For a zero-fund social organization that’s run by volunteers, it’s no small feat to become part of the Harvard Business School’s case collection. But that’s just what Robin Hood Army (RHA) has managed to do. The organization, which works to get surplus food from restaurants and communities to the less fortunate, began in Delhi six years ago, with five Robins, or volunteers. Today, RHA has nearly 40,000 Robins spread across 158 cities.
In an interview with Mint, the RHA’s co-founder Sanchit Jain, who co-owns a business startup, talks about the reason behind the growing number of volunteers (the army offers no monetary incentive or participation certificate), the plan they follow to execute donation drives on time, and how they keep the army’s focus from getting diluted. Edited excerpts:
How do you think being a Harvard case study will help RHA?
This certainly gives validity to our work and, hopefully, the credibility that comes will help us in scaling outside India and expanding our international footprint.
Considering all drives are volunteer-driven, what structure have you created to ensure each project is executed smoothly?
We are heavily biased towards execution and we are a very decentralized organization. All our chapters have their own typical culture and work in their own way. In fact, we encourage Robins to think of the chapter as their own startup. We, however, have three non-negotiable rules, which we call as our core values—we don’t accept any money, we are an apolitical organization, and we are open to people of all religions. Everyone has to follow these.
Each chapter (there are 155 at present) has a POC (point of contact), who is chosen either because he/she took initiative in setting up the chapter, people who are most active or chosen by chapter members. The POC is not a leadership position like in a corporate structure, it’s more from an accountability point of view.
Also, every chapter knows that every Friday, the food count needs to be submitted. We have a team that monitors the social media posts of all the RHA chapters and as everybody has a sense of ownership with their chapter, it makes them accountable.
While self-motivation plays a big part, how else do you keep the volunteers motivated?
We do a few things to ensure they stay connected to RHA’s vision. Every year, we have an annual meet, where the co-founders, the growth team and POCs of each chapter fly to Delhi. We discuss our vision, goals for the year, highlight achievements for the past year, etc. Also when we are in a city where an RHA is present, we make it a point to meet the team. The idea is to drill in the vision, the ethics and core values of the organization.
We also have something called the leader board, where we have managed to gamify whatever we are doing. So, we publish how many people a city has served in a particular week. It inculcates a lot of positive competition among the different chapters.
This has helped us a lot because people get very creative. For instance, every 15 August, we have a mega drive, along with media partnerships. Last year, we had RHA logo on gas balloons. This idea came from our Faridabad chapter. The others adopted the idea.
Since it’s voluntary, people may have to give priority to work or family commitments at the cost of fulfilling certain RHA tasks. How do you ensure the projects don’t get hampered?
There’s an understanding that when someone gives a heads up, others in the team are more than happy to take their place. We keep telling Robins to make themselves replaceable, as life can catch up any time. So, they need to ensure that a suitable replacement in their team is ready in case they get caught up with something at work or family. We learnt this from experience in the initial years to avoid depending on certain people to execute all the time; it’s not sustainable in the long run.
Another thing that we keep reminding Robins is the motto of “citizens first, mission next and Robins last". We have had instances where the person heading the chapter may not be the ideal person as they try to turn it into a corporate organization structure, where everyone needs to listen to their instructions. However, what has worked for us is that you let people do their thing and they will surprise you.