Rickesh Lakhani discusses impactful social change

Episode aired October 14, 2021: Social Change

What type of leader are you: Always sticking with the “old ways” or willing to look out for new ways of thinking and doing? Rickesh Lakhani, Executive Director of Future Possibilities for Kids, strongly believes in trying new things and leading from the fringes. In this episode Rickesh discusses 

  • How “Pattern Interrupt” creates change
  • Balancing best practices with the need to try new things
  • What data to monitor to determine overall impact
  • The overall sector and our inability to change and
  • Why we should stop calling it the “nonprofit” sector.    

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.

Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of nonprofit podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I’m really happy to have with us an expert fundraiser, director and advocate for social good, Rickesh Lakhani. Rickesh, how are you doing today?

Rickesh: I’m good Ephraim. How about you my friend?

Ephraim: I’m doing well thank you. Let’s introduce you to our listeners. watchers and readers.

Rickesh has over 15 years of experience in the social good sector. Currently he’s the executive director at Future Possibilities for Kids, a charity supporting children in their middle years in the greater Toronto area in leading community serving projects while building confidence, leadership and life skills. Prior to this, Rickesh was the director of campaigns at United Way York region, leading an 8 million dollar annual fundraising campaign. He enjoys spending time with his wife and three sons bike riding, camping, drumming and skating. He is a work in progress.

Defining Impact

In today’s episode we’re going to discuss creating impactful change. Let’s dive right in. Rickesh, you’re the executive director of Future Possibilities for Kids. How does your organization define impact and creating change on the ground?

Rickesh: It’s a great place to start Ephraim and thanks for that intro. I never liked bios but it’s always weird listening to someone talk about you. But thank you for that great intro.  

So we actually just recently revised and tightened up our mission statement, so I’m happy to have it shared here one of the first places that it’ll be shared like this. So at Future Possibilities for Kids we are coaching children to believe in themselves and lead community change. When I speak about FPK, what I like to do is first ask a question and ask you this, if that’s okay. What were you doing when you were 10 years old?

Ephraim: Playing wiffleball outside in the backyard.

Rickesh: That sounds about right. I think I was picking up judo and quickly quitting it shortly after that, after I got thrown by a gentleman twice as big as my size. In grade five I think that was. Then I asked a question, when you were that age, who was telling you that your voice matters, that you matter, that you have a duty to be part of larger change in your community and guess what, you could actually make that happen. 

Ephraim: Alright small list. I probably have to go back… that’s going back a lot of years. Have to think about that one. That’s a good question.

Rickesh: Well it’s not an unusual reaction. Usually in a room for a bunch of people, maybe one or two people in a room of 50 might put up their hand, because for young children, their middle years, they don’t always have that. What we’re really doing is getting children involved in making change by surrounding them with supportive and encouraging resources. For example, we match them up with an encouraging adult volunteer. They speak once a week on the phone, they build their own confidence, their leadership and we also demonstrate almost like a bit of a how-to on making change. So whether they’re organizing a local park cleanup or raising awareness about diverting batteries away from landfills or organizing a basketball tournament to raise awareness about the environment, whatever their goals, their passions are, that’s what we’re trying to support in our programs and it’s quite powerful.

Evolving And Changing

Ephraim: I like that and I like the way you phrased it with the questions you asked me. That was excellent. So you were talking about creating that change. Your Twitter handle is ConstantChanges. How do you balance the need to follow what we’ll call traditional best sector practices with as you say the desire to evolve and change and in fact, can those two go hand in hand?

Rickesh: That’s a great question. I do think they can go hand in hand first of all.

Yes change and growth… well, first of all they’re lifelong journeys. That’s why I say call myself a work in progress. We’re never done, we’re never complete. I do want to know what’s working, I want to know the science, I want to know the data but I also know what can work better. There’s a concept that I really subscribe to and I know that I’ve seen you do this actually quite a bit without me calling it this. It’s called “pattern interrupt” where you do something different than people are expecting. They’re expecting of your organization, of charities in general or of you as a person, because at some point the things that everyone else is doing just may not stand out anymore.

I also want to know if something is truly working from all angles. Like are you factoring in potential harm being caused and focus on sort of equity and true community change. Are you doing it at the expense of something else? So this work that we’re doing really has to reflect like the outer edges of social change, like leading from the fringe and because that’s where movements have always started. To me, that means continuously evolving and growing with what is going on in the world and actually being at the front end of that and sometimes that means going in the face of  best practices to find something even better. Of course, as we know, that’s where you might face resistance but to me that constant changes represent continual change over time and you keep going in new directions. 

Data That Monitors Change

Ephraim: Fantastic. The idea of not staying stagnant in one place and constantly moving forward and trying new things. Big fan. I hope everybody who’s listening heard that answer, because that’s exactly the way you should be running an organization and moving forward constantly. Today’s actionable item: Let’s talk numbers for a sec. Please share with us three to four data points that you believe nonprofits should be monitoring, which can help them determine if they’re creating an impact on people in their community.

Rickesh: This is really an important question. I’ve got two sides of my answer to this.

The first thing is that measuring community change, it’s messy, it’s complex, it’s complicated. There’s so many variables and it’s definitely going to be different for each organization. But you do have to make your best effort to measure and gather feedback to ensure that the claims that you’re making in your mission statement and your messages in your fundraising are actually valid. So while it’s not a specific data point and this might be something that’s very basic for those that are in programming or evaluation, but really it’s finding multiple opportunities for stakeholders to provide feedback. For example, pre and post surveys in a program. It sounds so basic and simple and then taking that information, analyzing and actually using it to guide your future directions. Qualitative and quantitative feedback that’s going to be very specific to your org.

But I am surprised by how many organizations aren’t taking advantage of that and so that leads me to sort of another aspect of this, which is what percentage- and this might be a little harder to really nail down- but even if it’s an estimate, what percentage of your organizational direction and programming is community driven? How much is your community influencing? Are you just making decisions in an ivory tower somewhere and saying this is what we think the community needs? That is really not how community change works. You really need to evaluate how much you’re looking at.

For us for example, we have so many opportunities to provide feedback in multiple ways and we do sit there, we review everything that’s put forward and it really does shape our direction. I think that to me is a really good indicator that you that you’re making a difference, when you get those responses from all those surveys and you also know that your organization is listening to the community.

Another piece of that is the net promoter score or retention referral. Again, not necessarily a measure of impact specifically but I’d like to believe and we would like to believe that if your program made a difference for someone, whether that is a child or a family or a parent or whoever, that they would actually take the effort and energy, they believe in it so much, that they would tell someone else about it. Or volunteers too actually. So we’re measuring that as well. 

But I think another kind of element of this, which is probably the most interesting one is, I heard about a discussion between a senior person and organization and someone else and they kept pushing them on the evaluation, pushing them on the evaluation and this person responded back, how do you measure the impact of a hug? And that says to me, I’m not saying we should not measure. We absolutely need to be finding ways to measure our impact but at some point, we have to know that what we’re doing is going to make a difference and we may not always be able to put a specific number on it.

We’ve Always Done It That Way

Ephraim: Okay, that last one is… as somebody who loves data, that last one kind of says not everything is in the numbers. I agree. I like how you frame the rest of it though in terms of data points as it affects the community. It’s not just how is the organization doing but what impact are we having on the broader community with our services and with their programming. I like the way you frame that in the way that you as an organization are looking at it from that standpoint. So that’s again something listeners should listen to. You’re not just looking how your organization is being successful but what you’re doing in the community. That’s great. 

There are consultants out there- I know you’ve heard this- who lament the fact that the nonprofit sector is very rooted in “we’ve always done it this way.” On LinkedIn you identify yourself as a “warrior against apathy.” I happen to love that. Do you believe our sector has a problem with wanting to change in a meaningful and lasting manner and if so, why is there such resistance to that?

Rickesh: I have heard that. To me that’s one of those telltale signs… let’s say you’re in an organization or perhaps even a broader sector and you hear things like “that’s not my job” or “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” these are actually signs… like when you’re thirsty, it’s already too late. You’ve already dehydrated. When you hear those things, you’ve already gone so far down that road of just being stuck. I do think though there are people who benefit from things not changing. Their power and their livelihood depends on that, so of course they’re going to say we can’t change because this is the way I do things and I get business because our charity thrives on doing things this other way. You’re always going to have people that are trying to preserve the old way of doing things.

But I see a really big subset… a large subset of people who are open and vulnerable and trying new things and that’s who I’m trying to watch and learn. I said earlier sort of leading from the fringes, because that’s where movements come from. I think that there are some who resist but are also open to learn, so then I’m hopeful and that’s promising to me. I include myself there. I don’t know everything and sometimes I’m like, oh are you sure we should be challenging that? But I want to listen and be open and I do want to believe that everyone is in this space for an ultimately… that goal of long-lasting change. But we can’t forget that this whole sector is like an offshoot and a product of the same system that created many of these problems in the first place. Sometimes it’s hard to remove yourself from that.

The Social Good Sector

Ephraim: Okay, I like that answer. So speaking of the sector, you call it the social good sector, not nonprofit. How do you define social good and then how does that definition affect how you manage, how you fundraise and how you build relationships?

Rickesh: Well right off the bat we’re like the only group in society that defines ourselves by what we are not. That’s not my original thought. I wish I could give credit for who said that first but it’s true. Not for profit- you’re already starting on a negative, right? And even the word charity has a bunch of connotations that go with it. People begging for money. It’s just not good connotations in terms of what people think that the charity sector does.

To me the idea of social good reflects what we’re really doing, which is a very specific type of contribution. It’s defined to me as pushing society- and pulling I guess, so we’re kind of along for the ride- towards a place where there is true equity and justice for everyone. We have a long way to go towards that goal and many are working towards achieving it in different ways and we do need that.

But what this means for how I operate or how I believe we should operate is that we have to spend a lot of time and energy undoing what is already in place, including what’s in our own minds and hearts. It’s a lot of unlearning and it means looking to sort of styles of management and fundraising that also align with this goal. I think there’s… a lot of that is missing right now, that how can we do fundraising, do communications, do our programming in a way that also aligns with that greater goal. I think that’s something that we need to see a little bit more of.

I think people really believe that because the mission and programs are about doing good, that the means justify the end. I don’t really agree with that. I don’t think that they do. All of our actions have to align with this end game and sometimes that means making sacrifices or choices that may not get made in other industries. For example, turning down a donation if it’s not a fit in terms of this doesn’t make sense for us. Or turning down a partnership because the head of that organization has been abusive to your staff. These are the kinds of things that we’ve been perpetuating in our own orgs and we really need to work on. So that’s a long road in terms of the first question about social good but we have to embody that in everything that we do.

Let’s Learn More About Rickesh

Ephraim: I hope everybody was listening. It’s okay to turn down a donation, it’s okay to turn down a partnership when it’s just not a good fit. I know that’s a hard thing to do. As a former CEO I get it but when you have to do it for the overall good and for the betterment of… you do it and I’m glad you brought that up, because that’s not something people like to talk about, let alone want to do. It’s very difficult to do. Let’s move on to the lightning round and learn more about you. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?

Rickesh: I’m of this cohort that fell into it, I would say. I was a business education but then got disillusioned with the idea of increasing shareholder value and so discovering that you could actually work towards community value was really appealing to me. That’s when I sort of discover this entire world exists and I’ve been there ever since. 

Ephraim: That’s fantastic. If you could shake up one thing in the nonprofit sector, what would it be?

Rickesh: I alluded to this before. It’s the belief that we are inherently good because of our work. 

To me that serves as a blocker for so many of the changes that really do need to happen. I really don’t know how we can reconcile some of the things that are happening in many orgs with our desire to do good unless we first acknowledge that it’s happening in the first place.

Ephraim: That’s an interesting one. It’s definitely different than the other answers I’ve gotten in past podcasts. I like that. I like that thought and you know connecting it to what you’re doing or trying to do within the sector. Now your twitter bio says and I quote “hot sauce.” Is that what your friends call you or do you love spicy sauces?

Rickesh: Actually that would be a pretty cool nickname. I wish I could say that my nickname was hot sauce. I’m not that cool. But I do just love the spice. I think I’ve actually burnt my taste buds off, so I have to be very careful when making food for my family so it’s not… it doesn’t even register sometimes how hot it is. I don’t know if you’re into spices or not but you know, after a while, you can’t even taste it anymore.

Ephraim: Oh wow. Yes, I’m into spicy food so I can totally… I’m with you on that one. Tell us about one mentor who had a positive who had a positive influence on who you are today.

Rickesh: Sure. I would say that someone who served as a very incredible mentor for me is Krishan Mehta. Many know him from his great work in bringing important conversations to the forefront around identity and race and background when it comes to philanthropy. I’ve learned so much from his sort of, I would say kind leadership. But his amazing ability to take really complex things and move them forward. So some of the things I was talking about earlier, we have people from multiple perspectives and I’ve sat in rooms with him and I’ve seen him just sort of get everyone. He listens, he supports and then ultimately convenes everyone together on that common ground which is a very very powerful superhero trait that I would say that that he has. Just a rare person in a sector also that I can identify with. I didn’t always see fundraisers who sort of look like me or let’s say a south Asian background. I just really love what he’s done and continues to do and always learning from them. 

Ephraim: Excellent. Why Toronto or the greater Toronto area?

Rickesh: Well I’ve kind of lived here my whole life, so I definitely have roots here. But I would say it’s just like this… I can see spending the rest of my life here too. But it’s just this hub of great people doing very interesting. eclectic things. There’s a lot of variety and there’s something for everyone and it also seems to be this central gathering place for many movements and social good sector type folks too. So it’s great for my work but also for my family to be in this area.

Ephraim: Excellent. Lastly we’ll turn the tables. You get to ask me a question that I have no clue what’s coming. Go ahead.

Rickesh: Bring out the fun now. Well actually I did have a question. If you could press a button and everybody in our sector would change one thing that they do- it doesn’t have to be a big thing, even a small thing, like this is my biggest pet peeve, really grinds my gears- you can press a button and just make that go away or make everyone do something, what would that be?

Ephraim: There’s a million things I could answer here but I’m going to go with one that I think is common. Everybody would say it but nobody’s willing to do it. The button I press? I want higher salaries across the sector. Full stop. The sector salaries are one quarter to one third less than the for-profit sector. Women make 27 percent less than men within that. You’ve mentioned a couple times equity. So the first thing is, if I’m talking salaries, women and men the same. Full stop.

Second of all, I want to bump it up. We lose, whether we like it or not, a lot of good people to the for-profit sector. I will admit here in public to whoever’s listening and watching, I have told people, “get out of the sector. Go work in the for-profit sector. Make money and you can volunteer and donate back your time and money to the nonprofit sector.  You’re underpaid for what you do. You’re overworked. My thing is, if you’re going to be overworked and stressed out like crazy, make a lot of money. At least you might as well have some money in the bank at the end of the day and not feel totally burnt out and don’t have money for vacation. So I go on the salaries.

I know that there’s so many things in the sector we need to fix but I really believe that if people were just paid what they’re actually worth, I think you’d bring more people, good people into the sector, because now the pay is equal. I think you’d retain people more. You know this- fundraisers change jobs every 18 months and one of the reasons, it’s not just burnout, it’s they find another job that’s paying a little bit more. They’re just trying to get a little bit more money. So if we were paying normally, I really think we’d retain better people, we’d bring in more people and just as a sector, it would be better for everybody. I know that’s a very superficial thing to go with because it’s money and it’s not an ethics or it’s not a value or something like that, but I’m a bottom-line kind of guy. You got to pay people what they’re worth.  

Rickesh: I appreciate that first of all Ephraim. Also, that is an equity issue, it is an ethics issue, it is an important one  because it speaks to so many things, because that would require a massive shift in how we view things, how we operate, how we treat people of different backgrounds. Because you know there’s racism and things like that and sexism and all that, baked into the processes for hiring and recruitment and negotiation and all of that. So there it actually is an equity issue. To me, paying for value is something that our sector needs to be doing more of. We’re always like partly tail between our… we want to be treated like… treat us like businesses. Don’t ask us all these questions and don’t be scrutinizing us. And then we come tail between our legs and we’re like, can I get that discount. I mean I’m not saying I’m going to turn down a charitable discount if it’s offered but we can’t have it both ways. We have to pay for value. I’m with you.

Ephraim: I will say the salaries but the back way is not everything is free and when you ask for everything to be free, you don’t necessarily get the best work possible. I don’t know if that’s the one button I just… That was the one that popped into my head, simply because you’ve been talking about change, moving forward in equity and I just know that that’s a big huge issue in the sector in terms of different cultures, different genders and everything else. It’s just across the board it’s a problem and I’d love to see it solved. Will it be solved? I hope so. I’m not… I hope one day I’ll be able to see the same salaries offered to CEOs and fundraisers and program staff and administrative staff that they’re offered in the for-profit world and then we’ll deal with all the other illnesses within our sector that also have to deal with.

Rickesh, thank you very very much for appearing on the podcast. I encourage everyone to connect with Rickesh on LinkedIn and on Twitter at @ConstantChanges. It was a pleasure learning from you today. Thank you.

Rickesh: It was great to be here, a lot of fun. Thanks for having me and for your responses too. I appreciate it.

Ephraim: A pleasure. Have a great day.

Rickesh: You too.