“It takes passion to serve, knowledge and skills to find solutions, and leadership to bring change. Leadership is not about always being at the forefront. It is about leading from behind by energizing, motivating, and supporting people to succeed - When they succeed, you succeed as a leader.”
As a part of our Community Leadership Spotlight Series (CLS), and in celebrating our 20th anniversary of CLASS, we spoke with our very own, Deepali Sachdeva. In this candid conversation, Deepali walks us through her journey of being the Founder and Board Chair of CLASS, its defining work, opportunities, achievements, and challenges confronting this Bay Area nonprofit.
About Deepali and CLASS
CLASS was founded in 2002 by Deepali Sachdeva and her husband, Sudeep Kanjilal, with the mission “to increase the return on social investment by providing business solutions to nonprofit organizations and leadership development opportunities to professionals.”
It all began at a Starbucks in Sunnyvale, California when Deepali, an International Banking Professional, was taking a break from work for health reasons only to realize that her tiger personality would not let her. She could not sit idly while she saw a gap in the nonprofit sector that she knew she could help fill. It is safe to say that her sabbatical did not last long, as she set about solving this problem full-time.
Prior to CLASS, Deepali had a rich history of volunteering and leadership. She volunteered at St. Elizabeth Day Home, in San Jose, as a board member, where she eventually became the President. She was the youngest ever and the first woman president in its history of around 100 years. She also volunteered for VCSV—Voluntary Exchange for Silicon Valley—a volunteer-matching organization.
CLASS: Thank you for taking the time to meet with me and discuss the story of CLASS and your leadership here. Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey towards founding CLASS?
Deepali: It has been around 20 years since CLASS was founded. I worked in the banking sector in the late 90s. In the 2000s, when we moved from New York to California, I decided to take a break and volunteer. I joined the boards of some Bay Area based nonprofit organizations. The more I worked with these organizations, the more I realized that there is an under-utilization of resources in the nonprofit sector. On one side, there are professionals like me who want to passionately give back to the community, but due to limited opportunities, are unable to make an impact.
On the other side, nonprofits often lack business expertise and do not have the resources. Nonprofits always run-on tight budgets. They cannot hire the right people. Obviously, there's a lot of passionate employees in nonprofits, but for charities, they have to focus more on utilizing the funds they have towards the end community. The capacity-building of a nonprofit is required.
CLASS was born as a response to address this gap. To provide an enriching experience to its volunteers, CLASS was founded on the model of a consulting firm, specifically serving NPOs by utilizing corporate professionals as volunteers. The organization acts as a bridge between volunteers and nonprofits.
Initially, we thought, “We will match volunteers with nonprofits, and they will figure out what they need to do.” However, we then realized that we had to go beyond that. We could not put the project management and all those issues that come with running a project on volunteers or nonprofits. We had to let them focus on what they are good at and work as a team with complimentary skill sets to solve problems. We built a consulting framework so that there would be a whole support system and an infrastructure that will ensure these teams succeed.
CLASS: That's so inspiring. Thank you. What has motivated you to keep CLASS going for 20 years?
Deepali: When you invest your time and focus and that leads to a positive impact, it motivates you. You see the change happening, not only in nonprofits, but in a community and in the lives of volunteers. You see a problem, and you want to solve it. Once you feel that it's making an impact, you keep on going. It becomes part of you. It's a few hours a week, which can make such a big difference beyond your own life and your professional or personal goals.
The Unique Leadership Challenge
CLASS: Thank you. What are some challenges that your organization has faced in the past or continues to face?
Deepali: Finding the right leaders with motivation, passion, commitment, and capability is important in running teams in CLASS. It is a 100% volunteer-driven organization, and we have sustained it for more than 20 years
It is all about leadership. I would say finding these people has been challenging sometimes, but that is a part of the model, right? I mean, once you find the right people, things happen.
And then the other challenge, which is any consulting firm challenge and is not something which is unique to CLASS, is sometimes we have more projects and less volunteers; sometimes we have more volunteers and less projects. To balance that is obviously a challenge.
The Key Initiatives
CLASS: Right. That's very true. What did you envision for CLASS when you first started it, and what do you envision for CLASS in the next 20 years? What are your key initiatives at CLASS, and what are some projects?
Deepali: When we started off, our focus was to assist the boards of directors and executive directors of the SFO Bay Area nonprofits by solving their strategic challenges so that they can lead and build sustainable organizations.
This year, obviously, is an important year for us. We have completed 20 years. Now, we want to move to other areas because our model is highly scalable, and it can be replicated in other communities as well. Given that this is a landmark year for us, we do want to ensure that we can utilize this tried and tested model in other communities. That way, we can help more nonprofits and involve more volunteers to meet our mission even more aggressively. That is the focus right now: to expand into other territories.
The Proud Moments
CLASS: What are you most proud of about CLASS?
Deepali: I feel that CLASS makes a change in the lives of the end community. There have been organizations which were closing their doors. We helped them, and they are now solid organizations. On the other hand, I think we have made an enormous difference in the lives of volunteers as well.
People might have different reasons for volunteering, but it does change lives beyond professional growth.There are volunteers who are making their career change. It helps them gain confidence in moving from IT to marketing or vice versa because in CLASS, they can try out different opportunities. They can invest in themselves. At CLASS, we invest in volunteers to help them grow.
Then there are volunteers who want to go back to business school. At CLASS, they get opportunities to lead community projects that they can highlight as their achievements.
Then there are other situations. Silicon Valley is a remarkably diverse place where people come from across the world. Many of these folks have highly skilled spouses who are dependent on visas and cannot work. These are mostly bright ladies who have lots of experience and a great education. For somebody who is ambitious and passionate about working, volunteering offers continuity.
Whatever the reason might be, people form bonds with each other. I have so many friends from CLASS that I'm still in touch even after 20 years. It's a wonderful experience overall. It enriches your life. That is something to be proud of.
CLASS: Thank you so much. Do you have anything else that you would like to share with us?
Deepali: I think we have a great board. We want to expand and bring in more members this year. Like I said, it's all about leadership, commitment, and capability, which is what keeps us going over these years.
CLASS: Right. Thank you so much.
About The CLASS Consulting Group
The CLASS Consulting Group is a trusted advisor to the boards of directors and senior leadership of the West Coast nonprofit organizations. It is a boutique management consulting firm headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area that provides consulting services to senior management and board of directors of nonprofit organizations and offers community leadership opportunities to professionals.
Since 2002, CLASS volunteers have been assisting nonprofit organizations in the Bay Area—and now the West Coast—and supporting the communities in which we all live and work. Learn more about our mission and story.
Interested in finding out more about our services for nonprofit organizations? Simply request a meeting here and we’ll get in touch to tell you all about this opportunity and how our passionate volunteer-run teams are helping nonprofits make the West Coast a better place, one community at a time.