“Together, we hope to be the change we wish to see in the world”

(Ghandi)

Yesterday, David Robinson, Geraldine Blake, Richard McKeever and myself met with the inspirational ‘generosity entrepreneur’ Nipun Mehta – one of the founders of the not for profit organisation CharityFocus

Nipun Metha

Nipun Mehta at Community Links

It was wonderful to finally meet Nipun – as you may remember – he was due to participate in the Chain Reaction event in 2008, but due to over-zealous border controls he was denied access to the UK at the last moment.  “I have a visa now!” Nipun says as we meet.

CharityFocus was started in 1999, in the Silicon Valley, by four friends who offered to help a homeless shelter by building them a website.  From that starting point, the organisation grew rapidly – but organically – and now thousands of volunteers give their time and skills to develop web solutions, websites, and web portals which touch tens of thousands of lives on a daily basis.  CharityFocus is an experiment in the joy of giving -no money changes hands – the organisation operates with a true gift economy, which is something that Nipun advocates 

“Let’s serve without any strings attached, just for the sake of giving,”

Nipun Mehta, on starting CharityFocus

So what is the gift economy? 

Nipun explains, “A gift economy is an economic system in which goods and services are given freely, rather than traded. In a market economy, one can hoard one’s goods without losing wealth; indeed, wealth is increased by hoarding— although we generally call it ‘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”

So a gift economy is an economic system where actions are made without expectation of financial reward (the act of giving selflessly has personal rewards of its own) – no strings attached.

It’s not a new system – indigenous tribes for centuries have been living this way – but how does this work in today’s society where very often ownership and wealth are used as measurements of happiness and success? 

The simple answer from Nipun is that it just does.  People understand the values of CharityFocus and of the gift economy and can apply them. 

So when asked “so how do you pay your bills?” Nipun just smiles.  “Somehow I am able to.  I am not a rich man in the material sense, but my life is rich” 

Something else that is fundamental to the success and growth of CharityFocus is trust. “If you trust people they will respond positively” Nipun says – not a frivolous statement when you consider that CharityFocus is now a worldwide organisation with 221,235 volunteers.  

But it is only when you stop and think about it that you realize that everyday we put an enormous amount of trust in others to deliver on promises and to act positively.  Nipun uses the term “patterns of positive deviance” to describe the radical impact of trusting people.

A great example of an exercise in trust is the Make Your Mark with a Tenner initiative – where young people in the UK are loaned £10 and challenged to make as much profit and social impact as they can in one month

Oli Barrett, Entrepreneur and co-creator of Make Your Mark with a Tenner remarks on the Make Your Mark site;

When we first announced the idea, it was met with much scepticism. People couldn’t believe that we were handing out £10 notes to young people, and questioned their ability to be trusted with the money – never mind to make a profit and reinvest it. But, underestimate the younger generation at your peril… The largest profit was a massive 4100% and over half the young people gave money to a social or environmental cause 

The idea of no money changing hands, unconditionally trusting your volunteers and decentralized governance within an organisation, goes against everything that business schools and the open market teaches us about “how to do business”.

Yet CharityFocus operates to all of these principles, and has gone from strength to strength – from 4 volunteers in 1999 the CharityFocus network now has 221,235 members all working on wide range of inspiring programmes.  There are too many programmes to do them all justice here on this blog but you can read about all of them here.  However, I did just want to mention a few of my favourites; 

Karma Kitchen Opened in Berkley (USA) in 2007, and staffed entirely by volunteers, the Karma Kitchen is a place where there are no prices on the menu and where the check always reads $0.00 with only this footnote: “Your meal was a gift from someone who came before you. We hope you will pay-it-forward however you wish.”

Smile Cards  Kindness is contagious!  These cards encourage anonymous acts of kindness – do a selfless act for someone, and leave behind a card telling them to pay it forward.

The Daily Good  A newsletter that features a bit of good news – direct to your inbox – everyday 

CharityFocus grew organically from the motivation of its volunteers, and despite its unexpected success, has never wavered from its three major organizing principles;

  • To be volunteer run
  • To serve without asking for anything
  • To focus on small acts – it kept us simple and human, raw and authentic 

These are values that are important to us here at Community Links too, where we believe that everyone has something to give, but sometimes need a little support along the way.  

And at Chain Reaction, via events and our online network, we explore how we are connected, how we can use those connections in positive ways and how we can maximise our collective power to change the world.  Everyone has the power of their own actions, but together we can achieve so much more than we can if we acted alone. 

The spirit of collaboration and the sharing of ideas resonates with Nipun as well.  In his blog post How to Survive in a Gift EconomyNipun says; 

“In today’s world, anyone can stand up for an idea, be-the-change, share stories of the process, attract like-hearted people and create a collective voice to start a movement”

And these “be the change” ideas are spread via online connections and portals such as HelpOthers.org.  Nipun uses the rather lovely phrase “Ghandi 2.0” to explain this.

PeaceChainAt the end of our meeting, Nipun gave us each a little gift – a peace chain made by a friend of his, Joe Murphy, an artist intent on spreading the message of peace throughout the world.  Each peace chain has a unique design on one side and an inscription of the word “peace” in one of 75 languages on the other side.  Joe has not only made 431,204 wonderful peace chains in the last 18 years, he has given each and every one of them away – and in the spirit of the gift economy, Joe has been able to carve out living expenses from donations received from others.  Read more about Joe’s story here

Meeting Nipun was inspiring, challenging, though-provoking and above all, very enjoyable.   The philosophy of CharityFocus is simple:  be the change. 

Find out more about the work of CharityFocus and how you can get involved here >>>

You can also follow Nipun on Twitter @CharityFocus

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