A free launch into cyberspace

June 13, 1999 San Jose Mercury News


Nipun Mehta and some friends would pool their money and every month give a few hundred dollars to various small non-profits.

It was a way for the young and busy to share their Silicon Valley prosperity. But there had to be more.

``We just wanted to take it to the next level,'' Mehta says. Mehta, 23, a programmer at Sun Microsystems, thought about it. The 50 or 60 members of the donation club were a talented bunch. What they knew best was technology. What they wanted most was to increase their charity, to help outfits that were helping others.

Why not, he wondered, build Web sites for small non-profits that would never find it in their budgets to stake a claim in cyberspace?

In late February, a half dozen formed CharityFocus. More volunteers joined.

Some had favorite charities. Others researched small operations. They made cold calls, offering something for nothing.

``There are no tricks,'' says Trishna Shah, 20, a CharityFocus volunteer. ``There are no secrets. It's exactly as you see it.''

And it's exactly what Shah, a University of California-Berkeley business major, was looking for.

``I was like jumping up and down because I was so excited that people were doing something like this,'' she says.

It is a way to put her UC-Berkeley training to work for others.

Which, Mehta says, is the point. It's too easy in Silicon Valley to focus only on winning.

``It's easy to get sucked in,'' he says. ``It's my ambition. It's my promotion. I want a bigger salary. I'm going to take this company public. I'm going to get a bigger car.''

CharityFocus is a way to take a step back. Or for charities, a way to take a step forward.

The group has built sites for a dozen organizations. They allow non-profits to recruit volunteers, collect donations, explain their missions, post newsletters.

``I'm amazed that young men would want to do this for a non-profit for nothing,'' says Janyce Holland, the administrator at ACT for Mental Health, a San Jose non-profit.

Holland couldn't believe it when volunteer Guri Grewal called and told her what CharityFocus could do for the agency. It's not that she's suspicious. Well, OK, yes she is.

``Every time they were here, I said, `This costs nothing, right?' '' The site (www.charityfocus.org/act) has been up about three months. It hasn't drawn volunteers, yet, but Holland says it's only a matter of time.

Measuring immediate results is not the point.

``It is not a race to get anywhere,'' Mehta says. ``Then it would be like any other organization.''