Q&A: How two friends who just wanted to help started an organization that helps a million people worldwide

Italians have a reputation for being hospitable, warm and eager to help — it’s even backed up by data. According to a 2013 study by the National Statistics Institute (ISTAT) and other organizations, one in eight Italian citizens do volunteer work. Volunteering helps other people, but it also helps the volunteers themselves. The same ISTAT study showed that volunteers displayed a higher degree of confidence and a more optimistic view of the future than people who did not do volunteer work. One third of people who volunteer stated that they believed their life would improve, so optimism spreads into their personal lives as well, regardless of their education level and financial situation.

Project for People is a popular organization for people who want to volunteer. General Coordinator Anna Doneda took a short break from helping others to tell us how the organization spread to helping 1 million people across three continents.


Global Young Voices: Did you have a background in volunteering before you joined Project for People?

Anna Doneda: I studied engineering and now I have a full-time job in the association. I have always been interested in solidarity and international cooperation. When I met a group of students who went to India to support a healthcare project in villages south of Calcutta, my interest grew.


GYV: Who founded the association?

Doneda: Project for People was born from the meeting of two young people, a medical student of Milan, Giovanni Landoni, and Dr. Sujit Bhramochary Mandal, a young Indian doctor. Landoni is now deputy head of the hospital anesthetic San Raffaele in Milan, and Mandal returned to the village where he was born to provide support and medical care to the local community, which is totally devoid of health services. Giovanni was volunteering in Calcutta at the Mother Teresa House when he met Dr. Sujit. They decided to join forces to launch a bridge between Italy and India with a rotation of Italian medical students who could support the work of Dr. Sujit providing basic healthcare in rural villages on the Ganges River Delta. Since 1993, Project for People selects 120 volunteers from around the world every year for short field missions.


GYV: And how did it grow from there?

Doneda: Medical students returned to Italy after the first missions, they organized awareness activities and raised funds for the project, bringing in friends and new people. The project in India grew and was enriched in support of local development, including education and the economy. This has also expanded the network of volunteers in Italy to include students of engineering and economy. In July 2000, 20 young volunteers officially founded the association Project for People. It has spread to three continents with integrated development projects in the areas of education, health and economic development, helping over 1 million people.


GYV: Why expand to education and economic development?

Doneda: Over time we realized how important it was to act on all aspects of community life by following our beneficiaries in their entire path of life: from birth, to school and through adulthood. We work to guarantee them a chance to be born and grow up healthy, to get an education and to be able to get an income, ensuring the livelihood of the family.


GYV: How do you choose which volunteers are sent out on missions?

Doneda: Anyone who shares our values and our mission can find a space in our association to make a contribution that is in line with their skills and available time. For field missions it is essential to know the local language. That’s English for India, French for Benin and Portuguese for Brazil. Those who have already had some experience of volunteering and show strong motivation are more likely to be selected for a mission.


GYV: If a volunteer can’t (or doesn’t want to) go on field missions, what else can they do to help?

Doneda: Being a volunteer means working with the professionals at Project for People, that can mean increasing public awareness, fundraising or monitoring projects on the ground. It’s possible to be a volunteer in Italy or abroad, depending on your preference and availability. Volunteers in Italy were the ones who developed the emotional charge and strength of Project for People.


GYV: What are your plans for the future?

Doneda: We want to involve an increasing number of young volunteers and grow our solidarity projects. Word of mouth, sharing, commitment and most importantly, motivated people, can change things for the better. It takes very little to do good and to help those who really need it, both locally and internationally. All of us can make a difference.


Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Cover cartoon credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV