“Eureka! (without a bathtub)”

Story of How Volunteer Travel Was Invented

(by Ninad Sharma, our Co-Founder).

Fresh out of college in 1998, I joined my mother’s non-profit working to educate women in the state of Rajasthan, India. Young, enthusiastic, and equipped with international exposure, I started supporting her in day-to-day work. 

After a decent start, I soon learnt of grassroots organizations’ dependence on aid from government and aid agencies such as UNICEF. While some aspect of this way to get funding was fine, the bureaucratic procedures were stifling, and systemic corruption was unacceptable to my ideals. Without seeing a way out of it, my interest in social development started to wane. 

The search for something meaningful led me to start a business requiring little capital investment – a Tour Operating Company.

Thanks to my friends’ generosity, I could start my venture with clients from the UK, Denmark, and Germany. It was my mother’s turn to join me, and with her support, the business started to pick up. 

Together, we started to get busloads of travelers from these countries. The business was booming. 

In just a couple of years, we had started from scratch and had become successful. 

But something was missing, and it kept bothering me. 

After about three years of organizing trips, I realized that our clients did not fully appreciate the efforts we were putting in to create authentic experiences for them. Most of our clients were happy with superficial experiences like regular “tourists”. 

For example, we would painstakingly organize a nice lunch at a rural farm for our clients and invite them for a guided tour of the village afterward. Most clients, however, would be happy to get inside their buses, make photos from a distance and reach for their chilled beers! ( “What a missed opportunity”, I would often think to myself)

The money we made was decent, but the idealist inside us could not ignore the lack of genuine curiosity we found amongst our clients. 

However, without other options to make a living, we continued to play along. We hosted many more busloads of tired (and anxious) tourists.

Finally, destiny smiled. We got to put together a trip for eight young Danes combining tourism and social work. This opportunity was the first time we organized “volunteer travel” – even though not realizing it at the time. 

Over the month-long program, these young volunteers lived in a village, taught English to kids in a community school, and enjoyed a number of cultural experiences.  UNICEF funded the community school at the time. 

Not knowing what to expect, we were blown away with a multitude of impacts. Not only did these eight people have a fantastic time with lots of travel and cultural experiences, but attendance and test results of the community kids also improved like never before. 

The whole community’s interest in the school was invigorated, and even the local media and government started to pay attention. 

We had stumbled upon a form of travel that allowed for making a difference, help clients have authentic experiences and were financially viable. We called it “Volunteer Travel”. 

From 2003, our work grew from an 8-volunteer operation in 1 country to currently over 22000 volunteers from 46 countries contributing over 2 million service hours.  

Through these years, we have developed systems and techniques that allow people who want to volunteer in another country safely and effectively. We have even developed ways for people to volunteering online from their homes and benefitting needy communities in the process.  

What is incredible about our story is how two diverse things, such as tourism and social work, be combined, creating abundance for volunteers and communities in the process.  Having tested and tasted this repeatedly, we feel eager and support charities, travelers through our Association.  

Thank you for reading our story. We hope it will help you feel inspired to connect with us and make volunteer travel a part of your future travels.

Ninad Sharma

( also on behalf of my mother, Kusum Sharma)

Co-Founder, IDEX.
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