Early Days

Chennai Challenge has been running for 6 years now, and although we are not travelling to India this year we have taken 50 volunteers out to Chennai over those 6 years, and seen some wonderful things happen and developments made. Our relationship with Madras YMCA has grown, allowing our team members to see more of the work they do in the city and thereby affording us the chance to have a greater impact on the lives of those who access their services in Chennai. We have built from scratch a relationship with Oasis India and their staff such that our absence this year has brought an influx of emails and status updates saying August won’t be the same without us. Our volunteers have had their lives enriched by the opportunity to experience another culture and start to explore the complex issues surrounding international development and aid. And yet…

And yet, what we have achieved so far is only the beginning. Or so I hope.

Last week I began a new job with VSO. Volunteer Service Overseas is a large international NGO working towards their goal: a world without poverty. What a challenge. From whatever angle you look at it, it rather seems like an insurmountable peak. Their primary method to achieve this goal is through individuals. Through volunteers. As a result, the majority of their work involves recruiting those volunteers to travel overseas and work in developing countries. They are placed with partner organisations in local, often rural communities for between 3 months and 2 years. Bit by bit they are challenging poverty through the work of people who want to make a difference. Who want to contribute, and have the skills to do so.

In many ways what VSO do is similar to what we do at Chennai Challenge. There are 2 big differences (really, there are many differences, but for the purposes of this blog entry I would like to focus on these 2).

Number 1: the size. It goes without saying that VSO is a considerably larger organisation than Chennai Challenge. I suspect they would still consider themselves a mid sized charity, but in their UK offices alone there are easily more than 200 people busily working on keeping the machine going. I have just joined the Applications Team as an administrator, and am responsible for helping to process the applications at the second stage of selection. Believe me, it is a full time job! The amount of work required to recruit their volunteers properly is quite extensive, and the team I work with is made up of a good 15-20 people responding to enquiries, making decisions based on people’s skills, selecting through interview and assessment, matching volunteers to placements – the list goes on! It will be a while before Chennai Challenge will be able to process the number of applications VSO does. But for now, that is part of who we are and what we do.

I am proud of the personal way that we are able to work. Our size allows us to invest in people on a much more personal level much more easily, and it is one of the reasons people love coming with us. VSO was founded in the early 1950s. Perhaps in 60 years time we too will be working on a similarly large scale. I am not afraid to say that we are not there now though, and wouldn’t want to be. But maybe one day…

Number 2: VSO is run on a demand-led model. I know – sounds pretty much like jargon doesn’t it? But what it boils down to is this; they do not seek placements for volunteers, they seek volunteers for placements. Quite recently I have learnt, VSO has changed it’s process towards a model of being led by the demand of their partners overseas and what skills they need in the field. Their vision is a world without poverty, and that is what they work towards before everything else. This means if your skills and experience do not match the placements available, you don’t get to volunteer. Because whilst the volunteer clearly benefits, they are not as important as the overseas partners.

This discussion is one that we have had within Chennai Challenge from the beginning. Who is the project for and who are the beneficiaries of our charity? Well, contrary to the VSO model, we want to provide a service for the volunteer – through which and by which our partners in Chennai benefit. This concerned me for some time, as I want to help those most in need. However the value of this project for the people we take has been proven to me time and again by the reactions and the passion of our teams whilst in India and upon their return. By affecting them we hope that we will have a bigger impact on the world than if we only took the people we knew could both afford it, and bring the skills necessary to complete the work we do. To this end, we are hoping to build a relationship with Only Connect, who work with ex-offenders and take their clients. The experience our team members have is vital to what we do, and the inevitable outcome is that we support those who’s full time goal is poverty relief – i.e our partners YMCA and Oasis. They are different models, and I have come to believe that neither is necessarily more righteous or noble than the other.

We are not in India right now, and we normally would be. But not being in India has given us the opportunity to review our work of the last 6 years. This, along with seeing the work of this much larger organisation have left me feeling rather proud of what we have achieved. I hope very much that we continue to make strides in what we do, and I look forward to seeing how that will look in 5, 10, and maybe even 50 years time. So here’s to the beginning I say, here’s to the early days. And bring on the middle – may it be long, exciting and even a bit unexpected!

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