Shannen O’Brian

Founder & Executive Director at Create Change Foundation

Shannen O’Brian divides her time between her Vancouver, BC hometown and Northern Ghana, where she’s helping thousands of young girls break out of the poverty cycle through Create Change. The Prevail Project caught up with Shannen to find out how she got into fundraising and community development, what it took to register her first charity at age 25, and how she was able to boost school literacy levels in rural Ghana from 15% to 82% in just two years.

I keep a small notebook and compulsively make lists

Even if I can’t get to everything on my list, it forces me to prioritize so I get the 20% done that counts for 80% of progress.

Wireless bluetooth, waterproof headphones and a waterproof phone case

Means I can answer calls and send emails from the ski hill or my paddle board. I now can’t live without them.

It is important for me to connect with my purpose a few times a week

I edit some photos myself of the work we do in Ghana so I stay connected to the why.

Emails are the bane of my existence

Our team uses a real-time messaging tool (Slack app) to eliminate internal e-mails, and try to make phone calls instead of e-mailing when I can.

It's all about travel for me

I always have a trip booked even if it’s six months away so I have something to look forward to.

When I'm brainstorming new programs or strategies

I write on windows. It allows me to put it all together.

When I was in elementary school I volunteered

for the SPCA where I would spend hours tending to litters of kittens who were often found in dumpsters. I have always been drawn to protecting the defenseless.

Old friends are important

The people who remembered you wearing neon and a side pony tail remind you of who you are when you feel bad that you’re not as successful as you’d hoped you be by now.

Having grown up near the water, the ocean is important to me

I’m by the sea a few times a week because it reminds me how small I am and how all that I’m stressed about is pretty insignificant.

Tell us about what brought you to Ghana, and what inspired you to start investing in the people there.

I’d always wanted to go to Africa, and Ghana was one of the safer countries to visit as a solo female traveller. I began volunteering as a teacher there when I was 23, then scored an internship with CEDA. Being immersed in the Ghanaian community and listening to the stories of the locals – particularly the women and girls – really impacted me and was the spark that ignited my enthusiasm.

In a country where only 44% of girls are able to get a high school education (at least half don’t make it past primary school), poverty and gender inequality go hand in hand. If a family can afford to send a child to school, males get first preference as traditionally a girl’s role is to support her family by doing housework and fetching water, the latter of which sometimes involves walking for 5-10 hours a day.
Seeing it was mostly a lack of money that stopped girls from going to school, I felt this was something I could help with; all I had to do was raise money to get these girls into classrooms.

So where was your actual starting point in trying to get the Ghanaian girls into school?

I actually met a Canadian who wanted to start a scholarship program in Ghana, so I interviewed dozens of girls for her program and I sent her the applications. Unfortunately I never ended up hearing back from the woman at all.
I felt like I had a literal stack of hopes and dreams in my hands, and as I didn’t want to disappoint the girls I’d interviewed, I created my own scholarship program. It was basically out of necessity, and by the time I was 25 I’d raised enough money to put 100 girls through school and registered my first charity, Create Change.

Obviously you lead by example; is leadership something your charity values and focuses on?

Absolutely. It’s not just about building a school, or buying 50,000 pencils and saying you’ve helped 50,000 kids. If you haven’t raised literacy levels or changed the quality of education in a community, you have not achieved enough.
I put words into action by creating programs that would not only give girls access to quality education, but equip them to climb out of poverty altogether. I wanted them to be able to support their families and become leaders in their communities.
To get real-life business experience and a taste for community work, our high school graduates intern with us at Create Change – the organization that helped put them through school in the first place.
Already our interns are in charge of most of our field work. Our vision for Create Change is to become 100% operationally self-sufficient, with only a few staff members overseeing a majority workforce of graduates from the program. Youth are often not given enough credit or opportunity, but they’re capable of so much if they’re put in positions where they’re able to thrive.

Is there a specific area or program that your graduates have been especially successful in?

In 2013, my team and I launched a hugely successful pilot program called Girls-Led Reading Clubs. Four high school graduates would visit three schools in rural Ghana to teach reading and writing once or twice a week. Before the program started, the average literacy rates in these areas were a shockingly low 15%. In just one year, the girls nearly quadrupled that number to 57%. By the second year an impressive 82% of students were able read and write at their appropriate grade level.
Girls-Led Reading Clubs proves that starting with even the smallest actions can lead to enormous outcomes that affect the future of an entire community.

How do you get people on board with and passionate about your start small / think big approach and get them involved with your projects?

Passion is contagious! When people see that you’re really dedicated to your project, they get excited because you’re excited. If you believe in your own vision and talk about your story to as many people as are willing to listen, you’d be surprised how many people get on board and help you. When I first started holding fundraising events people would say “I believe in you and I support you, here’s $5,000, or $10,000” – and I was shocked! People who donate have so many options; they can give their money to any number of agencies, but when they choose Create Change as their charity of choice it feels really good!

You seem to hold learning and teaching in high regard - what’s your educational background and how integral do you think it’s been to your success?

I have a Bachelor of Arts Degree in International Development from McGill University and a Masters in Human Rights from University College Dublin, and I got a lot of value from my studies, but I’d honestly say the majority of my education came from practical experience and being on the ground.
University is great because it teaches you to think critically; my education made me aware of what was happening, but being in the field is so different to reading about something. I’ve found that understanding the culture and the community you’re planning on working in is the most important aspect in running a successful charity project. I spent two years working in the community and understanding their needs before I started my organization.

What advice do you have for anyone looking to get involved in fundraising or international development? What about getting a charity off the ground?

It’s simple: travelling and volunteering! You don’t need to go to university right after high school. If you’re interested in the field, go volunteer. Get involved in youth fundraising and network. This is something I sort of stumbled into and I didn’t expect it to be full time career, especially at first.
When you’re ready to kickstart your own charity project, don’t just jump in and think you’ll figure out the fundraising later. Raise your funds first and put together a 5-year plan; be clear on what you’re trying to achieve and specific about how you’ll combat poverty. Don’t be afraid of growing slowly; it won’t happen as quickly as you think it might.
Fundraising is really hard; I used to wake up sweating, thinking: “I have to raise 200,000 by myself! This is crazy!” But no matter how challenging it seemed, I would always think about what those girls were going through, and my challenges were so much less in comparison to what they lived every day. People all over the world are persevering in situations we can’t even imagine.