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

AJ Dahiya on Thrive Global

by Ben Ari

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.

Read the full interview here 

How trust-based values can transform philanthropy

Article published on PhilanTopic (PND)

Winston Churchill is credited with being the first to say, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” While the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in immeasurable pain and suffering, it has also inspired action around how philanthropy can better address global crises in the future.

At the start of the pandemic, more than eight hundred philanthropic organizations agreed to provide greater flexibility to and eliminate administrative barriers for their grantees. With a pandemic raging, funders who signed the pledge recognized they needed to act swiftly and to lean into the expertise of their nonprofit partners. By committing to the values of trust-based philanthropy, an approach to giving that seeks to address the inherent power imbalances between funders, nonprofits, and the communities they serve, the signatories to the pledge agreed to put faith in and share power with those hardest hit by the crisis.

As the world begins to emerge from the pandemic, the philanthropic community must resist the urge to return to the status quo. The need for such a pledge underscored the reality that funders need to do more to make their grantmaking accessible, equitable, and empowering for grassroots leaders. And they can do that by moving to a trust-based philanthropy model.

I know firsthand the power of trust and service. Before taking the helm at The Pollination Project, a micro-granting organization that provides funds to community leaders in support of early-stage projects, I spent a decade as a monk. Four values guided my daily life during that time: faith, humility, relationship, and service. All four show up in the trust-based philanthropy model and offer a framework for how funders — and our grantee partners — can better solve the global challenges of today, and tomorrow.

Here’s how those values can reshape philanthropy:


Monks believe that everything in life is a dynamic proposition of faith. A trust-based funding approach is similar, in that it calls on funders to reevaluate their grant application process to allow more opportunities for smaller organizations. Automatically rejecting volunteer-led organizations or early-stage projects, for instance, closes the door to many deserving recipients.

Over half of the grant dollars awarded by U.S. foundations are directed to just 1 percent of recipient organizations. Black, Indigenous, and people of color leaders historically have been overlooked by philanthropy and often receive fewer grants, less money, and are given less freedom to decide how to use that money than their white counterparts. We are at risk of perpetuating these inequities unless we lead with faith and understand that those most directly impacted by an issue almost always are in the best position to solve it.

Directly investing in communities isn’t just a moral issue; it works. For years, The Pollination Project has supported projects that mainstream philanthropy would likely deem risky, including providing seed funding to grassroots volunteers without a traditional educational background or nonprofit experience. But we go a step further than the current trust-based model by committing to an open application process through which anyone can share their vision for a project and seek funding.

By providing grants directly to individuals, we allow those without access to other sources of institutional funding — especially underrepresented groups such as Indigenous people, women in the Global South, and religious and ethnic minorities — to launch impactful, meaningful projects. Take, for instance, a volunteer in Kolkata, India, who mobilized marginalized youth to manufacture hand sanitizer and distribute it to families living in urban slums at the start of the pandemic. Community leaders have the passion, skill, and trust to drive local efforts, and philanthropy should grant them the resources to do so.


Trust-based philanthropy recognizes that because philanthropic leaders don’t have all the answers, they must redistribute and share decision-making power. Too often, those making funding decisions at nonprofits are disconnected from the communities they serve. Paternalism and elitism are deeply rooted in philanthropy, and it takes humility to give back some of that power.

A peer-to-peer giving model is one way to redistribute power. In such a  model, a network of grant advisors — none of whom is paid staff and most of whom are previous grant recipients — decide which projects receive our funding. By democratizing funding decisions, philanthropic organizations can address the inherent power imbalance between funders and grant recipients.


The ability to forge meaningful relationships is critical to driving social change; in 2020, however, fewer than a third of foundations provided any assistance to their grantees beyond the grant itself. To make the greatest impact, funders must move from solely providing financial resources to viewing ourselves as a partner to our grantees and ensuring their long-term success by offering non-monetary support such as introductions to other funders, capacity-building training, and promoting their work to our networks.

Monks recognize the power of relationships. We lean into the vulnerability required to develop authentic relationships and find strength in connection. I’ve used these teachings to foster a global community of four thousand changemakers who share learnings, work to build capacity, and form community with one another. Smaller and people of color-led organizations typically don’t have the same resources as larger nonprofits, which in turn drives inequities in the field. Philanthropic leaders can support the long-term success of such organizations by ensuring that their relationships with grant recipients don’t end with a check.


The trust-based philanthropy model recognizes that nonprofits currently spend a lot of time completing funder-required application forms and reports, which takes precious time away from their mission.

As philanthropists, we must remind ourselves to whom nonprofits are accountable and consider how we can be of more service to the ones we support. We must ask ourselves how we can minimize bureaucracy and free would-be change agents to do what they are called to do. Putting more value in conversations instead of written reports or applications allows small organizations with limited bandwidth to focus more on their work and on creating a kinder, more compassionate world.

One thing COVID-19 has taught us is that philanthropy works better when power is distributed equitably and those closest to the issues have the opportunity to lead. By embracing trust-based and monastic principles, philanthropic leaders can make a more direct and immediate impact in communities. Crises can be an opportunity to change things that no longer work; let’s not waste this one.

Leading By Example: Making A Difference At The Pollination Project With Ajay Dahiya

By Mitch Russo


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.

Listen to the podcast here: