Please introduce yourself.
I’m Manohur Chand Poonyth and I’m from Mauritius. I have been volunteering in this community since December 2019 and contributed as a general volunteer, and at management level as an HR Officer. I have been serving as the Executive Coordinator of Istanbul&I since February 2022 and this July it will be the end of my 1.5 year term. Briefly, I came to Turkey in 2016 for my undergraduate studies and graduated from the Department of Urban and Regional Planning from Istanbul Technical University. Currently, I work in the PropTech sector and I’m also doing some freelance gigs!
Can you tell us about your experience as an Executive Coordinator with Istanbul&I?
As the Executive Coordinator, I have had the privilege of working closely with a team of dedicated volunteers and collaborating with various stakeholders. I cannot self proclaim that I’ve been a good coordinator so far, but I must give credit to my team who has definitely helped me embrace this leadership position and allow me to explore the opportunity I got. It has been a fulfilling experience leading Istanbul&I and overseeing its operations and strategic direction. Being in the driving seat is totally different and this was a great opportunity to understand the hows and whys of management. I have gained valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities that arise in the non-profit sector, particularly in a youth-led organization.
What strategies do you use to ensure effective communication and collaboration within a team?
Currently, we have 158 volunteers (including me) and I would say half of them are actively contributing to the organization. To ensure effective communication and collaboration within the team, I put a lot of trust on the coordinators who work directly with other volunteers. They are all responsible for directing any requests to me. I do try to prioritize transparency, open dialogue, and work on conflict resolutions from time to time. We also carry regular team meetings, both in person and virtually, to provide a platform for everyone to share updates, ideas, and concerns. I must say the hardest thing is to have volunteers who are willing to listen. Some volunteers do not want to think of long term solutions and just listen while they wait for their turn to speak. So, active listening and the value of the input of each team member is an important method for effective communication.
What has been the biggest challenge as the Executive Coordinator?
First, the management of the community, which involves all the work behind the scenes and maintaining the public image. On the management level, the biggest challenge as the Executive Coordinator is finding funds and resources for our initiatives. As a youth-led NGO, Istanbul&I has to generate its own funds and relies on donations and grants to sustain its operations and carry out impactful projects. This has been really challenging in the current economic climate in Turkey. As for the community itself, we are constantly hosting events and community services projects every month and on average our team organizes 20 events/projects per month. It is challenging for the volunteers as they keep working round the clock to ensure events run smoothly. Last, I must say time management is one of the challenges of being an Executive Coordinator. Dedicating three to four hours to a volunteering position on a daily basis has been a challenge.
What has been your greatest achievement in this position?
One of my greatest achievements as the Executive Coordinator has been the redefinition of Istanbul&I's areas of activities based on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. This shift has allowed us to channel our resources to ensure maximum impact. Additionally, establishing collaborations with local partners and strengthening the organization's internal structures have been a significant achievement during my term. Since then, we were able to introduce new projects and fit them under our vision. This also helped us to introduce ourselves to partners and convey the vision of the community easily.
Has Istanbul&I changed in any way since you've become the Executive Coordinator?
Organization and harmony. When I was elected for this position, my goal was to make the community stick together as a group. This started with having a cooperative group of board members and eventually each coordinators managed their team members well too. Along with the coordinators, we successfully defined new roles in the community and it was easy to visualize the hierarchy and operation of the NGO. So, as mentioned previously, we have refined our strategic focus by aligning our activities with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, then we established both local and international partnerships with other NGOs and last, we are constantly trying our best to give back to our own volunteers by offering opportunities in partnership with other organizations.
What personality traits, skills, and education do you think a successful Executive Coordinator must have?
When we think of the nature of the NGO, Istanbul&I is one which holds strong owing to the passion and love for the community by the volunteers. The position of the Executive Coordinator is a crucial one and this leadership position is only possible if you have a connection with the volunteers. Unlike any corporate position where the leader of the hierarchy is paid to execute and manage, in Istanbul&I, the Executive Coordinator is elected as a sign of trust to lead the organization. So, again, in the case of our NGO, it must be someone who is willing to listen to everyone and make rational decisions. As for the skills needed, adaptability and problem-solving skills are crucial for navigating the challenges that arise in the non-profit sector. Last, having a deep understanding of the organization's mission, along with relevant knowledge and experience in project management and team coordination, contributes to success in this role.
If you could give one piece of advice to the next Executive Coordinator, what would it be?
Ah there’s a lot and I wish I knew these too! First, active listening is key! Never listen just to wait for your turn to speak! Second, never make promises when you are happy, we are in a dynamic environment and things can change in a blink of an eye! Last, do not be afraid to let go of people in the working environment. I’ve often witnessed cases where a position or project is jeopardized by a single volunteer and this is not safe for any organization. Therefore, always have multiple people working on a project so that no project is jeopardized by anyone!
You are pretty familiar with the structure of Istanbul&I, which is, in essence, a youth-led NGO. What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of organizations like this, given your experience running one for a certain period?
Strengths of youth-led NGOs like Istanbul&I include the energy, passion, and fresh perspectives that young individuals bring to the table. Their dedication and drive to make a difference can be a catalyst for innovative solutions and positive change. Furthermore, youth-led organizations often have the ability to connect with younger generations and address issues that directly impact them, creating a sense of ownership and engagement within the community.
However, one of the challenges for youth-led NGOs is the potential lack of experience and limited resources. Developing sustainable funding streams and having a formal structural organization is hard and though we achieved it, it is hard to maintain. It is also crucial for these organizations to establish mentorship networks, seek guidance from experienced professionals, and invest in capacity-building initiatives to overcome these challenges.
What do you think about the vision/mission or values Istanbul&I represents now?
Istanbul&I's vision, mission, and values align with what the youth needs in order to create a better future for themselves and their surroundings. It is a space which empowers the youth while teaching them to be inclusive, tolerant, and merciful. The organization's commitment to providing a safe space for everyone, promoting social integration, and empowering youth resonates deeply with me. Istanbul&I's emphasis on community service, education, art and culture as vehicles for positive change is commendable. I am proud to be associated with this organization as it strives to make a lasting impact and change perceptions about immigrants and youth.
What would you like to see at Istanbul&I in the near future?
In the current economic climate, I do have doubts about the community’s future in Istanbul. However, in the near future, I would like to see Istanbul&I further strengthen its local presence and impact within the community. This includes expanding partnerships with local stakeholders, establishing collaborations with other organizations. With a team of driven youth, I envision Istanbul&I as a beacon of hope and a driving force for positive change, empowering more individuals and communities through its initiatives.
What would you say to the new generation of volunteers?
To the new generation of volunteers, I would say that your contribution is invaluable. Your energy, enthusiasm, and unique perspectives have the power to transform communities and make a lasting difference. Embrace the opportunities for personal and professional growth that Istanbul&I offers. There’s a particular quote which I use during our orientation sessions and I quote - ‘When you are thirsty, you have to go to the tap.’ In short, you must search for the opportunity and not expect it to come to you. Engage actively, share your ideas, and collaborate with fellow volunteers. Together, we can create a more inclusive and compassionate society.
What has been the highlight of your term?
The highlight of my term as the Executive Coordinator has been witnessing the personal and collective growth of my Executive Board and our volunteers. Seeing individuals develop their skills, gain confidence, and make a positive impact in the lives of others has been truly rewarding. Witnessing the enthusiasm and dedication of our team has continually inspired me and reinforced my belief in the power of youth-led initiatives. My highlight would definitely be the amazing synergy of my former and current board members - Seyit İlktürk, Zainab Alqritli, Aylin Güler, Ghais Alhasan, Zohra Saidi, Daria Stachura, Israa Salameh, Sarah Saleh, Eylül Üstençelik and Nuran Yıldız.
What changes did you make?
During my term, several changes were made to enhance Istanbul&I's impact and making it sustainable in the long run. Along with the legal team, we worked on the bureaucratic issues we had. Then with the board members, we redefined our areas of activities based on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, focusing on community services, art and culture, education, social inclusion and integration, and providing an ecosystem for idea development. Then we focused on rebuilding each team. We also established collaborations with other NGOs and organizations such as Garip and Zeycan Yıldırım Foundation who supported us on several occasions, be it for the Self Defense for Women Project, our Back to School Project, or even the Safe Winter Project for kids. So, I can say the Executive Board helped broaden the community’s reach and in creating synergistic partnerships for shared goals.
What were some of the planned projects that are now active?
Among the planned projects that are now active is the Language Exchange Events, which was formerly known as our Speaking Clubs. Then we launched the Here4Nature Project. Our Culture Night series improved as we seeked sponsors to improve the delivery of our events. Then, ever since we renovated our community center in Karaköy, more and more people are reaching out to us to use the office for educational purposes which is helping us promote our community center as a learning hub.
How has Istanbul&I grown in the last year?
Over the past 18 months, we have established a stronger group of volunteers and we have managed to create new leadership positions for volunteers. Despite a harsh economic climate in Turkey, the community is holding strong and many volunteers are working harder than ever to keep the fire burning!