For most Indians, travel is synonymous with relaxation or fun. It’s unusual that someone would go on a holiday to volunteer for social causes.
However, this practice is quite common abroad in places like USA, UK, and other European countries. Volunteering is very popular during the gap year – a year-long break between high school and college, which the students undertake to enhance their professional or personal awareness. This also helps them explore the world, different cultures, and gives them exposure and international work experience that aids their future career prospects.
“Also, volunteering is considered a much more responsible way of travelling among seasoned world travellers,” says Saurabh Sabharwal, Founder, Volunteering Solutions, a 10-year-old startup.
Back in the mid-2000s, while the MakeMyTrips, Yatra.coms and other online travel sites began emerging, two youngsters from Delhi saw a different opportunity in the travel industry. Saurabh was introduced to the concept of the gap year and volunteering, as a student in Melbourne. Working with a US-based volunteer placement agency, he learnt the basics of this industry.
Saurabh decided to foray into the business of volunteer travelling and founded Volunteering Solutions in 2006. At that time, getting someone to fund his project was cumbersome, so he bootstrapped his startup. “The beginning was tough. I was the only one there to work on the entire business model, creating the website, managing applications, and had no guidance whatsoever,” says Saurabh. Soon, he roped in his younger brother Sahil to help him manage the startup.
After a successful year of operations, with Volunteering Solutions operating in India and Nepal, and with plans to expand into other countries, Saurabh decided to create a new wing specially to handle India-bound volunteer travellers. It was then that they formed a separate division for India operations and named it Volunteering India.
Today, the company‘s revenues are well over a million dollars with presence in more than 20 different destinations including, Thailand, South Africa, Peru, Australia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Morocco, Vietnam, Singapore, Philippines, Costa Rica, and others.
Volunteering Solutions places volunteer travellers from different parts of the world, under several different projects across the globe. These programs are dedicated towards several social causes, such as Childcare, Street Children, Women Empowerment, Teaching, Wildlife Conservation, Healthcare and Rural Medical, and more. Also, Volunteering Solutions offers specially designed ‘voluntours’ that are short term volunteer programmes which combine the fun of travelling with serious volunteer work. There are internship opportunities for pre-med, medical, physiotherapy, dental, and journalism students.
“Our programmes are a mix of volunteering and cultural exchange where participants get to immerse in the local culture of the country they are volunteering in by staying with the locals and working with them on different projects.”
Asked why Volunteering Solutions has found takers, 37-year-old Saurabh says, “It is not easy for someone to find a worthwhile project to go and help people in another country. Volunteering Solutions is trying to bring together a variety of programmes in various countries, for people to go abroad and help on the programme of their choice.” Volunteering Solutions connects volunteers on worthwhile projects around the world. It is a win-win situation for all, the volunteers get to work on legitimate projects abroad, gain valuable experience and the local communities benefit as they get volunteers to help and also gain monetarily as the funds are utilised in their communities.
The participants pay anywhere between USD 200 and USD 4,000 for being able to participate in these volunteering programmes. Saurabh explains, “Volunteering Solutions charges the participants an administration fee to facilitate the programme of their choice. The fee goes towards administrative expenses such as staff support, staff travel etc. Participants also pay a programme fee which depends on the duration of the travel. This fee is used for their accommodation, meals and in-country arrangements.” Volunteering Solutions also sells international insurance, merchandise, flights and tour programs to the participants for generating additional revenue.
Since 2007, Volunteering Solutions has catered to 11,750 volunteers and this year alone they have worked with 1,130. The popularity of the programme is evident as they have had lot of returning volunteers every year. “Some of our participant have volunteered with us in six to seven countries and volunteer once every year in a different country. It is a great way to travel and experience life with locals. We have had a group of students from Netherlands who come every year to India to work on development projects. The students have been returning to India for more than four years now and contribute in a great way to the local projects,” says Saurabh.
The brothers take pride in the fact that they are going strong, competing neck to neck with international competitors like Cross Cultural Solutions and Projects Abroad. With pride Saurabh says,
“The company has been bootstrapped since the beginning, it was not easy to do this and to run a business like this from India.”
“It’s been a real adventure. Ten years back when we started the company, we were alone and had no support, but today it’s a huge organisation of over 40 employees. It feels great that our hard work paid off,” says Saurabh. In FY 2016, the company clocked in a revenue of Rs 7.20 crore. This financial year, the company revenues are projected to touch Rs 9 crore.
The team is actively working towards expanding their reach to new countries, offering more programme choices, and having a fully operational office abroad. But they add that their biggest challenge still is “making international volunteering popular in India.”