The team is in the middle of a strategy meeting when I reach Atma’s suburban Mumbai office. I spend the time looking at photos on the wall – kids smiling into the camera alongside volunteers from across the world. From the open window, I hear trains pulling in and out of Khar railway station.
Not long after, I’m met by Mary Ellen Matsui, Atma’s resource manager. A Canadian national she first joined Atma as a volunteer. Now as a part of the team, she helps other volunteers ease into their roles and handles the organization’s fund-raising division.
Atma (Sanskrit for ‘soul’) was set-up in Mumbai in 2007 by Lee Bolding and Adrienne Van Dok.
The two had first arrived in the country as volunteers themselves. During that year they realized that while there were a number of organizations doing inspirational work, many of them suffered from the same set of organizational hurdles. These, in turn, kept them from successfully (or smoothly) achieving its goals. Atma was formed to help organizations deal with such challenges.
While each NGO had a strong social vision in place, Atma helped strengthen it through workshops and programs addressing important functional issues like financial planning, charity accounting, effective fund raising strategies, and so on.
Partner NGOs and Volunteers
The pictures on the wall tell a part of the story, but I ask Mary Ellen to elaborate on the work Atma takes on with partner NGOs, and the role of volunteers with the organization.
Here’s how she puts it –
“Think of the NGO as the driver, driving to a particular destination (the goal). Atma is the navigator on that journey, and our volunteers are the road crew.”
ATMA partners with organizations involved in educational development projects that cater to disadvantaged children and young adults (these include programs for children with disabilities, night schools, mobile creches, and schools set up in slum areas).
These partnerships are time bound. Atma helps address the structural weaknesses and provides NGOs with the tools to handle them. These tools are provided through workshops and intensive training sessions, as well as consultancy and volunteer services. The ultimate goal is self-sufficiency.
“We have a standing joke that our actual vision is to put ourselves out of a job!” Mary Ellen tells me.
Volunteers interested in working with Atma and their partners go through an intensive selection process.
They are first required to send in their CVs and a motivation letter (see here). They are also required to make a three month commitment to the project.
Potential volunteers are also counseled on ground conditions. Mumbai isn’t the easiest city to live in, and they are made aware of this beforehand. When the volunteers arrive in the city, Atma helps them acclimatize to the local culture through an induction program. It also introduces volunteers to their specific projects and NGOs; each project is designed to utilize the individual volunteer’s core strength and talent in solving specific problems faced by the NGO.
You can read more about volunteer experiences here.
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Neha is a freelance writer from Mumbai, currently based in Zagreb. When she isn't on her laptop, you'll find her at a local cafe, sipping coffee, paperback in hand.
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