In London: They Didn't Have To, But They Did
--Nipun Mehta
9 minute read
Jun 24, 2009


After my second talk at London Business School, Andrew comes up to introduce himself.  It turns out that he is the CEO of UK's largest parking garage company -- NCP -- and in listening to the CharityFocus story today, he had several "break-through" moments around the gift-economy ideal.  "What if you allocated a daily kindness budget for each parking attendant, and gave them an opportunity to tag a random customer: 'Sir, your bill was paid for by an anonymous friend.  Here's a Smile Card.  Please pay it forward."  The attendant would feel empowered, the customer would be bowled over, and the stories would ripple to shift the ethos of the entire company.  Andrew digs it!  He gets the power of small acts, because one of their parking attendants recently saved someone from a suicide attempt in the garage.  We agree to video conference with his leadership team, to imagine the possibilities around their 750 garages!

During my last four days in London, I didn't get enough sleep but I did get many opportunities to plant gift-economy seeds in unsuspecting places. :)  I was invited to London Business School by Professor Rao, to share stories with his classes ... and then, of course, serendipity has a way to taking over!

Part of the joy of being the gift-economy change you wish to see in the world is that you are surrounded by many small gifts.  Adam came to pick me up at the airport, oriented me for my first trip to London, handed me a public transit map, an oyster card for the "Tube", and snuck a 20 pound note "just in case".  He didn't have to do any of that, but he did.  Soon after landing, I delivered my first talk, as the energized class dissolved my jetlag.  Afterwards, Karishma and Aditi whisked me away for a mandatory trip to London Bridge for dinner (and a tutorial on British vocabulary :)).  And then Aditi came back all the way just to drop me off.  She didn't have to, but she did.  When I wasn't staying at Srikumar's, Trishna hosted me in her "flat" despite being out of town ... and went way OVER the top, by remembering the smallest details ranging from setting up the wireless internet and an electrical adapter (which I desperately needed!) to having fresh towels and an umbrella to loading up the refrigerator with goodies ... and even setting up a meditation cushion in my room!  She didn't have to, but she did.

To be held by such gifts is half of the umph behind my talks.  And the other half of the umph is the practice of paying forward those gifts.  The rest is just details. :)   In fact, Professor Rao himself remarked: "You're not a polished speaker per se, but just who you are *being* seems to really get through to people."  I got a real kick out of that comment!

Being professional may impress but it does not inspire.  It is exactly the oridnariness of the unpolished and the unknown and the unaccomplished that people easily relate to.  And then the ripples naturally start spreading.  Someone wrote the next day, about a deep conversation he had with an old man on the street because he was open to it.  A gentleman said he came 220 miles to hear my talk, and the gift-economy stories really reconnected him to his mom's ideal of hospitality.  A couple want to explore starting Karma Kitchen in the UK.  Mohan, who recently retired as the chief of Proctor & Gamble, said he was "tickled pink" by the first lecture and rescheduled his meetings the next day to attend the second talk.  Some students included "gift economy" in their year-end skits the next day.  I must've received at least a dozen emails describing how people were touched and more importantly, how they plan to carry forth the spirit of goodness in one small way or another.  Some asked about volunteering, some thought of new ideas to implement in their contexts, some signed up for all of our newsletters and everyone took a card from the Smile Deck.

In addition, it was a treat to engage in spirited Q&A with business oriented minds.   I mean, the previous speaker for this group was Rajat Gupta, who was a managing partner at McKinsey; the one before that was Ben Zander, who is the conductor of Boston Philharmonic.  They're used to correlating "big" with success.  And they're hardly ever exposed to the power of non-financial incentives.  CharityFocus values -- give freely, trust unconditionally, and think small -- run against almost everything they're taught.  So it's natural to get questions like: "Do you ever wonder if you'd be able to achieve more, with a paid staff?"  The essence of all such queries boil down to a distinction between impact and transformation.  Business schools ingrain the value of impact, which is immediate and quantifiable, but I use the CharityFocus story to point at the power of transformation that is multi-generational, subtle and often immeasurable.  Society needs a balance of both, but in the current state of affairs, we need to rebalance in the direction of transformation.

The next night, Aditi hosted a "Wednesday" meditation.   We sat in silence for an hour that everyone felt "went by so fast", and then we did a circle of aha-moment sharing.  Fernando spoke about his ongoing Camino pilgrimage, Soumil shared about his insights into healing himself from sickness, Gloria talked about being raised in the cocoon of Chinatown and wanting to explore photography, John talked about the toxic nature of law despite his Dad being a Yale law professor, and so on.   There was a palpable vibe in the room -- everyone felt happy. 

And I've noticed that the universe has a funny way of self-organizing wisdom whenever that ambiance is present.  On this night, that wisdom took the form of Pano -- a Greek entrepreneur, who lived in Bosnia for many years, calls Amsterdam his home and happened to be in town; he didn't know anyone coming in, but he just laid down the law with unflinching confidence and it moved everyone.  "We are like diamonds; we just have to let the bright light shine through us."  "What beliefs are you willing to go to jail for?  If you just talk about ideals, it's not enough."  "Ultimately, there are two things to life: to be able to say 'I Love You' and to actually do it.   Once you do that, you're a professional human being."  And all this was coming from fellow who had sold some of his companies for 9-figure amounts, who had personal stories with folks from the Dalai Lama to Desmond Tutu, and who had directly lived in conflict regions and implemented crafty solutions.   It was just right for the occasion.  By the time we had Aditi's gourmet food -- salad, garlic bread, stuffed bell peppers, pasta, chocolate dessert -- everyone's journeys felt deeply inter-connected.  On the way back home, Aditi, for the first time, gifted her leftovers to a homeless man on the night train.  "He was just so, so grateful.  Somehow it was as if he blessed all of us."

Blessed is a probably good word for the trip.  It's almost as if those little, unquantifiable thank-you's that we've received over the ten years of CharityFocus work pile up in some invisible account and then in the most random ways, like a hallway conversation, it comes in like a lightning bolt to amplify something you're listening to or saying.

On my last day, yesterday, I had a final series of meetings with David Robinson and the leadership team of Community Links.  David founded the organization in 1977, in the back room of East Ham with a ₤360 budget, when mass unemployment, widespread crime and homelessness made it one of the poorest regions of Europe.  Today, things are dramatically different, as 300-staffed Community Links works with more than 50 thousand people every year, publishes various books (like the downright awesome We Are What We Do series and Britain's Everyday Heroes), hosts national events like Chain Reaction that featured Prime Minister Gordon Brown along with billionaire Richard Branson last year, and runs lots of grassroot community development programs.  What I really saw, though, was David's focus on values and be-the-change humility.  You'd never figure that this was a man who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.  It was obvious that he hasn't just written a book on servant leadership, but that he practices it; it was obvious why the first thing you read as you walk into the building is a statement of values:

To generate change. To tackle causes not symptoms, find solutions not palliatives. To recognise that we need to give as well as to receive and to appreciate that those who experience a problem understand it best. To act local but think global, teach but never stop learning. To distinguish between the diversity that enriches society and the inequalities that diminish it. To grow -- but all to build a network not an empire. To be driven by dreams, judged on delivery. To never do things for people but to guide and support, to train and enable, to simply inspire.

While our meeting was slated to be something like an hour, Geraldine, Richard, and Laura joined our meeting half way through, and the stories continued.  As Geraldine would later email, "It was challenging, thought-provoking, and most importantly, very enjoyable."   At one point, David -- who opted to stay in all of the 3 hours of meetings -- says of CF's radical commitment to generosity: "You're dangerous.  This is nothing short of revolutionary."  I agree. :)

By the time I could even write my thank-you note, I noticed all kinds of Twitter posts around a blog entry Laura had posted (along with a photo that Richard took that day!).  Today, they've already invited CharityFocus to speak at Chain Reaction in November (encore to Trishna's talk last year!).  And we're seriously scheming up a few bottom-up projects that are sure to bring in a little bit of the gift-economy revolution to UK.

I returned "home" to a final dinner with seven folks, including one of our UK Smile Card shipper.  Good people somehow find each other, and then the magic happens naturally.  Past midnight, Aditi calls up to say, "I just feel so much love and happiness right now.  I hope it stays."  Given the ongoing Wednesdays in London, I doubt that the service conspiracy is ending anytime soon!  Adam put it succintly to the group: "Thank you for everything this weekend.  I'm still smiling."  That's how each of us felt -- grateful to be connected to each other, and ultimately, a deeper part of ourselves.

At the airport, I was hoping to catch a window seat on the flight back, just so I could get some sleep.  No such luck with a full flight.  But right as I enter the plane, the young German woman in the window seat next to me says, "Would you mind trading seats?"  I couldn't believe it!  My window seat made it a smooth ride back. :)  And as our plane landed in San Francisco, all the passengers erupted in spontaneous applause for no apparent reason.  Sometimes you're just happy and you applaud.  They didn't have to, but they did.

That's exactly how I felt, and I started clapping too.


Posted by Nipun Mehta on Jun 24, 2009

7 Past Reflections