Person of the Week: Venkatesh Murthy

Dear Readers,

In this interview series where we ask questions to people who are making a difference, it can be big, it can be small, it doesn’t matter, what matters is their contribution to our society. It can be anyone from any walk of life and from any country. Please, do send us suggestions of people whom you think we should interview for this series.

Venkatesh Murthy is the founder and national secretary of Youth for Seva (YFS), a volunteering organization that works with youth on projects for social change. YFS is present in over 25 cities across India with projects in sectors like literacy for underprivileged kids, healthcare awareness, environment and aiding differently abled.

  1. Tell us something about yourself?

I completed my engineering from NIT Suratkal, in 1990 and then joined Tata Research Design and Development Centre, Pune. In 1992 I came to US and worked for four years. Then I volunteered full time for three years for Balgokulam and later on I went back into Software Industry and in 2008, I decided to completely devote my time in Youth for Seva in India.

  1. What is Youth for Seva (YFS)? What’s motivated you to start this organization?

In US I saw a system to engage volunteers, hospital, food banks, libraries etc. but back in India I felt that we don’t have a structure for volunteering. I wanted to create a framework which should be easy and sensitive to the need of society. I had been away for 14 years and thought to start it as an experiment but it morphed into a huge organization in past nine years. We have attracted over 10,000 volunteers since inception with projects in cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and in other cities numbering over 25.

Swami Vivekananda is an inspiration, icon for YFS. His idea of India is the motivating force behind our work.

  1. Many people have a desire to serve their communities but don’t know how to organize themselves, what would be your advice for those individuals?

Recognize the need of the community, what is required and what are the ground realities. Once you have this problem solved then you can communicate your idea and define a program. Money is not important; we also have a misconception that community service only means working for poor, that’s not the case for example awareness against addiction, domestic violence and family intervention can be of great help to the communities where these social ills are prevalent. Lot of Indian families in western countries are contributing in their local communities through yoga and cultural interactions.

  1. What’s the most important quality in a volunteer in your opinion?

First and foremost, always keep society in your mind, forget yourself. Recognition is not important, one should not be egoistic and willing to learn and work in team.

  1. Can you describe some of the changes that you have observed as a result of YFS’s efforts?

Changes can be identified at both macro and micro level; there are lot of aspects to it, like transformation in the corporate sector to encourage volunteering culture and in government organizations to embrace volunteers. One such initiative by central government is Vidyanjali, where citizens can volunteer in govt. schools on weekends to teach kids from poor background. Recently, health ministry introduced a program where doctors devote their time at govt. clinics and hospitals on 9th of every month.

It fills the gap in specialized services such as gynecology, surgery and other critical areas. We are working with both government and non government organizations to bring both policy and ground level changes.

  1. What are some of the challenges that you face in this work and how do you overcome them?

In our day to day challenges the primary thing that comes up in our list is consistency. There is no mechanism in place to measure commitments of volunteers, it’s very hard to quantify. Volunteers tend to drop out, often it’s personal reasons, job change, family circumstance to name a few. So we have to keep program continuous despite the fluctuation in strength of volunteers. It’s also a learning experience to keep them motivated. Volunteers don’t get paid, no incentive, no certificate that’s why it’s important to enjoy the work.

We get over 500 volunteers every month; we try to keep them engaged constantly. Financial needs were never an issue, all our funds are generated locally and also we try to keep our work apolitical, so we never had to face problems from a political point of view.

  1. Do you think India’s youth are losing direction in this competitive environment of today? How do we connect them more with their roots?

I think toady’s youth don’t have strong cultural roots but I don’t blame them. It’s we who have to give them this foundation. Today’s youngsters are not motivated by any particular ideology but they have enormous goodness in them. We take this inherent goodness as base and work with them. Think clearly, start where they are, we accept them as they are.

As I mentioned earlier, Swami Vivekananda has a profound effect on us, we look to his philosophical ideas for directions in our work. Youngsters today don’t have that many financial responsibilities and have more financial freedom, which is why they can devote more time to social causes.

  1. What was your most memorable experience in YFS?

There was a girl, about 8 years of age in one of our govt. school projects and had hearing and speech impairment. One of our volunteers took her to checkup and found out that with medical aid she’d be able to listen again. It turns out there was a government scheme that’d cover medical needs of that child. After treatment and one year of speech therapy, that girl can listen now, convey herself. We didn’t have to spend anything out of pocket; everything was taken care of under that govt. scheme.

There are lots of programs like that but people are not aware of them, it needs participation from public to bring change at individual and community level.

  1. Which other activities you like pursuing outside Seva?

Apart from my Seva work in my spare time, I do yoga every day, I also like to listen to lectures, read philosophy, listen and sing bhajans.

  1. What’s your vision for the future?

At an organizational level, we want to play the role in creating thought level leadership, guide in capacity building & management level skills to volunteers and preparing the next generation to leadership roles.

  1. Your message for our readers?

I’d say is that if you want to work for your community, for your country, don’t wait or procrastinate. Postpone the thought of postponing your engagement with the community. Time to act is now. Don’t wait till retirement.

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