Serial Do-Gooder Entrepreneur Nipun Mehta of CharityFocus
Eight years ago, Nipun Mehta and a few of his friends went to a homeless shelter to help it build a Web site. That small act of generosity has today blossomed into CharityFocus, a nonprofit organization that is run by a decentralized network of thousands of volunteers. The organization’s volunteers do everything from providing Web services to small nonprofit organizations, to sending inspirational messages to people’s inboxes, to spreading the love with random acts of kindness. The organization doesn’t engage in any fundraising or charge anything for its services. Rather, it strives to model a gift economy, in which goods and services are given freely, rather than traded as they are in a market economy. Nipun, 31, is motivated by Mahatma Gandhi’s words, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” He and the other volunteers at CharityFocus follow that message each day through small acts filled with big love. To feel that love, check out this week’s Nonprofit Spotlight.
Computer Science and Philosophy
About the non-profit
CharityFocus is an all-volunteer run 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that endeavors to leverage technology for inspiring greater volunteerism and providing meaningful volunteer opportunities for all who want them – no matter what their skills, how much time they have to give, where they are located, and what their interests. In the process, CharityFocus volunteers provide much-needed assistance to nonprofit organizations worldwide and create inspiring local events that manifest the spirit of service.
At the center of all CharityFocus work is a steadfast commitment to its guiding principles. When we started in 1999, our work was to empower nonprofits with web-based technological solutions but that work soon expanded into effectively organizing and motivating hundreds of inspired volunteers. By 2003, we were also providing web-services ranging from a portal to create your own fundraising website to a banner-ad service that promotes inspiring messages to an eCommerce site that broadcasts the work of rural artisans worldwide. Today, the work of CharityFocus touches millions of lives on a regular basis.
Yet, this effort is about supporting small things in the world. CharityFocus supports everyday heroes by giving them tools to share their stories and photos on PledgePage; through smile cards, we encourage people to do acts of anonymous kindness; we send one good news story everyday with our DailyGood service. The organization itself started when four twenty-somethings went to a homeless shelter to help build a website. Surely, some of our small acts have organized themselves into big projects but that’s not our objective. We aspire to think small and do small acts with great love.
From its very inception, CharityFocus has just had one strategy – be the change. We want to bring external change through internal change; if we wish to spread compassion in the world, we want to have smile on our own faces first. Instead of spending time asking for resources, we focus our energies on serving with whatever we have in the moment. As a result, we are all volunteers, we don’t promote any commercial interests, and we don’t do fundraising. It keeps us simple and directly connected to the spirit of service.
Once we appreciate the subtlety of our interconnectedness, we recognize that every moment presents an opportunity to transform the world around us, for better or for worse. Each of us carries an awesome potential to create change – whether it is something as life sustaining as feeding a hungry person, as empowering as building a website for a small nonprofit organization, or something as small and personal as bringing a smile to the lips of a stranger with a kind or funny word.
The opportunity to serve is always present. Our objective is to foster greater awareness of this potential and to assist each other in being agents of positive change. In that sense, CharityFocus is nothing more than people acting collectively to enable each other to act on instincts of compassion and altruism.
What are your day-to-day responsibilities?
At an abstract level, I coordinate the vision and strategy of various teams. At a practical level, I do lot of technical work. At a spiritual level, I try to be the change.
Most notable milestones
April 1999, four friends did the first website project; founder was 23 years old.
May 1999, first press story in Christian Science Monitor. Jan 2001, first in-depth (10-12 pages) press story on the cover of SF Weekly: here.
June 2001, received prestigious Jefferson Award for community service, in Washington D.C.
April 2002, took over a dot-com; unprecedented in Silicon Valley history; PledgePage became a dot-org and double all its numbers in three subsequent months.
May 2002, Invited to present the CharityFocus model at the Santa Fe Institute, with the likes of Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann. The bullet points are here.
October 2002, Invited to speak at the World Youth Conference (opening remarks by Kofi Annan) in Geneva, Switzerland. Here’s the speech: http://nipun.charityfocus.org/speech/geneva-talk.html.
March 2003, founder of Sony Entertainment TV in Asia hands over his foundation: ProPoor.org, that networked 13,000 NGOs in South Asia, to “do with it what you have done with CharityFocus.” Jayesh Parekh joins as a CharityFocus volunteer.
August 2004, received the Viswa Jyoti “Role Model” Award by North South Foundation, delivered by the governor of Arizona. The acceptance speech can be found here.
Late 2004, received the President’s Volunteer Service award at the UN.
2005, the founders of CharityFocus go on a walking pilgrimage in India. An overview is online here.
Nov 2006, received the Art of Living ‘Hero of Humanity’ Award
What’s the niche?
We work at the intersection of volunteerism, technology, and the gift-economy.
Having a fully volunteer-run infrastructure gives us a clean slate to think up projects without the onerous “how-will-we-raise-the-money” question; and hence we are able to do things that ought to be done but don’t necessary have a “business” plan. For example, on HelpOthers.org, anyone can order Smile Cards and they are shipped out for free around the world. We started with 100 cards at Kinko’s and even those were donated by the guy behind the counter, who was moved by it. We had no financial security, no business model, and no income generation outside of the my-cup-runneth-over contributions of gratitude. And you know, four years later, five hundred thousand cards are in print and people ranging from the Dalai Lama to Warren Buffet have been personally tagged with an act of kindness and a smile card. So that’s the power of being volunteer-run.
Secondly, we have a strong understanding of technology, particularly the Internet. That allows us to distribute and decentralize. In place of five hired staff working 40 hours a week, we had 40 volunteers coming alive for five hours every week. And forty became four hundred and four thousand and our wheels kept spinning just fine. As we scaled up, we just kept on dividing our tasks into smaller and smaller pieces. For example, instead of a having one secretary answering phone calls, we had a distributed team of three – one to retrieve the messages in the answering machine and log it into our online database, another to assign the call to a particular coordinator, and a third volunteer to actually respond to the call. So that’s the power of technology.
Thirdly, we try to be the “gift-economy” change that we wish to see in the world. Instead of a transactional world of fear and scarcity, we want to stand for a world of trust and abundance. A gift economy is an economic system in which goods and services are given freely, rather than traded. In a market economy, one’s wealth is increased by “saving”; in contrast, in a gift economy, wealth is decreased by hoarding, for it is the circulation of the gifts within the community that leads to increase – increase in connections, increase in relationship strength. And so all our services are completely free, without any ads or solicitations.
What’s the biggest challenge?
Three major challenges:
A) Working with volunteers – You can’t throw stock options to get someone to work harder; you have to inspire them by example. You can’t fire someone if they are under-performing; you have to be flexible enough to find the right job for the right person (because ultimately, everyone is good at something). You can’t be anyone’s boss; you have to become their brother and sister in service. The whole system requires a deep and patient commitment to blossoming one’s own humanity.
B) Doing the uncountable – traditional organizational paradigms do their accounting by measuring what is easy to count. Numbers, metrics, graphs. While that has its value, CharityFocus focus on doing the small, unmeasurable acts of kindness. Every single day, we get notes from people saying how something CharityFocus shifted their life altogether. That’s moving, feels right and you want to do more of it; yet that isn’t going to help you pay your bills. So doing the uncountable, at a deep level, requires you drop your insecurities and that’s not an easy task.
C) Dealing with success – we aren’t really bothered by success or failure, but the reward, for us, lies in deeply honoring the process itself. If we failed, we would’ve been happy to have our epitaph read: “CharityFocus died trying to be unconditionally generous.” Not being afraid of our “death” has meant that we’ve taken great risks; and fortunately, we seem to be planted in a time and space, where those have worked out really well. But the temptation to “cash out” is so ever present; to collectively stick to our guiding principles, to the T, is a big challenge.
What’s in store for the future?
We are hoping to go further in three directions:
A) Create spaces.
Wikipedia didn’t write the world’s largest encyclopedia; YouTube didn’t create videos that get 100 million views a day; Flickr didn’t take the photos that are posted every second; MySpace didn’t create the content that attracts the masses. And just so, the Gandhis, Mother Teresas and Martin Luther Kings of the next generation will not simply publish a newspaper, write letters or give talks. Instead, the next revolution will be led by a distributed network of invisible heroes who create spaces for meaningful, many-to-many connections to manifest organically.
Similarly, we plan to continue create spaces around themes that are typically overlooked. Like a kindness portal in HelpOthers.org or a video-action portal like KarmaTube.org or a good news portal in DailyGood.org.
B) Push Gift-Economy envelope.
For over eight years, CharityFocus itself has been an example of a gift-economy and we’ve helped start various projects. And we hope to keep pushing the envelope in newer, and more radical ways.
Most recently, we’ve launched a gift-economy restaurant in Berkeley on Saturdays – Karma Kitchen, http://www.karmakitchen.org – that is absolutely thriving. Adding a local, community component is crucial to the almost visceral experience of generosity.
Furthermore, we want to challenge traditional philanthropy with trust-driven philanthropy, by creating micro-generation and micro-distribution of resources via “generosity entrepreneurs:” cultural creatives who leverage new ideas and technologies to promote a gift economy. Imagine a form of giving that is rooted in trust and transparency. You make a no-strings-attached gift to people you trust; those recipients are now empowered to dynamically serve in their own context, leveraging this unconditional gift; and as an expression of gratitude, they pass the inspiration on, creatively sharing the story of paying-forward the gift they received. Onlookers get engaged, and the (r)evolution continues organically.
C) create a Be-The-Change Bank.
The Internet is the first medium where inspiration and action are on the same platform: you no longer watch an inspiring public service announcement and have to remember to look it up in the phone book the next morning. It’s all right there, just a click away. But with the Internet, what doesn’t exist are containers that carry forward inspiration into small action.
And so we plan to create a scalable Be-The-Change bank that allows us to warehouse small actions that can be coupled with all our user-generated inspiration content; furthermore, having an aggregate repository of the micro action allows us the network various pathways to be-the-change: Inspiration-Action-Community or Action-Community-Inspiration or Community-Inspiration-Action.
As we pilot the strength of such a bank within the scope of our projects, we also hope to build in a broadly accessible way.
Best way to keep a competitive edge
People: Of Volunteers, For Volunteers, By Volunteers
CharityFocus was conceived by volunteers, was built by volunteers, and is run by volunteers – all for the benefit of volunteers. There is no paid staff, no office, and no central facilities other than the servers that link us to the worldwide web. All CharityFocus programs, including our Web Services, are conceived, designed, implemented, and administered by people who selflessly give their time so that others will also have the opportunities to serve.
Processes: Designing Distributed, Decentralized Solutions
Based on our years of experience with a volunteer-run infrastructure, we have developed a streamlined process that structures projects in a distributed and decentralized manner. Furthermore, we provide volunteers and organizations alike with interactive tools, step-by-step guides, and sufficient support mechanisms to ensure that projects flow smoothly. We aim to make the administrative aspects of the process as simple as possible so as to devote volunteer time to more meaningful, rewarding tasks.
Technology: Leveraging the Internet
There is no way CharityFocus could handle the flow of NPO requests, volunteers looking for service opportunities, and project administration without having a robust technology infrastructure in place. Our personalized portal enables volunteers to login and manage their ongoing involvement to maximize efficiency and effectiveness. Project teams in different parts of the country can work together virtually through this portal and utilize the online work space to organize their project.
Strategy of Generosity: Serving the Gift Economy
CharityFocus comprises of “Generosity Entrepreneurs” who creatively leverage new ideas and technologies to promote a gift economy. A gift economy is an economic system in which goods and services are given freely, rather than traded. In a market economy, one’s wealth is increased by “saving”; in contrast, in a gift economy, wealth is decreased by hoarding, for it is the circulation of the gifts within the community that leads to increase – increase in connections, increase in relationship strength.
Inspiration: Being the Change Changes the Being
The foregoing accurately describes how CharityFocus makes things happen. But if one were to essentialize the engine that drives the organization it is inspiration, pure and simple. We learn from each other, spur each other, help each other, and frequently amaze each other. Sure, we are stirred by the words and lives of great men and women like Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa; but the examples set by our CharityFocus colleagues, everyday heroes, are the real sustaining forces behind our success.
Guiding principle in life
“I don’t know.” Quite literally, that’s my mantra in life. It keeps me open to infinite possibilities.
Yardstick of success
When I sit down on the meditation cushion, how many thoughts do I have? The more I’m thinking, the less I’m loving.
Goal yet to be achieved
Enlightenment (although I’m not sure if that can be defined as a goal).
Best practical advice
For our every thirst, the universe will provide water. We don’t need to ask, simply trust. Of course, we don’t always get what we want, but we will always get what we need; and sometimes, suffering is what we need to propel our awareness to a deeper understanding of reality.
Supportive words from a family member or friend on your venture
Ram Dass once said, “Namaste – in India when we meet and greet, we say Namaste, and Ram Dass gives a beautiful definition: Namaste means I honor the place in you, where the entire universe resides. I honor the place in you, of love, of light, of truth. I honor that place in you, where if you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us.”
I’ve known Ram Dass for a while now, since we’re both advisory board members of the Seva Foundation, but that quote really hits home for me.
A) Jeff Nelson, my college tennis coach, back when I was on the professional tennis player track. He’s a martial artist, a devout Christian, and held a very deep understanding of life; in my teen years, he taught me to see my reflection in every challenge.
B) Rev. Heng Sure, a humble Buddhist monk in Berkeley, who has been committed his life to living a wholesome life.
C) Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave. I haven’t read much about their literature and am certainly no scholar, but I innately feel like I know the space from which they made decisions and feel a lot of support from their presence and work in the world.
D) J. Krishnamurti for right thinking. Or more accurately, to transcend compulsive thinking.
E) Swami Vivekanand for right action. His life, words and ideas inspire me. I feel deeply connected to Nag Mahashaya also, another disciple of Ramakrishna Paramhansa.
F) S. N. Goenka for making the gift of Vipassana meditation accessible to the world, and to me.
G) My brother and my wife, for being two co-conspirators in the deep spirit of service I’m trying to embody. My parents, for being pillars for me to stand on.
H) everyone, because ultimately, my present moment is my teacher and I’m a disciple of my own experience.
What motivated you to get started?
Eight years ago, in the height of the dot-com era, when a few of us friends started an organization to put an end to our rampant greed, people said it would be impossible to get Silicon Valley people to give freely. Today there are thousands of volunteers. When we said that we wouldn’t ask anyone for money, we wouldn’t have a paid staff, we wouldn’t have a central office, people said it was impossible.
Yet here we are. When I quit my job to live a simple life of service, those same people laughed and wondered if I had a sneaky business plan underneath it. I obviously didn’t. When we took over a dot-com and made everything available for free, they thought we had lost our minds; three months later, we had doubled all their numbers. A couple years ago, when the founder of Sony Ent. TV openly offered help, I said, “Instead of venture capital, CharityFocus relies on inspiration capital! We want you to volunteer.” Founder of Sony Ent. TV to volunteer? Impossible, even I thought. Today he’s one of the most active volunteers of CharityFocus.
To make impossible possible is awe…some – full of awe and then some! When you realize this power, it’ll blow you away.
But that’s not enough. The question then becomes – what do you do with that power? Surely, you can become rich, powerful and famous. Surely, you can go bungee jumping, sky diving and be a participant in Fear Factor. But so what?
What we need is a four-letter word. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say it without all you cringing. But I’m gonna say it anyhow: love. What we need to do is awaken that power of love. That’s the biggest impossibility of our times. Somewhere along the way, our brains neurons got wired up wrong and we started thinking, believing that it’s impossible to give unconditionally.
Think of impossible as one circle. Think of love and service as another circle. Each one by themselves is incomplete. Put them side by side and you have infinity – a cycle of virtue that knows no bounds.
You see, history has been made by people who can do the impossible. But humanity has progressed only by those who are in touch with that infinite.
I, then, started CharityFocus as experiment in love and service, to make it “cool” to give in a cultural that is predicated by commercial self-centeredness, and to create an authentic posse of compassionate warriors who are ready to take on the biggest challenge alive – your own ego.
Like best about what you do?
I have lots of deep friendships. Without their blessings, I couldn’t survive on this path.
Like least about what you do?
The temptation of power that comes with success.
At age 10, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A tennis player, or a Himalayan yogi.
What was your first job?
In seventh grade, I had a paper route with San Jose Mercury News.
Biggest pastime outside of work
My work is my hobby.
Beyond that, I dig doing small, unexpected acts of kindness like paying toll for the car behind me, pushing an old lady’s cart at the store, or anonymously leaving a I-really-wanted-this gift at someone’s door.
I also love to play tennis, meditate, read about innovative ideas and get into inspiring life stories.
Person most interested in meeting?
Gandhi. Just for old times sake.
Leader in business most interested in meeting?
Warren Buffett. I would love to talk to him about trust-driven philanthropy.
Three interesting facts about yourself
- I once took 40 units in one semester.
- On my first day on the ski slopes, I went down a black diamond slope.
- Since childhood, I love to doodle “aum.” When I thought I was going to die during the big 1989 earthquake, I sat down in a closet and spontaneously started chanting aum.
Three characteristics that describe you
Three greatest passions
“Siddhartha,” by Herman Hesse.
Any person doing something that makes him/her come alive.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
If you’re ever in Berkeley, experience Karma Kitchen: http://www.karmakitchen.org
Who would you like to be contacted by?
Anyone who wants to be the change they wish to see in the world.
Interview by Saba Nasser
Introduction by Preeti Aroon
Edited by Valerie Enriquez