Chandni Sawlani & Sonia Parekh – On Starting The Goodwill Tribe & Conquering The World One Smile At A Time

goodwill tribe
Sonia & Chandni - the founders of the Goodwill Tribe.

We’ve all heard that the best things in life are free – a pretty sentiment, which often feels meaningless in the hustle and bustle of current times. To counter a world where every smile feels like it has a price tag, Chandni Sawlani and Sonia Parekh started The Goodwill Tribe. Born of an impulse to be kind to people – and ask for nothing in return – the Goodwill Tribe has grown from a two-person venture to having a presence in 11 cities world over. This tribe continues to grow – one smile at a time.

We had a chance to chat to the founders of the Goodwill Tribe, Chandni and Sonia about why they started the GWT, what they hoped to accomplish, and what they have in mind for 2018 and beyond.

Finding That Spark

Chandni says, “My journey with social change began in University, as a leader of 100 volunteers at CSA. I’ve worked full time with a social enterprise, Injoy Giving, where I hosted happiness events in the community, designed campaigns to bring generosity to business, and was in charge of happiness in the office. I’ve also worked with The Sameness Project and am a passionate volunteer at Service Space. I’ve got a Bachelor degree in Computer Applications.”

Sonia adds, “I spend a few months freelancing as an Event Manager alongside working on the Goodwill Tribe. When I’m not doing either, I’m traveling and exploring. I hold a Bachelor of Arts degree in Media, Psychology and English Literature. In 2015, I also founded Wasted – where upcycling meets generosity, an experiment in generosity entrepreneurship. We sell upcycled products without a price tag, creating an experience that sparks human connection and generosity. I’ve been immersed in the space of social change since 2010, working with MAD, GYEM, ServiceSpace and The Sameness Project.”

These two dynamos have been friends for a long time, but their love of human connections has really forged their partnership. Chandni explains, “We were in the same school in Dubai and were acquainted with each other but not close friends. In college we were in the same friends’ circle, but it is only when we both returned to Dubai and connected over our shared calling, that we really became close.”

She adds, “One day Sonia reached out sharing that she had ideas she wanted to run through with me. As she spoke, I felt as though she had been into my mind, picked up all the thoughts that I had and presented it back to me. We felt the same way, were moved and pained by the same things, and wanted to do the same thing to spread smiles, kindness and more love in the world. That was the conversation that sparked The Goodwill Tribe.”

Just Getting Started

goodwill tribe
Giving out free hugs in Sydney!
So, how did it all begin? Chandni says, “We were both deeply disturbed by the disconnection between people that was palpable all around us. Especially in big cities where people are all living in the fast lane with no time to stop and just connect. We wanted to do something to spread smiles and just bring more life into people’s beings. We both strongly believe that if we all collectively step up the love in the world, a lot else will start to fall into place. And so in September 2013, we began experimenting with small and simple ideas around kindness, compassion and human connection. And the rest, as they say, is history!”

The Goodwill Tribe is entirely volunteer driven, and continues to evolve with its members. Chandni says, “At the moment Sonia and I are the ‘full timers’. And by that I mean, we are completely invested in The Goodwill Tribe, but at the moment perhaps give it around 10 – 15 hours a week. We do most of the management work together. And that covers supporting existing tribes with ideation, operational support and anything else that comes up. It covers on-boarding new chapters into the tribe. We’ve split the operational tasks between ourselves. We also have an amazing and talented intern who’s been working with us for over 6 months, who handles the website and assists us with weekly operational tasks.”

Sonia elaborates, “We’ve got chapters in 11 cities: Chennai, Nagpur, Goa, Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Jaipur, Dubai, London, Sydney and Kuwait City. What we mean by a chapter is – the presence of a group of volunteers in that city who have committed to hosting kindness events once a month, in their community.”

The Goodwill Tribe hosts some interesting and thought-provoking events. Sonia and Chandni were kind enough to share some of the details with us:

Letter Earthlings: Every month, each tribe gathers volunteers on a particular day and we respond to requests sent from people from across the world. We have a Google document form where people can send in a request for themselves or for someone they love, giving a brief explanation on the recipient’s story, what the person is going through and we write anonymous letters of kindness to them letting them know that there is an army of people reaching out to them with positivity and love. This is an initiative started by one of our members, Nivendra who is from Sri Lanka.

Gratitude Table: A table, at a market, whereby you are promoting the idea of Gratitude and offering a space for people to think about what they are grateful for. The table has inspiration for what gratitude is and why we should think about it, as well as the opportunity to write a thank you card to someone that you are grateful for, as well as a board where you can contribute what you’re grateful for that day.

Kindness Confetti: A kindness drive where we go around the city performing small random acts of kindness for strangers like holding up boards with cheerful messages, giving high-fives to strangers, posting sticky notes with positive quotes with an intention to lighten people’s mood.

One Kind: Get together to have deep and meaningful conversations. To have conversations that remind us of our shared humanity and help people feel supported in their journeys. The objective of these gatherings is to converse about topics that run deep, are sensitive or inspire.

Kindness Donation Drive: Get together to collect clothes and other necessities for the less fortunate and spend a day packaging and distributing the items amongst communities in need.

Meals For Workers: Get together to cook a hearty meal with love and the spirit of service, to be distributed among anyone who would need and appreciate a good meal.

Gift Stall: Set up a stall or table in a public space with gifts for the community to create a space for kindness, joy and to slow down human interaction and have moments of connection. To remind people to smile and believe that there is kindness in the world.

Joy of Giving Week: December always brings a relaxed, reflective and festive mood. Joy of Giving week is intended to be a beautiful week where we tap into our innate kindness and generosity to spread the joy and gratitude for another wonderful year of our lives.

goodwill tribe
Writing letters in Pune

Building A Community

Relying on volunteerism has its ups and downs. Though it gives rise to some beautiful situations and ideas, most volunteer organisations also have to contend with unreliability and loss of interest. Chandni explains, “To answer this question, we’d like to give more context for how we work. The Goodwill Tribe is intended to be a platform for anyone who is invested in the values of compassion and connection. Our role as anchors is to provide the support system to empower all of these amazing people to bring their ideas of kindness to life.”

Sonia elaborates, “We’ve been humbled by how sincerely chapter heads have taken up this responsibility. What we love is that they treat The Goodwill Tribe as their own. It’s what we always wished for. So in that sense, it’s safe to say that most of the chapter heads – who are all volunteers – really take this initiative on with sincerity and passion. However, with all of us having full time commitments, it has at times been challenging for us to keep the momentum going and host regular events in our cities. This is one of the biggest challenges we face as a collective.”

Chandni says, “There also have been a couple of cities where the people that took on the responsibility couldn’t manage it and had to drop it altogether, which is a loss for the local community in that city.”

Human Reactions, Stronger Connections

goodwill tribe
Being generous in Dubai

When asked about how people react to these acts of kindness, Chandni laughs and says, “Whenever we are asked this question, we almost always go back to our first event. We had taken a stall at a local flea market in Dubai where we were gifting away things that we had collected from our homes. We really made the effort to make everything a gift, with ribbons and notes. When anyone would stop by the stall and ask the price for something, we’d smile and say it was a gift.”

Sonia continues, “A few people were very skeptical, asking us with suspicion about our intentions. A few people received the gifts warmly and with love and big smiles. What we noticed though was that even the skeptics stuck around watching and after a while were just drawn back to the table, seeking to connect with us. It was absolutely amazing.”

Chandni adds, “Sonia was in conversation with a woman who stopped her mid conversation and wrapped her in a hug. I was trying to communicate to a man who didn’t speak the same language as me, trying to explain what we were doing and voila! He got it somehow and we both burst into uncontrollable laughter. The moments from that one day were the seeds for this movement that has lasted more than 4 years.”

Today, their events are bigger affairs, and draw in a wide variety of people. Chandni says, “The number of attendees coming for each event vary between 10 – 150, totally depend on the city and its dynamics and the event etc. The response has just been brilliant. We can see that people are longing for a space to just be themselves and connect authentically with others in a space – a non-judgemental environment.”

Sonia says, “We’ve had kids as young as 7 join us alongside elders in their early 70s. So what we’re doing seems to appeal to a wide audience. At a recent event in Pune, a grandmother pulled us to the side to share that what we were doing is extremely necessary in this day and age, and that we should focus on improving the mental health of young people. It was absolutely heart-warming to listen to this person’s insight and appreciate her ability to empathize with the youth. So many stories, but we will stop with that!”

Growing With Love

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Feeding people with love

The Goodwill Tribe has recently taken steps to register themselves as a non-profit. Chandni explains, “Last year we registered The Goodwill Tribe as a not-for-profit company under section 8. We do have lots of plans and intentions but for now intend to just go with the flow and let things emerge. We are currently more focused on improving quality of events of our existing chapters and supporting new chapters that come on board.”

She continues, “We recently completed a 14-day tour across 7 cities in India, where there are local chapters of The Goodwill Tribe. We can’t even to begin to sum up how magical and humbling the experience was. It’s changed our lives completely. In each of the cities we went to, it felt like we had friends and family there yet we were meeting all of these people for the first time. We truly experienced the richness of friendships that have been built around values like compassion and human connection.”

Sonia concludes, “In all the flux that life is, The Goodwill Tribe has been our constant over the last 4 years. It’s the one thing that has remained in our lives, of course always transforming, growing, emerging. It’s that place we go to where we lose ourselves and find ourselves all over again. It’s been the anchor that keeps us afloat, really.”

Well, we at KYS can’t wait to see where their journey takes them next. With a ‘tribe’ like theirs – it can only be somewhere special!

Liked reading this? Then you might also like to read Priyadeep Sinha – On Co-founding GyanLab, Kidovators & The Importance Of 21st Century Skills.

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