From Internet to Innernet: A Unique Ecosystem Called Giftivism

Abhishek Mazumdar

March 27th, 2016

Image Courtesy: The Logical Indian

Nipun Mehta is the founder of ServiceSpace, an incubator of projects that works at the intersection of volunteer-ism, technology and gift-economy. What started as an experiment with 4 friends in the Silicon Valley has now grown to a global ecosystem of over 500,000 members that has delivered millions of dollars in service for free. He has received many awards, including the Jefferson Award for Public Service, Wavy Gravy’s Humanitarian award, and Dalai Lama’s Unsung Hero of Compassion. In 2015, US President Barack Obama appointed him to a council on poverty and inequality. He is routinely invited to share his message of “Giftivism” (on lines of gift economy) to wide ranging audiences.

In January 2005, Nipun and his wife, put everything aside to embark on an open-ended, unscripted walking pilgrimage in India, to “use our hands to do random acts of kindness, our heads to profile inspiring people, and our hearts to cultivate truth.” Living on a dollar a day, eating wherever food was offered, sleeping wherever a flat surface was found, and the couple walked 1000 kilometres before ending up at a retreat centre, where they meditated for three months. He shared his experience with us in an exclusive interview:

Who are you?
Since Dec 31 of 1975, I have been called Nipun Mehta. As such, science tells me I’m 99.9% empty space and 0.1% vibration in constant flux. So, technically, I am seeker of an answer to this very question.

What have you done in life?
In junior high, I had a paper route. By high school age, my goal in life was to either become a tennis pro or a Himalayan Yogi. My 17th year transformed me in ways I can’t describe in a sentence. After that, I got a degree from UC Berkeley in Computer Science and Philosophy.

A job at Sun Microsystems in my third year of college gave me more money than I needed. So, I started to give it away. As money ran out, I started to give time; and as time ran out, I gave myself. By 1999, those experiments in gifting birthed ServiceSpace that has now mushroomed into an ecosystem of 500,000 members.

What was the pilgrimage about?
6 months into our marriage, my wife and I embarked on an open-ended walking pilgrimage across India to “use our hands to do random acts of kindness, use our heads to profile inspiring people, and use our hearts to cultivate truth.” We ate whatever food was offered and slept wherever place was offered. After 1000 kilometres, we ended up at a monastery where we mostly meditated for the next three months. That whole year radically deepened the values with which we wanted to carry ourselves. We survived on Giftivism.

What is Giftivism?
In Giftivism, goods and services are given without any strings attached; it is an economic system where it is the circulation of the gifts within the community that leads to increase – increase in connections, increase in relationship strength; in this context, hoarding actually decreases wealth.

At its core, Giftivism is a shift from consumption to contribution, transaction to trust, scarcity to abundance, and isolation to community.

How is that different from just philanthropy?
Giftivism is an ecosystem of sustenance where you are taken care, not by earning your keep, but by doing small acts of kindness and trusting that what goes around will eventually come around. Philanthropy, kindness and compassion are some of the values of that ecosystem.

How does it actually work?
Imagine a restaurant where there are no prices on the menu and where the check reads 0.00 with only this footnote: “Your meal was a gift from someone who came before you. We hope you will pay-it-forward however you wish.” That’s Giftivism. Our initial response might be, “Wait, that can’t work. People will just take and not give anything.” In practice, though, it’s quite the opposite – such restaurants actually work. If you have the commitment to give long enough, inevitably there’s comes a point in time when the recipient’s cup of gratitude overflows and a pay-it-forward spirit arises naturally. There is a restaurant named SEVA CAFÉ, in Ahmedabad (Gujarat, India) that runs on this philosophy.

Is this is a new idea?
Not at all. In fact, it’s an ancient idea. Native Americans in the West, Bushmen tribes of the Kalahari Desert in Africa, monastic traditions of the East, and perhaps all indigenous cultures around the world were rooted in Giftivism.

What are your fundamental guiding principles?
Be volunteer run. Don’t fund raise – friend raise. Think small.

How can we work together?
Tag someone with a Smile Card, sit in silence on a Wednesday, sign up for DailyGood, volunteer on a ServiceSpace project, start a gift-economy endeavour, host public event with everyday heroes, or simply do an act of service that makes you come alive. In serving others, we’ll find ways to stay connected.

The Logical Indian team salutes the spirit of this man who is changing the way we see the world. We hope his service, his message will inspire many across the globe.

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