Sharing Some Learnings in Building the Volunteer Network for the Product Ecosystem In India.

Avinash Raghava
7 min readSep 18, 2017

“Volunteers do not necessarily have the time; they just have the heart.” — Elizabeth Andrew

I have been fortunate to have worked with the smartest Product Founders in the Eco-system in the last 12–14 years of my career in NASSCOM and iSPIRT. I often get this question: “How do you build a passionate community of volunteers”. To be honest, I did not have any playbook and this in many ways was magic created by the platform. A process of evolution. Maturity.

That said, I thought i will share some of my learnings on why do people volunteer, What drives them, motivates them and what they expect in return. Though the largest chunk of my experience comes from the software product ecosystem in India, I daresay some of my learnings cut across any network that wishes to build a strong volunteer base.

Some of the volunteers at #PNgrowth2

I have volunteered in initiatives like Social Media Club, Startup Weekend, The Goa Project and few other initiatives to experience how a volunteer thinks and he expects in return for their contribution. Lately, I have also been volunteering for TeamIndus & IIIT-Delhi, Innovation & Incubator centre and been trying to play an active role with them.

How do you find passionate volunteers

At iSPIRT [which was founded five years ago], we had the pleasure of working with over 250+ people who have actively volunteered in activities done by me and my colleagues. Since I played the role of the webmaster for ispirt.in, I would get all the requests for volunteering on my email.

On an average, I would get around 6–8 volunteering requests every week and I’m sure many of my colleagues saw similar hit rates. I would always ask people on how they would like to contribute and most of them would not respond. The folks who would respond, I’d assume, had the keen interest to volunteer. I would normally get on a call with them, talk to them and gauge their interest and passion. Honestly, I relied on my gut instinct.

At the same time, I would try and give them a small assignment of writing a blog or doing something for us which they were good at. Many of them would not get back after this assignment. The second level of filtration!

Some of them would definitely, get back to me after few weeks saying they could not do it as they got busy and also at some stage they realized that it was not easy for them to spend time and they gave up.

Normally, I would stumble upon 2–3 good volunteers after interacting with 40–50 people who reached out to volunteer.

The iSPIRT platform allowed me to meet with lot of people. Since, we did not have an office, all the meetings were done in a cafe, park (yes….at Roots in Gurgaon) which allows people to be more relaxed and open. Lot of times, I ended just making friends with some awesome people…which was one of the perks of the job!

As I have always been passionate about the ProductNation cause itself, it was not difficult to spot similar passion in the volunteer. When i see the person has something that they can give back or contribute, I would shamelessly make the pitch for them to do so, give back to the eco-system, pay it forward, and so on.

I’m happy that I probably had the distinction of signing up the most number of volunteers in iSPIRT, both time or money donors.. Probably 35% of volunteers have discovered us and then started volunteering and around 65% volunteers were discovered by me through various forums. This is a skill that you will gradually build once you start working in the volunteer eco-system.

Why do people volunteer

In my experience people do volunteer for the following reasons:

  • They are extremely passionate about the cause and they want to contribute to make a difference. This is not different in the case of social service — people believe strongly in the merit of contributing to uplift fellow humans in distress and they give their heart and soul to do so. In the iSPIRT case, people were passionate about the ProductNation mission and hence they came forward unhesitatingly.
  • They strongly believe in contributing and at the same time, build their own network…which is absolutely fine as people want to find platforms where they can connect with like minded people. A great trade-off — a win-win!
  • Many of them are keen to contribute because the brand that they volunteer is well respected and they would like to show it off in their peer community.
  • People also volunteer when they are in between jobs to keep themselves busy… these are again committed people, who will clearly communicate the reason for their volunteerism.

What keeps the volunteers motivated

Volunteers are always looking for the intent of the organization that they are volunteering for and how committed the founders are to the cause. Many times when I would volunteer, i would avoid dictating what needs to be done. I would always state the problem and engage with them in co-creating the solution.

Many volunteers come with a pure intent and are keen to make a meaningful contribution. They want to see results. Their time is precious and one has to keep them motivated by sharing updates and making them as part of the solutioning team. It is always useful to give them some freedom on how they would solve the problem and also allow them to take ownership. Importantly, no one wants to be managed or dictated by their peers in an organisation or in a volunteer setup.

It is always good to acknowledge volunteers in smaller forums or in gatherings and showcase their work in the community. In many of the programs that we did, the volunteer had equal say in the program or in whatever was done.

People have a strong motivation to contribute in areas which they are passionate about or where they are comfortable. Volunteering is no different. There are always some sexy tasks(curating program, interacting with speakers, etc) to do and there are some not too good tasks(logistics, event mgmt) to do…but true volunteers don’t really mind the kind of tasks that they are doing. They always enjoy working with peer volunteers and have the never say no attitude. Some of the youngsters that i have worked have this attitude.

It is also important for the person coordinating the effort to put the right person for the right job and not set them up for failure. This could be highly demotivating. It therefore becomes very important to do a thorough but unobtrusive assessment and match the competency with the role. For instance, an introvert may not be exactly the right person to do the job of hosting speakers or guests.

Notably, trust is an important element in the entire experience of volunteering…and it takes time and patience to build trust. Volunteers must be able to see the fruit of their labours over a period of time and this trust can easily be broken if there are hidden agendas and and people trying to manipulate situations. I have always noticed that the volunteers we worked with are smart and they don’t want to be hoodwinked in the bargain.

What do volunteers expect in return

The purest of the volunteers only expect one thing. The joy and satisfaction of having contributed and witnessing the results. That said, they are always passionate about the cause and for them the cause continues to be in the bullseye. I have always tried to make the experience awesome for people who volunteer and when they leave volunteering because of full-time work pressures, have always encouraged them to take a break and come back when they are ready.

But it is still a good idea to recognize and acknowledge volunteers by doing the following things:

Thank you notes/emails — We have given handwritten notes + books + emails acknowledging their efforts and how in a small way they have contributed to the larger good of the ecosystem. I have seen people get overwhelmed even when they get something as small as a handwritten note.

Volunteer meetups — After an event, it’s always good to celebrate over a lunch/dinner with the volunteers who actively contributed to the event. This is a great way to get feedback and also build relationships with volunteers over an informal engagement. People tend to be more relaxed and forthcoming.

The Big Picture — It is always good to share how their efforts are helping in the cause. Many volunteers do get mundane tasks and it is good to share and give them respect in the community. Also, good to give them a perspective on how their efforts are helping in the big picture.

This blog post is also to acknowledge all the efforts that many volunteers have helped me in my journey of building iSPIRT // ProductNation.

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Avinash Raghava

Building Community at @SaaSBoomi | Past: Community @ScaleTogether @Accel_India. Co-Founded@iSPIRT(@Product_Nation), @NASSCOM