It Takes A Village (aka: One Heck Of A CF Retreat!)
Posted by Nipun Mehta on Sep 27, 2010
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."