There are many moments in our lives when we see young children involved in child labor or begging on the streets for money. It tugs at our heart to see them in pain and we really get the urge to help them out, and we do so mostly monetarily. Rajesh Haridas, COO of Vibha also had a similar experience in his life. But when he got the chance to help kids who are less fortunate, and become a continuous part of brightening their lives by being a part of Vibha, he could not be happier. He shares with us his volunteering journey and his views about making this collective effort bigger and better.
How and when did your association with Vibha begin? Which incident or thought, motivated you to become a Vibha volunteer?
Growing up, I always wanted to give back to the society, but never knew how to go about it. In India, you really don’t have to search for a need to give back. It is everywhere, at the train stations, the roadside restaurant or on the streets, but some of them may stick in your head for long. One such instance that is still fresh in my mind happened during my college years in a restaurant in Bangalore. The owner of the restaurant dragged a child of four or five by his ears to clean a table. I could literally see the pain on his face when his ears were pulled. He was carrying a metal bucket half his size and was clearly under malnutrition. I really didn’t know what to do but to just stay and watch and let my blood boil.
The urge to give back was always at the back of my mind and I was looking for an avenue. During early 2001, a friend’s friend asked me if I would like to volunteer with CRY Inc and subsequently Vibha. For the first couple of years, I started helping out with fundraising events like Walk/Run, concerts etc. I then got involved with the Projects Team when Vibha started evaluating and funding projects on its own in India. By then I was spending a good amount of my free time volunteering for Vibha, and I felt that a lot of things were not going well. I had so many questions and some concerns to bring to the leadership of Vibha and decided to attend the Volunteer Conference in Minnesota. The Volunteer Conference was an eye opener because that is when I realized that the leaders of Vibha were individuals just like me who wanted to make a difference. Everyone was doing more than their fair share, and it was up to me step up and do more. I would say it was the major turning point in my involvement with the organization. From 2004 to 2006 I served as the Action Center Coordinator for Bay Area along with Mukesh Mirchandani. Since 2006 I have been serving the role of COO.
As leader of day to day operations of Vibha globally, what are the challenges you face on a typical day?
Vibha is run very professionally much like any other business except the fact that no one is paid. It is a very unique model with its fair share of challenges. The biggest challenge would be keeping the ‘big picture’ in focus while taking care of the day to day operations. Volunteers are the life line of this organization. But being a volunteering organization brings its own set of challenges. Not everything goes as planned and when someone loses their job, or important matters at home need your attention, volunteering loses priority. But we cannot drop the ball and someone else has to step in. Keeping volunteers motivated and ensuring that they are accountable to the task they signed up for becomes important. Every volunteer has a stake in the organization and everyone wants to make a positive difference to the life of an underprivileged child. The ideas and philosophy of each volunteer may not be the same, but how do you still get everyone to march towards the same goal? How do you get 15 Actions Centers in different geographies to think and act like one organization? These are all daily challenges.
Share with us an experience that made you feel immensely satisfied about your contribution to Vibha.
Every visit to a project is immensely rewarding. Every success story I hear from the project, be it a drop out kid making it to high school with flying colors, or a mentally challenged child achieving a sense of dignity, it all brings immense satisfaction.
As Chief Operating Officer, what is your vision for Vibha in the days to come?
I see three areas where Vibha making significant difference in the days to come. The first one is identifying sustainable solutions to the problems faced by children and scaling up these solutions such that, it will result in the appropriate policy changes that will address the problem for good.
The second area where I expect us to make a big difference is becoming the platform for identifying and distributing ideas and solutions for the problems. Over the past several years we have worked with 50 plus grass root organizations and have learned a lot. It is important that we share our learning with a wider audience. ‘Pragathi’, the Vibha Project Conference held in Bangalore last year, was the first step in that direction. It is amazing to see what can happen when you put leaders of 29 different grass root NGOs in one room and let them network, share their successes and challenges.
The third one and probably the most important one is spreading the concept of “Volunteerism” in India. We could achieve so much with just a handful of volunteers, 8000 miles away from the problem. With a billion in population, the possibilities of getting a miniscule percentage of them to do something good in their own community is unimaginable.
Do you see Vibha becoming a movement? What steps should be taken in this regard?
Vibha is already a movement educating, empowering and enabling any individual who wishes to make a change in the life of an underprivileged child. It may not have achieved the size and form to be considered as a major movement. There are two things in my mind that we can do to gain momentum. The first one is we need to reach out to a lot more people and make them believe that “solving the problems of underprivileged children” is absolutely doable. Vibha’s presence should be in each and every city. To make that happen I encourage all volunteers to take a moment to understand how we are changing the life of an underprivileged child. Most of us are thousands of miles away, putting up posters, organizing walks and cricket tournaments. We are not helping underprivileged children with their homework or directly rescuing them from child labor. But we have managed to change the lives of thousands of underprivileged children. During your next vacation, take a day off to visit a project we support, see the change we bring in, believe in it and then spread the word. No marketing pitch is better than words coming out of your heart with the right conviction.
The second thing we need to do, which we have already started doing, is to spend more time learning the problem, identifying solutions, testing it out on a larger scale, and influencing the government to make necessary policy changes. No organization is big enough financially or otherwise, to solve the problems of millions of underprivileged children. But we sure have the capacity to prove that problems can be solved for good, on a big scale and at different geographies that can result in the right policy changes.
How do you bring about a balance between your work at Vibha and your successful corporate career?
It is absolutely doable if you know how to prioritize. I have to say that it didn’t happen overnight. Sometimes it’s a forced learning when you take up more, and sometimes it is a conscious effort. Vibha is a part of my daily life.
What is that one thing you would say to encourage someone to become a part of Vibha?
If you want to make a difference to someone less privileged and don’t know how to go about it, spend an hour with us and see what you can achieve. We are a bunch of ordinary people with extraordinary dreams. Even an hour a week can make a big difference. Join and see it for yourself.
Name three qualities that will facilitate a Vibha volunteer to make a tangible difference.
Believing in it, It doesn’t matter how big the problem is. You have the ability to make a change if you believe in it. Never imagine that you are going to solve the problem all by yourself. Perseverance, It takes a lot to solve big problems so do not give up. Spread the word; spend a tiny bit of your time to spread the good word. It is a lot easier to do things when you have an extra pair of hands to help out.
Share your secret to keeping yourself constantly motivated.
Sometimes it is people around me, the ones who have stuck with this organization for much longer time than I have, who never gave up even when things were not going good and still have the same amount of energy. Sometimes it is the new volunteers who come in with so much of energy, enthusiasm and brilliant ideas that make me realize that there are a lot more people out there who want to do good. When someone in rural India who never got a great education or didn’t have the resources most of us have managed to do great things for his/her community, why not me? The projects we support and the people who run these projects are a constant motivation.
Tell us about Rajesh Haridas, the person.
I was brought up in a small town in Kerala. My parents gave me the freedom to choose what I wanted in terms of my education. I was very lucky because things just happened for me. After my high school, I did my Engineering from Bangalore University. I worked for a couple of years in the Middle East and then did my Masters from Wichita State University. Since then I have been working at Cisco Systems as a Software Engineer. I am married to my lovely wife Soniya who needs special mention for the amount of time I steal from her for Vibha activities. We both love to travel, especially to the wildest destinations in the world. I am crazy about the outdoors and would love to go on, back country hikes whenever I get a chance. I can make edible food when I have a glass of single malt in my hand and music in the background.
Who is your role model?
If you want me to name just one, that will be Mahatma Gandhi, for all the obvious reasons. But there is something good you can learn from everyone in this world. I have great respect for people who do simple things consistently.
What message would you give to the volunteers at Vibha?
If there is only one thing you can do as a volunteer, do it well. No task is less important to be done badly.