Getting radical in California - 1990s style

Three young philanthropists turn their modern technological skills into tools for greater social good.

Paul Van Slambrouck
Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor


In the fading afternoon light of a picture-perfect day, not far from where students led a free-speech movement here in the 1960s, three recent college graduates are articulating their own brand of 1990s radicalism.

Casually dressed and sipping cold drinks, they're quoting Gandhi one moment and the chief executive of Coca-Cola the next. Their words and extraordinary actions are like ax swings against the stereotypes of their own generation.


Philanthropist: Nipun Mehta
PHILANTHROPIST: Nipun Mehta (shown) along with Sunil Shah and Ashish Mehta founded CharityFocus, which provides free technology help to nonprofit organizations.

"All we're concerned about, really, is doing good works. That's it, just good works," says Nipun Mehta, a twentysomething software engineer for one of Silicon Valley's powerhouse technology firms.

Work obsessed?

"Work only takes you so far. I mean, you have to have some balance in life," adds Sunil Shah, a finance officer at a major bank.


"I really think growing up in a loving, nurturing family has allowed me to have the point of view I have," says soft-spoken computer engineer Ashish Mehta.

That point of view, shared intensely by all three, is that one of life's greatest rewards is to help others. While all three are ticketed for success by every conventional measure, they are, at a remarkably young age, choosing a different path.

Birth of an idea

It started with a "donation club" they set up, with friends, last fall. They all agreed to set aside some of their growing incomes each month to donate, collectively, to charity.

Not knowing exactly what to do with their first pot of money, the group gathered one weekend morning, made scores of sandwiches, journeyed across the bay to San Francisco, and fed the homeless.

A little over a month ago, they took a bigger step. They founded an organization called CharityFocus that will provide free technology help to any nonprofit community service organization that needs their services.

It's a rare, if not unique, example of youthful philanthropic spirit turning modern technological skills into tools for greater social good.

CharityFocus has enlisted more than 20 volunteers willing to work for free. They're lawyers, teachers, accountants, and technology workers.

They're men and women, of every race and background. And they're only too happy to come see any needy nonprofit organization after they've completed their own 10-hour workdays in revved up Silicon Valley.

That's just what they did recently, all three showing up after work at the offices of the fledgling Sustainable Business Alliance in Berkeley. Set up with a $9,500 seed grant from the city, the Sustainable Business Alliance has dreams of becoming a central clearinghouse for information on how to set up and run "green" businesses.

CharityFocus's specialty is setting up professional, multilayered Web sites, which can open new doors for nonprofits.

The Internet is a tool that can revolutionize some of their core functions: gathering volunteers, raising donations, and building a network of support and resources not constrained by geography. And all at a fraction of the cost of what older, more conventional means of marketing and fund-raising would cost.

Still, a well done Web site can cost a few thousand dollars to build and maintain, the kind of expenditure that is hard to come by for nonprofit organizations like the Sustainable Business Alliance.

"You've definitely tapped a need," says a delighted Kelly Costa, the alliance's program manager, seated across a square table from Nipun.

While Charity Focus has only recently put up its own Web site and done nothing to publicize its existence, the phones are already ringing. They've put nonprofit organizations in Denver, Los Angeles, and San Jose on the Web.

Social consciousness

For Nipun, Sunil, and Ashish, explaining the roots of their social consciousness is difficult. All three come from middle-class families. Nipun and Sunil are American born, Ashish grew up in Bombay.

None recall being instructed in the virtues of charity work, but all three describe families that were close, communicative, and as one of them put it, "left room for you to develop your own ideas."

They can't even pinpoint the exact moment that the idea of giving their time and expertise to charities clicked. It grew organically out of their friendships.

In interviews, all were reluctant to take any extra credit for the concept. Each was a partner, contributing some necessary piece to the idea.

All three nod when Nipun articulates a motivation that seems to have set the tone from the beginning.

He looked, at the outset, not so much at the needs of the homeless or the nonprofits, but first at his own need - to give.

"I just questioned myself and saw that selfish pursuits don't really go anywhere," he says. "The cycle of get, want, get more, want more, just didn't make any sense to me."

Out of that realization, Nipun saw that the greatest need around him was to be charitable.

Global desire to help

That attitude has struck a chord that has drawn a steadily growing army of volunteers.

Even before CharityFocus, word about the donors club got around so far and fast, again on the Web, Nipun received a query from a man in Pakistan who wanted to help.

While the Pakistani couldn't join in the trip to feed the homeless in San Francisco, he was inspired to mount his own one-man sandwich brigade in his own community, half a world away.