Being a monk and leading a thriving nonprofit organization in the middle of NYC’s bustle can be a conflicting experience. Putting service above his personal serenity, Ajay Dahiya chose to give up his monastic vows to focus on leading The Pollination Project, a nonprofit that works to raise funds to award micro grants to people and organizations advocating for social change around the world. Ajay joins Mitch Russo in this episode to talk about building a tribe as he had done himself. “Why are you building a tribe?” “What is the purpose of that tribe?” “Who is it meant to serve?” “What are the principles by which you want to build that tribe?” – These are the questions that Ajay asked himself first to guide him on his path to leading a thriving community of thousands. Listen in as he shares this incredible knowledge with us.
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Leading By Example: Making A Difference At The Pollination Project With Ajay Dahiya
My guest was eighteen years old when he first became a monk, which landed him in New York City. From there, he became the head of a nonprofit and that’s where his story started. Welcome, Ajay Dahiya to the show.
Mitch, it’s a pleasure to be here with you.
Thank you, Ajay. It’s great to have you. I gave the readers a simple, quick highlight of your life. Let’s go back to the beginning and tell us all about how this whole started for you.
I grew up in the outskirts of London. My parents were both immigrants from India in a very working-class town. I saw everyone around me was in some challenging circumstance of difficulty. I felt moved by that. I couldn’t understand how I was living in one of the most powerful countries in the world. People were struggling and suffering. I was always drawn culturally by my parents. Their connection to their homeland was a temple that we would visit frequently. I was always drawn to it. Even as a young child, you have to drag me out, whereas most other people my age, where you have to drag them in. I was fascinated by the culture, what it stood for and what it meant to many people this particular temple and the transformation that was taking place within that place. I always wanted to be there. I would skip school and go there. When I found out that you could do this all the time, I thought, “That’s what I want to do with my life.”
This was ten years old, you said?
I was younger than ten when I first started visiting this temple. At ten years old, I met for the first time the man who went on to become my teacher by the name of Radhanath Swami. I wasn’t speechless as a child, but there was something about him that when I met him, I froze. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know exactly what it was but he had something. I knew I wanted it and I wasn’t sure what it was, but I was going to find out.
This is an incredible start to life because you ended up staying with him for how long, nine years?
At the age of eighteen, I joined the monastery. I waited until eighteen because legally you can do it before then. I was living in the monastery and the reason I became his cook is he would come to London quite often and I knew how to cook. I substitute, became his cook and then we built a close relationship. He asked me to come and be his assistant and travel with him. I traveled with him for quite some time. He asked me if I would move to New York where he had a project, which has had for a while and never got off the ground. He wanted someone to lead it. I reluctantly said yes, because I didn’t want to go and live in the city. I was quite happy where I was at the time but I wanted to serve. I ended up in New York and I spent 8, 9 years in a life that was fully dedicated to spiritual practice and helping others along that path.
How did that come to an end?We are all leaders in our own way. Click To Tweet
I was in New York City and what I started to realize, we had this six-story building on the lower East Side of Manhattan. There were a lot of things as the director of that place that I was doing that didn’t necessarily quite fit the monk archetype. Dealing with money and with women, things like that, which as a monk you generally have a much more simple life that’s a little bit in the background. I started to see this conflict that was taking place that I couldn’t do justice to either thing. I couldn’t do justice necessarily to being the director of that place while being a monk. I couldn’t do justice to being a monk while being the director. I put this to my teacher and I said, “I’m not sure exactly what I’m meant to do.”
He said, “You have two options. You either give up the service of being the director or you give up being a monk. In my opinion, whatever helps you serve the most, that’s what you should do.” I took that and meditated on it for a while. I decided to transition out of monastic life because it would allow me to take what I’d learned over those years out wider into the world and almost enhance my own experiences. Those who I was to some degree mentoring or assisting in their journey, I would have experiences that would help me and also serving them that way.
What happened after you left and became part of this other organization? Is this the beginning of the tribe that we’re talking about?
The beginning of the tribe took place in my teens when I first joined the monastery because I’ve held on to the people that I’ve met. I was fortunate enough to travel all over the world and meet many amazing people. Luckily through technology, we’re able to stay in touch with people anywhere. I think the beginning was back then, but my ability to connect with that tribe and support people within it has augmented since leaving the monastery. I stayed in New York for another year after that. I moved to LA, California, where I continued working in this realm of spirituality and meditation. The tribe continued to grow from that.
What would you say is the core mission of your tribe?
The core mission of my tribe is to live a life that is based on compassion and kindness. That is about selflessly serving others to bring out their best.
That’s a great philosophy of life, but is there a polarizing mission that brings people together for a common cause or purpose?
As the Director of an organization called The Pollination Project, our mission is that we’re a grant-making organization. Our actual mission statement is to unleash goodness, kindness, and compassion in the world and to uproot apathy. That means that the mission is for each person that we come into contact with to recognize that they have within them the potential to make a difference in their local communities. We do that by making one grant every single day at a minimum to grassroots community changemakers in their communities.
What happens is people who are in many ways like you, their polarizing personality, they have people who believe in them, and they step up to lead in their own community. They come to you and then you decide or your team decides if that grant into their world and their community is worthwhile. Is that how it works?
That’s somewhat how it works. We have an application process. What’s unique about us is that we’re in 113 countries and we have over 4,000 people in our network, apart from the unique aspect that we make at least one grant a day, which is quite unheard of in most foundations. The other thing is that none of our grant decisions are made by anyone who’s paid by the organization. What you do is you create this network of people. Our previous grantees review applications that have come through and give their opinion on whether they should be funded or not. For me and our organization, what we see is that the grant in one sense is symbolic because we make microgrants from $1,000 up to $5,000, which in some parts of the world and to some people is a lot of money.
In the grand scheme of the issues that are being addressed, people would laugh at that in bigger foundations, “What’s such a small amount going to do?” What I see is that grant is an investment in belief. It’s an investment in saying that we value you and we think you can make a difference. The basis of building a tribe is that we believe in one another. We believe in people and we have the faith that if we support people, we become the scaffold for people to build up their true potential and then you start to change the world.
What you do from what I can tell in the way you described this is you’re giving these other community leaders hope and a chance to bring some funding into their community. Even if it’s a small amount to us, it could be life-changing for the people in their world. That’s incredible that you do that, but it took a while to get to this point. You said that you have about 4,000 people in your community. How long did it take to get to that point?
We’ve been operating for several years as an organization.
Over the course of several years, people come in, request money, fill out a form, apply for a grant, and the grant is made. Does the relationship end after the grant is made?
No, that’s the beginning of the relationship. The grant is an excuse to build a relationship because along with our grantmaking, what we feel is that we sustain these changemakers and the work that they’re trying to do in the world by building deeper relationships. That takes multiple forms. That takes the form of mentoring. It takes the form of connecting them to other grantees in our network so that they can build their own support structure, where we as an organization, it’s not a top-down approach. Not that the whole thing depends upon us as a grantmaking organization, but we’re another node in the network.
How does the tribe communicate with one another? Is there communication between each person?
After having done this for many years and having many people in our network in different areas of the world, what we’re trying to do is create these local hubs. These are networks of grantees in their local region who can get together regularly, have their own groups online, do some mutual learning with one another, but also be another shoulder to lean on because making a difference in your local community can be challenging at times. It’s not an easy task that they’ve taken up, particularly when they have many other responsibilities in life. What we’re trying to foster between our grantees and within the people in our network is a deep sense of care and relationship with one another.
Do you have a way of communicating with all 4,000 of these people either through email or through some community like Facebook?Your culture will eat your strategy for breakfast. Click To Tweet
We have a Facebook group that our grantees can use. That’s a private group for those who become our grantees. We also have our general social media presence, which communicates not to those in our network but to those outside who are searching or interested in the work we do. We also have a monthly newsletter that we put out that is about informing and inspiring people. Those are the methods that we use. We also write a bunch of articles for other publications and doing things like this so on and so forth.
Ajay, you are the leader of this tribe. Does the group of 4,000 perceive you that way?
We’re all leaders in our own way. Leadership is an interesting concept because it’s about the relationship between the leader and the lead. The leader can only lead according to the tribe that he or she is a part of. In one sense, who is leading who? What we try and operate with at The Pollination Project is either distributed leadership. That means that each of us has unique capacities, abilities, and skills. In the areas where someone is most skilled, we see them as the leader of that area. In my particular role, what I saw and learned about leadership, in general, is being the top of an organization or the person who’s perceived as the top or the leader of an organization doesn’t necessarily come from having the biggest brain rather from having the biggest hearts. I strive to do that. Depending on who you would speak to in the network and you ask them, “Who’s leading this organization?” They would all have maybe a slightly different view because it depends on which part of the organization you look at.
Given your background and your years spent in the monastery, I have a feeling that outside of your vision of these people would see you as that leader. You bring your personal passion to the table and that’s what people receive and perceive. That’s why they want to be a part of this. It’s not getting the money because once they get the money, they could disappear. Instead, they stay connected. It’s the beginning of that relationship.
I believe you’re right. It is the beginning of the relationship. What draws people in more than a person, or what’s symbolic about what we’re trying to represent as an organization is that everyone matters and everyone can make a difference.
That is an incredible and valuable mission to this world right now in particular. You are the leader of your tribe if that’s what you’re communicating because people look up to you and want to feel that value they don’t in many ways. Let’s talk a little bit about management. In most tribes, there’s some form of software that people use to either grow or manage their membership. I asked you before the show started if you monetize this tribe and you said no. Talk to us a little bit about that process of what software and tools do you use, and how do you fund that if you’re not monetizing your tribe at all?
Our funding is based on donations. People who believe in what we’re doing, who align with our mission and hold the same values generously contribute to furthering our organization’s work in the world. In terms of software, what’s unique about us is that we don’t do a whole lot of advertising or marketing, but through word of mouth, our tribe has grown. It’s referral-based. What we’ve done is we’ve tried to create this irresistible environment in which people feel cared for. That brings people in. We do use Facebook ads, Google ads and things like this to promote our work. Hopefully, more to come because as our following grows, the more we want to do in the world, the more that we want to build this network and this tribe.
There are two types of funding. The first level of funding is to fund the organization. People have to work there. People have to live, so there’s got to be overhead. The second funding is to fund the grant process as well. In giving advice about how to build the tribe, which you’ve done meticulously over the years, what would you advise people as to having a product or a service to offer before beginning the process of building a tribe? Is that necessary?
You have to have your principles in order and your values whether it’s a product or a service. That’s secondary because, in my opinion, your culture will eat your strategy for breakfast. You can come up with all the strategies or how your product is going to do and your services are going to sell unless you’ve built that internal culture first, which then informs how you operate in the world. It becomes difficult to build a tribe. You see many products are created out there and they don’t last for so long. They have marketing plans and many other avenues to promote what they are but it’s that governing principle that gets people to buy-in.
How would you describe the culture of your own tribe?
Our culture is one in which we try and foster the values that we want to see in the world are all the ones that we want to live by within our tribe too. The values of compassion, kindness, and recognizing the agency of each individual. Otherwise, if we’re trying to spread this in the world and we’re not living it ourselves, it’s hypocritical.
What you’re saying is you’re leading by example.
That’s the best way to lead is to lead by example.
This is an incredible mission that you’re on. Tell us a little bit more about it and how people can get involved.
There are many ways that you can get involved. In the simplest ways, you can find us on our social media channels that are Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @ThePollinationProject. You can like us, subscribe, and share some of the things that we’re doing to help spread the word. The other way is to join us. You can become a volunteer and one of our advisers. You can join one of our advisory panels. What’s another unique thing about us because we’re interested in individuals, we operate in every issue in any area, whether it’s clean water, women’s rights, or better health systems in different parts of the world. We’re interested in every issue here because we’re interested in people. If there’s an issue here that’s you’re interested in, you can visit our website ThePollinationProject.org.
You can check out some of the grants and the projects that we’ve funded in those issuers. You can join one of our advisory panels. We are an organization that is 100% dependent on donations. If you feel called to contribute, you can learn more about us online. I’m happy to speak to anyone who’s interested in the work that we’re doing and to tell you what we do because every dollar that we raise is more good work that we can do. More grants in the hands of grassroots changemakers at the cutting edge of making a change in their communities.
When you take this thing two years into the future, what does it look like to you?
I’m ambitious for The Pollination Project. When I first started working with The Pollination Project, if I tell people who I worked for, they automatically assume we had something to do with bees, which was an issue for sure. Where I see is that our network continues to grow. Rather than The Pollination Project itself being the mothership, we become the scaffold on which these great endeavors in the world can build. We hold the space where connections are made and relationships are deepened. We recognize our common humanity and the interconnected nature of the world, and of the issues that people are trying to address. Wishy-washy and hippiest as it sounds, fostering love between people. A lot of the problems that we see in the world are because we don’t recognize that we’re all connected.Ordinary people can do extraordinary things with the right support. #ThePollinationProject Click To Tweet
It’s the single largest oversight that we as human beings make and it’s not hokey or in any way false or non-genuine. It’s exactly the truth as well. I speak from a personal background of understanding that. I’m glad that you brought that up. We are in the business of helping others build their own tribes. Would you have anything you’d like to say to people who are interested in building a tribe about how they can get started?
The way that you get started is to have piercing clarity on your vision of why you’re building that tribe. What is the purpose of the tribe? Who is it meant to serve? What are the principles by which you want to build that tribe? That’s the first step. Secondly, tribes are successful when there’s genuine care. You have to care about people because if you put people first, they’ll feel it. What I’ve noticed in the business world and other realms, you bring out the best in people when they feel secure. We understand there are multiple ways of making people feel secure. We operate in a society where insecurity is the norm. If you as a leader trying to build a tribe can figure out and you may not get it right all the time. We’re human beings. We’re always going to make mistakes, but if at the very least at the forefront of your mind is to put people before projects and to put the care of the individual ahead of your own personal gain or what you could get out of it. That’s a great start to building a tribe because people feel it. No matter how articulate someone can be and how charming someone could be, what people feel is when they’re cared for.
When you think about all the different people who are on the same mission as you but taking a different pathway, is there someone out there who’s a role model to you?
Everyone I meet every day is a role model for me. I’ve never imagined I wouldn’t have a job where every morning I could open up my inbox and hear many amazing stories of the work that’s being done by our grantees. It would be difficult for me to choose one because there are many. One of the taglines that we use at The Pollination Project is that “Ordinary people can do extraordinary things with the right support.” I think everyone is extraordinary. Often, we ended up doing ordinary things because we haven’t found the right tribe or the right tribe hasn’t found us yet.
You are there to provide that support. Ajay, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you. I’m inspired by your work. I have a feeling readers are going to be inspired as well. If people would like to chat more with you about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, how could they get a hold of you?
You can visit ThePollinationProject.org. We have a contact form there. You can fill it in and then that will get to me. I’ll try and respond as promptly as I can.
Thank you for your time. Immense luck with this project. I have a feeling we are going to be staying in touch.
Thank you, Mitch. It’s been a real pleasure.
Resources Mentioned in This Episode:
- Ajay Dahiya
- Radhanath Swami
- Facebook – The Pollination Project Grantee Group
- Facebook – The Pollination Project
- Twitter – The Pollination Project
- @ThePollinationProject – Instagram
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