Making a world of difference

Welcome to the trend that is engaging more and more youngsters in the 18-35 age group. These motivated youngsters, be it from India or abroad, have given social work a makeover and made it a lot more professional
Taru Bahl

Adesign student rebranding a company's logo; a Ph.D in digital media creating a new website; a yoga teacher training students in self discipline; a budding filmmaker producing videos; a college student working with slum children. This and more are themes taken up by volunteers, who spend one month to three years working with organisations of their choice, usually gratis, or at best getting an honorariam that covers just their cost of commuting.

G.K and Chinny Swamy set up Purkal Youth Development Society, near Dehradun
G.K and Chinny Swamy set up Purkal Youth Development Society, near Dehradun

Company policy

Many companies have a clear volunteering policy. They respond to volunteer queries, have HR interviews and hire suitable candidates and assign specific goals and timelines to deliver them in. In post-recessionary times, employers wait to receive volunteers. No longer is a volunteer expected to scurry around the office, getting coffee and doing photocopying. The employer has a specific task which the volunteer delivers.

Sujata Sahu, of the 17,000 ft. Foundation, which works with more than 950 schools in Ladakh, talks of their volunteering options. "We have a structured programme. Since the terrain is inhospitable, ours is a flexible model. From 18-60 years of age, experts to novices, there is room for everyone to pitch in for duration ranging from two days to a month. Our volunteer programmes are centred around the village school, where we conduct simple art/craft, science workshops and reading programmes as well as infrastructure improvement projects." She explains how a mother-daughter team completed cataloguing for the school library; a father-son duo conducted science experiments and an IT professional took computer classes. Volunteers paid for their air fare, accommodation (home stay) and local commute.

"Pay to volunteer? You kidding me!" with disbelief writ large on his face, Sarthak Kapoor, a student of hotel management, from Bangalore, says he is not at that stage of life when he can think of social work. More so, when all around him he hears batch mates, compare pay packages, perks and freebees. In a lighter vein he says, "At best, folks like me will join an organisation, usually an NGO, if the time volunteered with them looks good on their CV. Their most precious takeaway from the assignment is a letter of commendation or experience."

Material gains don't matter

However, there are people for whom the volunteering experience takes precedence over material gains. Ian Bcbride, came from London to work with Etasha Society, a Delhi-based NGO that provides employability skills and placement to children from underprivileged backgrounds, and stayed on. He took a salary cut himself and has been here for six years but says with an air of disappointment, "Indian kids do not have a strong volunteering spirit. They start enthusiastically but drop out as fast. They do not realise it is not about making them feel good about themselves but bringing relevant skills to the table." Etasha has a streamlined process for recruiting volunteers. Screening starts with an elaborate form to assesses volunteer’s expectations, followed by an interview. According to Ian, seven out of 10 volunteering enthusiasts, drop off at this stage and if they do make it to day one of work, when they are given clear goals, not surprisingly, many do not turn up on day two.

Channelling youth power

G.K Swamy, who along with his wife Chinny, set up the Purkal Youth Development Society has himself been a long-serving volunteer, not taking a rupee from the society. The society boasts of a state-of-the-art school and an all-women NGO that has created sustainable livelihoods for more than 6,000 women. "We rely on volunteers, mostly international students, since they are far more dedicated, vibrant and serious and can be given specific functions to handle", he says. Guy Brickley, a resident of London, visited them in 2008 and stayed on for two years. As a volunteer, Guy taught yoga and English to rural lads who are now fluent in English. He also conducted English learning workshops for teachers and free yoga sessions for students and teachers.

While there may be nothing extraordinary about an organisation having interesting tasks cut out for a volunteer who is not looking to be compensated monetarily, it is important to understand what his/her motivations are; what s/he hopes to gain; and where does it fit in with his/her overall career goals?

Ishita Choudhary set up the The YP Foundation as a forum for young people to change the environment they are a part of
Ishita Choudhary set up the The YP Foundation as a forum for young people to change the environment they are a part of

Profile of a volunteer

For Gopika Dhawan, joining YP Foundation in New Delhi, in her first year of graduation was a spontaneous choice. She wanted to do something constructive, since after a full day at college, she still had time to make herself "useful". The YP Foundation, was set up by Ishita Choudhary, as a forum for young people working to change the environment they were part of. This they could do by engaging in social development projects, educating street children, undertaking women empowerment workshops in bastis and livelihood training, amongst others.

Based on a strong volunteering concept, volunteers were put on specific projects from day one. Gopica was with them for 18 months and feels it shaped her world view. It was easier for her was because she had been volunteering since school, in ways that allowed her to "give back part of herself to the community." The motivation for her was to experience "the feeling of doing something yourself and not just donating money. Therefore, the thought of being financially compensated did not cross my mind." However, there was a lot of juggling to do. "Effectively this translated into reduced sleeping hours, skipping weekend lunches and birthdays and hanging out less in college, post classes. I did not regret these ‘sacrifices’ since I learnt more than I expected and could apply it to my daily life." From prioritising tasks to learning to delegate and say 'no', she became independent and even overcame her hesitation to ask for directions on Delhi's roads. Assigned a community programme called "Blending Spectrum" as peer educator, she worked with urban street and slum children to promote child rights. She also volunteered for fund raising and administrative jobs. All this helped, when companies came recruiting to college, and Gopica found more than one appointment letter in hand.

For Slovenia-based, Urban Presker, a student of political and cultural studies, who spent three months with Delhi-based Etasha, doing video films, writing for blogs and editing audio files for a language module, opting for an international volunteering experience was a conscious one. She had earlier worked with Amnesty International in Slovenia on human rights and with Glen, an international global education programme which sends young Europeans to different volunteer projects around the world. Seeking an opportunity to work at the grassroots, she chanced upon Etasha's profile and opted for a project on filmmaking.

She feels an international volunteer who is going to an unknown country and an unfamiliar organisation should be prepared for surprises. Instead of having an idealistic notion, question, seek and connect with other volunteers. Living in India was a great experience but at a practical level, she says, "The volunteering experience was no different from any other country. Problems, people in need and opportunities to learn exist everywhere and young people should step forward to create a better future for themselves and others."She is guided by the belief that there is a two-way gain in volunteering. It also provides young people opportunities to learn, develop competencies, meet new people, develop networks, increase employability and grow as individuals. Many get recruited by the organisation or end up as independent consultants later.


Over-arching issues, especially during natural disasters, wars, Olympic games or for that matter, US elections rely on volunteers, sourced through rigorous selection from across the world, for as long as a year. Breathless with road shows, making presentations, scheduling media interviews, writing speeches and doing back-stage work, it is a gruelling experience but a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

You may be consumed by the job and be lost to friends and family for 12 months, but the thrill and learning of being part of the largest election campaign in the world is very likely going to leave an indelible impression on your mind.

Companies are gearing to create volunteering options, especially at a time when there is a tightening of budgets. Volunteers with specific skill sets are being sought to save on expert fees and, more importantly, to benefit from the energy a volunteer brings and which cannot be matched by a salaried employee. "I feel everyone has a spirit of volunteering it's only a matter of finding 'the cause'. While at a larger level it must be meaningful, at a more basic level it can be about having fun in a less constricting way.

A budding musician, for instance, can have so much fun volunteering with an upcoming band, helping with equipment and organising gigs. Which is why it works best when you have a close and personal connection with the cause you volunteer for," says Ishita.

Creating a productive culture

n Good communication before initiating the project: The organisation and volunteer should clarify goals, tasks, expectations and work arrangements.

n Flexible recruiting process: Adapt to accommodate each other (maybe important to give time off to an international volunteer to travel).

n Feedback, review and assess: Periodically review to evaluate progress and satisfaction levels.

n A good fit: Ensure that the volunteer is aligned to the company's values.

n Documentation and testimonials: Document the volunteer's experience and put it on the company's website.