Thursday, April 04, 2013

ForbesLife India: Altruism Everyday

This essay appeared in the Winter 2012 edition of ForbesLife India.

In a material world, working for nothing can bear unexpected rewards - especially for heritage volunteers.

I must have dropped the nails about 10 times. In my defence, it was a typically freezing day in February in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. I had two layers of t-shirts underneath my hooded sweatshirt, a heavy jacket on top, thermals under my jeans, a hardhat, boots and gloves. Even a tool belt. I looked every inch the construction worker I was pretending to be. Through the gloves, I could barely feel my fingers. I was lucky it wasn’t the hammer I dropped.

Along with two other somewhat better coordinated volunteers, I stood on the top level of what would eventually be a house. Our task that day was to frame the inside walls that would section off the various rooms.

About an hour into the lifting, aligning and hammering, a man who I’d seen walking around in the lower floor climbed up the creaky wooden stairs, waved a cheery hello and proceeded to thank everyone. I don’t recall his exact words all these years later, but they added up to something like, “Thank you for building my home.” I stared at him open-mouthed. As far as I knew, I was just going to help build a home; I hadn’t expected to actually meet the family who would eventually live here. The sudden rush of delight I felt – a volunteer’s high, if you will – just about managed to thaw my icy fingers. Or at least make me forget about them for a while.

I had volunteered on a whim, through a network of Indian professionals in the Washington, D.C. area, on a project for Habitat for Humanity, a Christian organisation that pairs affordable housing and no-interest mortgage loans with families in need.

To me, it seemed like an excellent way to make connections within the Indian community while spending an afternoon on a worthwhile cause. But this, my first encounter with volunteering, led to many more hours spent helping people and organisations, both with groups of like-minded friends and on my own, in food banks, at local libraries and, as my children grew older, on sports teams and in schools.

Over the years, I have found that for immigrants, volunteering is the synapse that can fire off quite a few connections. Having grown up in other countries, immigrants can feel the lack of exposure to the American institutions that will inform their lives and those of their children. And having moved away from their home countries, connections to their own heritage are rendered tenuous. Volunteering in government agencies, schools and on sports teams allows them a peek into the inner workings of these institutions and helps build relationships within their new communities, while donating time to cultural organisations and places of worship allows them to remain connected to their heritage.

Anu Iyer, 59 and a first generation immigrant, is a Montessori school teacher, and coordinator of the PR committee at the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Lanham, Maryland, a voluntary position. “Volunteers are the backbone of the temple, which serves thousands of devotees from nearby communities and neighbouring states,” she says. “They play a very, very important role.” The temple has a few employees (managers, priests and cooks), but relies on several hundreds of volunteers for everything else, from keeping track of donations, maintaining various databases, selling food at the canteen, procuring flowers and making garlands, making and maintaining the saris that adorn the idols and manning the reception desk to teaching children Sanskrit shlokas every weekend. Many of the volunteers donate their time because it allows them to socialise with other Indians and replicate the feeling of home, says Iyer.

As a young girl, she watched her father working on various projects within the airport colony in which they lived in Mumbai. He founded a credit union for airline employees and ran a school for their children, both on a purely voluntary basis. It felt natural to Iyer when she moved to the US to want to volunteer at the two institutions she interacted with regularly – her children’s school and the temple.

Sonya Mazumdar, 29, a patent examiner in the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in Alexandria, Virginia, also grew up watching her parents donating time and effort to their community in New Jersey. Mazumdar imbibed this ethic and tutored fellow students in math and science subjects for a nominal fee in high school, and later for college credit. “It is always good to help people,” she says. “Not everybody is as lucky as you.” Today she volunteers, along with her USPTO colleagues, at a local elementary school to devise and introduce science experiments to third-graders.

Mazumdar also donates her time as co-chair of the community service committee in the Washington, D.C. chapter of NetSAP (the Network of South Asian Professionals). She coordinates at least one community service project a month, from packaging food for retirement homes and painting school bathrooms to helping out at an Armed Forces retirement home. The volunteers particularly enjoyed this last project, she says, because they got to interact with Army veterans, a demographic that people from the sub-continent don’t usually get to meet.

For Madhu Maheshwari, 60, who moved to the United States as a new bride in the mid-’70s, the urge to remain connected to her heritage and pass on that legacy to the next generation drove her to gather a small group of like-minded friends to teach children the songs, dances and poetry of India. Years later, she still teaches Hindi, and produces and directs Hindi plays with children of other Indian immigrants in her community in Northern Virginia.

While Indian immigrants in the US and their children are busy putting down new roots in their chosen homeland, some in the second generation are digging deeper back in the old country, moving back to India for periods up to a year or more to volunteer on a wide range of development projects. The phenomenon has grown big enough to acquire a handle all its own – ‘heritage volunteering’ or ‘diaspora volunteering’.

According to a report published by the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank (Terrazas, Aaron. 2010. Connected Through Service: Diaspora Volunteers and Development), about one million Americans volunteer abroad each year, of which nearly 200,000 are first and second generation immigrants. Whereas the United States Peace Corps – an independent government agency founded in 1961 that matches trained volunteers with countries in need of their expertise – used to be the only organised option for Americans who wanted to volunteer in other countries not too long ago, Googling ‘volunteering in India’ elicits nearly 11 million results in less than half a second today. There are legions of agencies, foundations, and non-profit organisations willing to facilitate overseas volunteer journeys. While some agencies require the volunteers to bear all costs associated with the trip and the stay, others offer fellowships that cover the cost of the trip and basic living expenses.

Indicorps and the American India Foundation’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India (AIF Clinton Fellowship) are just two of the many prominent entities that offer fellowships for working in the non-profit sector in India. Indicorps restricts its fellowships to heritage volunteers and Indian citizens, but the latter is open to US permanent residents, Americans and Indians who want to work on development projects in India.

Indicorps fellowships have been offered to anywhere between three and 22 applicants every year since the non-profit organisation was founded in 2002, says Dev Tayde, executive director. The August 2011 batch, which finished its fellowship year at the end of July 2012, had a class of nine Fellows. According to Behzad Larry, a programme officer at the AIF Clinton Fellowship, 265 Fellows have been placed in India since the inception of the programme in 2001. For the 2012-2013 year, 40 Fellows will be placed among the 120-odd non-profit organisations the AIF Clinton Fellowship partners with in India.

For some second-generation Indians, their parents’ frequent holidays in India meant more than just time with extended family or a stronger than usual exposure to heritage. They allowed a germ of an idea for things to accomplish in the future to take root. Suchita Guntakatta, 42, for instance, visited India often while growing up in the US and returned as a mid-career professional contemplating a change from management consulting. Her decision to volunteer in India came easy. “I wanted to understand the issues on the ground because I was considering going into the non-profit sector,” she says. “And I chose India because it is close to my heart.”

Signing up with Cross Cultural Solutions, an organisation that matches volunteers with projects that address the needs of communities in Asia, Latin America and Africa, she decided to teach English to women in Dharmasala and help them to better their work prospects. “You could see that they were genuinely motivated to do better for themselves and their families,” Guntakatta says. While her planned six-month stint was cut short to just a few weeks as she received the offer of her dream job as deputy director of strategy, planning and management at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, it is obvious she cherishes the time she spent helping the women.

For Krupa Asher, 25, a 2011 AIF Clinton Fellow, her work at the Anudip Foundation in Kolkata teaching IT and other livelihood skills to unemployed rural youth and women was a good blend of service and opportunity for professional development. Northeastern University, where she got her degree in International Affairs and Human Services, offered a co-op programme that allowed students to take six months off from school to work in a particular sector to assess if it was something they wanted to pursue in the long term. Under the programme, she volunteered with a Bangalore-based non-profit, working to provide education to under-served children for about five months. “Bangalore was difficult, the logistics and bureaucracy were difficult. I was not confident in my abilities. I learned a lot about myself. I learned patience,” she says, but by the time her AIF Clinton Fellowship came along, “India was a battle I was ready to take on.” The fact that she was able to garner real-world experience while helping women and unemployed rural youth was crucial to her. She is sure it will pay off as she works towards a Masters in development management at the London School of Economics.

While professional aspirations may drive heritage volunteers to seek development projects, applicants of Indian origin frequently mention the need to establish a deeper connection with their parents’ home countries – and know what it is really like to live there – as deciding factors in choosing India, says Larry. Sometimes, this need must overcome parents’ discomfort at their children living thousands of miles away in a country they had decided to leave years earlier, as both Asher and Sumita Mitra, 24, a 2010 Indicorps Fellow, found out.

Mitra, a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, took numerous trips to India as a child. “I was about six or seven when I knew I would come back and work in India one day,” she says. Through her fellowship she worked with Hum Kisan Sangathan, a farmer’s collective in the Jhalawar district of Rajasthan. With a background in light Hindustani music and a passion for the performing arts, the project that used theatre and music for social change was right up her alley.

At the end of the first year, she felt like a lot was left unaccomplished and so went back to India with Piramal Fellowship, a programme designed to help participants ‘understand the power of business to do social good.’ She will continue to stay on, she says, even at the end of this one. “I feel like somewhere along the line of my life I made a commitment to fighting for social justice. The fact that there is so much change I want to see in the world keeps me here … and the fact that there is always hope. I think if I ever felt change wasn’t possible I’d leave, but I know change is very possible.”

By definition
For institutions receiving the service hours, volunteering is serious business. According to Volunteering in America, a report published by the Corporation for National and Community Service, an agency of the US Government, volunteers served 8.1 billion hours in 2010. The total estimated value of that service was $173 billion (at an average rate of $21.36 per hour).

But what does ‘volunteering’ or ‘volunteer work’ mean exactly? It is one thing to drive to the local library and help them shelve all the returned books. It is quite another thing if your volunteer project needs you to get on a plane for 20 hours and live in a strange country for six months, working to improve women’s health. Who bears the cost of the trip? If volunteering means you can’t get paid, does that mean that only rich people get to volunteer? And if you work the entire summer in your uncle’s restaurant washing dishes for no pay, is that considered volunteering?

Recognising how challenging it is to arrive at a standardised definition of volunteering, the International Labor Organization (ILO), in its Manual on the Measurement of Volunteer Work (2011), proposes the following definition:

Unpaid non-compulsory work; that is, time individuals give without pay to activities performed either through an organisation or directly for others outside their own household.

The manual goes on to explain that while volunteers cannot be remunerated for their service, “some forms of monetary or in-kind compensation may still be possible without violating this feature of the definition.” For example, reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses such as travel costs or stipends that cover daily expenses (as long as the stipend is not tied to the local market value or the quality or quantity of work) do not constitute a salary or payment for work and such work will still be considered voluntary. And no, no amount of free work for family will qualify as volunteering.