A few years ago, I visited Reach Out, a non-governmental organization (NGO) working on HIV/AIDS in Kampala. Father Joseph Archetti, its director, pulled me into a hug. “You have sent us such a wonderful volunteer,” he told me. “She has given us hope.”
It was just one of the many times in the past few years that we’ve felt: Yes! Individuals can make a difference. Rohini Jog, the volunteer Archetti was talking about, was head of business development for a marketing company when she felt the need for change. She signed up with us and, after the initiation rites, left for Uganda.
Sahai now have 1,500 volunteers in each of four cities. (Photograph by Abhijit Bhatlekar / MINT)
Set up in 2001, Reach Out had been losing money steadily on its livelihoods programme. Rohini put her managerial and revenue-generation skills to work and, within eight months, had helped the NGO earn $3,000 (around Rs1.3 lakh) through its handicraft and tailoring workshop. The money, Archetti told me, would allow them to continue their work on HIV/AIDS.
Money. And people. During field studies for a business plan competition in 2000, we realized that non-profits were perpetually short of these two things. Fund raising didn’t interest us, so we looked at people. At the peak of the dot-com boom, the gap between the salaries of NGO and multinational companies was so vast that few trained managers were joining the social sector. Skilled, motivated volunteers, we thought, were the most obvious solution.
We, meaning Rahul Barkataky, who had some experience in the development sector, Shalabh Sahai, who was an Air Force cadet before injuries forced him to quit, and I, Rahul Nainwal, an engineer who had quickly realized the corporate sector wasn’t for me. Separately, we had joined the Institute of Rural Management, Anand, (Irma) in 1998. Shalabh remembers Irma director Kartar Singh announcing at the interview: “Join us only if you want to work for the country’s development. This is not the regular MBA course.”
However, by the time we graduated in 2000, we were still very unsure of the way ahead. We came from modest backgrounds, and there was pressure to earn a living. It took endless discussions among ourselves, and with our professors Debiprasad Mishra and Nirlesh Kothari, to proceed with the volunteering idea. Kothari suggested we stay back at Irma for a couple of months after graduation and convinced the institute to give us a stipend. That was a big morale booster.
After intense research over two months, we had a solid business plan. But we still had no money. That’s when Mishra wrote to Nachiket Mor, then senior general manager of ICICI Bank (and now, head of the ICICI Foundation). He agreed to back us. Six months after graduating from Irma, our idea began to take shape.
Anubhav, a New Delhi-based non-profit working with children living along railway tracks, was one of our first contacts. I remember taking a volunteer to the site on my scooter. She was very enthusiastic, very committed. But as we neared the slums and she realized she would need to come there regularly to teach the kids, her zeal fizzled out. There are many cases like this, though far less now than before. I think the fact that work forces more people to live away from home has a lot to do with it. Volunteering becomes a way of connecting with society.
In the initial stages, iVolunteer (www.ivolunteer.org.in) was completely online. Later, we felt the need for centres in Mumbai, New Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore. From a single programme, we now have five: iVolunteer National for individuals with a decided cause, iVolunteer India Fellow for students who live and work with a rural NGO for six summer weeks, iVolunteer Overseas for professionals who work in a developing country for two years—this is the programme Rohini was on—and goVolunteerindia, for non-Indians.
Recently, we launched India Fellow Professional for professionals skilled in management, consulting, marketing, technology and finance who will be deployed full-time on development projects for up to six months in rural India. Since it involves sabbaticals, we provide a monthly stipend of Rs3,000-5,000.
As an exchange, we are cause-neutral, but we work on education, environment, children, disability and HIV/AIDS. When we started, we placed 60 volunteers in six months. Now we have 1,500 volunteers in each of the four cities. At least four similar organizations have come up in the past few years, but we believe there’s space for 5,000 more. They are a validation of our belief.
As told to Sumana Mukherjee.
If you know of individuals or organizations that veer away from the beaten path, write to firstname.lastname@example.org