened my day just by coming up my drive. How I felt seeing a friendly face really reinforces the value of what you are doing here, well beyond the groceries themselves. Just that very small interaction made me feel normal even if only at a distance, as a person who lives on her own.’