Saurabh Gupta is the Founder and CEO of Earth5R, a proponent of life style based inner and outer sustainability. He is also an Adventurer, Social Entrepreneur and Explorer. He quit his job in Cafe Coffee Day to pursue his passion for environment conservation and community service. He is an avid cyclist and in his corporate days rode distance worth 50,000 kms while commuting to work within Mumbai. This transformed his perspective towards life and led him to exercise sustainable practices in daily life. This also got him started on journey of Earth5r. In this guest blog he talks about how he built Earth5r and challenges of bringing about social change.
Q. Earth5R is a volunteer based social organization. You started in November 2014. Today you have a core team of 150 and active community of 20,000+ volunteers with 40 community activities per month. How did you build a country-wide network of volunteers for social causes from scratch in such a short time?
SG: I used to jokingly discuss with my friends that social and environmental issues are serious matters, let’s not make them more serious; instead what if we could make volunteering fun, exciting and focus on learning by creating impact.
To get started, we designed a very flat and democratic organizational model. Within a couple of months of launching the website of Earth5R, I was surprised to see volunteering applications flooding in via our website, which meant people were actually looking to work on socio-environmental issues and evidently, liked our model too.
An important feature that we highlighted was to focus on solution-based working rather than talking about the problem, which precisely caught the attention of the youth and made them respond. A network effect along with a pipeline of resources has been there to help draw resources from.
To expand our network, internship websites were a strong aid as we got lots of people through these websites. A lot of people got connected through Linkedin, expressing their interest in contributing to the cause through volunteering.
We have also been conducting 30-minutes Earth Talks, about Earth, its relevant aspects and issues- these talks also drove many people to Earth5R, approaching to volunteer.
An interesting insight was that our presence on social media like, Facebook and Twitter didn’t help as much as we expected them to. We realized, social media is the new television, liking and sharing posts did not mean everyone would also walk the hard path.
We had to look for doers in all different directions and there was no set formula that worked.
Doers had their own network where they had a lot of people who were like them and as the stories of our team mates grinding themselves and making impact spread, their friends and relatives joined in.
Q. What are the top causes you are currently addressing thru your project Earth5R and Why?
SG: With increasing wealth people are buying more products and ultimately creating more waste, also increasing population means that there are more people on the planet to create waste. Resources are extracted out of the Earth faster than never before and not put to right use. With this situation, there is a huge need for waste prevention apart from waste management. We engage with communities on clean up drives which are a very powerful medium of learning as anyone who has been a part of the cleanup activity and Earth Talk, chances are very high that they would not litter and encourage others not to litter too.
We also carry out Upcycling and Recycling programs in schools, colleges and residential areas to educate people on making best use of waste.
Our programme comprehensively includes the underprivileged too. We realise that people residing in the slums are at a greater health risk due to their unhealthy surroundings and environmental toxicity; thus, we educate them about living a healthier and sustainable life.
We are also working with schools and colleges who have environmental and social studies as part of their curriculum and need partners who can assist them real time learning through impact projects.
We believe social entrepreneurship is key to communal empowerment and effectuating changes that are sustainable. We are running livelihood based skill training programs in various parts of India where we are training underprivileged communities for fundamental handicraft and art skills, life skills, business skills and bridge them with the commercial market so they can sell their products/services and be truly empowered. This is helping us to take communities from informal economy to formal economy, a strong step in sustainability of living and economy.
Q. What motivates people to be a volunteer than being a donor (being donor is easier than being a volunteer)?
SG: We were clear-headed from the beginning that we don’t want to build a charity-based organisation as it does not serve as a sustainable working model and does not bring out the true spirit of entrepreneurship. We understand that we have all the resources within the community and it does not require charity in the picture. I told my team, “If charity could solve social problems, Africa would have been out of poverty by now.”
Permanent and sustainable change happens if people discover their own power. The key is to move the center of gravity closer to people in the community, in the field.
The Earth5R model is based on collaborations of students, corporates, working professionals and common people. It gets their imagination and willingness to work at a single platform. They wanted to contribute but they were waiting for someone to motivate them, they were waiting for someone who connected the dots and empowered them to become part of a bigger picture; and Earth5R did that.
Our approach is very simple and we are aiming for social changes based on true stories and participation, where every person is doing their own bit rather than blaming the governments and corporates. We make it simple this way, really simple!
One of the prominent things at Earth5R is that we build a culture of innovation.These innovations are driven by ideas which are byproduct of the actions that have been taken at community level. Our volunteers love that their work which is by the people, for the people!
It’s a huge opportunity for our volunteers. They know that not everyone is doing what they are doing- using their education, knowledge and personalities for building a change that is profound.
Q. What major challenges you face in trying to bringing about social change?
SG: The reason why I started an action based model was seeing the gap between people’s intention and execution. People think it’s important to save the planet, they do have good intentions, but most people unfortunately leave the hard part for someone else, and that is to act.
I have cycled 50,000 km to work at Mumbai and several places around the world. It was quite enduring and humble an experience. With this kind of experience, I wanted to build a team of like minded people at Earth5R. That’s why when each person was interviewed to come on board, the most important question being asked was- Are you willing to contribute to the community by working at community level, only those who were ok with that were confirmed on board.
Further, another big challenge was, sometimes people join with intentions of doing good, but then they realize it’s a hard path and they leave it in the middle, or we have to tell them to leave in case they are not able to act on their knowledge despite all the guidance. This is a process which goes on, however it only gets better. Over the period of time, on this journey we have realized we are getting smarter as a team, and group learning has transformed many people to push their mental boundaries for greater work, learning and impact.
It’s not the mindset of uneducated people that hurts the society but the ignorance of educated ones, because so many educated people haven’t used their education for a change they wish to see.
We decided that in the first year we will not take any funds from investors so that we can develop an organic, robust working model and now with that goal achieved, we plan to start looking for funds to scale further, and as of now, we didn’t face a challenge on that front. The biggest cost in any organisation is of manpower, and at Earth5R it’s all taken care of by volunteers, so thanks to them for working with nothing else but there rigorous presence and support.
Some parting words for the readers of this blog
SG: We look for more help for bringing the media over and start changing the preconceptions of public towards the youth. We want to tell everyone that if people stepped out of their comfort zone and worked a little to eliminate those issue with the help and involvement of the community, they could create a better future for everyone.
It’s important to send the message not from the keypad but from the community, the message of change, the message of action. Stories with data!
I think the youth of today is quite different and they are increasingly looking for platforms that can help them build impact out of their interests and skills rather than just give them financial incentives in exchange of their time. First time in history, we seem to be witnessing a shift from ‘my world’ to ‘our world’ and that’s definitely a good sign!
Thanks for inviting to your blog, Rohan