New Delhi: Habitat for Humanity, an international non-profit organization, is hoping Indian companies will help it build 50,000 homes for the poor over the next five years. Literally.
Volunteers on Habitat for Humanity sites primarily work as unskilled labour, mixing concrete, hauling bricks and raising walls, alongside trained masons and carpenters, and, sometimes, the families that will live in the homes.
Besides community service, companies, such as Citi India, Whirlpool of India Ltdand Birlasoft, welcome the volunteer opportunity as a way to strengthen teams, erase hierarchy and bridge generational divides in the workplace. They say it’s also a more meaningful way to bond; river rafting and offsite brainstorming sessions were getting cliched.
“On one side you see India shining and you have salaries running in lakhs and on the other side you see the poverty,” says Shiva S., a spokesman for Birlasoft, the Noida-based information technology arm of the C.K. Birla Group, which has committed to a year-long project with Habitat. “Most of us have earned well. We wanted to do something more than just write checks.”
Entry-level employees work alongside those from the corner office, everyone dressed in the same safety gear. Those at the top often step aside and defer to the new guy leading the construction site team.
“What really helps a lot with team-building is that ... you have a large number of people from different places in the hierarchy,” says Madhulika Gupta, head of corporate affairs for Citi India, which has sent more than 300 volunteers to building sites. Gupta keeps a safety helmet signed by one family in a Habitat home.
Habitat used to primarily see teams of international volunteers who would fly in for a week-long build, or get “sweat equity” from school groups, but in the past few years has had more and more companies showing interest, says Sunil David, Habitat’s Delhi-based director of operations for North India. He says he has a full fleet of corporate bookings between October and March, and a pile of requests.
To qualify for the houses, as small as some drawing rooms, families might be slum dwellers, victims of disasters as earthquakes or tsunamis, or completely homeless. Companies sponsor one or more of the houses they build; Habitat for Humanity has various ways homeowners “pay” for the heavily subsidized homes.
The companies say the volunteers bring relevant lessons back to the office. “Typically we tried to choose leaders from the bottom ranks to help everyone mix together and give them a chance to lead,” said Birlasoft’s Ravi Kathuria, vice president for global marketing and senior executive who volunteered at the Bawana resettlement slum outside Delhi. But using corporate volunteers has its challenges. Despite work gloves and tools, many information-technology executives and bankers never performed manual labour.
“They essentially do the job of Rs100-a-day labourers,” says David. “They really don’t know what they are in for, especially when the mercury rises above 40 degrees.”
The teams of 20 labourers or more can often save the homeowner a large chunk what a Habitat house costs to build, typically between Rs20,000 and Rs24,000. David says he uses a “Rs70 test,” asking the skilled workers to evaluate whether their corporate comrades are worth hiring. Usually, they make the cut, he says.
“Many of us had never picked up stones or sand before,” says Rakesh Chitkara, director of public affairs at Dow Chemical (India) Pvt Ltdwho participated in a build outside Mumbai.
“And we had five days to build something that people were going to live in, so it has to be technically sound.”
The bottom line, say volunteers, is the sense of satisfaction from handing over the keys of a finished home to the people who will live there.