Nipun Mehta, founder of ServiceSpace, presents TEDx Talk titled “Designing for Generosity” at TEDxBerkeley event. Below is the full transcript of the whole presentation.
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Nipun Mehta – Founder of ServiceSpace
Thank you. I am happy to be here.
I really want to explore the question: of what the world would look like if we designed for generosity. This is a cover of Time magazine, May 11, 1953. It features Vinoba Bhave.
Vinoba Bhave was named by Gandhi as sort of his official successor; big shoes to fill in. A post-independence in India, Vinoba did something incredible. He realized that there was a lot of inequity in the country, and he wanted to solve it. Sounds a little familiar. And he goes around, so he decides to go on a walking pilgrimage. He goes from village to village. And in each village, he tells the rich land owners to donate 1/6 of their land, to the poor land owners. No coercion, no compulsion, just purely for the spirit of generosity. And he appealed to their inner transformation.
He ended up walking 70,000 kilometers. And through those 70,000 kilometers, more than 5 million acres of land were just donated. 5 million acres, that is bigger than the size of Kuwait. That’s twice the size of Lebanon, that’s almost as big as Israel. And all he did was he would go from in a village, inspire these people, and go on to the next.
He ended up being the largest peaceful transfer of land in human history. But, how? What was the force? What was the underlying inner transformation that allowed him to do it? A lot of us have been thinking about these kinds of questions, and there isn’t really a word. So, we came up with a word. We call it “giftivism”, the practice of radically generous acts that change the world.
Now, giftivism is different. What you see over there: Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Dalai Lama, Cesar Chavez, you go on down the list; they are all practicing giftivism. And the marker of giftivism is that is for the 100%. There is no enemy, there is no opponent, because, ultimately, our inner transformation is tied to the outer manifestation. All these people recognized that. And that is giftivism.
So, how can we bring it about naturally? We asked this question: how can we have more of this in the world? So, the key question for us was: what designs emerge if we assume that people want to behave selflessly? By design, it is institutions, systems, projects. What would emerge if we turn this question on its head? By “on its head” I mean, you know, if you look at economics, it is built on the premise that people aim to maximize self-interest. That’s the basic, fundamental building block of all economics is that we are selfish.
What happens if you turn that around and say, “Well, actually, maybe people want to be selfless.” So, few of us, back in April 1999, went to a homeless shelter. And we said, “We want to give, just for the love of it.” We don’t know what we want to do, but we want to help. We came back, and we ended up building them a website. It felt great. So, we told all our friends about it. Says, “Hey, this generosity thing? There’s really something to it.” And all of a sudden, they are like, “OK, sounds good.” And they came in, and they experienced the same thing, they told their friends, and it started growing; it was very counter-cultural at the time, because we easily could have made money doing it. But we were saying, “We were not just looking for money. We were saying that there is this inner transformation which is actually beyond money and almost priceless.”
So, we then looked at it, and we had a very interesting thing happen, there was a dotcom that went belly up. And when it went belly up, they came to us and said, “Hey, can you keep our product alive? Because it is doing a lot of civic good.”
We said, “Sure. We’d be happy to. We can try.” We were bunch of volunteers, we didn’t know if we could actually run an organization like that.
In three months, we doubled all our numbers. We scratched our heads, we said, “Oh, man! We’ve got institutional capacity! We could do stuff!”
So, then we said, “Well, what should we do?” Well, we should do what none else is willing to do. Like what? Well, we should do things like good news. CNN doesn’t put any good news, but if you don’t have any good news in the world, you’re constantly going to be stuck in the fear narrative. Why doesn’t CNN have good news? Because it is very hard to monetize.
Then we said, “Well, maybe there are other things?” So we started a portal for good news, and then we said, “Well, what about kindness?” Again, very hard to monetize, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have systematic efforts to promote that kind of stuff in the world. So we started a portal to do that. And we started a whole bunch of different projects.
And then at some point we said, “Why not go offline? What happens if you run a restaurant in this way? What happens if you run a ricksha in India in this way? What happens if you run an art magazine in this way?” “In this way”, by which I mean the power of generosity, the power of inner transformation.
So, what ended up happening was that we actually created a whole ecosystem called ServiceSpace around this kind of an idea. Now, all innovation, if you look at it, is bound by these creative constraints that you put on yourself.
So we had three very interesting curious constraints. The first was we decided that we’re going to be all volunteer-run. And you say, “OK, well, that’s interesting.” So instead of having five staff working 40 hours a week, we said we are going to have 40 volunteers contributing 5 hours a week. So, the same amount of output at the end of the day, but an incredible amount of energy, right? What we started unleashing was the power of compassion capital.
The second big thing was that we didn’t fundraise. We saw a lot of amazing projects. You know, they start off with noble beautiful intentions, but by the tenth year they are all bogged down in fundraising. By the twentieth year, it’s like before you do something, you’ve got 20 photographers showing what you’re going to do. And that was just the sad truth of organizing. So we said, “Is there another way? We don’t know! But let’s experiment. Let’s not fundraise.” What that meant was that instead of showing value we would just focus on adding value. We’re doubling down on adding value. And that allowed us to discover all kinds of untapped, undiscovered capital.
And the third thing was that we were honoring the process, which meant honoring small acts. And small acts were great, but when they really got connected to each other, we realized that there was this synergy that was happening. Where 1 plus 1 was greater than 2, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. And you have two things, by themselves there are two things, but when you put them together, there’s a bond, and that bond actually means something, that bond actually has value. So, we started seeing synergistic capital.