When Nancy Rivard, founder of Airline Ambassadors International (AAI), contacted CharityFocus, a non-profit organization based in California, she had little idea of a website’s potential. AAI escorts children in need, assists at special events, and hand-delivers humanitarian aid to people around the world.
CharityFocus introduced the power of the web to AAI. Using their resources like free web-hosting, support from experts in various fields, and advice from coordinators, the CharityFocus team built a website for AAI (www.airlineamb.org) that continues to be an essential part of all AAI strategy.
“The website we have built and the services we continue to provide AAI will help the organization to streamline their mission processes. We are currently working on a web module which will remove the time lag between AAI procedures, help them compile prompt reports, and reduce their overhead of communication,” explains Jai Suri, a Charityfocus volunteer who has been involved with AAI projects for over a year.
Today the AAI website gets millions of hits, signalling its importance. AAI even featured recently on the back cover of Reader’s Digest and on the Today Show, with the website prominently flashing on the screen.
In the past four years nearly 2,500 CharityFocus volunteers spread across 12 countries have served over 1,000 non-profits like AAI. Started as an experiment in giving, CharityFocus is today, being studied as a successful service model.
CharityFocus builds websites and web solutions for non-profits and also manages several other service-related websites. Hundreds of non-profits contact them every year for free basic services which include content organization, technology consultation, graphics design, implementation of a full website, integration of external services like online donations and stores, and a few customized features using a database.
Executed by a team of volunteers, all of whom are usually located in different cities of the world, the CharityFocus projects help non-profits to meet some needs with practical solutions. And it is through this project process that Charityfocus seeks to give people the opportunity to serve others and increase the compassion in their lives.
The overflowing inboxes of the CharityFocus team bear testimony to the chord CharityFocus has struck with people. Their activities have earned them enormous goodwill worldwide. But all this wouldn’t have happened if one person had not dared to follow his heart. Charityfocus wouldn’t be a reality if it weren’t for the vision of Nipun Mehta, its founder.
FROM INTERNET TO THE INNER
Born in 1975 in Ahmedabad, India, Nipun Mehta moved to the United States when he was in seventh grade. His versatility, verve, and desire to achieve more were evident even in grade school. But it was his compassionate spirit nurtured by his family that gave him the ability to reach out to others.
After graduating from University of California, Berkeley, with a double major in computer science and philosophy, Mehta went to work for Sun Microsystems. Though he was riding high on the dot-com wave, Mehta felt restless. He always donated part of his income for charitable causes, but it gave him no satisfaction.
One day, he and his friends, decided to conduct a help-the-homeless drive. The large turnout for the event made him sense people’s willingness to spend their time for others given a proper opportunity. It was then that the idea for Charityfocus germinated in his mind.
In April 1999, while most people in Silicon Valley were trying to make their millions, a bunch of six, with service in their hearts, started to innovate giving over the web. Superficially, Mehta’s idea was to channel the abundant technical skills in the Silicon Valley to aid non-profits. “But what Nipun actually wanted to do, was to create an inner revolution of compassion,” comments Sunil Shah, one of the initial CharityFocus volunteers. “CharityFocus’s underlying goal was to allow people to volunteer, to help facilitate an inner change in people’s hearts.”
Ashish Mehta, projects director of CharityFocus, feels that CharityFocus is a way to connect the inner net to the Internet. “The beauty of the Internet,” he says, “is that it allows volunteers to give their time and talents from their desktops. CharityFocus just helps such volunteers and non-profits with needs to connect.”
CharityFocus volunteers usually manage a hundred projects concurrently. The time value of their services is in millions of dollars, yet the truly fascinating aspect of CharityFocus is that it is a fully volunteer-run non-profit organization with zero overheads.
Decentralization, Mehta insists, is responsible for the success of their volunteer structure. “We have transferred the project execution power completely to the volunteers. To enable this, we have built an easily navigable, massive online infrastructure with complete project procedures and other information. Anyone can login, see, and update the status of their projects. Fortunately, we have an enviable problem of too many inspired volunteers. A volunteer opportunity posted on the Open Projects page disappears in a couple of hours.”
Neerav Mehta, a volunteer, feels CharityFocus is successful only because it retains the feel of a group of friends. “What makes CharityFocus so special is the mindset that anything is possible,” he adds. “If you are passionate about something, someone at CharityFocus will believe in you and help you develop your idea.”
THE BUDDING FAMILY
As it grew, CharityFocus went on to acquire similar service-oriented websites. All the acquisitions occurred in landmark CharityFocus-style, with no money involved in any of the deals.
As the first dot-org to take over a dot-com, CharityFocus made Silicon Valley history in 2002, when it took over www.pledgepage.com, an online fundraising portal. According to recent estimates, close to $4 million has been raised, by nearly 2,500 Pledgepage users, for many great causes globally.
Then in 2003, Jayesh Parekh, owner of Sony TV television channel, handed over the running of his portal www.propoor.org to CharityFocus. Says Parekh, who is now a volunteer himself, “I wanted to expand Propoor and provide it with world experience exposure, which is exactly what the motivated CharityFocus volunteers will equip Propoor with.” Propoor currently lists nearly 14,000 NGOs in South Asia and has over 6,000 registered members. Inspired by Nipun Mehta and other CharityFocus volunters, Parekh is now planning to reorganize his whole business in a manner that enables him to spend more time doing social and community activities.
Again in 2003, CharityFocus launched another project—www.cshops.org. cShops, a social e-commerce website, helps small and rural artisans in developing countries to sell their handicrafts online, directly to an international audience. In this pilot project CharityFocus has tied up with IndiCorps, a public service fellowship organization and Manav Sadana, an NGO in Gujarat.
Recently, CharityFocus took over the website www.enlighteningmessages.com, which allows you to put inspiring banners as advertisements in websites. Their latest project, www.helpothers.org that allows one to surprise and tag people with smiley cards and kind acts, is generating a pay-it-forward-style spate of benevolent acts.
Over the years CharityFocus has impacted numerous lives and thoughts. Roopal Shah, one of the founders of IndiCorps, treasures her association with CharityFocus. “Nipun and his team help us strive to find higher purpose in everything we do. In that way, they are an integral part of who we are and what we do.”
While it is busy connecting people globally over the net, in the United States too in various cities Charityfocus is experimenting with the chapter concept, allowing volunteers to form groups and undertake service activities. In the Bay Area, every few months 100-150 CharityFocus volunteers make sandwiches or distribute clothes among the homeless.
Pawan Mehra, founder of giveworld.org thinks of CharityFocus as a catalyst for positive change. “Not much is said about how CharityFocus has helped spawn and grow other organizations. But truly, the unconditional giving that is part of the CharityFocus circle is a large reason why Give Foundation, Inc is where it is today,” he acknowledges.
CharityFocus’s online funbunch group, daily email quotes, weekly meditation nights, talks from service and spiritual leaders, nights and evenings of inspiration: all continually ensure that the CharityFocus volunteers celebrate themselves and have their regular doses of motivation and revitalization.
After attending a CharityFocus evening of inspiration, Sally of United Religious Initiative sent a note to CharityFocus. “CharityFocus offers an infectious feeling that makes people who hang out with you say: Yes, I want to have this kind of giving perspective and enjoy the richness of my life,” she wrote. “I hope your community grows and prospers.” And indeed their tribe is booming.
OUTSIDE THE BOX
The CharityFocus website (www.charityfocus.org) receives over 2 million hits every month, Pledgepage around 1.2 million hits per month, and ProPoor averages 5,000 hits daily.
But these statistics they hope will be overshadowed by their upcoming project, tentatively named Service eXchange. With it CharityFocus seeks to share its infrastructure, build more web-tools that enable social change and to encourage P2P (people2people) social marketing. Says John Silliphant, who is actively involved in the project, “With Service eXchange we will empower people by providing the tools to facilitate action and provide a space for people to interact with others who have similar service interests.”
With achievements have come accolades both for CharityFocus and for Nipun Mehta. For his commitment to service, Mehta received the prestigious Jefferson Award in June 2001 and the President’s Volunteer Service Award at the United Nations in December 2003. CharityFocus and Nipun Mehta have been featured on the CNN, SF Weekly, Money Magazine, and various other media in the United States and in India.
Mehta regularly gives talks on service, leadership, spirituality, entrepreneurship, and organizational design, and once even addressed a group of Nobel laureates. He participated in the International Youth Conference held in Geneva last year. Other CharityFocus volunteers have also participated in conferences across the globe and have opened the eyes of millions to the concept of how a totally online volunteer-run organization can change the global service scenario.
CharityFocus has revolutionized giving. It has shown thousands of people how simple the act of reaching out can be. Says Mehta, “Service is constant renewal. When you light a candle for someone else, you find that your own life becomes a little brighter.” With zealous fervor that’s what CharityFocus continues to do everyday.
Anita Iyer writes from Navi Mumbai, India.
LIFE’S INFINITE POSSIBILITIES
“Life has a funny way of arranging itself around your deepest beliefs,” says Nipun Mehta, founder of CharityFocus. A successful software engineer who chose to give it all up and instead devote his life and energies to spreading the message of service, Mehta has created waves around the world. Here is a peek into his mind:
Why is service important in the world?
Service is enlightened common sense. It doesn’t start when you have something to give but rather when you have nothing left to take. Service is what makes the world go around. It is because of the unconditional service of our mothers that we are born. It is because of the unconditional service of the plants and the animals around us, that we are able to survive. And if we are ever to live in full harmony, it will be because we have understood unconditional service towards our fellow human beings.
Do you feel your Indian upbringing has helped form your personality and given you the values you have?
Absolutely. A Western Buddhist monk once told me that he wished to visit India once in his life. I asked him why, and he responded: “Every inch of Indian soil has probably had a prayer done on it.” India is the spiritual motherland of the world, with an incredible heritage of seva.
According to you, what are the three most important values a human being must possess?
Service, compassion, and wisdom. Service to plant the seeds of a good harvest, compassion to water the plant, and wisdom to know what to do with the fruits.
How much has your family influenced your current life?
I feel like I have the world’s greatest parents! I think my brother is their favorite son, though. We are the fruits of our parents. It is through our parents that we can connect with our true roots. More than anything else, they have always given me the space to make mistakes, which has kept us all open to continual growth. And about my brother, just tell me how many pages you’d like to fill up. He is the biggest inspiration of my life.
Where do you see CharityFocus going from here?
The CharityFocus business model sums up in three words: give it away. Till now, we have given away millions of dollars in services. But now we want to ante up and give away CharityFocus itself—our infrastructure, processes, volunteers, everything. We want to empower anyone to start their own compassion revolution. It’s taking our slogan—Helping Others Help Others—to yet another level. That portal, currently called Service eXchange, is our vision.
Any special plans for yourself?
I simply want to keep working from a space of “I don’t know.” Because that’s when you are fearlessly open to life’s infinite possibilities.