I did a guest post for the South Asian Philanthropy Project on the challenges and rewards of volunteering in India. SAPP aims to create a forum that inspires South Asian Americans to become more involved in philanthropy and volunteering. SAPP Bloggers Venu, Archana and Priyanka cover philanthropy of the South Asian Community across North America.
With the number of young non-resident Indian (NRI) volunteers at India’s NGOs today, it seems coming to India for service work is a new rite of passage. Manju Sadarangani first came to Kutch, Gujarat to provide relief in the aftermath of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake. She has fond memories of the village boy who wanted to marry her and of the impact she made with just a laptop and a spreadsheet program. Manju was a member of the first group of volunteers sent to Indian NGOs by the American India Foundation. Today, Manju is a political officer for the American Embassy in New Delhi.
The 2001 Kutch earthquake proved to be a galvanizing moment for pan-Indian philanthropy. In the decade since, a steady supply of diaspora volunteers has come to India’s NGOs to work on service projects, not necessarily in areas where they have familial or linguistic ties. Young NRIs, motivated by the opportunity to be a part of India’s phenomenal growth story, are enhancing India’s vibrant civil society institutions. In the process, they are finding out a lot about identity, development and what it means to “serve.”
The NRI supply meets a demand among Indian NGOs for professional managerial skills, transparency and fundraising capacity. Young NRIs help apply for funding, set up evaluation systems, and professionalize processes. Their expertise in everything from Excel to English is valued for shaping strategies and implementing programs. However, both the organization and the individual deal with the frustration of unmet expectations. Indian NGOs can struggle to effectively maximize a volunteer’s skill and time, or resist change from the outside. Former volunteer Sanjana says, “I sort of got lost trying to figure out how to use my skills [at the NGO].”
NGOs are equally frustrated by the assumptions and priorities of volunteers. Volunteers in general have knowledge of how things “should” work, and may not be as open to figuring out how things can and do work in the Indian context. NRI volunteers in particular carry assumptions about India they’ve picked up in the India-in-exile of their birth. But because channels are open, learning takes place. The greatest, albeit tangential, contribution NRI volunteers are making is enhancing NGOs capacity to utilize outsiders. For example, Seva Mandir in Udaipur hosts over 100 volunteers each year, and has a formal training program, housing and support services for volunteers.
To meet a need for structured support on both sides, formal exchange programs for young people from the West facilitate volunteer opportunities in India. Among the more professionally-oriented programs are the American India Foundation’s Clinton Fellowship, the Deshpande Foundation’s Sandbox Fellowship and the Asian Foundation for Philanthropy’s Paropkaar Volunteers program. Identity and the search for self is a motivator for many NRI volunteers. Programs like Indicorps and the UK-based ConnectIndia have a more explicit focus on personal development through service for people of Indian origin. As former volunteers go on to work in the development sector, exchanges help launch new organizations and social ventures, bolstering India’s vibrant civil society institutions and changing attitudes towards philanthropy and volunteerism. Back at home volunteers are also moving the diaspora’s giving to India away from financial support of religious and education causes towards strategic engagement for social and economic development.
“Investing in Ourselves: Giving and Fundraising in India,” Asian Development Bank, 2002.