Digging Deeper Into CharityFocus
--Nipun Mehta
10 minute read
Dec 24, 2007


Whenever Juanita Brown and Tom Hurley ask me for a conversation, I know I'm in for a treat because they know how to dialogue!  Juanita Brown is the founder of the world reknowned World Cafe, author, MIT researcher, and in her previous incarnation -- a full-on activist with Cesar Chavez; Tom Hurley was with Dee Hock at Visa, specializes in creating chaordic systems, and is an instantly-huggable  personality. :)

So last week, nine friends -- ranging from the founders of Dalai Lama Foundation to Help Argentina to Global Lives ... and a "graphical recorder" -- met for a full day to drill down into the essence of CharityFocus.  Although I have got the foggiest idea how to replicate CharityFocus outside of its three guiding principles, :) the conversation opened up into beautiful segues.

Here are some of my informal notes for the collective "harvesting" from that day:

Do-Nothing Design:
perhaps it is because CharityFocus had no other choice, our work falls under Fukuoka's elegant Do-Nothing paradigm.  Of course, it doesn't mean not doing anything, but it implies organically self organizing into innovation, efficiency, and scale.  Our effort lies in creating distributed, decentralized, many-to-many systems where our centralized role stays minimal and invisible.  We're simply instruments in holding the space for our values.   And ultimately, this quality of our designs are rooted in our collective awareness.  Several years ago, after a walking pilgrimage, I wrote a small post called " My Design Principles" that ended with: "When I go deeper within myself, I am affecting all three of my design principles very directly: see reality as it is, master your mind and be in tune with nature."

Be Volunteer-Run: this is our first principle.  This nestles you into the "power of many", and with the Internet, this networked power of many creates a rich density of interconnections that self-organize into umpteen, unimaginable directions for growth.  With all volunteers, the trust is very high and that improves efficiency radically; in addition, it gives rise to servant leadership where the chief coordinator isn't your boss, but more like a sibling who can mirror a deeper potential you wish to manifest in the world.  That servant leadership radically alters the organizational DNA.  Furthermore, being volunteer run dramatically reduces your overhead and allows you to deliver services for free; and because the barrier to entry is reduced, it attracts people and shifts the traditional supply-push model to a demand-pull one.  Our "business plans" are always a step behind the future, right smack in the present; ie. our new projects aren't based on predictions about anticipated scenarios in the future.  Instead, we look to the present and ask if the conditions are ripe for this new project or innovation.  As a result, there is no such thing as a failed idea; implementation could fail but the timing is always spot on.  And ultimately, giving your time is profound in and of itself; in a recent interview on giving time instead of money, I said: "If giving money is generosity, giving time is generosity on steroids." :)

Don't Fundraise: this is our second principle.  "This is enough," is our attitude, no matter what we have.  If it ever feels like this is *not* enough, the lack is in the heart of the organization and that is only fulfilled by one thing -- stepping up the selfless service. :)  When our Smile Card sustainability experiments failed, we decided to step up it up -- Smile Cards went on sale.  It made no sense (from the dominant paradigm context), but the next day, someone randomly sent in a donation that covered our costs.  Just as a laundry machine is useful without knowing the details of centripetal force of the spin cycle, this principle of serving selflessly until you have enough also is quite useful. :)  We can't theorize it or replicate it, but we can give anecdote after anecdote about how it has worked for us.  To me, this is about the "power of monastic".  Monks and nuns across all traditions have understood this and lived on these principles for centuries; the CharityFocus challenge is to create an organization that is "monastic".  To work in this way, at a practical level, is to revere all life.  My two word mantra is -- "assume value".  Last week, I had a coffee with this woman trying to "bring more noble speech in the world"; two weeks later, she wrote a glowing article on her site.  On the other hand, two days ago, someone egged our house, which is equally an offering too.  No matter who it is, no matter what they are offering, assume value; everyone has gifts and they are constantly offering those gifts to the present moment.  You just need to cultivate the eyes to see the value in it.  At a subtle level, not fundraising allows us to deeply value all people, all events, and all life.

Think small: this is our third principle.  No matter what the project, its smallest base case has to have meaning.  DailyGood started with 4 friends as subscribers -- and even if it ended after one email, it was meaningful.  Today, it reaches 70K people daily and that's fine too.  PledgePage empowers people to do events to raise money for their favorite nonprofits; the site users have raised more than $3MM but even if it didn't scale, it has meaning for that one person running that one marathon in honor of their mother who has breast cancer.  Thinking small, though, has subtler ramifications too.  Over time, the base case starts shrinking from one-project to one-action; ie. you start valuing every step of the process.  And when you become deeply process-oriented and hold the smallest action with the reverence it deserves, you outsource the outcome-management to the self-organizing principles of nature.  You're not at all worried about how fast the project will be implemented, how you will sustain it or scale it, if someone will copy it or whatever.  This is truly liberating, and naturally increases your capacity.  A rich guy once asked Mother Teresa about her fundraising plan and she essentially said, "How should I know?"   Sages have always understood this very clearly. :)  Just as fundraising become a major overhead in traditional organizations, our attachment to outcomes is another attachment that even non-traditional efforts can face and our third principle helps us counter that by being deeply process oriented.

Full-on Gift-Economy: this is the foundation of the CharityFocus work.  In a gift economy, goods and services are given freely, without asking for anything in return; instead of "savings", it is the circulation of the unconditional offerings within the community that leads to increase -- increase in connections, increase in relationship strength.  In that spirit, we started by gifting our services, then added Smile Cards, a volunteer-run restaurant night named Karma Kitchen , an art magazine called works & conversations, and so on.  What sustains the gift-economy are people who carry the gift forward; to create this cycle, we need to empower everyone to be a producer, reduce barrier to entry, and create networks to amplify word of mouth.  For us, that translates into producing stories, doing everything for free, and leveraging the Internet.

No Soundbyte:  whenever people ask about CharityFocus, they've been culturally programmed to listen for soundbytes.  Soundbytes are useful sometimes, but they harshly approximate to the point of inaccuracy; so now-a-days, I just don't do it.  If you're seeking inspiration or utility from CharityFocus, we can help; if you're looking to replicate or capture the model, you have to look deeply at our values and be-the-change.

Radically Open: when the dominant paradigm sees a success story, it aims to box it into its familiar patterns.  It happens at a personal level and at an institutional level.  Being caught in the security of replicable patterns is limiting, and often fatal.  In 2005, in the height of CharityFocus potential, my wife and I wondered if we had the guts to drop the manifestation of CharityFocus and stay committed to my values on the roads of India.  And so, without a plan B, we took off on a walking pilgrimage.  If my fellow volunteers saw value in CharityFocus, they'd keep it running; if they had new experiments they wanted to try, they could do that; and if no one cared, then it would be the end.  A year later, much had changed and grown and I was offered leadership once again.  Much in the same way, we aim to be radically open to new ideas.  When Richard and I had a burrito at a Berkeley Taqueria, we had no intention of starting a gift-economy magazine but it happened.  Practically all our great ideas come from the most unsuspecting places, and because we're radically open, we've learned how to tune in.

No Choreographed Diversity: lot of circles will work hard to manufacture diversity; it maybe a step in the right direction but having been on the receiving end of it, it often feels superficial.  Yes, you have different colored skins in the room, yes, you have a gender balance, and yes, all socio-economic classes are represented, but that's not necessarily honoring diversity.  When an indigenous shaman talks about holding paradoxes, it feels so much different than an intellectual semi-listening to an opposing theory.  At CharityFocus, perhaps because we have very few accumulated resources, we pretty much can't manufacture anything.  As a result, we're honest, transparent, and humbly comfortable in our conditions, whatever they maybe.

Networked Communities: as members are added to a network linearly, the value of the network increases exponentially, which charted looks as if it were headed to infinity; that is, the more inter-connected we are, the greater our value.  With every new project, CharityFocus provides a platform which a) provides tools for creating value, b) generates auto-catalytic networks that blur the line between producers and consumers, and c) opens up its collective distribution channels to foster many-to-many connections.

No Advertising: considering that we send 50 million solicited emails per year, to our user base of 195K members, we could easily throw in a few ads in the mix and more than cover our costs even with just a 1% click through rate.  That doesn't even count our websites that attracts visits from millions of unique visitors.  But wanting something in return from the service you provide inherently clutters the spirit of your offering, and so we have steered clear of this.

Full Transparency: with CharityFocus rules of operation, transparency is critical.   Everyone has to be in-the-know about what we are doing, how we are doing it, and how they can participate in the revolution. :)  There's a fine line between not asking and sharing information, and we have to skilfully walk that line in a way that is authentic.  And sometimes you have the opposite problem; like this year, we attracted a (lot) more money than we needed, and so we wrote about it and true to our ethic of non-accumulation, we gave it away.  Our blog is a great place to share information, we have Tigers Updates that shares visionary pieces, and we have many excuses to gather in person as well.

No Cashing Out: when you serve freely, you attract people and gain influence.  Most institutions, from corporate to spiritual, aim to "monetize" that attention.  But how far can you go without cashing out?  We don't know, but we want to push the bounds. :)  While we are in position to have staff and increase efficiency in some specialized sense, we would never do that because it would disturb the entire ecosystem.  Instead we ponder this kind of question -- what happens if you invest all of the "return on influence" back into itself?

Personal Journey: the biggest question that everyone asks: "If you live in this gift-economy way, how do you cover your PG&E bill?"  And that's generally followed by, "Is everyone in your organization like this?"  The answer to the latter question is, no.  Everyone has their own unique equation.  Some are retired, and some are naively exuberant, some have good karma perhaps, some are dedicated, some are exploring, some are tithing, and so on.  Most are volunteers who give a few hrs/week.  What brings us all together is that we all care about the spirit of service and want to take that one extra step.  And as per the personal question of how one survives in gift-economy, I generally cite three core areas: (a) service: deliver concrete value to those around you; (b) context for suffering: because you won't always get what you want, you have to have your own answer to why bad things happen to good people; (c) community: friends whose journeys are inter-twined with your own liberation.  The first talk I ever gave, when I was 23 and CharityFocus had just started, still rings true.  Incidentally, I later ended up being married in that same monastery. :)

May all good intentions bear fruit. :)


Posted by Nipun Mehta on Dec 24, 2007

6 Past Reflections