Monday, January 30, 2012

Nipun Mehta's Gift Economy

One day Nipun Mehta and his friends were sitting around talking about pranks. What is a prank composed of? “It’s challenging, it’s creative, it’s collaborative,” Nipun reflected in an interview with Richard Whittaker in Parabola Magazine. “We went through a whole list of motivations for what, at the end of the day, is essentially destructive. So we said, how about we reframe this? We leave all these motivations in, but we make pranks constructive. What if you just blew somebody away with kindness?”

That was the beginning of a remarkable organization called Charity Focus, “an experiment in the joy of giving.” Charity Focus, which recently changed its name to Service Space, depends entirely on the work of volunteers. It does no fund-raising, but relies upon the generosity of people who are moved to help. Services include website design, collaborations with other organizations, daily emails containing positive and inspiring messages, and weekly stories about people who have taken an unusual approach to some problem or seen a delightful possibility where most would see business as usual.

One surprising result of what Mehta calls the “gift economy” is an upsurge of honesty in the way bills are paid in Indonesian cafés. In the past, widespread corruption meant that customers, especially young people, would walk out of the café without paying for their meal. Now “honesty cafés” invite customers to determine what the meal and the service were worth and to pay that. Some of the cafés don’t even have cashiers, just boxes in which people can deposit their payments.

The gift economy starts with single, selfless acts, says Nipun Mehta. “I’m going to support you just because you’re a fellow human being and someone else comes and supports me in the same way.” In the long run an attitude like that results in “generosity entrepreneurs.”