Leadership in Social Change Kashif Shaikh

Kashif Shaikh on Leadership that Reframes the Narrative Around Muslim-Americans

About This Episode

As a first-generation Muslim American, Kashif Shaikh sees the world through a lens that ensures American Muslims have access to all of the freedoms and opportunities this country offers. In a conversation about leadership, he shares his vision and the importance of developing leaders who can tell their stories to create change, shifting the current narrative around Muslim-Americans. In less than a decade, under Kashif’s leadership, he has grown the organization he co-founded, the Pillars Fund, into a leading voice for American Muslims. Listen and learn.


Kashif Shaikh is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Pillars Fund, an organization that invests in and amplifies the talents, narratives, and leadership of American Muslims. Under Kashif’s leadership, Pillars has grown from a volunteer-led community fund to a fully-staffed, nationally recognized foundation that has invested over $3M into nonprofits working with and alongside the American Muslim community. With over 12 years of experience in the philanthropic sector, Kashif is a leading voice in the field of philanthropy and the important role it plays in empowering vulnerable communities.

Prior to launching Pillars, Kashif was a Program Officer at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation where he managed a portfolio of over $5M and helped scale some of the most promising non-profits in Chicago working at the intersection of racial justice, poverty and education. Additionally, Kashif managed the Foundation’s corporate partnerships and helped develop corporate social responsibility strategies for the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Blackhawks, and the Chicago Bulls. Kashif’s career began at the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago, where he advanced key strategies to engage the organization’s largest corporate partners.

Originally from Cincinnati, OH, Kashif holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Ohio State University and a Master’s in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University. He is on the Board of Directors of 826CHI, an organization that dedicated to supporting students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills.

In his words…

  • “I think narrative is really at the heart of everything that we do, because, if you think about it, the reason that the Pillars Fund even exists as an organization is because, for as long as I can remember and for a very long time, the narrative around American Muslims has been that they’re sort of associated with terrorism, have been associated with nefarious foreigners It’s always been this kind of narrative that is really rooted in suspicion of who we are. But the reality is very, very different. American Muslims are a mentally diverse group of people, and we’ve been in America since the very beginning. I mean, some research shows that as many of those up to one third of slaves that were enslaved people that were brought into the states were of Muslim origin. And there’s a rich dynamic history of Muslims playing big roles in this country since it’s very beginning. You know, you look at the civil rights movement and you look at the Black Muslim movement and out how powerful it was in setting different agendas.
  • “I’ve been very lucky that, over the last 13 years, I’ve had positions of increasing leadership, which was culminated in today of starting and running the  Pillars Fund, which was something that I did not do.  I started it in 2010 along with a handful of philanthropists, and you know it was not something that at the time we thought was going to be a full-time organization. To see where we’ve been able to come in such a short amount of time is really remarkable, but it also reminds me and it humbles me to think about all of the people who believed in me.  Everyone- from my sister, to my parents, to my cousins, to the people who I’ve worked with professionally.  It takes a village, and I truly do believe that. So, the journey is far from over but it’s certainly at a point where I’ve been able to reflect on it and think about it and think about what it what it’s been that helped me get to this point.”
  • “One of the things that I had I’ve always been drawn to is anytime I see a problem –  I’ve never really been the type of person that’s really interested in theorizing about that problem for too long.  I want to think about ways to really solve it.  And I think that is one of the most important things and lessons that I’ve learned is that how do we think about solving issues as opposed to simply just talking about them or just theorizing about them.”
  • “I was looking around within my own friend circle, and started to see so many people my age or a generation above me starting to accumulate wealth in their respective careers.  So I knew there was a gap here, and the question really became how could you have this conversation?  How do you systematically really build a philanthropic institution?  How does donor X go from feeling like, ‘I’m giving to a couple of great causes and a couple of great organizations,’  to ‘We’re actually building power and we’re helping create influence in this country, and we are making sure that our needs – the Muslim community’s needs – are not ignored.”  

Questions Answered on this Episode

  • The Pillars Fund amplifies leadership, narratives and talent. What does that look like in practice?
  • Tell my why the narrative part of the mission is so important today?
  • Tell me a little about your leadership journey. What lead you to co-found Pillars Fund?
  • One of Pillars areas of focus is leadership. What are you expectations for the organizations that you fund, with regard to leadership?
  • Have any of the priorities of Pillars Fund changed as a result of the current political climate?
  • White men are the overwhelming majority in institutional philanthropy. Do you see opportunities to through Pillars Fund to create more leaders in these institutions?
  • In your interview with Inside Philanthropy last year, you said “Foundations weren’t explicitly looking at working with Muslims because the topic was too loaded and cumbersome.” Why do you think that is and how has Pillars Fund changed that?
  • In an interview last season about philanthropy, one of my guests made a comment that organizations led by black women who are doing amazing work leading nonprofits, are often rewarded with funding that is a fraction of what others receive as the reward for doing good. I know that Pillars Fund works with small organizations. Is that to close the gap where those organizations are overlooked?
  • Are there any leadership trends that you are seeing that are encouraging?