Link Club Newsletter
April 2004

The Internet is a very useful medium for Non-Profit Organizations, but it's also difficult for someone without enough skills and knowledge to build their own websites and make use of them efficiently. Charity Focus is a volunteer organization, which young people living in Silicon Valley started, to help nonprofits with web-based technological solutions.

The US-Japan joint seminar, which focused on how nonprofits can utilize the Internet, was held in Tokyo in February. Many people involved in nonprofit activities participated and learned how they can maximize the benefits (potential) of the Internet.

Helping Others Help Others

Charity Focus (CF) was founded by Mr. Nipun Mehta, a software engineer in Silicon Valley, when he was 23 years old. CF offers help to all nonprofits which don't have enough budget or skills to build and operate their websites.

We might feel their relaxed attitude toward their volunteers from their slogan 'Helping Others Help Others.' Ms. Yoo-mi Lee, who has served as a consultant for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and also worked for CF, said, "We can leave it to someone, who is great in the field of social service, to give medication or food to someone in distress. We serve nonprofits with web solutions and help them raise funds through their websites, so that it's easier for them to keep on doing their volunteer activities. This is the way CF helps others."

There has been much more demand for technology services from nonprofits than CF had initially anticipated. CF, started by five people five years ago, presently comprises 3,000 registered volunteers from twelve countries. CF has fulfilled over 1,000 nonprofit requests for implementing web solutions so far, and about 200 nonprofits are now on the waiting list. There are a lot of organizations offering similar services, but it is probably rare for a large-scale organization like CF, which is made up solely of volunteers participating through the Internet, to operate without any full-time staff and physical office.

In the Spirit of Service

"People often ask me whether it is difficult for us to find time for volunteer work, but I don't think so," said Mr. Mark Jacobs, who is a lawyer and also has served for CF. "By using technology, we can share the volunteer experience, teaming up virtually through the Internet, even if we are not in the same place at the same time. For example, it's not uncommon that a software engineer in Japan, a graphic designer in Australia and a writer in the Philippines are engaged in the same project to build a website for a nonprofit in Myanmar."

"I guess about a sixth of registered volunteers are living in the SF Bay Area, but it doesn't matter where they live, and so I've never counted the number of volunteers in Silicon Valley," he said.

CF doesn't have any rules about the work style or tasks. "It doesn't matter how long you can give your time for volunteer work. The most important thing is that you actually use your time for it," Ms. Lee said. "Of course, someone who isn't familiar with the Internet Technology can join us. Actually, someone, who was fourteen years old, once asked us whether he could do something to help. So, I asked him to give us his impression of some websites. He gave us very helpful feedback. Now we have 200 volunteers like him. They participate in our volunteer activities, whenever they want to do, even if it's once a week or once a year."

Everything, such as signing up to volunteer and choosing a project, is automated in CF and it's not necessary to direct someone to do something.

Everybody in CF, including the founder Mr. Mehta, calls himself or herself a volunteer and nobody has any title to his or her name. CF offers a platform in order to operate efficiently, but basically most things are put under the charge of each individual volunteer and the nonprofits. CF's management without hierarchy perfectly realizes the possibilities of the Internet.

Journey People

Silicon Valley in 1999, when CF started, was in the middle of the dotcom boom. Many people in their twenties, capable engineers, came to the Bay Area and struck it rich. Volunteer work totally went against the material culture of that time.

Even though CF hasn't recruited new members, the number of volunteers has been increasing. It was necessary for CF to look ahead and consider the organization and system expansion. How could they successfully manage their rapid growth? Recently CF has been the subject of university study and research, and also has attracted the attention of people in the business world.

"We are not trying to measure the fruits of our activities, and what's more, we don't know how we've done this successfully," Ms. Lee said. "We call ourselves not 'Outcome People' but 'Journey People.' The most important thing is that we try to have an opportunity for doing volunteer work. If somebody has a good experience from volunteering, somebody joins us as a result," Mr. Jacobs added.

CF has recently started a new project, a web site selling some artisan goods/crafts from the developing world. It doesn't matter how many goods they sell, but if even one person purchases an item, it would be a valuable experience for volunteers.

Inspiration, Action and Connection

"Initially, I thought it was cool that people, who had good intentions in the world, got together through the Internet and built websites. I felt like we created a virtual organization, but soon I came to realize that there is a limit to virtual community and we also need the human touch, which energizes us, and it's important for volunteers to actually meet each other," Mr. Jacobs said.

Now CF has five groups in the US and six in India, and they occasionally have meetings.

Their website carries some articles about the volunteers' experiences, philosophical readings and daily inspiring news (Quote-a-Day) and their spirit have influenced visitors to their website.

"Our little deeds have influenced many people. We don't have any goal and plan, but CF will be growing naturally (organically)," Ms. Lee said. "Of course, we will help someone who wants to work with us in Japan, or someone who wants to found a nonprofit like our organization. We are willing to offer CF's systems & tools, if someone needs it. We appreciate it if someone uses our system," they said.

Just do it, and do it now.