Nipun Mehta is the founder of ServiceSpace, an incubator of projects that works at the intersection of volunteerism, 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, President Barack Obama appointed him to a council on poverty and inequality. He’s routinely invited to share his message of Giftivism 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—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 1,000 kilometers before ending up at a retreat center, where they meditated for three months. He shared his experience with me 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 a 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 the place was offered. After 1,000 kilometers, 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 a gift economy.
What is Gift Economy?
In a gift economy, 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 an increase in connections, increase in relationship strength; in this context, hoarding actually decreases wealth. At its core, gift-economy is a shift from consumption to contribution, transaction to trust, scarcity to abundance, and isolation to community.
How is that different from just philanthropy?
A gift economy is an ecosystem of sustenance where you are taken care of, 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 gift economy. 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 live long enough, inevitably there 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 Cafe in Ahmedabad 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 the gift-economy.
What are your fundamental guiding principles?
Be volunteer run. Don’t fundraise— 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 endeavor, 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.