Volunteerism 101: An Asha Experience

– Padmanava sen, Asha Bangalore

It’s difficult to imagine an organization that supports 185 projects and raises more than $3 million being run entirely by volunteers. However, Asha For Education adopted this philosophy since its inception in 1991.  With over 1000 volunteers worldwide, we, at Asha, often ask ourselves why we volunteer, or what prevents others from volunteering for a cause.  As someone who has been part of Asha since 2006, this is an attempt to capture the essence of volunteerism through Asha’s experience.

What can I gain from volunteering?

Volunteerism is often thought of as a one-way street that goes from the haves to the have-nots. As Asha volunteers, we believe volunteering results in mutual gain.

  • On a personal level, Asha facilitates lasting relationships at various levels. I have not only found great friends here, but also met some amazing grassroots leaders whose determination, dedication and perseverance have influenced me deeply.
  • On a professional level, sometimes our jobs do not give us the satisfaction of making a big change in the society and volunteering gives us the opportunity to impact lives beyond our near and dear ones.
  • From a technical perspective, day-to-day problem solving can push one out of their comfort zone.
  • From a humanitarian perspective, volunteering provides the canvas to chalk out social change while understanding the different hues of the world.

All smiles – Padmanava Sen visiting an Asha project partner.

How can an organization gain?

While volunteering can benefit one’s own life, the more challenging aspect of it is that it can easily become overwhelming. Being in contact with the marginalized sections of the society, seeing from another perspective, the issues that face the world, can have a crushing impact on a volunteer’s mind. The sheer magnitude of issues, often times, makes one feel helpless. This is the most common hurdle in volunteering. Asha has been able to enable volunteers in looking at the larger picture.

  • The non-hierarchical structure of Asha makes all individual volunteers equally responsible and responsive to tasks. Volunteers constantly evolve and develop new structures to work with; with regards to how projects can be handled; how information from projects can be used; how funds can be raised; or anything that gives meaning to their time. A volunteer with Asha assigns herself the power to change something. For example, I got organically involved in Asha-wide coordination for Cyclone Aila Relief and Rehabiliation in 2009 when I joined a call with project partner and volunteers. I was moved by the situation and with the help of Asha central team members, reached out to all chapters, within a day, and raised $45k for relief. Given the structural independence, each chapter could make this decision for itself.
  • Time spent volunteering with Asha is invaluable. Time commitment is another bottleneck, and after few months of volunteering, when the initial enthusiasm wears out, one may wonder, “Can I continue giving my spare time for volunteering?” However, except few demanding phases of life, volunteering for a non-profit can be part of that busy schedule. As Asha volunteers, we have seen how 2 hours per week of our time translates to a better life of an individual in another part of the world.
  • Asha volunteers are encouraged to visit projects in India. This works two ways: one, to help a volunteer be acquainted with how her effort benefits people that she is not related to; and second, to help project partners and beneficiaries in India to be exposed to different cultures. I have visited Mukti project in the remote Sundarbans region, twice. In my interactions with locals, students, parents, teachers and Mukti staff, during my visit in 2015, I understood the ecosystem in this remote area and realized how Mukti tackles different issues with its efforts. My own so-called logical solutions to their problems began seeming not so logical when I truly began understanding the context of each and every problem. I realized that solutions could only come about by working with the grassroots.

As volunteers at Asha, we recognize the fact that we are not creating a parallel system of governance. The role of volunteers is to work alongside the Government of India, for India’s 1.2 billion people. Not only does this clear the future vision on how a volunteer can help Asha network with the government, or assist it, but also build pressure to ensure that a job is done. I have seen many cases where Govt. and non-profits work very closely in remote areas to change lives of many. For example, some of our projects, like Mukti, give back-up coaching, create resource centers, book banks, scholarship models and trainings for employability that work perfectly well with their education at Government schools/colleges.

How can a society gain?

A common belief that persists is that the world’s problems can be solved if everyone takes care of their own family. In a perfect world that would be true. But, given the complex world divided by religion, race, class or caste that we live in, the context of family needs to be broadened.

  • Volunteering at Asha is about creating a family of projects, project partners, beneficiaries, volunteers and communities involved. Nishtha is a girl-empowerment project that I have stewarded since 2006 and has seen more than 3 volunteers visit the project annually. I have worked with the project partner on a regular basis to come up with new initiatives and have helped build success stories among the most marginalized sections of the society. I have visited Nishtha three times, and every time I came back with a lot of hope after seeing the positive changes.
  • Asha’s fundraising initiatives are aimed at not only raising money, but also invoking a sense of responsibility amongst one and all. They enable widening the reach of Asha through events that inspire those outside the immediate Asha circle. For example, ever year Team Asha marathon runners train to run a full marathon and inspire their friends, family and acquaintances to look at issues that Asha works on. Asha also conducts several other cerebral events that focus on creating awareness, thereby nourishing a society in understanding its issues.

Solutions are not easy, but like any technical field, if we study and analyze from grass-root, learn from non-profit leaders, we can impart ideas for improvements. The most enjoyable part of this journey is the direct connection with the beneficiary and seeing a possible transformation in real time. It’s worth every moment of one’s time.

More volunteer thoughts …


Since when I was a kid, the sight of poor children living on the streets with little to no clothes brought tears to my eyes. These children with great potential end up leading their life unfulfilled, unprotected, underutilized and overall unhappy, just because of lack of basic resources that can help them reach their full potential. Their only mistake – being born into poverty. It’s so unfortunate that so many kids have to struggle to live one meal at a time, while many of us can afford the best and more. It need not be like this. Too often we get lost in the bubble of those who have, forgetting those who have not. The intention behind this endeavor of mine is to remind myself and everyone around me, of the plight of these poor children, and help make things better in whatever way I could.
— Kshitij Agrawal, Team Asha Seattle


I am Nithya. I have been volunteering for Asha Dallas for the past 3 years. Working for Asha gives you an opportunity to change the lives of less fortunate kids in India. The amount of satisfaction you get is unfathomable. You work as a group and raise money to fund the schools. Organizing fund-raising events is so much fun!! You meet nice people and make new friends. Stewarding projects makes you a responsible and dependable person in life. Run for Asha and you will get into the best shape of your life.
— Nithya, Asha Dallas.

I am an Asha for Education volunteer because I firmly believe that every child has the right to an education, and deserves to experience the hope that results from it. After traveling to areas affected by poverty, I became aware of the realities of the twenty-first century. I saw how innumerable amounts of children exist tucked into corners of the world quietly, without food, clothes, or basic health care. When I realized the mass scale of this issue, the statistic that around 23,000 children a day die of poverty related issues, I felt overwhelmed and paralyzed by the depth of the problems these children face. Unable to forget the things I had seen, I began to speak with nearly anyone who had information on how to best combat this problem, and as I listened I learned that when offered an education, a child can effectively help lift his or her family out of poverty. Now I am a college student planning to earn degrees in Art Education and International Relations in hopes of spending my life finding solutions to global poverty via education. I will always have hope that we, at Asha for Education and similar not-for-profits, can help ease the suffering of even just one child through offering him or her the hope that comes with education!
— Abigail, Asha Danbury

Asha is a non-profit dedicated to socio-economic change in rural India, primarily through the medium of education. I was introduced to Asha 2 years ago, through my good friend and mountaineering partner, who is an active volunteer for the Seattle branch of Asha and has spent a significant amount of time on-site at various Asha schools outside Haryana, his home state in India. It’s amazing to see what differences our efforts and contributions have made over the past 3 years.
— Lawrence Panzerella, Team Asha Seattle