Sadie St Denis

FORMER EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR | THE SHANTI UGANDA SOCIETY

What do you do?

I’m the executive director of a grassroots non-governmental organisation called the Shanti Uganda Society. The Shanti Uganda Society improves infant and maternal health, provides safe women-centred care, and supports the well-being of birthing mothers and women living with HIV/AIDS in Uganda.

How did you get there?

I began working with Shanti Uganda in July 2011. I had recently finished an internship with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) as a Community Health Officer placed in the maternity ward of a regional referral hospital. My background is not in health, so this placement was entirely happenstance and challenging to say the least. I did a lot of patient advocacy and public health to fill my time and tried in my own way to make a positive impact with the transferable skills I had. This was the catalyst to the work I do today. Sixteen mothers die every single day in Uganda due to preventable birth-related complications and 54 babies per 1,000 births die before their first birthday. I was witness to this every day during my internship and I simply couldn’t return to my ‘normal life’ in Canada without feeling compelled to take action. Upon returning home from this six month CIDA internship, a friend sent me a job opening with the Shanti Uganda Society. They were recruiting a new Project Coordinator to lead their work in Uganda and I was honoured to be selected for the job. I spent an additional year and half in Uganda, learning through my work with Shanti Uganda that change is possible. When I was invited last year to move back to Canada and assume the role of Executive Director, I felt blessed to be given the opportunity to continue working for a cause I’m deeply passionate about and in a role that allows me to learn and grow both personally and professionally. It’s incredibly fulfilling.

You have a master’s degree in history - how do you use it in your day-to-day job?

Completing a master’s degree of any kind takes a great deal of discipline and lends itself to honing and developing valuable transferable skills. While I don’t necessarily use my background in history in my day-to-day work, the written and oral communication skills I developed throughout my master’s, as well as learning to manage time and organise myself, are invaluable assets in my current role. My thesis was on oral history because I have always been interested in hearing people tell their stories and their histories in their own words. This genuine interest helped me build meaningful relationships with our stakeholders and beneficiaries in Uganda, which were based on trust and openness. 

What does a “typical work day” entail?

A typical work day for me would look something like this: start at 9 or 10 am (depending on evening meetings), check emails and respond and/or file/mark accordingly, Skype with the project coordinator or volunteers in Uganda to track progress and provide support, coordinate assignments and tasks for Vancouver-based volunteers, ship a product purchase or wholesale order, book a venue for an upcoming event or a table at a festival market, lunch at desk or take in a quick yoga class, write a campaign newsletter or donor stewardship emails, do a bit of work on a grant submission, update social media, collaborate with Board members about upcoming committee by-when’s, prepare for a board or committee meeting, attend a committee meeting after work or a networking event, finish day around 7 or 8pm.

What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your job?

Shanti Uganda sells fair-trade jewellery and textile products handmade by our HIV+ women’s income generating group. Products are sold throughout North America through various sources. One of those sources is festivals and farmers’ markets; it means there is a lot of heavy lifting and schlepping bins of product up and down three flights of stairs and to and from markets. I would say this is not my idea of a fun Saturday. After a day of poor sales you want to kick yourself; you think of all the more productive ways you could have spent that time. But sometimes you just can’t predict it and when it’s been a great day for sales you somehow forget how much you hate schlepping.

Easily the most rewarding part of my job is engaging with our beneficiaries and our community of supporters. When you receive an email from a donor expressing how much they appreciate your work and how honoured they are to be a part of it; or when you talk face-to-face with a beneficiary who tells you how much their life has changed because of what you do – one comment like that can make 100 bad days worth it.

What advice would you give to somebody who would like to do a similar job?

Don’t seek out this line of work for the money or celebrity. Only do this work if you truly have a heart for the cause and the beneficiaries you serve.

What are the key skills that make you good at what you do?

I’m a natural leader and an inspiring public speaker. I’ve also learned to be organised, flexible and comfortable with networking. I’m passionate about Shanti Uganda’s mission; that’s something you can’t learn, yet it’s the number one asset I look for in our volunteers and employees.

What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?

Leadership is terrifying, challenging, and physically and emotionally exhausting. Leadership requires constant self-reflection and, if not done in a gentle and forgiving way, you can easily spend a lot of time beating yourself up and burn out.

What is the mistake you wish you hadn’t done?

I’m stumped. That’s not to say I haven’t made mistakes; on the contrary I make them all the time. I’m learning as I go, but I don’t keep mistakes logged at the front of my memory that I can recall at the drop of a dime with huge regret. I learn from them and move on.

What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?

Finding balance. When you do something you love it is easy to blur the boundaries between personal and professional life. I am still working on this, trying to set boundaries and do more for me.

What achievements are you most proud of?

As an organisation, I’m proud of the hundreds of lives we’ve impacted in a positive way. I’m proud that we’ve achieved a presence in the community that is valued and respected. I’m proud that our work is not in isolation but is immensely collaborative and cooperative. Last year we were honoured with the humanitarian prize the Crystal of Hope at Life Ball in Vienna (Austria) and given the opportunity to speak about our work in the presence of thousands of human rights advocates, namely Bill Clinton and Elton John. It was a huge honour to be recognised in that way, and an affirmation that our work is on the right track.

Personally I’m proud of the knowledge and experience I am able to share with others. I have had excellent mentors in my life and I feel blessed that I can offer assistance and mentorship to someone else who needs guidance or support.

Do you have a role model and, if so, who and why?

My grandmother has been one of my greatest heroes since as long as I was old enough to realise how fascinating grandparents are. My maternal grandparents were Dutch immigrants who came to Canada after World War II. They came with very little, but they saved and pinched and eventually had enough build a modest farm. They had 10 children and worked like dogs to clothe, feed and send them to school. As I child, I grew up listening to stories about my grandparents’ lives in Holland during the war and how they always looked out for the underdog; they never had much themselves but if they had it to give they gave it. I think my grandmother’s philanthropic attitude and world-view impacted me a lot and I knew I wanted to do something with my life that would make her proud. Funnily enough, the strong African mothers I work with today in Uganda remind me a lot of my grandmother! From my parents I also learned the importance of ‘helping thy neighbour’, and that hard work and honesty are the true measures of a person. I’m forever grateful for the values they instilled in me – I think they are the reason I am where I am today.

Shanti Uganda is an NGO looking to improve infant and maternal health - is it important to have women running the organisation?

Yes, very. As an organisation that advocates for women’s rights and imagines a world where women and girls are empowered to develop to their full potential, it is important that we are the first to enact that vision for the world. 

Sadie St. Denis | Former Executive Director | The Shanti Uganda Society

3.5 years' experience

CV in brief

Studied History at York University

Previously worked at Canadian International Development Agency

Apply for jobs and volunteering opportunities at the Shanti Uganda Society

Sadie left The Shanti Uganda Society in July 2015

Changing Lives One Birth at a Time- The Shanti Uganda Society - HD

  All photos by Amy Martin

All photos by Amy Martin

The Shanti Uganda Society