Charity Begins @ Home

A young software engineer has a plan to teach Silicon Valley to change its tightfisted ways

Charity Focus has built free Web sites for soup kitchens and international aid organizations. "They were like angels from heaven," says Nancy Rivard, founder of Airline Ambassadors, which enlists frequent flyers to hand-deliver humanitarian aid to children around the world. Her group also donates flights so orphans can travel to new families and sick kids can receive medical care not available in their home countries. Rivard says that even if her un-computer-savvy staff did understand the benefits of a good Web site, they never could have afforded one as nice as what Charity Focus provided. "It has been an invaluable networking tool and has brought us hundreds of new members. Charity Focus appeared just when we needed them the most. I don't know what we would have done without them."

The Leukemia Society of America's Northern California chapter could pay for an Internet presence, but because of Charity Focus it doesn't have to spend thousands of dollars to do so. "That would mean directly taking money away from research to cure cancer in order to fund a Web page," says Erin Michelson, the chapter's marketing director. Having a functional and effective Web site is vital, she says, in order to spread her group's message, reach donors, and recruit volunteers -- especially when people are spending more and more time online. Currently under construction, the Leukemia Society Web page is the biggest job Charity Focus has taken on.

But while Michelson marvels at Nipun's organization, and is grateful for the time and skill his group donates, she admits that big checks can do more to advance a group's cause. She is reluctant, though, to say cash is a better form of giving. "Of course we want money; the more we raise, the more we can fund research. Given the choice, I'd be an idiot not to take a million-dollar check. I'd just go buy a Web site for a few thousand," Michelson says. "But we also need people's expertise. That's worth a lot to us, and I'm not going to discount that as less than money. And considering Nipun's talent, if he were a consultant, we couldn't afford him."

Besides, writing million-dollar checks to charity is almost unheard of in Silicon Valley. With rare exceptions -- like computer moguls Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, who each gave away hundreds of millions of dollars -- the wealthy region is as infamous for its tightfistedness as it is famous for its technological innovation. Millionaires and billionaires in the valley tend to spend their money on what Nipun's potential recruit Paras calls "cool toys," not on creating Andrew Carnegie-style foundations to endow universities and libraries or help the disadvantaged.

So Nipun's organization is getting attention because what he's doing is unusual: Overall, the level of giving in Silicon Valley is so incredibly low that the $250,000 in-kind donations from Charity Focus look great by comparison.

"[The amount] is peanuts," Michelson admits. "But we're happy anybody in Silicon Valley is giving anything at all."

Rob Hermanson, Silicon Valley chapter president of the National Society of Fundraising Executives, says he agrees. There are some optimistic indicators that giving is on the rise, he says -- such as the Internet money that revived Santa Clara's United Way last July -- but still concedes there is a long way to go. "The reality is that while this valley is making lots of money and enjoying enormous returns," Hermanson says, "the donations by scale are still just a small percentage of their true potential."

Nipun's outlook is different from that of his peers and even his parents, who came to the United States from India seeking opportunity for themselves, as well as for Nipun and his younger brother, Viral. Nipun's father, Dinesh Mehta, has long prospered in Silicon Valley's computer industry and now works for an Internet start-up himself. Nipun's mother, Harshida Mehta, is a vice president at Bank of America, where she oversees the bank's top accounts and is a confidante to some of the Bay Area's wealthiest people.

While supportive of their son's noble cause, Nipun's parents say they were at first perplexed by his strong convictions. And the sleeping bag, his mother thought, just went too far. "That used to bother me, probably because I wouldn't sleep on one," Harshida says. "Nipun grew up in every comfort; he has the option to get anything he wants. What made him realize to live this way is hard to answer for me. I thought it was all a phase that would go away, and he would be one of the Silicon Valley crowd."

But Nipun kept going, working the long hours his job at Sun demanded, while spending just as much time -- if not more -- organizing Charity Focus. "I worried like any mom would -- he was not sleeping, eating, or taking care of himself," Harshida says. "But Nipun would tell me, 'Mom, if I was working so hard to take a company public, to make money, you wouldn't mind all these hours.' That would shut me up. He made a good point."

While in school at Berkeley, Nipun says he always tended to question the status quo, even when his thinking was at odds with his insatiable drive for success. "I would observe myself and see that I was conditioned into the senseless habit of pursue, pursue, pursue," he says. "I had to choose whether to further that pattern or not."

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