If I have a mantra in life, it is this:
"I don't know"
A Conversation With Nipun Mehta

--Preeti Lal Verma
Sun Magazine, Nov 2004

If Nipun Mehta were ordinary he would have been zipping on the Golden Gate Bridge in a BMW, live in a plush house, spend his money on caviar and champagne, hurry up the corporate ladder and yes, remain ordinary.

Remember, Mehta is not ordinary. At 28, he has won the President's medal for community service at the UN, the Jefferson award, sits on the board of several Foundations, has addressed think-tank panel that included a Nobel laureate, CNN is not the only that sat up and took notice, reams have been written about him in the press. In Santa Clara, one of the richest neighborhoods in the US, everyone is trying to understand how Mehta spurred a revolution of giving through Charity Focus (www.charityfocus.org), how 5,000 volunteers worldwide have expended their time and talent without getting anything in return. Nothing at all! How in the world can a dot org takeover a dot com and how Charity Focus could flout all making-money rules and yet be successful even by business calibrations. Mehta's Charity Focus has built more than 1,000 websites for non-profits, started a site to put up random messages of compassion that soon had Google as a partner and 100 million views, even initiated an epidemic with its Smile cards, of the 100,000 that got printed within six months some even reached the Dalai Lama and the Pope. If one were to compute the contribution of Charity Focus in terms of dollars it would probably run into millions, but Mehta refuses to juggle numbers, "Can you really count what counts?"

Mehta, who was born in Ahmedabad and moved to the US when he was 12, is not Everyday Joe either. He drives an old Toyota, has a sleeping bag and a radio clock in his room (that's it), has double majored in computer science and philosophy from University of California, Berkeley, has been a tennis champion and an avid skater and has a cult following for giving away selflessly, leads a hermit's life and believes in the mantra of 'I don't know'.

What brought the idea of Charity Focus -- to make websites for non-profits?
We were in the heart of the Silicon Valley in the height of the dot-com era. Everyone knew the power of the Internet, but if you visited a homeless shelter, for instance, they weren't even thinking about it. For nonprofits, any web solution was too expensive, not relevant, and often incomprehensible. They were stuck in a Catch 22 -- if they had more resources, they could get IT but if they had IT, they would free up more resources.

In parallel, Silicon Valley had created a vicious default culture -- bigger, faster and better. For so many, it was thoroughly unsatisfying and there was a desperate need to be selfless, to serve without any conditions. We put two and two together and came up with CharityFocus. Our first project was with four friends, all of whom are still actively involved with CharityFocus.

To begin with, what did you think would be the basic advantage/reach? Did you begin with the larger picture in mind, or did it emerge as more people joined and the more you reached out?
We had one plan -- be the change. The rest would happen as it must. We had done our research, we had a strategy, a structure, and plan for scaling but we weren't attached to it. At all. Instead of achieving outcomes, we were determined to enjoy the process; instead of becoming human doings, we wanted to stay human beings. We would go where the wind blows because the joy was, ultimately, in the journey.

It's great that CharityFocus is changing so many lives and is so "successful", even by business school metrics. But even if we just did just one project, that would be fine so long as we put our heart into it. We never expected thousands to join, and we don't really know what tomorrow will hold. If I have a mantra, for life, CharityFocus and everything in between, it is this: I don't know.

Tell me about your journey -- its beginnings, its important milestones.
For me, the search has always been for understanding truth. During college, the momentum was in favor of ambitions, achievements and accolades. But as I got a few glimpses of that, I realized it was hollow. I did a survey of people who I thought had "made it" in the world; very quickly, I realized that not all of them were genuinely happy. Then I saw simple folks, studied people like Gandhi, looked at the lives of sincere monks and nuns -- they didn't have much but they were so darn happy. As I understood more, I realized my metric of "success" was unconscious; I was just going after money, status and power without knowing why.

So I experimented with the opposite. Instead of getting, I tried giving. I started giving in little ways; started with money, and moved on to time ... very quickly I saw how much I enjoyed that. Even if it was anonymous, it was awesome to make people smile.

Such journeys are always are fraught with pitfalls, how easy was it to walk this path. Weren't you ever tempted?
Temptations come up everyday. It's the true Mahabharat, within myself. You win some and lose some. When I quit my job, people couldn't understand it. Everyone thought it was a great thing on the side, but walking straight into insecurity, when security is right around the corner? Work all day, get no money in return, live a very simple life, and then wake up the next morning to do the same? Very few understood it. But the way I worked, I always left the doors open -- hey, come and check it out yourself. Try a little bit of giving and then you tell me if I'm crazy.

That success isn't about CharityFocus or me; rather it's a testimony to the nature of things -- selflessness sustains life. It may take a while, but love will always triumph over greed. At some point, I was determined that that's how I wanted to live my life. Everyone talked about practical this and that, but I wondered if I could just challenge the universe -- what if I just jump and trust that nature will open its vast arms to contain me? What if? And then I did it. And I'm still smiling.

Every time the media talks about you, Gandhi's adage, 'We must become the change we want to see' always comes up. When did you start thinking, believing that you could become the change you wanted to see?
It's impossible to catch the precise moment when a flower blooms. In a way, it's a result of past conditions but in a way, it's instant. I'm the same way. In the past, I've had many aha-moments, but the ultimate aha-moment is now. My job is simply to stay awake.

Where does CharityFocus go from here?
We started with building websites for nonprofits, moved on to web solutions, expanded into other services (like PledgePage and cShops), and evolved into building local chapters in various communities. All along, our business model has been simple -- give it away. And now, we want give away CharityFocus itself. We want to create Service Space, an incubator of compassionate action, where resources and needs can be met, using the infrastructure and organic culture of CharityFocus.

If a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas, why can't an act of love set off a Napster of compassionate action? If Everyday Joes can come together to create a free, open-source encyclopedia with 198,083 articles, why can't we create a repository of good news? If MIT can give away every lecture, every handout, every quiz, why can't NPOs share their best practices? We can and we will.

Where does Nipun go from here?
I am only interested in one thing -- service. Fortunately, I can do that everywhere I am, whether I'm meditating in the Himalayas, surfing in Hawaii, or staring at a computer screen in the Silicon Valley. So life is very simple for me, like that. Give what is taken and take what is given. Keep working from a space of "I don't know" because that's when you are fearlessly open to life's infinite possibilities.