5 Tips To Start Volunteering in India

Posted: December 31, 2010

Volunteering with social organizations is gradually becoming popular in India. Here are some tips to help you start volunteering.

By Aparna V. Singh

While many volunteers in India are college students, volunteering can be an excellent option for homemakers or retired people with some time to spare. It is also a great way for women to add value to their resumes when they return to work after a career break.

While more people than ever are interested in devoting time to a social cause, after the initial burst of enthusiasm, they often find it hard to keep up the commitment. The non-governmental organization (NGO) in question ends up suddenly short of a worker they were banking on. The volunteer feels guilty and depressed. The projects end up in chaos. No one wins.

How do we avoid this and make sure that the good intentions we bring to volunteering can be sustained and result in a great experience for both sides?

Take small steps when you start volunteering

One of the biggest issues that all the NGOs I spoke to for this story mentioned was that volunteers start off enthusiastically but drop out soon after, as they realise that they are unable to fit the work into their regular college/office/home schedule. Sonali Sharma, Joint Director, Communications, Helpage India, an NGO that works for the elderly, says, “We tell them, aap soch lo (think about it). Would you be able to give a consistent amount of time given your other commitments?”

To avoid early burnout, start with a small commitment.

To avoid early burnout, start with a small commitment. If 1 hour a week is what you think you can spare, start with that. Stick to it for at least a month and then re-evaluate if you can afford to spend more time. Build up gradually to a level that works for you. It is poignant when Sonali mentions the plight of the elderly who are left waiting for volunteers who don’t show up. “Both children and older people need affection, but you can distract older children, which you can’t do with older people. Giving hope and then not keeping it up is a concern,” she says.

Be choosy about your cause

Unlike a regular job where money or perks can act as motivators, volunteering is largely about the cause. Choose a cause that you truly care about and there are greater chances that you will continue to work with enthusiasm. As Sonali says, “It has to be something that matches their need, something that makes them happy.” Don’t just choose an NGO to work with because you have a friend there or because someone you know is volunteering with them.

Stay open to different tasks

However, while being picky about a cause, don’t be choosy about the work you will do. Kavitha Krishnamurthy, Managing Trustee, Kilikili, an NGO that works to create inclusive play spaces for all children says, “People have a broad idea of wanting to contribute to society, but finally, all work is nitty-gritty work. You may have a very romantic idea, but ultimately – you may be doing the same thing as you do at your office.”

Begin with an open mind and a willingness to take on tasks where help is needed now. Kavitha Mhatre, Manager (HR & Volunteer Management), Janaagraha, an NGO that works to further citizens’ participation in Democracy says, “Sometimes first year law students come in with the hope of getting to work on policy or research papers. However, from the organisation’s point of view, one feels that they are too inexperienced to work on the policy and research matters.” Don’t lose heart if the NGO cannot immediately assign you to ‘important’ work; prove yourself and build up to bigger tasks.

Finally, all work is nitty-gritty work. You may have a very romantic idea, but ultimately – you may be doing the same thing as you do at your office.” 

Be professional about your commitments

Just as with any other job, inform your contact or supervisor at the NGO if you cannot fulfill a commitment. Let them know in advance if you have to stop volunteering for some reason. Kavita Mhatre says, “When volunteers leave without intimating us it can be quite a setback, especially for the programmes and project plans made keeping the availability of the volunteers in mind… We count on you and are dependent on your deliverables and turnaround time. Treat it like any other serious commitment.”

Change happens one day at a time

Social change does not happen at the drop of a hat. NGOs have to deal with many factors while making things happen – government regulations, lack of funding and entrenched social attitudes being just a few of these. Kavitha Krishnamurthy says, “Another issue is that people want quick change, which is difficult, especially in a space like ours which requires government collaboration. Sustenance and patience is important. People get disheartened very quickly.”

If you’re serious about helping, there are enough NGOs doing fantastic work and looking for passionate volunteers As Sonali Sharma says, “It is a very humbling experience to see someone come to us and say that they want to help.” This coming year, let your goodwill translate into good deeds that pave the way for a better society for all of us!

Founder, Editor of Women's Web, Aparna believes in the power of ideas and conversations

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