Be the Change…

with 6 comments

I actually blogged about this on my organisation’s blog, but I was so inspired I thought I would share it here as well (a slightly abridged version!)

This week I had the privelidge of meeting the inspirational ‘generosity entrepreneur’ Nipun Mehta– one of the founders of the not for profit organisation CharityFocus

CharityFocus was started in 1999, in the Silicon Valley, by four friends, who offered to help a homeless shelter by building them a website.  The organisation grew organically after that, now thousands of volunteers giving 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 as a true gift economy, something that Nipun advocates

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

Nipun Mehta, on starting CharityFocus

 On his  blog Nipun explains what the gift economy is:

“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 one where no money changes hands, and you act without the expection of anything in return.  Wonderful principles, but how does it work in practice?  Well, Nipun couldn’t explain apart from it just does.  Somehow he is able to pay his bills, but as he says himself; “I am not rich in the material sense of the word, but I am rich in my life”.  People clearly understand the principals of CharityFocus.

Something else that is fundamental to the ‘success’ 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.   Nipun uses the term “patterns of positive deviance” to describe the radical impact of trusting people.

The idea of no money changing hands, 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 is an organisation that 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 with a little 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

 In his blog post How to Survive in a Gift Economy Nipun 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  Nipun uses the rather lovely phrase “Ghandi 2.0” to explain this.

At 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 

What an inspiration!  Everyone has the power of their own actions.  You can find out more about the work of Charity Focus here

“Be the change you want to see in the world”



Written by Lores

June 26, 2009 at 11:39 am

6 Responses

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  1. I have been involved in charitable organizations for most of my adult life.

    So much of the notion of “giving” has become strictly financial. This, to me is an outworking of the relational dynamics formed by both givers and receivers.

    Givers seem to have found it easier to simply write a cheque or charge a credit card as their participation in the effort.

    Receivers also need to take responsibility in that they largely ask for money more than physical involvement.

    Somehow the two sides have formed this pattern of interaction.

    It does not surprise me to find out that an organization that encourages donations of time and talent.

    A minister I respected greatly who is now gone, (Dr. Edwin Louis Cole), taught that giving is ideally balanced between one’s Time, Talent, and Treasury.

    I think to just limit giving (and receiving) to treasury lacks balance and frankly, lacks commitment and intimacy in the giving relationship.

    Not unlike a parent who only provides financial support for his/her kids but no relational involvement or time.

    Amidst all of the appeals for money we receive on an ongoing basis, it is no surprise that CharityFocus has stood out and thrived by interacting with its donors on with mainly (or exclusively) the other two aspects of giving. They obviously are connected t their donors in a far more meaningful and deep way than just numbers on a cheque.

    It is very refresing to hear!

    Reminds me somewhat of our we in AA limit how we can accept donations. We only accept donations from members and no outside support. While this may seem insular, it has been tremendously effective in maintaining our singlness of purpose and avoiding outside issues and the corruption of money, property, or prestige.

    Secondly, there is a cap on the amount of bequest (gift at death through a will) that AA will accept. I believe it is $2,000. This keeps the responsibility for AA spread among the members. It makes it such that members need to contribute of the time and talent and a little treasury for the continuation and not have some generous bequest or outside donor take care of matters for us through a generous donation.

    This keeps our fellowship vibrant and has for over 70 years.

    Am sure many of the same principles are at work at CharityFocus.




    June 29, 2009 at 4:16 am

  2. Hey Chaz,

    Thanks for your comments. The AA seem to be really similar to the values of Charity Focus, not only in regards to donations etc as you outlined above, but also in the way that as an organisation (or should that be ‘movement’) it has grown and spread world-wide simply on the passions of its members & contributers.

    Like Charity Focus, The AA has no centralised governance, aside from a set of values that its members / groups operate to.

    It’s amazing when you think about it isn’t it?

    L 🙂


    July 1, 2009 at 9:21 am

  3. Lores…

    In one of my 12 step groups was a highly trained personnel director of a major multinational company.

    He marveled at the effective simplicity of 12 step organizations and how this very simplicity has allowed them to grow organically.

    One of our “Traditions” specifically guides us to limit the opportunities for “money, property, or prestige to divert us from our primary purpose”.

    This tradition was established through trial and error. Early AA engaged many complex endeavors including their own hospitals which obviously required outside funding. And obviously would require positions and a beauacracy. None of this worked.

    If we accept outside donations, there would invariably at some point be an expectation tied by some donors. And as the recipients, we would be suseptible to giving in to some degree to the outside expectations or requirements. In short, our purpose would become divided and tainted with outside issues that would spell our undoing which it always had in the past.

    Instead, we limit outside influences an opportunities for these stumbling blocks that any of us could trip over. These are not so much safeguards against evil, but more against the natural human tendancy to run off on other agenda that we think are good ideas.

    We will not even accept free rent because that too could be a stumbling block and set us up for allowing outside influences to taint our primary purpose of staying sober and helping others to do the same.

    So… we remain self-funding with only a minimum of administration in our World Service office in New York and a number of thinly staffed local offices in major centres. Otherwise, our meetings and outreach efforts are all run by non-paid members of their own volition.

    By the people it serves for the people it serves. That simple, that effective.

    So… I can see the parallel to what you describe with CharityFocus. A person cannot simply stroke a cheque to remotely support the organizations and appease their conscience. The organizations works by contributions much bigger and more meaningful than currency. It accepts donations of peoples’ time and talent which frankly requires much more than their dollars in many cases.

    So sounds like there is less opportunity for outside issues to weave in given that donors are making donations with more of their heart.

    Am sure there are challenges. Am sure some can donate time and talent in a corrupt way too. Yet, it probably leaves less opportunity for strings attached and corruption.




    July 1, 2009 at 7:44 pm

  4. […] Oviedo, pay it forward, Random acts of kindness, volunteer I blogged a little while ago about meeting the effervescent Nipun Mehta, founder of the organisation – a completely decentralised, global and […]

  5. thanks Lores, interesting stuff.

    printing off my smile cards now!


    August 5, 2009 at 2:49 pm

  6. Fab aren’t they! 🙂


    August 5, 2009 at 4:10 pm

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