AJ Dahiya of The Pollination Project: “Compassion has many different faces”

Compassion has many different faces: Through our focus on individuals working at grassroots levels, we gain the chance to uplift the voices of diverse and marginalized leaders whose work is often overlooked by larger institutional funders. When you make the opportunity to serve accessibly, you get so much more diversity; not only racial or socioeconomic […]

Thrive invites voices from many spheres to share their perspectives on our Community platform. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team, and opinions expressed by Community contributors do not reflect the opinions of Thrive or its employees. More information on our Community guidelines is available here.

Compassion has many different faces: Through our focus on individuals working at grassroots levels, we gain the chance to uplift the voices of diverse and marginalized leaders whose work is often overlooked by larger institutional funders. When you make the opportunity to serve accessibly, you get so much more diversity; not only racial or socioeconomic diversity of the players, but also a diversity of ideas and solutions.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing AJ Dahiya.

AJ Dahiya is a former monk who is now a writer, speaker, and Chief Vision Officer of The Pollination Project, a global community of 4,000+ grassroots volunteer leaders in over 125 countries. At The Pollination Project, AJ pioneers disruptive philanthropic approaches that serve as an antidote to apathy, funding individuals directly for social projects in their own communities. A leader of the #heartivist movement, AJ advocates for the amplifying effects of non-financial resources and self-reflective practices as foundational factors in building a kinder, more compassionate world.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I would say my path is untraditional, but my past connects to my present role through the principle of service. The role I’ve held for most of my life was that of a monk. At 18, I renounced all my worldly possessions and joined a monastery. I spent the better part of a decade traveling to monastic communities around the world, consulting with the leaders of those communities about how they could be more connected and compassionate. But at a certain point, I began to feel I had grown as much as I could in that life, and decided to stake out a new path. Still desiring to be in service, I was fortunate to lead several organizations before coming to The Pollination Project; notably The Bhakti Center in New York, and Hope Not Hate USA. I still feel, even today, that the center of my work is to be in deep service to others, although doing that through the lens of philanthropy looks very different than it did when I was a monk.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

At The Pollination Project, our model is centered around funding individuals directly through seed grants, so that they are able to act on the inspiration to serve that they feel within their own communities. I always thought that this model could have real value in the case of natural disasters or other emergency relief, but that was truly put to the test during this last year. At the start of the pandemic, we mobilized our entire global community within two weeks to serve COVID-related needs like support of vulnerable communities, deploying supplies to hard-hit areas, and support for food insecure communities particularly in the global south. It was inspiring to see what could happen, and how quickly it could unfold, when you are mobilizing the capacity of people to act out of great love and concern for their friends and neighbors.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early in my role at The Pollination Project, I was asked to meet with a potential donor who was very successful in business. I met with the gentleman, who was lovely, and happily told my board how well we had gotten along. “How much do you think he might want give?” the board member asked. Dumbfounded, I admitted that it had never occurred to me to talk to him about money. We both had a great laugh… such is the risk when hiring a former monk, I suppose!

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

The Pollination Project’s mission is to empower individuals to create a kinder, more compassionate world. Working with the belief that individuals are the largest untapped catalyst for social change, The Pollination Project provides seed funding, capacity-building support, encouragement and community to volunteers to launch grassroots initiatives that solve societal problems. Every day of the year, our team of advisors — most of whom have previously received support from TPP for their own projects — selects a new project that will receive $1,000 in seed funding.

Since 2013, The Pollination Project has provided more than $5.6 million to individuals working on issues in seven core focus areas: animal rights and welfare, education and access to opportunity, environmental conservation and regeneration, health and wholeness, human rights and dignity, artistic expression and creative communities, and the empowerment of women and girls.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

One of the first to be funded under our COVID response was a doctor and volunteer in Kolkata who is mobilizing marginalized youth to manufacture hand sanitizer and distribute it to families living in urban slums. Using the WHO’s gold standard recipe, he is providing all raw materials and training 2–3 young people in each slum to do this independently. This innovative program design means they can operate even during quarantine. He served thousands of people who lack running water and basic hygiene supplies, and he is accomplishing this on only $900 in seed funding.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

The global crises we face today — including hunger, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic — have inspired thousands of grassroots volunteers around the world to dedicate their time and efforts to improve their communities. Many have a vision for addressing their community’s needs, but require the resources, belief and validation to see it come to life. But most models of charitable giving are geared toward well-resourced and established nonprofits who can jump through administrative hoops and demonstrate prior success, with few opportunities for individuals with a passion and vision for making change in their local communities. Because of this disparity, philanthropy is coming up short in meaningfully addressing today’s global challenges.

Providing seed grants to individuals directly allows anyone with a passion and vision for change to become a changemaker. Individual seed funding widens the walls of philanthropy and allows those without traditional resources — especially underrepresented groups such as indigenous people, women in the global South, and religious and ethnic minorities — and expertise to apply for funding. Investing in grassroots community leaders ensures that those most directly impacted by a challenge can respond in real time with a solution for their neighborhoods and communities. Directly investing in people also inspires action from volunteers in local communities, who will have more ownership and interest in supporting their local leaders. Our analysis shows that, on average, project leaders who received a grant from The Pollination Project leverage an additional 138 hours of volunteer support in service to their work.

Seed funding provides volunteers the initial support they need to scale their vision and helps credential them so that larger foundations and grantmakers recognize them as potential grantees.

Philanthropy works best when it is inclusive. Philanthropy must support both small-scale grassroots projects led by local volunteers and large-scale efforts that require significant investment and expertise.

Supporting organizations like The Pollination Project will ensure that local leaders across the globe receive funding to jumpstart projects to address societal challenges.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I define leadership as listening; that is, not only hearing another person, but receiving their words with the understanding that something new and valuable is being shared. When I’m in conversation with a team member, I’m listening… for the places the work is coming alive for them, for the resources they may need to do the work well, and for the obstacles they’re encountering that I might be able to help them remove. I would say also, I believe another dynamic quality of leadership is ownership. Many people believe that you have to have the power of a leader before you can make something happen. In reality, those who make things happen and take ownership are those to whom power naturally flows. In this way, we all have the equal opportunity to lead.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Compassion has many different faces: Through our focus on individuals working at grassroots levels, we gain the chance to uplift the voices of diverse and marginalized leaders whose work is often overlooked by larger institutional funders. When you make the opportunity to serve accessibly, you get so much more diversity; not only racial or socioeconomic diversity of the players, but also a diversity of ideas and solutions.
  2. Not everything worth funding is scalable: For most of human history, social problems were solved by neighbors working in community with each other. If the community needed a new school, or someone was experiencing a profound hardship, neighbors banded together to help. “Big philanthropy” is a fairly new concept historically speaking. Today, obviously there are many challenges that are more complex and require expertise, skill, and significant investment. Yet there are many that we can solve together, and in ways that achieve greater community belonging, resiliency, and preservation of community social responsibility.
  3. Never underestimate the power of the human heart: We focus on people rather than projects or organizations because we believe that the human spirit is the largest untapped catalyst for social change. In many cases, the projects that we support are driven by passion and love for neighbors, and a deep understanding of community needs. This model ensures that the person receiving the funding is not divorced from the purpose.
  4. Shifting money and power; inclusiveness: Every day of the year, our network of grant advisors — most of whom previously received support from TPP for their own projects — selects a new project that will receive $1,000 in seed funding that will jumpstart a vision for bringing community change. No one on our paid staff decides where grant money is allocated, ensuring that projects are funded solely on the belief of a project’s potential impact. The Pollination Project takes the leap of faith on local changemakers and their vision for creating a brighter future in their communities.
  5. A little can go a long way in the right hands Take for example our COVID-19 response this last year. Faced with the unprecedented challenge of modern pandemic, our global network activated quickly to find and fund those individuals around the world who were best positioned to protect the most vulnerable members of their community from this insidious disease. Each changemaker was able to serve, on average, roughly 1,049 humans or non-human animals through their project. With just $1,000, and in some cases just $500, this means they delivered food aid, offered vital hygiene supplies, provided community health education, made face masks, or built handwashing facilities, among many other unique projects, that benefitted more individuals than they had dollars. This highlights my belief that in many cases, the thing that makes a project successful is not funding alone. Certainly, in many cases, funding is a necessary element. Yet the component that truly catalyzes a project to expand beyond the sum of its parts is the affirmation that the funding represents. I hear often from grassroots leaders who cite how much it meant that someone believed in their work and in their individual capacity to see it through. When given seed funding and belief, changemakers activate those gifts along with their sincere love of community, deep connections with neighbors, and creativity. It isn’t uncommon to see additional support pour in, motivated by the authenticity of these community-led responses. For example, we know from other analysis that, on average, our project leaders leverage an additional 138 hours of volunteer support in service to their work.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I feel the salve for most of our world’s wounds is a construct I like to call “heartivism,” which is the intersection of activism and heart that comes from a place of deep self-reflection. Heartivism is an inner recalibration of activism, centered not on saving the world but serving it. Saving the world is about “me,” and reflects a set of judgments about what others should be or do. A stance may become a fixed part of ourselves, and judgments about others flow from the values we want to signal that best align with this posture. In this scenario, we are self-righteous and most focused on changing everyone else.

Serving the world isn’t about ego, but about boundless love. This loving kindness shakes us from the mirage of disconnection and allows us to meet each other beyond the binary, in our true fullness. A servant’s heart decouples our ego from activism, freeing us from the need to be “right” or to make judgments. We can hear different views with curiosity and openness. Here, we are self-reflective; the person we are most focused on changing is ourselves.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” -Marcus Aurelius. This ties into my interest in this idea of heartivism, and the fundamental belief I hold that changing yourself is the most revolutionary act you can undertake when trying to change the world.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

This may seem surprising coming from a monk, but I would have to say Dave Chapelle. I love his clear-eyed views, sharp wit, and the way he is so unapologetically himself. And besides, the world needs more laughter right now!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Follow me on twitter @thinkingaj, thinkingaj.com or linkedin here

Follow The Pollination Project on twitter @pollinationproj, on facebook @ facebook.com/ThePollinationProject, or on Instagram.com/thepollinationproject

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

You might also like...

Community//

AJ Dahiya of The Pollination Project: “It is OK to be vulnerable”

by Tyler Gallagher
Community//

Thomas Vozzo On How To Leave a Lasting Legacy With a Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization

by Karen Mangia
Community//

Alix Guerrier On How To Leave a Lasting Legacy With a Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization

by Karen Mangia
We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.