My name is Willy Oppenheim, and I am the founder and director of Omprakash, a web-based organization that connects international health, education, and environmental projects with an audience of volunteers, classrooms, and donors who can learn from and support their work. It is a privilege to share some of my ideas with the Everyday Ambassador community, and I hope our Omprakash philosophies will resonate strongly with you!
Omprakash’s origins grew from a situation that many readers probably know well:
In 2004, I was eager to volunteer abroad, but found it nearly impossible to do so without paying huge fees to intermediary organizations. Eventually, I got lucky and found an opportunity to teach English for three months at a school in North India that did not require volunteers to pay any overhead fees, and this experience was eye-opening for me. It was motivating that soon after, I created a website profiling similar schools with a genuine need for volunteers but no opportunity to advertise in a space already over-crowded with ‘pay to volunteer’ opportunities.
Eight years later, Omprakash has become a platform for over 160 ‘Partner’ organizations in over 30 countries to advertise volunteer positions, connect with volunteers, receive tax-free donations, and more. We charge no fees to people seeking volunteer opportunities, and we fundraise so that we can give ‘Volunteer Grants’ to exceptional candidates who offer to make long-lasting contributions to our network.
You can imagine that I was pleased to read a recent post on Voluntourism.org, in which the author grapples with the core ethical question of ‘profitability as it relates to voluntourism,’ and he discusses the need for regulation and the impossibility of ‘altruism,’ and thus the acceptability of profit-driven voluntourism agencies.
And I happen to agree: there is nothing wrong with profits in and of themselves, not in the ‘voluntourism’ space or any other. Indeed, as anyone buzzing about ‘social entrepreneurship’ will probably tell you, profit-generating enterprises sometimes offer the most sustainable and high-impact opportunities to address thorny social problems on a global scale.
However, what I found missing from this discussion of ‘profitability as it relates to voluntourism’ was any real consideration of the different incentive structures that are bound up in any profit-generating model.
Consider a situation in which you are running an organization that ‘places’ volunteers for a fee of a thousand dollars. Regardless of your good intentions, it is undeniable that you have an incentive to find a placement for every person who wants to volunteer. What if an individual might not actually be suited to volunteer? The potential profits that can be made by ‘placing’ this person act as an incentive to find them a position anyone, regardless of their suitability for the placement.
Likewise, imagine you are running a school or a clinic in a foreign country, and you work with a placement agency that gives you a cut of the profits they earn by sending volunteers to your project. In a situation where you don’t actually need volunteers, or where the potential volunteer in question is not a good fit for the needs of your project, you still have a powerful incentive to host this person, no matter their suitability for the placement. This is how places end up with volunteers who drain their time and resources, or offend local constituents with his or her insensitivity.
Finally, imagine you are a person who has paid a thousand dollars to go volunteer somewhere. Where is your incentive to ‘earn’ your position by being humble, flexible, and hard-working? To be sure, many volunteers who pay such fees end up doing excellent work and being sensitive, generous guests—but might the payment of overhead fees leave volunteers with a sense of entitlement or passivity that is not helpful for anyone?. If your invitation to visit somewhere revolves around your payment of a fee, it seems hard to avoid feeling like your host ‘owes’ you something in return, regardless of your skills or your work ethic.
In contrast to these three scenarios, now consider the incentives at play when someone volunteers through Omprakash. Since our administrators do not make money by ‘placing’ volunteers, we have no incentive to encourage poorly prepared volunteers to engage with our network. Secondly, our ‘Partners’ are given the full authority to choose how, when, and for what reasons to source volunteers from our network, and can require volunteers to stay for a certain amount of time, arrive with certain linguistic or professional skills, and fulfill certain tasks. Finally, our volunteers arrive at their host organization without any sense that the host owes them a service in return for the exorbitant fees that the volunteer has paid. Our volunteers work hard, arrive flexible and open-minded about how they can be put to use, and are likely to fundraise on behalf of their host Partner in the future.
While access and affordability are certainly important characteristics of Omprakash’s ‘no fees’ model, these traits are actually less significant than the fundamental shift in incentive structures that our model achieves.
Our team is constantly strategizing about revenue generatation to increase our sustainability and our impact. The point is not to oppose fees or ‘profits’, but to focus on facilitating exchanges that are fundamentally about mutually educational human relationships. Nothing comes for free, and we want to make sure that our model remains financially viable– but as we work towards a more sustainable future, we try to remember that the our strategic calculations cannot be simply monetary: they must be human as well.
Read an extended version of this article on Omprakash’s site!