It Takes A Village (aka: One Heck Of A CF Retreat!)

Posted by Nipun Mehta on Sep 27, 2010
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In SF, when the carpool toll went from zero to $2.50, the number of carpoolers dropped dramatically because people couldn't agree on how much each person should pay.  It is precisely this cooperation problem that the gift-economy spirit of CharityFocus helps to solve.  By thinking of the collective first, we create consistent contributors and research shows that groups that have such contributors are able to generate much more collective value -- CF would agree.

That was the opening of our 2010 retreat, themed -- It Takes a Village.   The strength of the CharityFocus ecosystem isn't in the success of a particular project, but in the density of interconnections between its people and its projects.  From 10AM-5PM on Sep 19th, we shared stories around various manifestations of CF values and then at night, we experienced these with a remarkable story-telling celebration with the larger community.

Philip, Rahul, Six, Trishna, Yoo-mi, Birju, Amit, and Jean Francois were all visiting from out of town -- and locals like Afreen, Smita, Kanchan and Steve offered their place as Chris elegantly coordinated all the connections.  Similarly, about a dozen folks volunteered the night before to do some grocery shopping, chop vegetables,  bake cookies (till 1AM), get the place and A/V setup.   In parallel, a bunch others were at home spiffing up their powerpoint presentations.  In every part of the gathering, the "It Takes a Village" theme was evident.

After some introduction, Trishna opened with a state of the hive.  

When we hear that CFSites has empowered 7000 websites, we think of it as a number; but when Trishna gives a story of how just one site was empowered, it starts to hit home.  Same with a story of how hundred bucks rippled, or how a KarmaTube video went viral, or how Yoo-mi reads emails out loud to understand phoenetically spelled emails on ProPoor, or how a Nobel Laureate visits a Wednesday in London, or how a painter working on Richard's house ended up being a story in works & conversations.  While each project is spectacular on its own, what we are now seeing is the synergistic impact of it.  Someone like Susan Schaller -- who miraculously taught a 27-year old deaf person to speak -- walks in to Karma Kitchen, decides to give away one of her favorite possessions each week, runs into Richard (who interviews her), attends Wednesdays, gets featured on DailyGood.org as her story goes viral -- and soon is a guest on Radio Lab.   Its one of many examples that get amplified because of synergies within our projects.

After Trishna, we went into a circle of sharing that brought everyone's voice into the room.  In true CF style, about 30 of the 50 folks were presenters, so that distributed circle would continue throughout the day.  Speaking about ripples, Rahul shared a poignant reflection about planting a seed -- "You can't dig it up every so often to see why it hasn't yet sprouted.  You have to trust that it will blossom in its own time."  Prakash offered a powerful story of approaching a stranger on the streets of Berkeley while looking for parking: "M'aam, I don't know Berkeley and I'm lost.  Can you guide me about where I may find parking?"  In a rather surprising move of generosity, the woman offers him her spot and drives off to find another spot for herself!  Turns out that another one serendipitously opened up right in the same block, which she gladly took.  It also turns out that they both chat about Smile Cards and they were both heading to the same event; and at night, when Prakash puts on a film, it turns out that the woman was in the movie!  And it turns out that the woman was a CF'er -- Stanford professor Linda Hess.

Presentations followed.  Pavi, Tom and MJ opened with a Karma Kitchen montage and a "Give Love" soundtrack. :)  Audrey, Ripa spoke about DailyGood as Trishna and Bhoutik spoke about HelpOthers.  Each presentation laid out some "step-it-up" areas of opportunity -- from DailyGood exploring how to engage its 110K readers, to KK exploring a step-it-up experience for its guests, to HelpOthers exploring a bridge between offline and online expressions of generosity.   Bhoutik, one of the youngest members of the posse, spoke about social media: "We've got 20 thousand people following CF portals at a multiple-times-per-day rate.  And its increasing in scope.  Deepak Chopra tweets us twice a week, every week, to his several hundred thousand followers.  How can we leverage all that short-attention span on social networks towards concrete actions?"

Several times a day, many reiterated that CF gatherings are far more about presence than about content.  And that was obvious.  Whenever we started to fall behind, we would do the counter-intuitive thing and take 30 extra seconds of collective silence.  Prioritizing that being-ness over the doing-ness is generative.  For example, in the post-event feedback, Birju wrote: "Pancho's talk in the afternoon was AWESOME.  He really brought it, presence-wise."  And incidentally, Pancho wrote: "The grounding presence of hermano Birju during the KarmaTube presentation was remarkable. He totally inspired me to step it up."

After Birju shared the new Karma Kitchen video, Somik offered some insights into the counter-intuitive wisdom of 'Wednesdays' that has allowed it to spread globally.   Kate, Afreen and Sam spoke about our local BFJ chapter and its nano-philanthropy project -- and for the woman who secretly comes into KK to drop off hand-drawn blessing cards (each of which takes her hours to make!) with a dollar bill blessing, we each did origami with a dollar bill as a part of giant collage that we plan to gift her.   Aumatma spoke about the growth of Karma Clinic, and its origins on the CF ideas alias, as Guri and Amit shared lots of projects from the budding ecosystem in India -- MovedByLove.org ... Guri summed it up nicely with a quote by Lincoln: "Its amazing how much you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit."

The breadth and depth of creativity was stunning.  Philip shared his surprising results of a grassroot "Failure Club", which encourages people to step out of their comfort zone by reframing failures as an asset; a while back, he hosted Wednesday meditation in his Manhattan home, which led to involvement with various CF projects and ultimately to Karma Auction.  Rishi delivered a stunning visual portrait of Smita's experiment with Karma Tiffin; everyone was touched, including Smita herself!  The next morning Smita wrote: "Today, we had a staff meeting at my work, where I shared that I attended the CharityFocus retreat this weekend.  I announced at the meeting that I have decided to "gift" my services to this organization for the next 2 weeks (I won't be turning in any time sheets), as an experiment to see if I can shift my perspective around my work there. I also thought this would be a good way to bring the gift economy spirit to this organization by 'being the change'."  Anne shared her experience with Green Museum and of bringing the spirit of gift economy to the art world with experiments like KK-to-go at Headland Center for Arts.  And Paul anchored the closing with a striking "afterward" reading to the CF book that he's been actively crafting.

For the closing circle of mindfulness, George tossed a wireless mic into his pocket, strummed his guitar string and delivered a song that rocked us again.  I was among many who held tears of gratitude from a heart overflowing with love.  A powerful moment of culmination.   

A first-time CF retreater captured it best:  "The biggest thing for me was the sense of love that I got from it. I can feel myself tearing up, just thinking about it. But when we were all gathered in the circle, after George played the Om-Mani-Padme-Hum and Nipun shared some closing thoughts, I was just struck by an overwhelming sense of interconnected love. And I don't mean that in a light, feel-good way. I mean deep, ancient, nonviolent love. Where all beings are connected and there's just a pure force that flows through all of us. This retreat tapped into a depth of life. I feel like a lot of projects and people in this world might be motivated by a pursuit of material happiness- leisure time, good food, fun. But, whether we know it or not, we all belong to each other. Deep down, we share the same roots. What I felt in this retreat, and in CF settings in general, is a much deeper, transcendent purpose. It was like light from each person's soul emerged and danced together. That's something that I can never forget. I hope I can learn to embody this authenticity, and continually bring it out in myself and others as I live my life."

If the story ended here, it would've been an awesome day.  Practically everyone who filled out post-retreat feedback checked off the highest marks for the gathering: "Absolutely loved it."  Yet, this was barely the warm-up.

About a week prior, we thought of inviting some more folks to our community night to share the inspiration of the posse.  Given CF's modus operandi, we work within the realities of what we're offered.  We were offered a fantastic space which had a limit of 110 folks, which meant that we couldn't invite many of our friends.  Due to some construction, we didn't have a sink with running water -- but we still served breakfast, lunch and dinner!  Due to time restrictions, we had a "distributed keynote", where each speaker shared a story of generosity for 3-4 minutes; these were all folks who are used to keynoting conferences and yet found value in sharing in the humble community vibe.  The list goes on.

In the first hour of the community night, we opened with the Ekatva video as CF'ers reflected on some of the values they heard in the day -- Richard spoke about the "small" dishwashing performance at KK, Pavi reflected on practicing 30 seconds of "stillness" when running behind schedule, Yoo-mi pointed about the importance of the "consistent contributors" like 13 years of Wednesdays, Birju spoke about authenticity: "Five years ago, I started my CF experience to change the world.  Today, I'm trying to change myself."   We then debuted a happy film on HelpOthers.org, whose filmmakers made a remote appearance from Sweden.

In the second hour, we invited community leaders to reflect more broadly on generosity.  Jacob Needleman opened with a striking story of a Mexican kid who discovered the joy of giving -- by giving his favorite toy; Miki Kashtan continued the kid-theme by sharing two powerful stories around freedom and meaning; Alan Briskin narrated a gifting experience when his son was six and how meaningful coincidences occur when you come from the "Source"; Susan Louie spoke of how a small Karma Kitchen moment led to her meeting the Dalai Lama; Shereef Bishay delivered a compelling story of his father in Egypt who taught him to "just don't say no" to generosity; Matt Kowalski theatrically challenged everyone to rethink abundance from the perspective of a homeless person; Jason Marsh shared gratitude for the CF posse, in light of his work around the science of compassion; Megan Cowan reflected on stepping from mindfulness to heartfulness; and Tapan Parikh told the story of an everyday hero who fed stray dogs and how society needs to shift its definition of success.  Those were just some of the voices.  Among our audience were pioneers of at least 30 unique organizations, that all resonate with the CF values.

By this time, the vibration in the room was absolutely palpable.   Dozens of people who would later report tearing up, with an organic experience of gratitude.  Such collective goodness, with no real center.

Our last half hour was the monastic hour. :)  From a Hindu monk to a former Burmese nun to a Tibetan monk to a Franciscan nun to a Buddhist abbott , CF gatherings tend to attract renunciants. :)  Swami Vedananda, a highly respected Vedanta monk for 40 years, graced us with a few remarks; Rev. Heng Sure, a Buddhist monk who did the 3-step-one-bow pilgrimage in late 70s,  followed that up with a "Dana Paramita" song. As Rahul noted: "George's 'Om Mani Padme Hum' started the tears and by the time Rev. Heng Sure's 'Dana Paramita' came along, the floodgates were unleashed." 

As a way to offer our thanks, Sam Bower and Liz Handey hand-made a "Buddha Puppet" (not available in the market!) which absolutely made Rev. Heng Sure's day.  We asked Tom Spellman, our intern for the year, to accept our collective-bow of gratitude as he heads back to the East Coast next week.  And we sang "Dedication of Merit" to share the goodness far and wide.

Words really can't capture the essence of it.  Yet the dozens of thank-you notes tried to express gratitude.  Audrey, for instance, wrote: "The whole day was incredible. I felt like I was in the presence of greatness, pure and deep. I don't think I've ever been in a space that felt so genuine and authentic, and yet was so organized, concrete, and powerful.  Thank you. It was beautiful to meet so many people joined together by a desire to give, be selfless, and serve. It woke me up. There are so many places and interactions in the world that feel superficial or forced or self-serving. But when something is real, you just know. There's no explanation or justification needed. This retreat was so real, and I keep drawing back on the experience when I find myself in confusing situations. Thank you. :)"

Here's photo montage that tries to capture the spirit, in four soundtracks:

While Ripa and Jennifer took copious notes and Richard and Chris took lots of photos, this wasn't the kind of meeting with action items.   Yet things happened.  Praveen is working on a top-secret idea, :) Amit and Pancho have initiated a be-the-change action for every Wednesday, Six is framing his research in light of gift, as is Susan, Ram is going to ask students of his free weekly yoga-class to pay it forward with a Smile Card, Ann O. is starting a CF-for-kids with two women she met at the gathering, Somik wants to give away the stuff from his move using Karma Auction, someone anonymous tagged Smita with a "large donation" so she could keep tagging people with food,  Rahul plans to replicate Karma Tiffin in LA while Afreen plans to help in Oakland, Miki wants her life to go full-out gift-economy, Anne Veh brought brownies and wants to cook up an entire meal for everyone next time, Lalita put up a question outside her school office to challenge her students: "If you could have a superpower for the betterment of humanity, what is it and how would you use it?", Jason wants to do a book on HelpOthers stories.  One ripple after another, goodness continues to self-organize.

Just as I write this, a fellow named Tim requests a Smile Deck with his blurb:

"I live in Orando, FL. I am a small business owner of an ice cream shop. I am planning to use the Smile Deck to encourage customers everyday to do something kind. I plan to have the Smile Deck  on display with 1 card chosen at random each day face up to show the suggested idea to inspire others to do something kind. In the many years, I've have never had anyone do something kind and unexpected for someone else in my store. I hope to change that!"

Really, that's all the world needs -- for each of us to shine our little corner of the world.  And when we all come together in such an energizing way, it feels like the universe is whispering a little message in our hearts: "Keep going."

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Comments (12)

  • Amit wrote ...

    I wish I had the eloquence to share just how moved I was to the depths of my being...but I suppose I will just have to "steal" what others have already said and say "ditto." Thank you all for allow me to steal (giving me) so much love and ideas and inspiration to create enough ripples to hopefully cause a tidal wave one day! Love, Smiles and Big Amit Bear Hugs!

  • Richard wrote ...

    Thank you Nipun, Guri [and everyone should be named]. Wonderful to have this beautiful record of such a special day.

  • Jenny Douglas wrote ...

    Smiling wide and loving you all from Brooklyn!

  • Juanita Brown wrote ...

    What a wonderful reflection -- and the videos and songs brought what obviously was an incredible gathering to life for me. I was sad not to be in California as I'd have loved to be there!
    With love and best wishes,
    Juanita Brown

  • Miki Kashtan wrote ...

    Among other things, the retreat inspired me to write this blog post about the gift-economy:

    If you want to be inspired by one organization that has experimented with working on a gift basis despite everyoneís caution and advice, look up charityfocus.org. I recently had the very good fortune of participating in one of their events, and was deeply nourished by the overflow of joy and generosity that I experienced. CharityFocus is an organization without staff Ė everything is done on a volunteer basis. Just in case you imagine something small and local, I was astonished to discover they have 300,000 members worldwide.

    A gift economy differs from a barter economy. Although I love the idea of localizing economies and currencies, even a full barter system without currency is still based on exchange. The essence of a gift economy for me is that itís based on giving freely. Giving freely means having no expectation of receiving anything in particular from anyone. In that sense it changes the nature of the relationship. Giving freely also means cultivating trust that enough giving will take place so that what I need for sustenance and well being will be provided, without knowing how. This requires a deep trust. Perhaps what most inspires me about CharityFocus is the degree of trust.

  • Pancho wrote ...

    BAAM-plex! :-)

    What a video! More tears added to the collective joy.

    As I said--and confirmed by hermano Birju--I'm only a fierce mirror. ;-)

    So here we go, a poem that just flowed through me:

    The Eternal Cloth
    Your being, Beloved Angel, fills
    my spirit with courage to cross the highways of injustice
    my heart with compassion to eradicate the abyss of indifference
    my mind with understanding to discover there are no enemies.

    (Y)our love, Beloved One, is an eternal shield of truth
    witnessing mountains as slow waves
    listening in-between Big-Bangs as rest note in the song of the Cosmos
    caressing the Milky Way as soft canopies of our ancestors flying through space
    tasting oceans and lakes and rivers as tea of evolution
    smelling the stars as the dust of lifeÖ

    your eyes impossibly loving
    your ears impossibly attentive
    your touch impossibly gentle
    your mouth impossibly smiling
    your smell impossibly fragrant.

    But our still minds,
    merged in the glory of silence as ONE,
    tapping into the impermanence of all,
    generous with all sensations,
    imagining our expansive joy,
    are divine power and the possibility for Freedom.

    Letís walk side by side towards the Moon of United Souls in the path of community!
    Letís kiss Justice on the lips!
    Letís bow to each other bending the body of service with the-palms-together of love and respect!
    Letís feel the tears of gratitude from a being overflowing with love!
    Letís embrace in a sublime equanimous Planetary hug!

    Beloved One, it is through the patient cotton of fearless kindness,
    and its indescribable beauty,
    that our hearts are warmly weaved forever.

  • Paul wrote ...

    I am in a different place two days after the retreat than I was when it began. (My usual 48-hour test on the impact of anything!) That different place is a greater appreciation -- greater palpable sense, really -- of the power of presence as opposed to the power of "input." The retreat was well-organized and inspiring. In terms of the art of retreat-giving, it was excellent. Of course, given the size and ambition of the agenda, it was primarily a meeting of presentations, rather than generation of bottom-up ideas. That is fine in my book. Doing both either requires a smaller group, or more time, or both. But establishing presence can surpass either, leaving that bottom-up generation of new ideas and transformations silently to unfold within us -- in the hours, days and weeks after the gathering. When that happens, the gathering turns out to have been a gentle catalyst. And that is something sublime.

  • Afreen wrote ...

    A reflection that really moved me and continues to with most CF encounters is how certain people are really self-less and absolutely determined in their will to offer constant service. This reflection was triggered by all the hours of loving labor from folks who helped organize so many aspects of the retreat, to others who have been instrumental in starting a CF project or keeping a project going... despite having full time jobs or many other commitments. It seems that for some service is not something you do in your free time, its not something that happens when its convenient... rather it is just a way of being, it is something you are compelled to do despite loss of sleep, exhaustion, lack of personal time etc. And witnessing this makes me reflect on my own notion of service and how I can step it up :-)

  • Rahul wrote ...

    There was palpable positive energy and purity in the room. I loved the music-- from the initial song that we opened with (what was that? how can we hear it again?) to MC Yogi's 'Give Love', to George's tear-inducing 'Om Mani Padme Hum', to the floodgates unleashed by Rev. Heng Sure's 'Dana Paramita'. We packed in so much, but were never rushed. We ran late, but were right on time :-) We had a structure, but were also fluid and spontaneous. It was clear that a lot of time and thought had been put into every detail, but beyond that, was an assemblage of astounding beings flooding the room with goodness.

  • Ram wrote ...

    It was great to hear all the amazing stories from 10 am to 10 pm. Lots of inspiration! I found it emotional too at times (specially when we did the one big circle and shared our reflections). The other time I remember was when Nipun was talking about his experience at Ekatva retreat in India and at the same time the video was playing with "Hari Narayana" -- I felt very emotional at that time. George's song always touches my heart. The group hug was simply great. I really appreciated 30 second silence between every topic. Food was great (loved the soup; cookies and the brownie were great too). Venue was perfect. I was so happy with the meditation cushions that I sat on them for the whole day :) ---- Its hard to sum this up here but I would certainly say that I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to be in the company of these amazing folks from all over; Thank you for a fantastic day! Thank you for your hardwork in putting this together. Thank you for inviting me. Thank you for everything. I hope to contribute more and more to the CF ecosystem.

  • Russell wrote ...

    I wanted to share a breakthrough I had at the retreat -- that was a combination of things. Not only do I have the idea that all people are moved to generosity by generosity, driven home by a second or third wording of that same idea by Nipun, but in case I do slip into the mindset that some people are "takers" I still have Shereef's father's solid advice that helping them, too, is just the price to pay to be sure whoever deserves your help will never be turned away. With this beautiful combination I feel in one night I've been gifted a beautiful mental framework with which I will never again question helping anyone in any way I can - and I'll never feel "taken advantage of". That was a pretty big breakthrough. Thank you.

  • Anne wrote ...

    I experienced a deep connection with everyone - beginning with the greeters on the steps of the monastery, to the circle of sharing, and this connection only deepened while listening to the speakers and sharing with everyone throughout the day and into the evening. There was no separation!

    I felt so much love and compassion in the room, anything and everything seems possible. The retreat was very well organized! I gained a deeper understanding of the CF ecosystem and the multitude of opportunities to get involved. I strongly felt an openness and invitation to initiate new ideas. Also, a beautiful nudge not to be shy! I feel more passionate and able to share this path of service to others:)

    I feel emboldened by the day! I am integrating all the beautiful gifts from the retreat and I am excited to share these gifts with others, ever widening this beautiful circle of giving, and most importantly by acting!

    The connections made visible are very powerful. Just today, I was picking up my children at Greenwood School in Mill Valley and I ran into Justin. We both looked at each other with a big grin and asked each other, ""Why are you here?"" It turns out Justin is teaching my son Peter on his Nature Studies:) I LOVE IT!