Nipun Mehta is the founder of ServiceSpace.org, a non-profit that works at the intersection of gift-economy, technology and volunteerism. A graduate in Computer Science and Philosophy, from UC Berkeley, he is a man who hasn’t worked for pay in nearly a decade, and whose mission is simply to bring smiles to the world and stillness to his heart.
Nipun was chosen by the students of Harker to deliver their graduation address on May 27th 2013. He delivered them some good news and bad news;
“You might be surprised to hear this, but you are about to step out into a world that’s in good shape -in fact the best shape that it’s ever been in. The average person has never been better fed than today. Infant mortality has never been lower; on an average we’re leading longer, healthier lives. Child labor, illiteracy and unsafe water have ceased to be global norms. Democracy is in, as slavery is disappearing. People don’t have to work as hard to just survive. ….So, things are progressing. But I’m afraid that’s not the full story….This week, Time Magazine’s cover story labelled you guys as the “Me, Me, Me” generation. The week before, NY Times reported that the suicide rate for Gen X went up by 30% in the last decade, and 50% for the boomer generation. We’ve just learned that atmospheric carbon levels surpassed 400 PPM for the first time in human history. Our honeybee colonies are collapsing, thereby threatening the future of our food supply. And all this is just the tip of the iceberg. What we’re handing over to you is a world full of inspiring realities coupled with incredibly daunting ones…. It’s the paradox that you are inheriting from us. So, what do you do with that? I’m going to be honest — I don’t really know. I do know this, though: At the core of all of today’s most pressing challenges is one fundamental issue- we have become profoundly disconnected.
Rather ironic, considering that we live in an era where Facebook has spawned 150 billion “connections”, as we collectively shell out 4.5 billion likes on status updates, every single day. Yet, a growing body of science is showing what we already feel deep in our gut: we’re more isolated than ever before….Somehow we’ve allowed our relationship to gadgets and things to overtake our real-world ties. We’ve forgotten how to rescue each other. Yet, deep inside we all still have that capacity….We know that we can tap into our inner goodness when crisis strikes. But can we do it on a run-of-the-mill Monday?….Our crisis of disconnection needs a renaissance of authentic friendship…..to upgrade us from Me-Me-Me to We-We-We”.
Nipun’s own journey has helped him return to a place of connection. In 2005, at the peak of their efforts at ServiceSpace, and 6 months into their marriage, Nipun and his wife set off on a 1000km pilgrimage beginning at Gandhiji’s Ashram in Ahmedabad, India. They largely relied on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter. Their goal was to ‘be in a space larger than their egos’. Over a period of three months, extremely poor villagers, who couldn’t even afford their own meals, would often borrow food from their neighbors to feed them. When they tried to refuse, the hosts would simply explain: “To us, the guest is God. This is our offering to the divine in you that connects us to each other.” Street vendors often gifted them vegetables; a woman generously gave them water when they were extremely thirsty — they later discovered that she had to walk 10 kilometres at 4 a.m. to get that one bucket of water. Nipun says, “they knew how to give, not because they had a lot, but because they knew how to love life. They didn’t need any credit or assurance that you would ever return to pay them back. Rather, they just trusted in the pay-it-forward circle of giving.”
In a speech at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris at a congregation of 193 youth leaders, Nipun talked of a word that’s not in the dictionary: Giftivism. Giftivism is the practice of radically generous acts that change the world. Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez and Nelson Mandela, all have one remarkable trait in common: generosity. Nipun explained that in our era of the Internet, everything has been dis-intermediated, and our heroes are no exception. ‘The era of celebrity is over as we usher in the era of everyday Gandhis.’
In his mind, Giftivism embodies four key shifts.
- Consumption to contribution, where you open each door and ask “how can I serve?” instead of “what can I get?”
- Transaction to trust, where you count on people to act selflessly
- Isolation to community, where you honor your inter-connectedness with others, and
- Scarcity to abundance, where you sensitize yourself to non-material resources like social capital. Together, these shifts open an entirely new realm of solutions to address problems.
In 1999, Nipun asked himself, “What happens if you run projects around the idea of generosity?” His experiments in giving birthed ServiceSpace. He and his friends built thousands of websites for non-profits at no charge. Naysayers said they wouldn’t survive. Years later and going strong, ServiceSpace still operates under 3 creative constraints:
- They are volunteer run
- They don’t fund raise, with focus being on adding value rather than showing value
- They honour small acts of kindness and generosity
ServiceSpace projects broadly fall into three buckets:
The team noticed the lack of good news in media, purely because good news can’t be monetized. So they share inspirational content through initiatives such as Karma Tube, DailyGood, Conversations and Awakin. These are video subscriptions, newsletters, magazines and meditation circles that, in a noisy world, aim to give people a regular touch point to forces of good existing all around.
KindSpring does projects that encourage anonymous acts of kindness. For example Smile Cards that begin a fun game of tag — do a selfless act for someone, and leave a card behind telling them to pay it forward.
Karma Kitchen started as an experiment run by a team of volunteers each week and has now served over 34,000 guests. Customers’ bills always read ‘0’ as the meal has been paid forward by someone else.
Volunteer & Non-Profit Support
PledgePage, is an easy way to publish and share photos, diaries and manage a donor list online for volunteers who run marathons as fundraisers for noble causes
CharityFocus began in 1999 serving non-profit organizations with web solutions when the cost of a website was too enormous for them to afford.
ProPoor.org is an internet portal that provides information, resources, and news about development work in South Asia. It links non-profits across South Asia to facilitate exchange of experiences, systems, administrative best-practices, resources and other valuable information.
Nipun Mehta says the three keys to move from Me-Me-Me to We-We-We, and feel connected once again, are: To Give – with any act of unconditional service, no matter how small, our biochemistry changes, the mind quietens, and we feel a sense of gratefulness. This inner transformation fundamentally shifts the direction of our lives. To Receive – as the Dalai Lama once put it, “Be Selfish, Be Generous.” It is in giving that we receive. And To Dance – our biggest problem with giving and receiving is that we try and track it. And when we do that, we lose the beat. It’s a futile exercise to track who is getting what. We just have to dance.
As I read about Nipun and the work he does, the sceptic in me surfaced. In a discussion with a friend, the question arose, ‘a restaurant where all meals are paid forward? Is all that indiscriminate generosity not a waste? Should it not be reserved for the real needy?’ But the more I read about Nipun Mehta’s work, I realized that it is not just financial generosity that we are generating, but generosity of spirit and soul; trust in the circle of life, and belief that good begets good. The ripple of goodness did touch me. As I emptied out my cupboards to give away toys, I did it with more love than usual. As my daughter and I searched for a news piece she has to read in school, we made sure it was positive news. Strangely, around the same time, an anonymous gift arrived at our doorstep, puzzling us for a while :). Were we giving, receiving and dancing? It’s hard not to be inspired by someone who courageously lives his truth and takes us back to a place we already know….
By Pranavi Jha
Know more about Nipun at http://nipun.servicespace.org/about/
The full speech at Harker can be heard here http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/04/nipun-mehta-commencement-2013_n_3380968.html?ir=India&adsSiteOverride=in
Learn about ServiceSpace at http://www.servicespace.org/about/
Nipun Mehta’s popular TED talk Designing for Generosity provides an overview of their work and guiding principles.