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Volunteer Story: Navigating India’s Complicated NGO Landscape

When I decided to move to India and live there, I went simply because the country had always intrigued me. Plus, the idea of moving there excited me. My friends are accustomed to me packing up and shipping out without a fully formed plan. Newer acquaintances, however, are a little confused, to say the least. “But when will you come back?” they ask. They don’t understand the nature of my one-way ticket. One friend questioned,”If you want to go to India, why not just visit? Why do you need to move?” Laughing, I replied: “Why not?” She scratched her head and an exasperated expression crossed her face. She realized that I had made up my mind.

bangalore, India market

KR Market in Bangalore, India

Before leaving for India, I did my research. India has more NGOs than any other country in the world. So many, in fact, that there is one NGO for every 600 citizens. And Bangalore is not only the startup capital of India, but it comes in second place for number of startups worldwide. My plan was to work in India, and there was no shortage of options. Although I had a few leads, I knew it would be easier to find something once I was on the ground. I wasn’t too worried.

When I arrived, I found work with an organization promoting democracy and freedom of speech in Bangalore, and throughout the rest of India too. My last job consisted of working with political campaign offices on environmental and social justice issues. This work left me highly politicized, so this new organization in India seemed right up my alley. When they hired me, I spoke with them on the phone and it sounded like a great fit. I had visions of organizing concerned, passionate citizens and teaching them how to take a stand on their issues.

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The view from my office wasn’t too shabby.

They also had grand dreams. The directors are locals, and they are intelligent and passionate about their project, but they lacked clear direction. Initially, I saw this as a challenge — which I love — and eagerly started working. “We desperately need funds,” they told me. “Please make a fundraising plan this week.” Easy. I researched, brainstormed, and quickly developed a fundraising plan involving social media, events, donor dinners, and direct mail campaigns to roll out over the next year. I submitted my plan.

The next day, they called me into their office. “This won’t work,” they said. “You see, in India…” And there started a two-hour speech, most of which had nothing to do with fundraising, India, or anything of the sort. Somehow, that speech wound around into holding a free community forum to build name recognition. I realized that the forum wouldn’t raise funds, but they said this must be the focus. I moved away from fundraising and into marketing and event planning. I planned a forum, developed topics, and submitted a proposal — complete with a publicity plan.

Again, I got called into the director’s office.

“You see,” the director began, “India is tricky. We need to build a base of people interested in coming to our forum. Our people aren’t engaged. We need after-school clubs in local high schools and colleges. These students will become engaged in our mission and they will attend the forum. Then we can hold one.”

At this point, I was getting slightly annoyed. But I listened to their rationale and I reached out to schools. I set up meetings and generated interest. And though most schools showed interest in our programs, they couldn’t afford our fees. Only top-tier, international schools could afford to pay, and most of these schools already had their own programs in place.

The reality of my on-the-ground work wasn’t what I’d envisioned, nor was interested in doing these types of tasks. All of the speeches at work thus far (and there were many two-hour meetings) spoke of how our organization was critical in teaching youth to develop verbal problem-solving skills instead of resorting to violence. This mission sounds great, but are fancy private schools the at-risk demographic they intended to serve? I thought there was a better use of organizational resources, but any time I raised these concerns, they dismissed my ideas.

I knew that although the mission and vision seemed a good fit for me, they were not. Schmoozing the headmasters of private schools wasn’t my original job description, nor was I prepared for regularly scheduled two-hour lectures about why my ideas wouldn’t work. Not every organization is a good fit for all volunteers and employees, even in India.

After two months,  I left the organization and searched for something aligned with my beliefs and my skills — which I have since found and I love my current work.

working in India

Celebrating a record-breaking team in January!

The Negative Perception of NGOs in India

Though they had good intentions, this first organization I worked with is part of a growing issue. Citizens have mixed reactions about new NGOs in the country. Due to the sheer volume of NGOs in India, there are just more bad eggs than is found in places with fewer organizations. Last year, a few big-name cases of corruption caused a ripple effect. The Indian government revoked the licenses of more than 13,000 NGOs. Additionally, Prime Minister Modi has taken the stance that NGO stands for “No Good Organization.” He even made a Facebook page by the same name. Modi publicly plays up the corruption in the industry, every week he claims that a different organization is “conspiring against him.”

Whether you put stock in this viewpoint, it certainly shapes the public perception. And it’s a shame. Many NGOs do excellent work. But the problem isn’t just corrupt organizations. Many others aren’t necessarily bad, but instead they’re accomplishing very little.

The latter category is where my organization fell into the spectrum. As the pet project of local TV studio directors, they had the means to make their idea a reality, but lacked the skills to carry out their mission. They weren’t corrupt, nor did they have bad intentions. But they were apathetic at best when it came to setting up effective systems to execute their vision and mission. By the end of my first week, I knew that the organization lacked the ability to live up to its lofty goals. I loved the freedom they gave me, and I saw the potential. I tried to stick it out and make it work. In the end, when something isn’t a good fit, it’s just not a good fit. Lesson learned.

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Are you planning a trip abroad? Vetting an organization is an important part of the process. Check out these tips on researching destinations, vetting organizations, and aligning volunteering to your skill set. As my story shows, even with vetting, you can’t always determine what an organization is like until you arrive. Keep an open mind but know what you’re looking for. And have fun!

Cindy is a traveler with an insatiable urge to immerse herself in other cultures. She is currently working on a project providing solar lights (among other things) to urban slums in Bangalore, India. Follow her adventures at Casilocal. She is also a GV Ambassador helping map the world of social enterprises and sustainable volunteer opportunities.