Charity Begins @ Home
Faith does move mountains. This is something Mumbai-based Nipun Mehta has tested for himself. Refusing to adopt the cynical perspective of mankind having lost everything that was humanitarian, Mehta believes that "compassion is contagious." It is this belief that has worked as a pillar to support a unique online organisation called CharityFocus that operates on the "voluntary" strength of around 1800 members around the world.
Started in April 1999, CharityFocus empowers non-profit institutions with web-based technological solutions. "We help those who help others," is how Mehta describes it. In its essence, Mehta's brainchild provides infrastructure, resources and tools by way of free websites to enable NGOs and others reach out in a more organised manner.
"The concept took off as a donation club initiated by six friends in the Silicon Valley and though many people refuse to believe that there is nothing in it for us, the truth is that CharityFocus asks for absolutely no returns simply because it works as an incubator of compassionate ideas and action. Our voluntary force is dedicated to the spirit of service and invests skills, time and effort to design the websites and network with others," elaborates Mehta, who quit his full-time career as a software engineer in the United States to be able to do something more "meaningful" in life.
In Pune to attend an informal meeting of volunteers, Mehta is also a great supporter of the philosophy of simplicity. "There is no end to our material cravings. And a person could spend an entire lifetime trying to satisfy them. But somewhere along the way, one has to pause and reflect. In my case, I realised that simplicity has to run deeper than a mere avoidance of wealth and its trappings. There has to be a simplicity of soul, of thinking and of action. CharityFocus therefore operates on a non-hierarchical system and is funded by individual donors. There are almost no overheads and we collaborate with corporations such as Netmegs, Adobe Systems and Macromedia who equip us with the latest software. When we travel to other cities, we depend on our hosts to provide us lodging and boarding. Our demands are minimal," explains Mehta.
This is not to say, however, that it has been a jolly ride atop a gravy train all along. Ever since CharityFocus came into being, it has been inundated with requests for free websites so that its pri-mary responsibility now is to ensure that services are extended to only those who really need them. Point outs Mehta: "We have had to put into place a filtering process to check the sincerity of the applicant. This starts with filling a form. The credentials are further investigated into by asking the concerned institution to submit their annual budgets. Essentially, we would like to help only those who are service-oriented and willing to work at grassroot levels." So far, CharityFocus has allowed more than a 1000 NGOs to use its platform.
When it comes to building a force of volunteers, Mehta has to deal with another set of problems. "There will always be dropouts because many people join us as a kind of reaction to something else that has happened in their lives. Also, with no financial implication of any kind, it is not easy to sustain the commitment levels. Finally, only those with a real spirit for service stay on. But that's great in itself because it infuses our project with a high level of purity," he observes. It is this oneness of purpose and clarity of vision that has now propelled CharityFocus onto a higher plane. As Mehta defines, the purpose now embraces "leverage of intellectual capital and building a critical mass" so that projects fructify on a more practi-cal level. Like helping rural artisans sell their products in the local or even global market.
The mountains have begun to move.