Service-work Ashrams

Philanthropic Service: The Current Nonprofit Model

The traditional nonprofit model is one where a nonprofit gains funding and either hires employees or attains volunteers to do philanthropic work.

In the case where employees are hired, a good deal of money, which is generally in short supply, goes to support employees who are all living separate lives, with high cost-of-living needs: housing, car, insurance, food, etc. In other words, it makes philanthropic work a career. Instead of this money being utilized where it is most needed, it is supporting hundreds of thousands of high-cost careers worldwide.

In the case where volunteers are utilized, these volunteers are on their own for financial survival.

The Value of Service

Working for a nonprofit for money has its pros and cons. Oftentimes, the purity of the work can be tainted by the interest in money, the 9-5 mentality, or by the limitations imposed by lack of funding. Also, the person with the giving heart is generally confined to a certain limited protocol.

It is when one follows the giving heart, in accordance with the instinct or natural yearning to give, that one can give most fully. It is when one seeks nothing in return, but gives only because it the truest expression of compassion to do so, that the greatest and most pure work is accomplished.

Often, the most genuine expression of this work is direct action, where it is felt to be most needed. The cutting edge work that all of us are doing is an example of that. To be free to work in harmony with one's compassionate dreams and visions is priceless and awesome. Right now, I am writing this document on a Monday on my personal computer. I'm not at work. I have a certain amount of privilege to be able to do this. I recognize that this is privilige and want all giving hearts around the world to be able to do the same. I find that what I am writing has value, but getting paid for this kind of thing just doesn't happen. The alternative is to volunteer.

CharityFocus: An Experiment in Service

CharityFocus was started as an experiment in service - no money, no offices, no paid staff - all virtual, all volunteer, only hearts of service. It is an experiment that has worked beautifully.

For a person committed to working for change full time, however, it has its limits. It's great for those who are either economically able to sustain themselves or for others who are content to give in their spare time, but for those who hear the calling to give all the time, CharityFocus is not set up to provide the basic sustenance for survival.

Service-work Ashrams: The Middle Road

The current nonprofit model is too expensive. Too much money is being spent on careers. The alternative - volunteerism - only works for those with the free time and financial comfort to do so. For those with lesser means who are inspired to give of themselves fully, there might be a better solution.

The idea of a service ashram is a way to consolidate the expenses that go into sustaining service workers. Mother Theresa would not have had the impact that she did without having her basic needs taken care of. Creating a place that provides shelter, food, and the basic provisions for living and working is far cheaper than paying salaries to all individuals maintaining these separately.

Not only is this model economically smart, it is inspirational. Putting people with hearts of service together brings collaboration and mutual inspiration. It is an experience that would be both productive and treasured.

Is this for everyone? Absolutely not. Some people might thrive in this environment indefinitely, others might appreciate it for 3 months, or 6 months, or one year. Others might not like it at all.


By providing service-based fellowships, one can gauge the sincerity and commitment-level of all applicants, and choose those who seem the most fitting. Only those interested in working within this type of service ashram would apply. There could be different time periods that people could apply for.

Most people want to make some kind of difference with their lives. Having an ability to commit a period of one's life to working in this way in a concentrated fashion is invaluable and under-utilized.

Different Types of Service-work Ashrams

Most of us are working in tech/web related areas. As long as there are computers and a decent internet connection, this ashram could be set up anywhere - India, Costa Rica, Brazil, anywhere.

Other types of ashrams could also be started down the road that focused on different types of hands-on work, such as helping AIDS patients, alleviating poverty, etc.

It might be possible and inspiring to combine different focuses under one roof, or different functions within a larger project.

Another possibility would be to create and sustain service ashrams that could hold a collection of fellows from many different participating nonprofits/sponsors.


Where would the money come from to do this? The pitch is that money would go a lot farther this way than by donating to a traditional nonprofit. There are probably some donors who would be interested in supporting it as an experiment. Once it is established, it would likely be funded in ways similar to a traditional nonprofit. There are a lot of creative possibilities. Some ashrams might also aspire to become self-sufficient.

The other possibility is that nonprofits would see this as a viable option - to provide fellowships themselves. They could plug into an existing service ashram, contribute their proportion of costs - a cost-effective solution for them and meaningful opportunities for the fellows.

Why Ashram?

The word ashram implies that this is a space of genuine sincerity - a place of inner growth and development.


John Silliphant