An Email Thread :)
--Nipun Mehta
4 minute read
Feb 16, 2015


I recently had a rich email thread with a friend whom I really respect ... I'm copy/pasting it below, since I'd imagine lot of you also face similar questions routinely.

Do you have some absolutely first-rate people who would like to help us design and operationalize our website?

To be candid, I would say it's very hard to find first-rate people to do any project -- because first-rate is very context sensitive. There are various volunteer matching services that pride themselves in running with a consultant mindset where the idea is to efficiently match nonprofit needs with volunteer skills. In our experience, however, we've found that such matching simply doesn't work sustainably -- particularly if creating some inner transformation is an important parameter for you. (Incidentally, here's the founder of Engineers Without Borders making the same case.) Working with volunteers, and keep them motivated, requires an ecosystem of inter-connected projects and relationships.

On our end, we are no longer taking on website building/maintenance projects -- for about half a decade, since Internet technologies has now evolved to a point where there's lots of tools for basic sites and complex projects requires too much specialized expertise. That is, website volunteering no longer skilfully lends itself to serve our purpose of cultivating compassion through these service opportunities. So now, we operate more than dozen different projects in-house, and all of whom are within the realm of three creative constraints -- all volunteers, no fundraising, focus on small.

What would it take to become a project of ServiceSpace?

It has to be aligned with our values, build priceless capital (ie. non-monetalizable and long-term ripple), and lend itself to a distributed design. More concretely, the biggest thing would be that it would operate under our three constraints. the first two -- being volunteer-run and not-fundraising -- would imply you'd have to redesign all the work flow (including the admin/grunt work) to operate in a decentralized way, solely with volunteers. The whole unfolding would then be very emergent, in that it could be slow to scale -- and we just have to keep plugging away doing our small little thing. However, since there's no fundraising, there's never an occasion to show off anything to anyone -- so we can just focus on delivering value to our community (otherwise they won't be engaged) and volunteers (otherwise there'll be no one to hold space). All put together, designing for generosity in this way puts the project on a whole new trajectory.

As an example, a Japanese farmer named Fukuoka operated with these principles on a farm -- and for the first four years, nothing happened on his farm and people laughed at him. But looking through his nuanced lens, Fukuoka that he was just paying for the price for the unresolved shadows of the past (in this case, lack of soil health), and that if he kept at it, it would ultimately find its equilibrium and find its glory. Sure enough, over the next thirty years, his farm became a legend and he became the grandfather of modern-day permaculture.

That sound a little like Alcoholics Anonymous model?

AA is indeed a fabulous and resonant model, and even at a larger scale, this was Gandhi's vision for India that he repeatedly articulated. In our current era, however, we can amplify such a model with technology tools, which would not only allow for creative solutions around organizational overhead but allow for a loose-knit meta infrastructure that could allow for synergies across it's distributed units. Of course, it's tempting to create hybrid models with money -- just as it might've been tempting to use non-violence up to a certain point and then use violence to finish off the rest -- but I think that's the trick: to leverage these tools not just strategically but in a principled way. For us, that means, holding onto a question like: what if we don't monetize anything, and keep doubling down our returns into the commons? Of course, technology also has its edges, but there's a skillful line that can be drawn to leverage the Internet to align with the Inner-Net. We call this Gandhi 3.0 model.

Where does such a collection of volunteer-run projects lead?

Collectively, when many such projects come together, it creates a rather unique engagement spectrum that nurtures humanity's commons -- in the material and subtler expressions of value. As people engage with one part of the spectrum, some of them turn from consumers to contributors; because the cost of failure and barrier to leadership is low, those contributors can become initiators and hold their own spot on the engagement spectrum. As more people engage, more projects are generated; as the project breadth diversifies, it attracts more people. Together, it becomes a virtuous loop, and this is what we're seeing in the ServiceSpace ecosystem. Such value cannot be contained -- it ripples out into the world, healing the pathways it is organically led to traverse.


Posted by Nipun Mehta on Feb 16, 2015

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