Sally Begbie – Social Impact and Service
Sally Begbie


Sally Begbie – Social Impact and Service

March 16, 2021

2020 Alumni Award Winner – Social Impact and Service

BA 1973

Softly spoken in her wisdom and tireless in her dedication, humanitarian, co-founder of Crossroads Foundation, and storyteller Sally Begbie AO helps people find their place in a world of need because, as she says, we all have a place in this world. With her husband and an army of volunteers beside her, multiplying the effect of her work with the dispossessed, the downhearted, the disempowered, and the unseen is her true desire: leaving the world a little better than she found it.

‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’

- John Donne (1572–1631)

Some people leave an imprint on our heart, not so much by what they say or the things they have done, but with their calm, thoughtful presence, their selfless integrity. Their willingness to hold out their hand, to take another’s in theirs – across the country, across the water even – and change someone’s experience of the world. For the better.

To talk with Sally Begbie is to understand what can be done when we start where we are. To live a heart-led life using the skills we have. To always remember that we are but one person, but together, we are many. To not forget that change needs to comes from you and me.

‘Everyone thinks, I’m just an individual, I’m just one person, how can I make a difference?’, says Sally. ‘Even the people with a tremendous amount of power and reach – world shapers – think this way.

‘But as my son, who runs our experiential programs, said to me once, “I’ve realised if we want to see change in this world, the face of change needs to look like you and me.”’

Sally takes a breath and repeats quietly, ‘It looks like you and me.’

‘We need to ask,’ she continues, ‘What difference can I make with the people I know? With the skills and the interests that I have? You don’t have to be a full-time humanitarian worker to make a difference. Simply ask – what is my place in a world of need?’

It’s a question Sally asked herself as a young graduate, fresh out of a media and communications degree at Macquarie University – the first of its kind. ‘It was back when people didn’t think media and communications was university-level material,’ she explains.

‘Many felt journalism wouldn’t be robust or stringent enough in a university context, while boots-on-the-ground media people thought it might be too theoretical, too erudite to be useful. It’s funny now, looking back, that there was so much resistance to the course.

‘Macquarie was only a year old at the time – there were four large buildings and greenery as far as the eye could see – with a growing reputation for being innovative and creative. It was incredibly courageous of Macquarie to trial it,’ she says.

Undertaking the course radically changed Sally’s life, opening the door to full-time work in writing and public relations almost immediately. In doing so, she says, ‘I found myself increasingly drawn to stories that were about humanitarian causes; they were the ones that pulled me. I was intrigued to see how people were trying to help others out of a tough place.’

And it just went from there. Drawn to what she calls the sleeves-rolled-back kind of charities – not the glossy charities and NGOs with loads of money for PR and communications, but those who couldn’t afford to pay for such services. ‘I used my stories to get the word out for those organisations, and that became my life,’ she says.

There is more than one thread that brings together a life, a career – and a purpose. Listening to Sally talk about her studies in English literature at Macquarie, you get the sense they also informed her way of being in the world. ‘I loved literature, learning how people captured humanity down through the centuries; how they reached into the human soul with words.’

Something Sally, together with her chartered accountant husband, has been doing ever since. ‘We always felt we would be working in the humanitarian space with the words and numbers – me with my writing and Malcolm through project planning and budgets.’

Sometimes life pulls us in a different direction. Through several serendipitous events their goodwill blossomed into the Crossroads Foundation. ‘There was no grand vision,’ explains Sally. ‘We were never going to start an NGO because we felt the world already had so many good ones. All that changed in 1995 when floods hit northern China, the inner Mongolian region, and we were asked to help.

‘I offered to do a pamphlet, and Malcolm offered to do a budget, but they wanted shipments of blankets and warm clothing. Two million people had lost everything – temperatures there get down to minus 20 or 30 degrees Celsius: it’s desperately cold in winter.

‘We weren’t set up to do aid, but got some volunteers together, did one shipment, did another. And it just kept growing. As we went on, we saw more and more need. We couldn’t turn our backs on people in these appalling situations when we knew we could be using our time and effort to do something.’

And do something they did. Over twenty-five years, Crossroads was formally established and has been changing the story for those in need all around the world. ‘We love to see people empowered,’ says Sally. ‘Sometimes just a small thing can help people move forward in their life. I love staring at a map, and the challenge of thinking, how are we going to get that there?’.

The foundation has grown into four main initiatives. Global Handicrafts is a fair-trade marketplace; Global Hand, an online service partnering NGOs with corporations to provide goods; and Global Distribution, a service distributing donated computers, medical equipment, educational toys and clothing to those in need globally.

‘We just help in any way we can. These people are survivors and have lived through far more pain than most of us can imagine. They’ve been in the fire, sometimes for decades, yet there’s a beautiful spirit within so many that leaves you stunned because they’ve found a way to cope; with love, and forgiveness.’

Sharing a tiny part of that experience is where the fourth initiative, Global Village (Global X-perience), comes in. Over 200,000 students, business teams, community groups, families and individual visitors have stepped into the shoes of people experiencing war, HIV/AIDS, blindness, hunger, and other complex global issues that hold billions in poverty. As they say, to understand a person, we must walk a mile in their shoes.

‘People like Aisha,’ says Sally. ‘A young girl in a refugee camp that Crossroads routinely supports. A camp designed for 2500 people but with 20,000 people; the water resources, the food, the medical resources were all practically zero.’

Sally continues, quietly. ‘One night, Aisha went to the bathroom, and an adult male raped her. She went home to her mother, told her what had happened and then stopped speaking, stopped eating and, like so many other refugee women, never went back to the bathroom again – it’s just so dangerous.

‘When a professional trauma specialist visited Aisha, she explained to the mother that her child needed very strong medication to overcome her experience, and she needed very special care. The mother agreed but stressed the child’s father must never know – if he did, her daughter would no longer be part of their family.’

‘Thankfully, this little girl got out of that situation with the help of the specialist, and she has a new life, but we long to get more help to these people who are unseen, who are forgotten, who are disempowered.

‘The world has turned its back on so many people because the problems just seem so big and so overwhelming, especially during COVID, which understandably has taken everyone’s focus, but these people are still suffering so greatly.’

As our conversation comes to an end, Sally explains Aisha is not her real name, we can’t use that for obvious reasons, but it means one who is alive. And seen. And heard. Thanks to people like Sally. People just like us. Making a difference in a world of need.

Sally Begbie AO has served developing nations since 1979, including co-founding the Crossroads Foundation, an NGO based in Hong Kong that brings people and organisations together to combat global need. Sally received an Officer of the Order of Australia award for her outstanding service to the international community in providing humanitarian relief and as a significant contributor to the United Nations’ efforts to connect business organisations with those in need. Sally was also awarded the Australia China Alumni Association award for Women in Leadership in 2018.

 Words: Megan English

Comments (6)

  1. Barb Wilkinson

    Thank you Sally. You do your alma mater proud!! You do all Australians proud. Thank you for your selfless contribution that means so many have access to shelter and comforts in a way so many of us take for granted. You’re an inspiration to me and mine.

  2. Wendy Watson

    Loving congratulations, dear Sal, on this Alumni Award. We are thrilled for you, and for your family, and for the continuing impact that Crossroads International is able to make in our sad, difficult, and divided world.

  3. Pamela King

    Sally absolutely deserves to receive this Alumni Award.. Her commitment and that of her family over 25 years to the world’s poor and vulnerable is a story that needs to be told.

  4. Barbara Bluett

    Congratulations Sal. I can’t think of anyone who deserves this honour more than you. Its wonderful to see some recognition of your very hard work, skill and compassion over many years. You’ve made such a difference in countless lives around the world (along with your family too!).

  5. Ian Strachan

    When Sally and Malcolm started Crossroads in 1995 I was the Director of Social Welfare Services in Hong Kong. They came to my office because they needed premises from which to operate. I instantly realised their vision and mission and Government provided them with premises. But the work of Crossroads kept growing beyond Malcolm and Sally’s wildest dreams and in 2003 Government again stepped in with amazing larger premises. Their commitment to the poor and vulnerable has captured the hearts of so many people in Hong Kong, Australia and across the world. Crossroads is a unique ministry.

  6. David de Groen

    Dear Sal congratulations on your award, and all the more so for your and Malcolm’s life time of love, compassionate service and commitment to those in need. It has been a pleasure to walk with you both over these past 29 years. Blessings to you and Malcolm, your family and all those who work tirelessly with you.


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