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Nipun Mehta

A Case Study in Power and Politics

Raphe Beck
Deepak Goel &
John Pavolotsky

EWMBA 257-11
Power and Politics in Organizations
April 24, 2010
Nipun Mehta, CEO
Nipun Mehta is the leader of CharityFocus, a nonprofit organization founded in 1999, with a

mission to “enable inspired people to contribute in meaningful ways to the world around them.”

According to filings with the IRS, Nipun (pronounced “ne POON”) serves as the group’s CEO—

that is, its Charity Executive Officer—and this unusual title is the first of many noteworthy

distinctions that highlight how CharityFocus is not a typical organization and how Nipun is the

unusual leader appropriate for this group. In this case study, we will examine the sources and

effects of Nipun’s influence and analyze them according to traditional models of power and

politics. We will look at Nipun’s background and the founding of CharityFocus, his motivation,

the organization’s formal structure, Nipun’s sources of power, his individual attributes that lead

to power, and his leadership style. Finally, we will predict a vision of the future.

Background on Nipun and the Founding of CharityFocus


Born in India and raised in California, Nipun attended UC Berkeley in the late ’90s and pursued

two of his passions by double-majoring in philosophy and computer science. He was both a

talented programmer and a fan of Gandhi. Nipun was also a ranked tennis player, and he left

Berkeley for a year to play competitively. In this time, he became conscious of how his desire to

win was shaping his personality, and so despite his talent, he chose to walk away from tennis and

return to school. In the midst of the dot-com boom, Nipun was hired by Sun Microsystems as a

summer intern, but his skill as a programmer soon drew him attention beyond this role. He was

quickly recruited to work on projects with high-level Sun employees, and at the end of the

summer, his supervisors asked him to continue working while he finished his studies. Like many

of his generation with good technical skills, Nipun found himself in the right place at the right

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time. He was soon making large amounts of money, even before he had his college degree. He

was a Silicon Valley success story in the making.

As was common in the high-tech world at that time, many of Nipun’s peers used their new-found

wealth to buy fast cars, technology, bachelor pads, etc. Nipun very quickly became uneasy with

this path. He had a hard time reconciling the dot-com lifestyle with his Gandhian philosophy.

One day Nipun and three of his friends were discussing their shared morals and values, as well as

their common dissatisfaction with their own success. On a whim they decided to volunteer at a

local homeless shelter. The four walked together into the shelter with little vision of what they

were there to do and asked if they could be of use. After some discussion, a staff member

proposed that they use their technical skills to create a web site for the shelter, and so they did.

Furthermore, they created CharityFocus, an organization where other high-tech programmers

could volunteer their services for needy nonprofits. In this way, a casual conversation became the

source of Commitment among friends, and thus was born CharityFocus. The group was

formalized with a set of three guiding principles that still guide it over a decade later:

1. Stay fully volunteer-run. Don't compromise values.

Adhering to this principle means that CharityFocus has never had a paid staff member.

The organization is entirely managed by volunteers, and Nipun has never drawn a salary.

2. Serve with whatever you have. Don't ask.

By this principle, CharityFocus does not engage in fundraising. While they do accept

donations to pay for expenses, they do not solicit them. On several occasions, they have

turned away large monetary gifts and instead encouraged would-be donors to perform

acts of service instead. Similarly, they have no public relations strategy, and they do not

actively seek out media attention.

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3. Focus on the small. Change yourself, not the world.

CharityFocus believes in the power of small, individual acts rather than attempting to

mount large-scale projects. Like the Internet, impact and organization emerge from

disparate, disorganized efforts that add up to a collective movement.

Over the years, CharityFocus has expanded its services not by any strategic growth plan but

rather by the wishes of volunteers who are inspired to initiate new projects. A broadcast email

list called DailyGood sends positive messages to over 100,000 subscribers each day. The service

is volunteer run and edited. A Smile Card is a business-card-sized token that can be left behind

after performing “an anonymous act of kindness.” It invites the recipient to “keep the spirit

going” by performing another anonymous act of kindness and passing the card along. Nearly a

million cards have been distributed for free by CharityFocus. Karma Kitchen is a restaurant that

operates for lunch each Sunday in Berkeley. Staffed entirely by volunteers, the restaurant

presents patrons at the end of the meal with a zero dollar bill that invites donations to cover the

meal of a future diner. Over 18,000 people have filled out a detailed volunteer form with the

organization, and Nipun estimates that there are over 500 active volunteers at any one time.

Motivation
According to Nipun, the acts of service he performs are for his own benefit. He seeks to live by

the maxim of Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” By his claim, he is

uninterested in power for its own sake, or for the traditional trappings of power: money, fame,

and access. Nipun characterizes himself as a “servant leader,” in the vein of Martin Luther King.

Nonetheless, he does seek to have influence over others, and he is highly attuned to himself as a

political actor. His greatest concern as a leader is authenticity, and he questions how his actions

will be interpreted by others. In Cialdini’s terms, as detailed below, he uses Consistency and

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Commitment, Reciprocity, Social Proof, and Authority. We do not mean to suggest that Nipun

employs any of the foregoing to confer an advantage upon himself, but rather that these are tools

available to anyone to help shape an organization, and given the topography of CharityFocus, it

would not be unusual, and in fact would be expected, that its leader would use such tools. Put

otherwise, there is nothing inherently negative or sinister about the use of such tools.

Consistency is the fundamental need, once a choice has been made, to behave in accordance with

such choice (even if incorrect). Commitment “produces the click that activates the whirr of the

powerful consistency tape.”1 As applied, the Commitment is the decision to embrace the guiding

principles of CharityFocus. But, as intimated above, Nipun does not “in fine jujitsu fashion . . .

structure [his] interactions with [other CharityFocus volunteers] so that [their] own need to be

consistent will lead to [his] benefit.”2

Reciprocity touches upon a person’s innate need to give back when something unsolicited has

been given to them. Nipun feels the term may connote premeditation and thus impure motives,

and as such, it may not be the best term to describe his modus operandi. Put more accurately,

Nipun is a firm believer of giving for the sake of giving, and he derives most of his power from

such unconditional giving and the benefits that flow back to him (karma). Nonetheless, a form of

Reciprocity is at the heart of CharityFocus, except instead of inspiring favors back to the original

person, acts of service are meant to inspire recipients to “pay it forward” to someone else.

Since CharityFocus is entirely a volunteer organization, Nipun also uses Social Proof to keep

members following the norms and values of the group. Social proof is the tendency to rely on

social evidence to guide and, in many cases, determine behavior. Cialdini described social proof

1
ROBERT B. CIALDINI, INFLUENCE 67 (HARPER COLLINS 2007) (1984).
2
Id. at 64.

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succinctly (and colorfully) with the heading “Monkey Me, Monkey Do.”3 As an example, seeing

everyone’s shoes at or by the door, a CharityFocus tradition, will give the next volunteer entering

the room little choice but to likewise remove his or her shoes before joining the group. Nipun’s

least-used tool is probably Authority since the organization grants him little. Per Cialdini, people

have a natural tendency to submit to authority, real or perceived (symbolic).4 At no time would a

new member be “trained” that Nipun is the group’s leader or shown an org chart with Nipun at

the top. Finally, by taking money and fundraising out of the equation, Nipun has removed

Scarcity of resources as a motivator for people in the group. Put simply, Scarcity is based on the

principle that an item that is more difficult to obtain is inherently better than one that is easier to

secure.5 Scarcity, however, may still play a role in the organization; there is only one Nipun, and

given how integral he is to CharityFocus, a request from him presumably would be more

compelling than one from another volunteer in the organization.

Formal Structure
The idea of an organizational chart is completely anathema to the values of CharityFocus. That

said, there is certainly a degree of formal organization, and we have attempted to construct an

org chart of the nonprofit’s leadership (see Figure 1). CharityFocus is managed by three main

groups, known as the Eagle, Tiger, and Bear Teams. The Tiger Team consists of nearly 200

people and is sometimes referred to as the group’s “think tank” to ponder and weigh in on new

opportunities. The Tiger Team is committed to supporting CharityFocus’s values. The Bear

Team currently consists of 31 people and is considered the group’s “do-tank,” coordinating all

internal CharityFocus projects and acting on its own will. Although in most organizations the

3
See id. at 140.
4
See id. at 216 (describing actual legitimate authority) and 220 (providing example of perceived (symbolic)
authority).
5
See id. at 244.

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Figure 1: Constructed Org Chart for CharityFocus

thinkers would be considered the managers of the doers, CharityFocus maintains an even balance

between these two groups. The Tiger Team does not direct the Bear Team; they only respond to

the ideas the Bear Team brings them. Membership on either team is loosely by appointment.

Finally, the Eagle Team is a group of eleven members who lead and synchronize all operations.

The Eagle Team includes, among others, Nipun, his younger brother Viral, and Nipun’s wife

Guri. Nipun considers a few members of this group to be the informal “Wisdom Council” and

any one of them has the experience and perspective to lead the group. Finally, the unsung heroes

of CharityFocus are the central technical team of about 9 people who are critical to every project.

They manage more than 18 million lines of code that power all the platforms.

The formal structure of CharityFocus presents several challenges for Nipun. He observes that in

a group with no financial incentives, people “bring all their baggage” to the table. In other words,

a paid employee is compensated with wages and is expected to perform a certain job. A

volunteer, however, is uncompensated and under no obligation to management. As the leader of

a large volunteer organization, Nipun must take into account a level of motivations and concerns

for those around him that many corporate managers can choose to ignore.

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In general, Nipun tries to avoid hierarchy, but he acknowledges that it is necessary “at the

edges.” No matter how idealistic CharityFocus is, it must operate in the real world, and this

means, for example, that the bill for the group’s web servers must be paid. Beyond these

“edges,” however, Nipun attempts to create an organization filled with redundancy so that it is

not dependent on any single person completing their assignments. Service is always a choice.

Sources of Power
Nipun doesn’t see himself as having any power. He is very aware that power tends to corrupt and

that many leaders are lonely because they need to build up walls around themselves. Nipun

wants very much to retain his humanity. He presents himself neither like a CEO nor a guru, but

rather as an average person, and this is evident in everything from the way he dresses, his lack of

an office, and his casual demeanor. Nipun claims that his primary source of influence is

unconditional love, very much in the same vein as Gandhi.

Nipun has made a conscious decision not to work with scarce resources such as money. Because

he doesn’t fundraise and doesn’t have any paid staff, he doesn’t have to answer to any sponsors

if the projects are not completed on time. Nipun has complete control on all his projects and can

choose to run them the way he wants them to run, and in this way he is very powerful. On the

other hand, since all members of the organization are volunteers, Nipun works extremely hard to

ensure that the trust they have in him is never broken. He strives to ensure that volunteers get the

best possible service experience.

Individual Attributes as Sources of Power


We analyzed Nipun according to Pfeffer’s six key individual attributes: energy and physical

stamina; focus; sensitivity to others; flexibility; ability to tolerate conflict; and submerging one’s

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ego and getting along. We found that while Nipun was very well positioned in each of these

categories, in not all cases did he fit the paradigms proposed by Pfeffer.

Energy and Physical Stamina


Energy and stamina are not only vital to outlasting one’s competition (even if more gifted), but

also inspire others to work harder.6 Nipun’s energy is positive and fills the room; our experience

interviewing him confirms as much. Nipun works extremely hard, usually 12-14 hours per day,

seven days a week, a habit he learned while still on the tennis circuit. He is deeply involved with

every project of CharityFocus (which also goes to focus, as described below), and he makes

extraordinary efforts to respond to every email of every volunteer. Such deep involvement and

commitment can credibly be compared to Lyndon Johnson’s immersion in the details and

mechanics of politics and in his (successful) efforts to respond to each and every letter of the

constituents from his district. At all projects, Nipun tries his best to get involved in the most

labor-intensive tasks such as dish washing at Karma Kitchen. If there is a volunteer on a team

who is not doing his job well, he rarely tries to mentor that person. Instead he picks up the slack

and fixes it, hoping that the person will take a clue and improve himself on his own.

Focus
Pfeffer recognizes that our energies or skills are, by definition, finite, and that people with great

power tend to concentrate their efforts in one direction.7 Nipun doesn’t have a regular social life

filled with eating out, watching movies, and hanging out with friends. Nearly all of his time is

spent in serving others, whether listening intently to someone who is having a conflict with her

parents, “tagging” a person by giving them an unexpected gift, or feeding monks. Again, we can

credibly compare such focus to, for example, Robert Moses’ singular commitment to the parks.

Nipun is also very focused on CharityFocus values. For example, he won’t let advertisers put

6
See JEFFREY PFEFFER, MANAGING WITH POWER 168 (HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL PRESS 1994) (1992).
7
See id.

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logos on Smile Cards, even if that means the project can’t scale as quickly as it might with

underwriting. Although he has had the opportunity, he won’t appear on Oprah because he

doesn’t feel he can ensure that the message delivered through such “eye candy” will stay true to

the values of CharityFocus. Recently he was invited to speak at the TED X conference, and he

replied that he would only speak if five Karma Kitchen volunteers were allowed to speak with

him. He never heard back from the organizers.

Sensitivity to Others

Pfeffer defines sensitivity as “understanding who [others] are, their position on the issues, and

how to best communicate with and influence them.”8 Sensitivity thus requires both self-

awareness and awareness of others.9 Nipun is extremely sensitive to other people’s needs and

what inspires them to serve. He understands that one person may be good for a six-hour task and

another will be able to commit to one hour a day, six days a week. If a volunteer is not doing

well in a particular role, Nipun takes the responsibility to place the person in another role. If a

volunteer is having personal issues, he takes a “big detour” to support him, setting aside other

projects and dedicating the necessary time to lift up that individual. As noted earlier, Nipun is

also highly attuned to how he affects others and in turn how others perceive him.

Flexibility

In Pfeffer’s view, flexibility refers to the ability to change behavior if certain actions are not

producing the required effects.10 Similarly, flexibility is based on focusing on ultimate goals and

emotional detachment (namely, in terms of tactics selected).11 Thus, the distinction is not so

much as where one will agree to bend (for whatever reason) and where one will not, but rather
8
Id. at 172.
9
See id. at 173.
10
See id. at 174.
11
See id.

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whether to accomplish certain goals, one is willing to explore and take a variety of roads. As

such, as far as we can tell, Nipun does not fit the paradigm proposed by Pfeffer, though this does

not (as far as we can tell) in any way disadvantage CharityFocus and in fact in many ways may

work to its benefit. In brief, Nipun is flexible in certain things and inflexible in others. He is

extremely flexible when it comes to spending money just to create a good volunteer experience,

which seems somewhat ironic given the lack of fundraising at CharityFocus. For example, the

organization could easily ship Smile Cards in a cost-effective manner spending around $50 a

week, but Nipun would prefer to complete the project in an “inefficient” way, spending around

$100 a week in a way that engages more volunteers in a more communal effort to stuff, address

and stamp envelopes containing Smile Cards. On the other hand, Nipun won’t compromise on

the core values of CharityFocus at any cost. He won’t accept donations if they are tied to a

specific CharityFocus project, no matter how large. He won’t write grant proposals to raise

money. He won’t let conflicts between volunteers fester, even if one or both of the opposing

positions are justified. And he won’t hire a paid staff member, no matter how much time that

might save him personally.

Ability to Tolerate Conflict

To be sure, in terms of his relations with others Nipun tolerates conflict, but Pfeffer speaks more

to “shar[ing] a taste for conflict of disagreement.”12 Nipun’s tolerance is of a different variety. He

will talk to anyone compassionately, even if he knows that the other person is trying to

undermine him. He believes that such people actually deserve more compassion and love than

anyone else. He told us about a particular project in which two people were not getting along. It

was clear to everyone that one person was wrong and the other person was right. Instead of

12
See id. at 176.

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taking the “wrong” person out, Nipun requested that everyone in the group “tag” him with good

deeds, and this attention influenced him to shift his attitude to the positive. This, of course, is

different from engaging in battle to achieve one’s goals. Further, the ability to tolerate conflict, in

Pfeffer’s view, is tied to a sufficient independence to not require intimacy with others.13 While

we may agree that Nipun is sufficiently independent, because unconditional love cannot be

divorced from intimacy, it follows that Nipun does not tolerate conflict as such attribute is

viewed by Pfeffer. By the same token, Nipun’s ability tolerate of conflict is right for

CharityFocus and its philosophy of inclusion.

Submerging One’s Ego and Getting Along

Pfeffer relates this last attribute to “flexibility, since it entails the ability to trade present restraint

for greater power and resources in the future.”14 Without a doubt, Nipun can get along with

others and if he has an ego (as we all do), as shown below he is clearly able to submerge it.

However, there is no calculation or trade (which, of course, is consistent with Nipun’s view of

reciprocity and acts of unsolicited kindness). Again, given the dynamics and needs of

CharityFocus, Nipun’s actions and philosophy are clearly appropriate and advantageous to the

organization, but again Nipun does not quite fit Pfeffer’s paradigm.

Nipun speaks at conferences or gives seminars almost 50 times a year, but he doesn’t take any

speaking fees. He recalled a particular incident where the sponsors of a conference didn’t have

time for all five publicized speakers, and in the middle of the program, they had to decide whom

to cut. Nipun volunteered to be the one cut. One way in which Nipun voluntarily gives up power

is by not demanding that he be treated as someone special. He understands that his time is

13
See id. at 182.
14
Id.

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continually abused because he doesn’t charge speaking fees, dresses very casually, and doesn’t

come across as a typical dignified speaker. He observes that he is often treated as less important

than peers who charge fees and act the part of the VIP, even when they share billing on an equal

status. But Nipun is committed not to change his personality to suit others’ expectations of him.

In fact, he seems to revel in outperforming expectations, preferring instead to “rock it like a fifth

wheel” when he speaks in public.

Leadership Style: Symbolic Action, Networking, and Fame


Nipun is adept at using symbolic action to create influence, in particular by instituting certain

rituals that are followed at most CharityFocus meetings. Meditation is very central, and

volunteers are encouraged to take silence breaks regularly. Nipun usually requests volunteers to

perform an act of giving before each meeting. At every meeting, Nipun and other volunteers tell

stories of kindness and compassion. In their recent book Made to Stick, Stanford Professor Chip

Heath and his brother Dan talk at length about the power of stories.15 Stories in many instances

speak to or help promote the core values of an organization; for example, John Bogle, founder of

Vanguard, was known to in each instance ask for the least expensive hotel room and as such

inculcated a sense of responsibility and ownership to and throughout the firm. Nipun has been

using stories to convey the impact of CharityFocus for almost 10 years, frequently including the

“creation” stories of how the organization and its programs were each born.

Nipun and his parents have hosted 40-50 people for regular meetings every Wednesday for the

last 12 years, touching thousands of people to date. The meetings begin with an hour of

meditation, followed by an hour of spiritual ‘circle of sharing’, followed by a free, vegetarian

dinner. Every week, Nipun is physically accessible to every one of them and makes it a point to
15
See CHIP HEATH & DAN HEATH, MADE TO STICK: WHY SOME IDEAS SURVIVE AND OTHERS DIE, CH. 6 (RANDOM HOUSE
2007).

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talk to anyone who is there for the first time. These rituals of meditation, story-telling, and

serving a meal are all symbolic actions that help to create a space of authority and community in

the group.

Nipun could be called an expert networker and knows thousands of people. As with Heidi

Roizen, Nipun’s life has essentially no separation between the personal and the professional.

Like Roizen, Nipun is an extremely attentive listener and seeks to make every interaction with

another person significant. But where Roizen’s goal may be to connect people for mutual benefit,

Nipun is extremely wary of using his power in this way. He acknowledges that such connections

can be mutually beneficial, but “there’s an edge to it” that may go beyond selfless service. For

example, he won’t pair single people together whom he thinks may be compatible, because he

doesn’t want to have that kind of influence over others. Despite his deep, high-tech network, he

won’t help others in commercial pursuits.

Nipun’s relationship to fame is an uneasy one. He recognizes that he, in many circles, is famous.

But he stated that “If I become a famous person, then I have failed in my purpose.” Nipun is

sensitive to recognize the inconsistency between being, or wanting to be, an ordinary person

dedicated to a life of service and being famous, which implies that one is extraordinary. Thus,

Nipun strives to help others avoid the misperception that only special people can do service. He

notes that Gandhi was just an “ordinary” person. To this end, Nipun deliberately “carries himself

as a janitor.” While Nipun is troubled by the disconnect between his view of who he is, or aims

to be, and how, due to his fame, he may be perceived, he also takes pleasure in the disconnect,

enjoying the shock value of not telegraphing who he is. For example, at a recent conference, one

moment Nipun was helping a guest who, due to how Nipun comported himself, thought Nipun

was part of the staff, and the next moment Nipun sprung to the podium as the keynote speaker.

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The perception of power (or fame, which can be viewed as either a byproduct of power or a

proxy) can create actual power. Nipun turns this concept on its head. It is as though, cognizant

of the power and fame he has achieved, he is actively trying to deflate how others perceive him.

Not surprisingly, Nipun speaks of “distributed” or local heroes, which, to his mind, are more

important than fame or famous people. Fame spotlights; Nipun prefers diffusion. He wrestles

with how to create systems that amplify local heroes.

Vision for the Future


We were unable to extract Nipun’s vision for the organization or his own path for where power

might lead him. To be sure, Nipun does not view CharityFocus in such terms; he does not have a

vision per se. Legacy is anathema to Nipun. In fact, Nipun’s interpretation of “serving with what

you have” is that the organization cannot worry about how the bills will be paid. If operations

needed to cease tomorrow, then that’s just what would happen. Only by not worrying about this

possibility is CharityFocus able to dedicate itself entirely to a goal of service.

The nature of CharityFocus leaves little avenue for anyone other than Nipun to seek leadership.

With no salary, no VIP treatment, and essentially no titles, there is no reason for others to covet

Nipun’s position. While it is certainly not Nipun’s goal to protect his place in the organization,

the result of the structure is that his leadership is secure for as long as he desires it. We can be

quite certain, however, that if Nipun exited CharityFocus, the organization would change. The

leader of a for-profit endeavor, or even the head of a more traditionally-funded nonprofit, would

be ill-suited to take Nipun’s place, just as his talents would likely not serve him well in a

different sort of operation. Our analysis of Nipun’s power and politics lead us to the conclusion

that he is the right person for an unusual organization.

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