Nipun Mehta walks his talk. He’s been doing it for over 20 years now and his walk has been highly successful at helping other people walk theirs.
Mehta was a UC Berkeley computer nerd and a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who witnessed and participated in the peak of the DotCom madness. By the time he was in his third year at UC Berkeley, he was at Sun Microsystems doing work that gave him what he says was more money than he needed.
There he was, well on his way to finishing a degree at Berkeley with a career in fabled Silicon Valley ahead of him, and he felt hollow somehow. It felt like he was coming to a personal dead end and he didn’t like it.
DANCING WITH CONNECTIONS
Mehta, along with several other equally successful friends who felt the need to find deeper meaning in their work and skills than they gained from simply working in the for-profit sector, began a project in 1999 called “CharityFocus,” which grew into an incubator for non-profit projects.
Together they worked on designing small, people-sized projects that helped other people satisfy their own impulses for generosity that were more than accumulating more and more capital and then “doing something good” or “giving back” by writing a check.
The following video, “Pay It Forward,” is a TEDx Talk from 2011, in which Mehta talks about the discoveries they made about giving and gifting during the early days of their walks.
CharityFocus was later renamed “ServiceSpace.” It has grown exponentially into a global network of more than 500,000 people who volunteer their skills and their time to help others.
ServiceSpace operates by three rules: no paid staff, no fundraising, and no strings attached. The organization uses the resources they have – volunteer time and energy as well as money given to them by people who like what they are doing.
The momentum they build through their efforts keeps going because each person does what they want and what they can, expecting no pay-backs or accolades for the work they do for others.
The global network continues to thrive and the effects of their efforts – many of them very small — ripple outward in unexpected ways.
Among the projects that have been incubated in or supported by this network of ServiceSpace volunteers over the years are the following:
- DailyGood: News that Inspires — a site that promotes uplifting news from around the world;
- Karmatube — a site that allows people to access and stream inspirational videos;
- Work and Conversations — a site to learn about and from artists;
- MovedByLove — a network to promote radical generosity projects in India;
- Karma Kitchen — a group of volunteer-run restaurants all over the world that are modeled on the first one started by the ServiceSpace in Berkeley, Calfornia, where people gift for the meals of those who come after them but do not have to pay for what they ate themselves;
- AwaKin — a web-forum that helps people access inspirational tools for personal development and connects them to a community of kindred spirits; and
- KindSpring which aims to promote a global movement of kindness through sharing stories and ideas like the “smile card” which people can leave behind for the person they have just helped anonymously to invite them to pay the gift forward and consider gifting or helping others anonymously.
Other projects include:
- CFtools — a site that helps charities create custom websites at no cost;
- Propoor — an internet portal offering information about resources and news relevant to development work in South Asia;
- PledgePage — a free online platform that allows people to showcase their favorite causes and fundraise for them.
Two things strike me about all of the ServiceSpace philanthropic projects:
- They are mostly online platforms and spaces that share useful or inspirational information that engender or foster actions that show kindness and caring.
- They allow like-minded people to gather together so they can do small things that make big differences in the lives of other people.
Sharna Goldseker is the executive director of a large New York City-based nonprofit philanthropy consulting organization, 21/64, that works with families with funds, foundations and other family enterprises to make effective choices in charitable contributions and such.
She points out that donating “time, talent or treasure” is often the focus in the philanthropy world, but “ties” (the networks people have and maintain) are just as valuable.
Today, she says, connections can help with strategic ideas, inspirations and more, multiplying the effectiveness of any money gift exponentially.
And, it seems to me, if everyone in an organization is an unpaid volunteer and the actions that further a cause are all doable by individuals or very small groups, then it’s likely that little helpful projects get off the ground and gain momentum a heck of a lot faster than some big vision-project with a massive name like the “War on Poverty” or some gargantuan goal that requires hundreds or thousands of dollars and an army of folks to implement.
It is sort of like bootstrapping a business except what you’re bootstrapping is an endeavor that is basically about reaching out a helping hand to someone else. It seems to me that ServiceSpace excels at developing and providing vehicles to do just that.
The unlooked-for accolades came to the group and to Mehta anyway. As the front man for the movement, Mehta has been the recipient of many honors and awards over the years, including the Jefferson Award for Public Service, the President’s Vounteer Service Award and Wavy Gravy’s Humanitarian Award.
He is a regular presenter of TEDxTalks and a tireless advocate for his “Giftivism” (gifting + social activism) concept before wide-ranging audiences from inner city youth in Memphis to academics in London to international dignitaries at the United Nations.
He has also served on advisory boards of the Seva Foundation, the Dalai Lama Foundation, and Greater Good Science Center.
And his way of walking continues to spread.
THE GIFT OF LABOR
Indigenous Australian Murri visual artist, activist and academic Lilla Watson is often credited with this quote:
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
According to Wikipedia, one possible origin of the quote is a speech given by Watson at the 1985 United Nations Decade for Women Conference in Nairobe.
(Watson has always said that she feels uncomfortable with being credited with something that was born of a collective process and prefers that it be credited to “Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s.”)
For decades before the speech, an indigenous NGO (non-governmental organization) in Sri Lanka called the Sarvodaya Shramadana Sangamaya movement was already living and working this precept – outside volunteers working with the residents of many of the poorest villages in the island-country to build strong and vital communities and then move forward to help their neighbors as well.
The idea for a community-building effort began in Sri Lanka in 1958 as a government project and one of the bureaucrats tasked with getting the thing started coined the word “shramadana” (gift of labor) to describe the type of help needed from the volunteers.
In response to the idea of this initiative, a young high school teacher, A. T. Ariyartna, organized a group of forty high school students and twelve of his colleagues from Nalanda College Colombo to conduct an “educational experiment” at a remote back-of-beyond village, Kanatoluwa.
They made a camp outside the village proper and together the outsiders and the villagers worked to improve village living conditions.
In the process, Ariyartna’s students and teachers also began gathering information about what the basic needs of the villagers were and how they could be met. Their studies later expanded into exploring ways that sustained and enhanced the lives of the villagers as well.
They kept asking the question, “What makes a strong, viable community?” Using their research they developed better and better ways to help the villagers help themselves get to better living conditions.
The first success led to other villages and more success, more volunteers, and more community-building until, eventually, after about 15 years of effort, the government recognized the group’s work and lent its support as well.
The movement has become a network of more than 15,000 villages now. It has impacted the lives of millions of people and has gone through many changes while keeping its central idea the same.
At each village, a team of student volunteers (aged 16 to 24) and their adult leaders stay for a minimum of seven days and work for six to eight hours daily alongside the villagers on projects that the residents have decided will enhance their village life.
Experienced community organizers who are members of the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement help the villagers work their way through the process of deciding which project should be tackled first.
Hundreds of villagers work on these projects as well, and the work continues even after the volunteers leave.
Wells are dug where clean water is needed. Houses may be renovated or latrines constructed.
Developing a system for cleaning up the public areas, removing trash, creating a healthier environment and figuring out how to maintain the resultant orderliness is often an option tackled fairly early on by the villagers.
Establishing community gardens is another popular project.
As the basic survival needs of the villagers are met, the communities begin building schools and developing better market places or allowing room for the connections that foster the development of small businesses and trade.
The list of possible projects often grows larger as the villagers and their helpers learn more about how a healthy community works. Often the initial projects blossom into other civic projects that the villagers go on to implement by themselves using the techniques and strategies they’ve learned along the way.
Social activists from other countries heard about the movement and started coming ‘round to see what they were doing.
In 1978, American social activist Joanna Macy traveled to Sri Lanka to learn firsthand about the movement. After her visit she wrote,
“I am convinced that the chief strength of the movement lies in the fact that it asks people what they can give, rather than what they want to get. This is empowering to people. Even if all you can give is a betel leaf or a matchbox of rice, you walk differently on the earth as a bestower.”
Now, isn’t THAT a beautiful concept?
BANANA PATCH TOM
As a counterbalance to these stories and yet another take on the subject of walking on the earth as a ”bestower,” I am reminded of a Maui character who, for me, represents the essence of a generous spirit.
“Banana Patch Tom” was a leftover from the Banana Patch, an “Open Land community” that thrived for about five years during the late 1960’s in a remote East Maui valley that was filled with banana trees.
The land, owned by David Joseph, was made available by him and his wife Hannah to the young, so-called “counter-culture” people who were flocking to the islands at the time. These kind-hearted folks wanted these “good young people” to have a roof over their heads and they provided a place for them to build their own community.
Unfortunately, their generosity made the Josephs a dartboard for the County officials and other residents who were not happy with the wave of strange that was invading the island at the time.
The pressure on them for their act of generosity was large. They eventually sold the land and agreed to have the 26 hand-built, not-to-County-code houses in the valley demolished in order to mitigate varied (and growing) fines and civil charges that had been laid on them.
Click the button below for the archived story about the Banana Patch episode by Maui Lahaina Sun reporter Buck Quayle.
The new owner allowed Tom to remain on the property after the rest of the “hippie” community left.
Tom was a familiar local figure for years. Dressed in rags and castoffs that looked like throwaways that even indigent folks would reject, he hitched rides to and from the remote valley into the communities of Paia and Haiku.
His walk was a kind of stomping glide and he covered a lot of ground with it. He was invariably cheerful and clean, and he was more than a little God-mad.
In several of the tiny local shops in the towns he frequented were coin boxes at the cash register that Tom had fashioned to collect change from the store’s customers. The boxes had little messages that asked for donations for his “Save The Children” child sponsorship campaign.
With the money he collected from those boxes, Tom sponsored more than a dozen children over the years. For a dollar a day, he could affect the lives of children in dire straits in some of the most hard-pressed places in the world.
His only topics of conversation were about those children. He was proud of their triumphs. He was devastated when they went off-track. It was a large part of his life.
It did not matter that he was a gaunt raggedy guy with few material possessions. He was a hero in the way he lived as a bestower.
He was also a humble reminder of the power of one sincere person who makes an effort to help change somebody else’s world for the better.
And that, too, is a beautiful concept.
Here is one more beautiful concept:
The Hawaiian word for “help” is “kōkua.” It means lending a hand and giving when you can. The giving is most valued when it is done without any expectation of personal gain or renumeration.
The giving is not a trade agreement. You give because you can without imposing any obligation on the other person to give something back to you. You give because it makes you feel good.
The word also means being considerate of the other people in your world and starting from a stance of being cooperative and kind just because it helps everything work better.
In all of the blather about gifting and charity work, the “gift economy,” and all that, most folks don’t seem to notice that there are two parts to this giving equation: There is a giver; there is a receiver.
The receiver is a person too and, perhaps, their greatest gift to the giver is their gracious acceptance of the help that is offered.
If a gift is too large or too much, all kinds of resentments can build up in a receiver and there is always a temptation to take advantage of this fool of a giver who is not seeing the person who is in front of him or her as just another person.
There also can be lash-back, where the receiver will actually mess up or abuse the gift or the giver. (What? Do you think you’re better than me?)
The whole kōkua thing is a dance, and in the dance you do need to see your partner and adapt to his or her movements in order to keep from tripping all over yourself or the other person.
There needs to be gracefulness and graciousness as well. The kindness cannot be overbearing or intrusive.
The thing about “kōkua” is that the word can be used as a noun or as a verb. You can kōkua, give or help, or you can BE a kōkua – the one who helps.
The world gets to be a pretty good place when you are a kōkua surrounded by other kōkua and all of you kōkua one another, doing the kōkua dance together.
Here’s a poem:
NOT A DEAD MERMAID
I’m not good at
Dealing with your crazy.
I see it.
I understand why
You feel you need to
Do like that.
But, my world is built on good faith,
On hearts that reach out,
And hands that touch,
And arms enfolding one another
In the warm.
My world is constructed out of
Promises given and promises kept
And visions of human brightness
Wandering together through the darkness,
Holding hands and walking each other home.
Every lie you tell me,
Every broken promise,
Every twisty move
Bent towards some slight advantage for you
That turns my small generosities
Into an access-point for the
Insertion of some siphon you’ve constructed
To suck away all the sweet and tasty bits of me
Into that greedy maw of yours,
Trips me up and pulls me into
The morass of uncertainties and doubts and fears
That surround us always.
They make the Dark get deeper, more widespread.
You are really good at what you do.
You are a sharp one, you.
Slicker than snot, you are.
I am an easy target –
Me, with this raw and bleeding heart
All open to the wind-blown sands of time
And the ornery vicissitudes of
Just walking upright through this world,
Part of the parade of all the other pilgrims
On their journey to some other space.
It’s the price I pay, I suppose,
For reaching toward the sparkle
Of the joyousness of connection,
For dancing through fields of
Under a golden sky,
For holding onto dreams and
Other glowing ephemeral enormities.
I am not fortified.
I have few defenses against one like you.
But, if I slam shut all the doors and windows
I’ve worked so hard to keep open,
So does the Dark.
The candle I have lit gets blown out.
The uncertainties crowd in.
If I give in to the despair that rises up in me,
Then I’d be drowning in a dead gray sea
Of rotting protozoa,
Going down for the third time.
I’d be just another one of those floating dead mermaids,
Drifting around with hair artfully spread out,
The subject of yet another
Adolescent girl’s dark fantasy painting.
My only answer to all of that
(The only one that works)
Is to turn away from you.
I’ll go find some other ones
Who will play nice,
Who will be real –
The ones who are building worlds
That more closely resemble mine.
I know I’ll wonder, though, about
All the ones who didn’t get away
And I’ll wonder about you,
Sitting alone in your darkness
Sucking out the marrow from
The bones of their broken dreams.
I will probably cry.
By Netta Kanoho
HEADER PHOTO CREDIT: “‘Giving Wings to the Dream’, Calgary” by Bernard Spragg.NZ via Flickr, art by Doug Driediger [Public Domain]
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