Volunteering Also Enables People to Learn New Skills: Shalabh Sahai, Co-Founder & Director, iVolunteer

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By DD Mishra

Shalabh Sahai is an alumnus of the prestigious Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA) and was India’s first Commonwealth Professional Fellow. He has co- founded iVolunteer and Jobs for Good. iVolunteer is a social enterprise that promotes volunteering. iVolunteer strives to bring volunteers and organisations together to share time, skills and passion to promote India’s social development, through its various initiatives. Their mantra: Passion + Skills = Change Lives.

In interview with DD Mishra, Associate Editor, INDIACSR Shalabh Sahai, Co-Founder & Director, iVolunteer shared about his work and passion towards volunteerism in India.

Warm greetings from INDIACSR. Will you share your vision behind iVolunteer?

India’s social development needs are unquestionably substantial but we believe that the answer lies with its people. India has a wealth of home grown skills and expertise which when utilised in the right organisations will make a significant difference in meeting these needs. iVolunteer’s  mission is to bring volunteers and organisations together to share time, skills and passion to promote India’s social development.

In a society, with rampant unemployment, how do you visualize future of volunteerism? Will it reduce employment opportunities?

Volunteerism is a beautiful expression of universal human kindness. It is born out of free will to help one – another and work towards the betterment of society without expecting anything in return. It ensures that each one of us contributes actively as members of society and prospers by overcoming the challenges at hand.

Volunteering, in fact is fully capable of generating economic value too, which in turn can reduce    unemployment. Take for example, a small but promising social enterprise that has a solution to a social enigma but its management lacks the capacity to scale it up. In comes a volunteer with proven expertise in scaling up operations and helps this social enterprise expand its operations manifold. The resulting growth will, of course create more job opportunities. More importantly, its success will ensure that these new jobs will help resolve the social enigma with more vigour. Whiteboard, one of our recent initiatives, does this by enabling NGO leaders to access pro-bono expertise of senior professionals from the corporate sector.

Volunteering also enables people to learn new skills. Many international universities encourage students to volunteer so that they can learn new skills while getting exposure to new cultures and communities. Employers are also increasingly giving credit to the experience thus gained apart from academic curriculum and work experience. This movement is fast gaining momentum in India too.

Today amongst two candidates of equal calibre, volunteering experience is likely to tilt the balance in favour of the one who volunteers and  thus shows more initiative and compassion. Youth driven social initiatives are testimony that volunteering to learn, explore and enhance skill sets is fast gaining ground.

The most popular form of volunteering is where volunteers give part of their time to help the less privileged and organisations who work for their development. Such work does not take away from that of those employed. In fact, it has the potential to create more opportunities specifically for the under-privileged.

How do you define role of volunteering in corporate sustainability and business responsibility?

I always prefer to align volunteering with corporate sustainability than with business responsibility. Corporate sustainability is directly linked to the core interests of its stakeholders, which means it, will never, be out of season or fashion. Business responsibility instead sounds more externally imposed.

Businesses can, not just sustain themselves but will grow, if society itself is prospering. True volunteerism helps corporates build trust within communities in which they operate. The business is also able to gauge the potential and market reception of not only its products and services but also of key inputs like suppliers and labour.

Corporate contribution to social development ensures that it is a symbiotic development and not an exploitative one which always has limited life. Volunteering provides the essential human connect to corporate contribution. Take, for example, a company that has a very well meaning CSR program but one that is restricted to doling out funds for community development.

The management will be dependent upon external expertise to guide and implement such a program with no internal connect. A company may, instead, grow such expertise and increase ownership within its eco-system by including employees as corporate volunteers. Employees will form a bond with the community they volunteer in and be able to guide the CSR program including application of funds in the best interests of the community. The community will benefit from an unbiased spokesperson that they find within the company and the company will benefit from a more desirable and efficient applications of funds along with a heightened faith by its employees.

No amount of number crunching analysis and external expertise is ever able to replace human sensibilities. You may ask any senior corporate leader…


Is it going to bring any paradigm shift in the current scenario of CSR?

A definite paradigm shift is already underway. One, CSR is no more the prerogative of a few employees entrusted with the responsibility within a corporate. It is becoming a part of corporate strategy at senior levels and encourages employee engagement at all levels. I know of a leading multinational that had a stream of volunteers coming to India from their European strongholds before it finally decided on its India strategy.

It cannot be a mere co-incidence that formal business presence – organic growth and acquisitions – followed the volunteers. The world’s leading chain of coffee cafes started talking about volunteerism and CSR even before they opened the first outlet in India! We facilitated a leading creative agency in India in engaging their employees as volunteers in rural India – there was no immediate market there, just that the agency wanted its people to re-ignite their creative thinking with more of India. Each of these represents the strategic role of volunteering recognised and adopted at the senior levels in corporates.

Two, the employee also wants more from his/her employer than just a pay package. One of the ingredients is increasingly the image of the corporate as ‘good people to work with’. After all, none of us wants an employer who exploits society! And what would instill more confidence in the goodness of the employer than first hand proof by engaging yourself in community volunteering.

Three, the communities are maturing to their role in the democracy. Communities are realising that they have the onus to enable businesses that promise mutual benefit. Businesses that also volunteer enable the communities to engage in more ways than just as a market or supplier.

The experiences and confidence work for both.

What kind of volunteerism should the CSR teams adopt?

I have 2 simple rules that I would advise the corporates to abide by, while developing their volunteering programs.

The first rule of corporate volunteering should be sustained engagement. While some corporates are already waking up to ‘impact oriented volunteering’, most of them still shy away from committing to sustained volunteering. The maximum number of hours than can be accumulated through a single company wide engagement becomes the primary mandate. This does not help the corporate in any strategic way and the community is also left wanting.

The second rule of corporate volunteering is that it should remain voluntary. People volunteer because they want to and for issues that they desire to impact. I do not imply that each corporate volunteer should be left to his / her own whims and fancies. That would fritter away the energy without optimally leveraging the potential of all of a corporates volunteers put together. The corporate should instead invest in creating awareness, setting up systems and providing services for volunteers to boost their engagement and enable keen volunteers to lead volunteering initiatives. Nothing works better than an informed set of volunteers who take charge and have full support of corporate leaders and infrastructure.

How according to you has iVolunteer impacted society?

Over the years, we have enabled more than 12000 volunteers to contribute directly to society in different ways. I believe however, that iVolunteer’s contribution has been much more through leading initiatives that we created along the journey. In 2001, we were the first to develop an online gateway for volunteering in India.

Over the next few years we set-up iVolunteer Centres in all major metros to handhold a new generation of volunteers to find meaningful opportunities with non-profits. Thus, we were the first to bring the same standards of services to volunteers and non-profits across India while enabling each iVolunteer Centre to develop their unique projects suiting the local context and sensibilities.

In 2004, we were probably the first and only organisation to send Indian volunteers to help development in other countries (we have sent over 200 volunteers overseas, to 38 other countries). From 2005, we initiated the concept of urban youth and professionals engaging as volunteers in rural India to understand the challenges of rural development.

This enabled us to support ICICI in launching the ICICI Fellows program that aims to build young social leaders for the inclusive growth of India. Our most recent initiative, Whiteboard, is leading engagement of seasoned professionals with promising NGOs to help find solutions to their strategic issues.

I believe that it is not the direct volunteer engagements that iVolunteer has facilitated, but the varied models of engagement (as above), that we have created through the journey, which will continue to impact society.

How have you maintained an active and involved volunteer team in the past?

iVolunteer has a lean team (of full time employees) that spreads itself out to offer a variety of  opportunities for volunteers and non-profits. Leveraging our own reach with volunteers helps us do even more. Some of our best local volunteering programs have been volunteer led. Volunteers who return from overseas volunteering programs continue to engage with us as volunteers and help promote the programs further. Alumni from our structured volunteering programs have not only acted as mentors to incoming batches and support our program promotion but also act as critical advisors to further program development.

Tell us about your previous experiences recruiting volunteers (for example, how you did it, how many volunteers you had to recruit annually, whether you ever had to recruit volunteers for a
sudden need, etc.).

As pioneers of volunteering most of our volunteers, come because of ‘word of mouth’ and internet searches. We have however, used different routes for our different volunteering engagements. For example, when we recently conducted the ‘Cook for a cause’ campaign during the Joy of Giving Week, we collaborated with a catering college to engage student volunteers. For our program targeting youth & professionals for rural volunteering, we conducted presentations in leading institutions along with a digital marketing campaign with eye-catching interesting messages like ‘Stop following, Start leading’. For a highly selective and long-term program like ICICI Fellows, we targeted the number of applications to be 100 times the number final number of ‘Fellows’ to be recruited. We have done street shows on IIT campuses for student volunteers and used the IIM & ISB alumni networks to ‘em-panel’ members for Whiteboard.

We also capitalise on campaigns like the Joy of Giving Week to give brief exposure to new volunteers whom we can call upon later, in times of need.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in working with volunteers, and how have you dealt with them?

The biggest challenge we face is of commitment or rather lack of it. You will notice that I have refrained from saying ‘volunteer commitment’.  I believe that as a society itself we lack commitment – whether as a service provider, as parents, as members of society and as volunteers, we do not take our commitments too seriously. One of the underlying problems, I believe, is that we commit to more than we can deliver and that things that we are not really interested in. Most often we just do not know how to say ‘No’!

At iVolunteer, we have found our ways of dealing with it (though not entirely). We develop models of volunteering that have a fall-back option when a volunteer backs out. We have learnt to include peer networks to ensure volunteers stand by their commitments more often. For strategic and long term engagements we have also developed selection methods (rivalling the best in corporate HR) to screen out those not ready for the task yet. We go a step further and help volunteers understand how their commitment impacts beneficiaries as well as themselves. Over time, we work on building volunteer commitment, rather than just screening people out.

Lack of recognition has been the other key challenge. Again at the level of society – within families, within institutions, amongst peers, at state and policy levels and in businesses – there is hardly any recognition of volunteers and volunteering. We often overlook the fact that the entire freedom movement was driven by volunteer zeal! Unfortunately, today potential volunteers have little inspiration and almost no support to thrive on. We are in fact, working with each of our partners – non-profits, corporates and institutions – to help them develop their own ways of recognizing individual volunteers and the impact of volunteerism.

We are also ready to launch the ‘iVolunteer Awards’ to bring together, recognise and celebrate the very best of volunteers and volunteering models in India.

What would be your message to the society on International Volunteer Day?

December 5, is International Volunteer Day. We at iVolunteer will target the volunteers of tomorrow – ‘students’, from 1st to 12th grade. We aim to inspire young minds and so we will reach out to schools – private, public and community driven – and work with students to instil in them both a sense of civic responsibility and how they can volunteer to act on it. We will complete this celebration by engaging students in volunteering acts that they will design for themselves.

Our message: Volunteer. Because intentions don’t make a difference, volunteers do.

 

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