Tell us a bit about your career history Sahil
I graduated in 2013, which seems like a long time ago now! I was relatively unsure about what I wanted to do, kind of being pulled towards teaching possibly, because I’d always quite enjoyed coaching sports and working to see people improve. But I was also looking at something socially minded as well, something aimed at doing good in the world. I ended up in an internship at Three Faiths Forum (3FF) doing a 6-month placement in fundraising. It was there I met somebody actually on the Charityworks programme who talked at length to me about it, how it was going for him and what he enjoyed about it.
It sounded like a perfect opportunity so I applied, was successful and ultimately placed at City and Hackney Mind which is where I work today! I worked in an operational role on the programme, helping to design and implement a new referral system for a new network of services that were going to go live the following February after I was placed. We recruited a new team and we needed people to deliver on this, and I helped with their training, becoming a senior in the team. I then became an interim team leader, and saw the transition of the old team out, and the new team in, and I’ve been line managing them since January now. So I’m still on the same project and it’s been great for me because I started before the project started, and have seen it through design, implementation and now seeing it a year on.
What was your motivation in the first instance behind wanting to develop a career with social purpose?
It’s really hard to pinpoint, but in my formative years and throughout university I would also find it really difficult during assessment centres and application processes to ‘think of a challenging time in your life and how you overcame it.’ That’s mainly because actually, it hasn’t been a hugely challenging life for me, being in the relatively privileged position of growing up in the UK, going to a university without any trouble, performing well academically with a fairly financially stable family. I think for me that position of privilege allowed me to see, alongside travelling to India with my family, what was going on in the world with so many people worse off. I think intrinsically you see so many social issues, that it was pretty logical for me to say ‘that’s the area I want to work in’ – until we’re on an even footing, what is the point in going out and making loads of money for myself whilst there are lots of people suffering.
Speaking of motivations, starting at City and Hackney Mind, I had no prior knowledge or interest in mental health, so initially when two potential roles there were described to me I remember thinking ‘I don’t think I can do either of these!’. Went for the one that seemed the easiest fit and happen to flourish in it! The reason I haven’t moved on is that there have been opportunities here of course, but also the issue of mental health just keeps growing in terms of its need, and there is so much we haven’t discovered about it – there is still plenty of room to discover new innovative ways of working.
What do your family think about you working in the third sector?
So in my immediate family my brother thinks that it’s fantastic. He’s at university now and whilst he’s not going down a socially minded career path at the moment he’s still very conscious of his impact on the world which is great! My mum thinks that it’s a good career option mainly because I’m making steps, as with any kind of ambitious parent I don’t think she would have been happy with me being in an entry level position for very long. The fact that Charityworks is prestigious as a programme and designed to mould future leaders was something she was particularly proud of.
I think for both my parents, they worry about financial sustainability in the third sector. I’m Gujarati and it’s quite a wealth focused culture. The idea is not just to have income from a salary, but to have various streams of income, property, land and things like that. That perception is pervasive in my extended family, who like in other Indian families are often quite close. They think ‘he’s just doing a job, what’s he going to do, is he going to be alright in the future?’
Do you feel like your cultural and ethnic background has an impact on the way you approach your work? Is your working environment quite a diverse place to be?
Well City and Hackney mind has a very diverse workforce – there’s a lot of BAME staff here, partly because of the make-up of Hackney and the high-representation of Afro-Caribbean communities that are part of our service user base. I think in my role, my background does make a difference. For example, if you’re talking to a client about their mental health and say, talking about support networks – asking a client “what are your support networks like, or do your family know about your mental health problem?” – lots of ethnic clients we get through often say their families don’t know or are not particularly supportive at all. Then the power comes from being able to say, actually I understand what that’s like because it would be the same in my family. Having that recognition from someone of a similar background is quite powerful and perhaps why we have so many BAME staff, because it is relatable for service users to have somebody of their own culture that they can go to, outside of their own family and talk about their problems thinking ‘this is somebody who has a similar upbringing to me, and understands what this is like.’
How well equipped did you feel for your current role, having gone through the Charityworks programme? What were some of the most valuable skills or experiences you developed?
Well I’m in a position where I’m line managing so for me, it’s always been about leadership. My time on the programme, in an operational role was the chance for me to be on the ground and client facing. From starting the programme and having no idea what was going on in mental health to a year down the line where I could pinpoint exactly what is missing in community and mental health services, where there are failings, what needs to improve and what I can change. Managing for me now, is about influencing the projects that we do, helping my team to see how best we can serve our clients – it’s about service design.
All the skills that I learned and developed on Charityworks have been massively useful in helping me to understand the sector, the problems it faces and how we might overcome them. For example, service design for me might look like developing a social enterprise that addresses multiple client needs. That kind of thinking wouldn’t have been possible without Charityworks – so it fits very clearly irrespective of whether you want to work at the coal face in an operational role or a corporate one. It’s useful for developing yourself as a professional.
Personally I think projects will be much better suited to have Charityworks graduates working on them, with that way of thinking. I mean, a colleague of mine here, that was also on Charityworks used her assignments on the programme to write a fantastic report on what service users who had been through the criminal justice system needed to avoid getting back in to that system and successfully rebuild their lives. The programme essentially gave her not only the space to think about it, but the tools to put something together that was cost effective and evidenced based. That’s a hugely professional endeavour and it needs to happen more!
If I was a graduate passionate about social change, particularly a BAME graduate wondering what to do, what would your advice be to me? What if perhaps I was apprehensive that Charityworks and the sector itself didn’t seem particularly diverse?
I think it is definitely worth trying at this point in your life because it will give you tons of skills, a huge network, and it’s worth working in the social sector if you’re passionate about it because what you’ll do is test that passion. If people start to question it, it will give you the opportunity to think, ‘well if I’m going to get flak from everyone I know, is this what I really want to do?’ When you’re doing it, you’ll know that yes, this is incredibly rewarding and I don’t care what anybody else thinks. Stick with it if it’s something you’re passionate about and I’d encourage you to use that momentum.
Would I recommend Charityworks? Yes absolutely – very thoroughly. I keep saying that the further I get away from having been on the programme the more I truly appreciate it. My colleague and I are still really close with 2 other people from our cohort, and whenever we get together our conversation inevitably turns to social issues going on in the news, our organisations, and what we can do as Charityworks alumni. It’s great to have that between the 4 of us sure, but even better with 30 in a learning session, or 100 of us on an all-cohort day at a conference. It gives you insight and you can really see where you want to go with your career.
From a BAME perspective, I wouldn’t worry about any perceived lack of diversity on the programme because the programme isn’t yet representative of the sector. No two charities are alike; you don’t know what the diversity picture will be when you go to an organisation. If it isn’t particularly diverse don’t worry – Charityworks cohorts are game-changers in the sector anyway, but in terms of increased diversity, you’ll be a part of making that difference. This sector isn’t particularly change resistant, the more diverse groups get involved, the more it occurs like a domino effect.
I’m hoping to change that diversity picture by having this conversation with you today. There are fantastic ethnically diverse leaders in this sector and they are major role models to me. Representation matters!