Web of Giving Helps Charities

Volunteers create sites for nonprofits

Staff Writer

When Nipun Mehta and his band of volunteers arrived at their first job this spring, a woman greeted them at the door with a screwdriver.

"Here," she said, pointing to a tired-looking computer in her cramped apartment-office in downtown San Jose.

"She had heard that we were going to install the Web site," explained Mehta.

Mehta and his friends did build a site on the nonprofit's only computer -- just not the way the woman expected -- and they didn't send her a bill.

"She was so happy," Mehta said. "She just couldn't believe it was for free. That's what everyone keeps saying: 'Wow, you're really doing this for free?'"

It's hard to imagine that someone would give away what they could make globs of money doing. But that's exactly what Mehta and some friends are doing.

A couple months ago, they opened their own version of an Internet startup -- with the goal of giving, not getting.

CharityFocus volunteers build free Web sites for nonprofit organizations that can't afford the thousands usually charged by design firms. Organizations who sign up with CharityFocus are only charged for advanced features on their sites, and site hosting is free.

Making money wasn't enough for Mehta, 23-year-old computer programmer at Sun Microsystems in Menlo Park. He wanted to give back. And writing a check to charity didn't do it.

Mehta has watched a steady stream of co-workers leave their regular jobs to pursue potentially more lucrative Internet start-ups.

"Pretty soon, you're 50," he said. "You've earned a lot of money, spent a lot of money. Then what?"

In only a few months, volunteers have built and updated sites for organizations as far away as India.

Just like workers at a for-profit Web design firm, CharityFocus volunteers meet with clients in person to discuss the layout of the site. They then communicate by telephone and e-mail.

Mehta thinks that it's important to have the first meeting be in-person -- if it's geographically possible.

"We don't want to be a Web site cranking machine," he said.

A CharityFocus site for Burlingame-based Airline Ambassadors International is expected to go live Aug 1.

The 3-year-old airline program, which exists solely on donations, provides free travel and escorts for orphans and sick children around the world, as well as humanitarian aid.

Until now, Airline Amabassadors has had no web presence -- a problem, according to Nancy Rivard, president and founder. They really could have used a Web site for a recent last minute relief trip to Bosnia, she said.

"If I had just had a Web site, I could have put up an alert to let people know about the trip," Rivard said. "I would have a place to send people immediately for information."

Without CharityFocus, it would be at least another year before Airline Ambassadors could afford its own site, she said. The organization will save thousands of dollars normally spent on long-distance calls, copies and postage for mailing brochures.

"Now, all the information can be available on our Web site," Rivard said. "Meeting these folks was good luck, good karma, or maybe a bit of both. They really care."

Mehta, like the other volunteers, now numbering more than 70, does his CharityFocus work on his own time, often pulling all-nighters.

"A few hours of sleep, help somebody else," he said, holding his hands out like two pans on a scale. "You can't even compare the two."

Mehta lives at home with his parents and younger brother, Viral, in Santa Clara. A spare bedroom has been converted into CharityFocus headquarters.

Last summer, Viral, who is studying engineering physics at University of California, Berkeley, interned at Cisco Systems. This summer, he is doing something quite different: devoting himself as a full-time volunteer for CharityFocus.

"I look at it as an experiment in helping others," said Viral, 20,. "It's a chance to focus and learn more about myself."

He does a little bit of everything, but mostly the front-end work: fielding calls from potential volunteers and clients and setting up appointments.

Volunteers are needed from all backgrounds, both technical and not, Nipun Mehta said.

He isn't worried about how large CharityFocus does -- or doesn't -- become.

"It doesn't have to be bigger or better, because then you're back in that same race," he said. "We're just doing it to help others. That's it, for no other reason."