If somebody were to tell you about a CEO in their mid-20s who got handed the reins of the organization after working there for just two years, you might start envisioning a privileged Silicon Valley-type “tech bro.” Thankfully, Marina Kokkinou is the complete opposite of what you might have had in mind.
Now serving as the interim CEO of Indigo Volunteers, Marina brings to life the philosophy of global conscious citizenship that ACS Athens seeks to instill in students, and it has been a guiding principle she has followed since she was a student at ACS Athens.
Today, that principle is a driving force propelling Indigo Volunteers, an organization committed to connecting humanitarian-minded volunteers with over 40 grassroots organizations across Greece, France, Serbia, Poland, Moldova, Slovakia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, the UK, Lebanon and Cyprus that rely on volunteers to support refugees that have left their homelands in search of safety and security.
From Student to CEO - Marina’s Focus on Helping Others Shaped Her Career
Marina joined ACS Athens in 2009, the third sibling in her family to do so, where she was drawn not only to the academic approach, but also the various activities, including volleyball and dance. While at ACS Athens, Marina opted for the full International Baccalaureate Diploma program, which she credits for making her first year at university easy because of the rigor of the academic preparation.
Six months into her studies at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Marina took a step that changed her trajectory. Although she may have joined AIESEC to meet new people, the global platform connecting volunteers to international causes turned out for Marina to be a catapulting experience from which she learned as much, if not more, than she did in classes. Since the program modeled the various functions of a non-profit organization, Marina learned about the various aspects of running a nonprofit. This included human resources and personal development, which appealed to her so much that she shifted her academic studies to focus on the function intended to support people and their growth in organizations.
“Everyone can become a better version of themselves through the help of a support network,” she explained. The topic of personal development became the focus of her dissertation, specifically as it related to humanitarian aid workers whose work is primarily done in crisis mode and does not typically allow for adequate space and time to reflect.
While Marina was in Scotland, the refugee crisis in Greece was peaking. Back home, her family hosted a family from Iraq and later unaccompanied children in need of support. In Glasgow, Marina felt stuck and desperate to help. This need to help others became a guiding light.
When Marina was in Greece for the summer, her sister, who was working with a local charity at the time, connected her with Velos Youth, a center that welcomed displaced boys, ages 16-21 years old. For Marina, the volunteer position blossomed into an internship as an operations officer after she finished university and ultimately a full-time role as a operations manager that required her to navigate many of the same roles she had first been acquainted with as a student volunteer - accounting, marketing, web design, fundraising, human resources and PD workshops. As her career evolved, her experiences kept preparing her for her true calling that would become even clearer in the years to come.
Revisiting the Importance of Volunteer Placement
After working with the team at Velos Youth for two years, Marina joined Indigo Volunteers as the Head of Programming and Partnerships in August of 2021. She was drawn to the work that Indigo was doing since it reminded her of her first brush with the volunteer placement sector when she was at university.
Importantly, Indigo Volunteers actively challenged the practices of for-profit volunteering agencies that Marina and other experts have come to realize were harmful for both volunteers and those they intend to help. Known as ‘voluntourism’ agencies, other volunteer placement companies charge volunteers sizable fees and seem primarily concerned with selling exotic experiences, rather than considering their actual impact on those in need.
In contrast, Marina explains that Indigo Volunteers focuses on volunteering’s true humanitarian purpose: people helping people. That’s why the organization partners with grassroots, non-profit charities dedicated to supporting displaced communities and focuses on providing sustainable solutions that nurture the safety and wellbeing of all parties - the volunteers, the non-profits and the displaced people that need their support.
After spending two years reestablishing connections that had lapsed due to the Pandemic and adjusting the organization to respond to the needs of the war in Ukraine, Marina found herself in a unique situation when the founding CEO of Indigo Volunteers stepped down and she was to serve as interim CEO. It was a natural choice given that Marina had stepped up in the organization and also had full view of the operational aspects of the organization required to keep it moving forward.
Leading An Organization in the Face of Overwhelming Needs
Whatever concerns she may have had about the transition, she knew the organization could not lose momentum given the overwhelming need.
“Although the refugee crisis is no longer in the headlines, the need to support the thousands of refugees in the countries we serve is even more striking today,” explains Marina. “Since the Pandemic, grants and funding have shrunk by 40% for the charities that are doing the work that governments are not capable of prioritizing given the current environment.”
At a time when funding to aid the refugee crisis is shrinking massively, Indigo’s volunteer matching service has saved charities £800,000 in 2023 alone. Yet, as vital as Indigo is for the sector, it is just as dependent on funding to continue its work.
In early 2022, Indigo’s major funder decided to shift the focus of their financial support, putting stress on the organization, which peaked just a month before Marina took the reins. The organization was even forced to shutter its presence briefly to realign resources and face the new reality.
“It was an extremely difficult time, but everyone on the team stepped up,” Marina shares proudly, speaking of her team that spans six countries. “Yet as tough as it is for us, winter is tougher for our partners because of the conditions and the fact that volunteers are harder to engage so we are motivated to push forward.”
Marina shared with us that Indigo and the partner organizations it helps, supported 80,000 displaced people last winter, and the need for support is even larger this year because funding shortages have impacted the number of organizations available to help.
Just last week, Indigo Volunteers launched a major winter fundraising on Giving Tuesday.
“Our partners need us to place 230 volunteers this winter to provide aid to refugees,” explains Marina. “It costs £52 to place a volunteer so our goal is to raise £12,000 so we can do our part to help our partners at this critical time.”
Since every £1 donated to Indigo turns into £23 worth of aid for refugees, supporting Indigo with a charitable donation has a good return on investment, not only for the aid needed in the coming weeks, but also for the work that this ACS Athens alum is doing to show that helping others in their time of need is the greatest gift we can give to them and ourselves.
Learn more about Indigo Volunteers and how you can help their efforts HERE.
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