Interview: Deepali Sachdeva on how CLASS matches skilled volunteers with organizations
More than 90 million Americans will volunteer this year. But many will find the experience dissatisfying, unable to find a group that genuinely needs what they have to offer. Imagine if they could be hooked up with an organization that is looking for their precise skills and experience. Deepali Sachdeva, the co-founder and president of CLASS (Community Leaders at Service of Society), has developed a model to make this happen. In this Dowser interview, Sachdeva talks about how CLASS got started (at Starbucks!), how it grew, and how she steers an organization for volunteers run entirely by volunteers.
Dowser: What did you do before you founded CLASS?
Sachdeva: I had been working in the banking industry in foreign exchange risk management. In 2000, I moved from Mumbai to New York. I was about to join the foreign exchange group of a large investment bank, but—unfortunately or fortunately—I could not because I was diagnosed with a tumor.
I used to love the beat and energy of foreign exchange banking, but after my surgery I decided to take a sabbatical. It was one of those phases of life when you re-evaluate and think about where you’re heading, what you want to do in life, and whether what you’re doing makes sense.
How did you spend your sabbatical?
Being a bit of a tiger personality, I couldn’t just sit at home. I decided to volunteer and joined the boards of a couple of nonprofits. The more I worked with nonprofits, the more I saw a disconnect between their needs and potential resources of people like me who have professional backgrounds, expertise, and want to have more social impact. My sabbatical did not last long, as it became a full time venture for me.
I see. So you wanted to create a bridge to connect those two groups?
Yes, I decided to start a consulting firm for nonprofits utilizing corporate professionals as volunteers.
And that became CLASS. What was the launch like?
When we started, my office was practically in Starbucks. I used to be in one-on-one meetings with volunteers from 9 in the morning till 6 in the evening. The most difficult part was selling the idea. People would say, ‘Why will somebody who can probably charge $200 an hour in the corporate world want to work for you for free?’
What was your vision for CLASS at the time?
I thought we would act as a clearing house for volunteers, like VolunteerMatch, but adding value by saying, ‘OK, we will talk to nonprofits and understand their needs.’
Eventually, however, we realized that we needed to act more like a consulting firm than a clearing house. We needed to be more accountable in terms of what kinds of solutions we were providing. We needed to understand the needs of nonprofits and tailor solutions accordingly.
How do you approach the organizations you serve?
Our approach is holistic: go to the nonprofit with a blank slate, hear them out about whatever problems they are struggling with, and focus on the end goal and the starting point to get there.
Is CLASS really 100% volunteer run?
Really! It is an organization for volunteers and by volunteers. We have approximately 50 full-time equivalent volunteer consultants, but no paid staff. We operate on less than $25,000 per year.
So, how do you motivate volunteers?
Our philosophy has been that volunteers need to get something in return, whether it is channeling their passion to work with community or some kind of professional return. We want to provide a learning ground.
Does being volunteer-run present any special challenges?
Sometimes we have a long list of projects in the pipeline and not enough volunteer consultants, and sometimes we have lots of consultants but no projects for them.
For the second challenge, we place volunteers in our internal practice development effort. We can always use help with marketing, client relations, or consultant training and development.
What are the make-or-break details of CLASS’s success?
It comes back to the core leadership team. We depend heavily on a management team of volunteer staff members. These folks keep the organization focused. As much as we do this strategic work for our clients, we also do it internally.
Currently, CLASS works in the Bay Area and Dallas. Do you plan to expand? How do you find volunteers in new areas?
You might think that I am repeating myself, but the answer is the same. It’s the leadership. Somebody long ago told me that in this world only 2% of people lead and the rest follow. Once you find those 2%, you can go forward from there. We’ll expand when we find those people, whether it is in New York or Boston or somewhere else.
How do you measure success?
Seeing our volunteers learn or change careers is one qualitative measure. On the other side, we regularly ask the nonprofits we work with about how we have helped them.
What work are you particularly proud of?
We worked with a nonprofit that was going through big challenges. They were actually thinking of closing shop when our team arrived. We started with a detailed assessment and diagnostic exercise followed by a strategic planning retreat. They had a lot of good things going on inside their organization and strong roots in the community. We focused on these assets and addressed their weaknesses. Six months ago, they received an award for being the No. 1 organization in Silicon Valley in their field.
This article was edited and condensed.