Shelley Callahan

Communicating well is the key to succeeding. Answer every email even if it is just acknowledgment of receiving it. It is important to keep talking to one another and share ideas and thoughts.


Shelley Callahan decided when she was young, while still in college, that she wanted to commit her life to working for the underprivileged. While attending Virginia Commonwealth University to receive her Masters of Social Work in 2006, Callahan started a non-profit organization called Books on Wheels, which provided free books and free bicycle repair to children living in low-income neighborhoods all over the East Coast of the U.S. In her free time, she taught English classes to refugee families in Richmond, Virginia, her hometown, while also volunteering abroad for various non-governmental organizations. Callahan has spent time digging wells in the Amazon to provide clean drinking water for the indigenous populations of Colombia, leading medical teams to a clinic in Jacmel, Haiti, and teaching children sanitation techniques and practices in villages in Nepal to help keep them healthy.

After receiving her degree in 2008, Callahan followed her interests to a global scale, serving as the Director of Development for the non-profit organization Children Incorporated that provides thousands of children in need with basic needs in 22 countries, including the United States. As the writer of the Children Incorporated On the Road blog series, Callahan has traveled extensively across the U.S. and around the world reporting on the burden of poverty that families face while also working to support communities in need. Since starting her work with Children Incorporated, she has visited the slums of Ethiopia and Kenya and worked closely with children in need in Mexico, Bolivia, India, Sri Lanka, and in Eastern Kentucky bringing attention to the plight of the underprivileged.

Callahan is also the author of the book The House of Life (Chop Suey Books, 2016), and has written for many online and print publications about her work within the non-profit sector. In 2018, the international artist and activist Shepard Fairey created original artwork based on Callahan’s photos to highlight the importance of children’s education around the world.

Where did the idea for Children Incorporated come from?

Children Incorporated started more than 50 years ago, after our founder, Jeanne Clarke Wood took a trip to Guatemala. While there, she met children living in poverty and wanted to do something to help. When she returned home to Richmond, Virginia, she wrote letters to her friends and family asking for support for the kids she had met so she could make sure they had what they needed to be healthy and go to school.

Today, Children Incorporated has helped more than 300,000 children in 23 countries, including the United States, receive education, hope, and opportunity.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

My typical workday is when I am in the office revolves around storytelling – I write our On the Road blog series and all of our social media content and my main goal is to give our donors and supporters an honest perspective of what life is like for the children in our program so they understand the huge impact they are making on their lives. It also serves the dual purpose of letting new potential supporters know about our work around the world so they might be inclined to start helping a child in need as well. When I am not writing, I am creating our print material, updating our website, and trying to stay on top of marketing and communication trends in the non-profit sector. It is a busy job and I love it.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I love planning and research so that whomever I am trying to convince that my idea is worth the time and effort can visualize exactly it ahead of time. I love having a detailed outline for everything I do – content development, website user experience strategy, print design layout – I type up all my thoughts and the specific processes and attach a few great examples for that moment when someone in a meeting inevitably says, “ I’m not sure what you mean by that.” It sounds boring, but I don’t often get my ideas rejected, so it must be working!

What’s one trend that really excites you?

Getting out of the office as a way to grow as an employee. I have many times in my career still faced the “you are productive if you sit at your desk for eight hours” mentality and sometimes that is just flat wrong. For my work, I need to get out and meet the community, visit our affiliated schools, have conversations with our volunteer coordinators, and most importantly, get to know the kids enrolled in our program. Otherwise, I wouldn’t get the whole scope of what Children Incorporated does and why it is incredibly important. I can watch a child open a package from their sponsor, and just the look on their face prompts me to write a story – that’s powerful. My boss is very supportive of me getting out and seeing first hand what we do, and without his encouragement, I wouldn’t be able to do my job well.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

It’s not for everyone, but I am willing to work crazy hours. Sometimes I get up at 5 a.m. and work for four hours before I even have breakfast. Sometimes I start work at 7 p.m. and don’t turn the lights off until after midnight. If I feel motivated to write, I don’t ignore that feeling because it is outside of the regular 9-5 hours.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Don’t worry. You will figure it out. There is a great job out there for you that will make you want to get up every day and do your best. You might not get it when you think you deserve it, but it will happen, and it will make you forget all those bad interviews that made you feel worthless.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Children living in poverty are similar everywhere in the world. Poverty might look different whether you are in Eastern Kentucky or in India, but what it means for children is the same. When kids live in poverty, they don’t have options in life – they don’t have enough food to eat, so they don’t do well in school. They start working at a young age to help their families instead of pursuing higher education. They fall behind in their classes and then drop out because they don’t have shoes to wear to school or clothes or have school supplies. I have traveled to ten countries with Children Incorporated and this is true every place I go.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Communicating well is the key to succeeding. Answer every email even if it is just acknowledgment of receiving it. It is important to keep talking to one another and share ideas and thoughts. In an increasing technology driven work environment, it is easy to keep to yourself and get your work done without talking directly to someone over the phone or in person. I find it sometimes easier to have a 5-minute conversation with someone than email back and forth a dozen times when trying to move a project along.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Never stop learning. I take classes that are directly related to development like public speaking classes. I also attend conferences about program development and training in grant writing. Maybe even if it isn’t related to my day job, it gives me insight as to how to do better, do more, and attract more donors and supporters to our organization.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

When I started my own non-profit in college, I was terrible at letting other people take on any responsibility. Basically, I refused to ask for help. In the end, the workload was too huge for me to handle on my own, and I was getting burnt out fast. After a few years, I finally started to trust others to do the job by my side, and I once I found myself with more free time and less stress, I couldn’t imagine not asking for help ever again.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I think a social media platform like LinkedIn or Facebook for the non-profit sector would be really fun. I would love to only have a feed of what other NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are doing and how we could work together and support one another. I love reading stories from other people humanitarian work around the world because it inspires me.

What is the best $100 you recently spent?

I bought a really nice suitcase. It makes a huge difference when you travel for work or for personal reasons to feel good about how you packed, knowing your belongings are safe and secure.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?

I love Slack. We use it in many different capacities in my office, and it is a great platform for staying organized when working with multiple different groups or teams at the same time.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

“Mountains Beyond Mountains” by Tracey Kidder. It’s the story of Dr. Paul Famer, the founder of the non-profit organization Partners in Health, which helps to bring healthcare to some of the most remote places in the world. It will change how you think about so many things, but especially how we help the underprivileged.

What is your favorite quote?

The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.”
― Paul Farmer

Key Learnings:

• Have everything that comes out of your office proofread by two people.
• Write everything down. If you don’t have a pen, put a note in your phone. You will forget it if you don’t.
• Being organized can be one of the easiest ways to show your professionalism and stand out among your co-workers. Making to-do lists and Excel sheets can seem like unnecessary busy work, but when it allows you to have answers before others do, which is impressive.
• Stop what you are doing if someone comes into your office to talk to you, even if you don’t have time for the interruption. Someone not willing to take a second to look at you when they need only a moment of your attention is discouraging for them and bad manners.
• Don’t procrastinate if you can help it. Instead, set realistic goals for yourself and get the work done. Everyone has bad days where they feel it is impossible to complete tasks, but excuses for incomplete work when there is no good reason is not acceptable.


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