GoAbroad Interview

Lisa Kuhn - Executive Director

Lisa Kuhn - Executive Director of Foundation for Sustainable Development

A respected authority in international development, Lisa has provided training, assessment, and capacity-building services to more than 35 international organizations in 22 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. She has more than 15 years of experience in microfinance and international development specializing in multi-sectoral and sustainable solutions to development challenges, such as food security, women's empowerment, access to affordable and adequate health care, education, and enterprise development. Additionally, she has extensive experience developing and implementing practitioner-friendly monitoring and evaluation systems, and has demonstrated success using participatory research methods to develop and assess programs.

FSD’s organizational model is interesting and unique. How do you, as Executive Director, make sure the organization stays true to founder Alicia Robb's vision?

FSD recently went through an extensive mission, vision, and core values audit with staff and board members. We worked collaboratively to discuss each word and phrase used to ensure we represent the organization’s foundational roots and the model that was envisioned by our founder. If we continue to operate on our founding principle that producing strong community outcomes must be the priority, and base all partnerships, strategies, and decisions on the Fair Trade Learning principles that we must be ethical and reciprocal in our planning, implementation, and outcomes, we will stay true to the mission and vision upon which the organization was founded.









Volunteering with children in Uganda

FSD Executive Director Lisa Kuhn facilitates a seasonality calendar with members of a community near Kitgum, Uganda

FSD works with more than 300 community partner organizations (NGOs and nonprofits), collaborates on roughly 200 projects, and trains nearly 250 students and professional volunteers every year at sites in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. How does your professional experience help you coordinate such a massive undertaking?

I also have more than 15 years of experience in microfinance and international development, specializing in multi-sectoral and sustainable solutions to development challenges, such as food security, women's empowerment, access to affordable and adequate health care, education, and enterprise development - all issues that FSD’s partner’s seek to address. Throughout my career I personally have provided training, assessment, and capacity-building services to more than 35 organizations in 22 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

Through my previous work leading the Latin America team at Freedom from Hunger, we served more than 1 million women and their families through over 100 partners, so the scale of the work was somewhat similar, though I was focused primarily on one region. My work at Freedom from Hunger also helped me hone my training skills which are highly relevant to FSD’s mission and work. Overall, I feel my experience is very well aligned to FSD’s mission. 

What is a typical day like for Lisa Kuhn, executive director of the Foundation for Sustainable Development?

There is no typical day for an ED in a small organization like Foundation for Sustainable Development. You have to be ready to respond to emerging priorities anywhere in the organization. I spend a lot of time meeting with staff to discuss how to strengthen our programs and a good deal of time building connections with those who support our work from the outside. 

FSD is nearly two decades old and has gone through a lot on its road to success. What are some of the organization’s biggest achievements?

In 2015, we are starting our 20th year as an international community development nonprofit organization. FSD started with a strong foundational business model and has grown into being a thought leader within the sector, training more than 3,000 volunteers, annually supporting more than 200 projects and investing more than $800,000 in our partner communities. On average, our work directly impacts the lives of 150,000 people around the world.

Our biggest achievements include: establishing strong partnerships with universities who annually send students through our training programs, expanding our program to 10 sites in six countries, growing our community partner connections to more than 300 across all of our program sites. Most recently we have established a successful corporate engagement program that creates the opportunity for professionals and corporate groups to really use their skills to have a meaningful impact in communities around the world.

What sets FSD apart from other organizations of its kind?

FSD provides opportunities for graduate, undergraduate, and bridge year students as well as professionals to engage in real community development work, instead of a typical study abroad or drop-in service project programs. Our programs are structured and supportive, as we provide ongoing educational and cultural activities, logistical support, and around-the-clock safety and security support by our dedicated site team staff. We offer rigorous participatory development, community engagement, cultural integration and project management training that volunteers apply in the field. We are as much, if not more, concerned about community outcomes as volunteer learning outcomes. 

FSD’s program framework, values, and partnerships reflect our community outcome priorities; this deepens the volunteer experience through more critical reflection on issues of power, privilege, social identity, and the role of international development. And we work year-round at our 10 sites to build strong relationships with our host families and community partners, making our programs safe and culturally immersive. 

The foundation trains and fields roughly 250 students and professional volunteers annually in various sites around the world. What site do you feel provides individuals with the most meaningful experience?

All of our sites offer unique opportunities and challenges. They are diverse culturally and geographically. Yet all operate on the same principles and create the same types of opportunities for engagement, meaning that all of our program sites provide meaningful experiences for our volunteer participants. I can’t pick just one. 

What characteristics make an ideal FSD program participant?

We look for high performing, self-directed, culturally competent, extremely motivated, and socially conscience individuals who are aligned with our mission and vision for sustainable international development. We particularly like to work with students who already have some familiarity with our program frameworks and values. Students who already understand our model for development, will have a deeper experience through more critical reflection on issues of power, privilege, social identity, and the role of international development.

The students that have the best experiences on our programs are those with a high degree of enthusiasm and initiative who are able to balance these traits with humility and patience in their engagement with the community.

Cultural immersion plays an important role in international experiential travel. What cultural immersion activities do your programs offer?

FSD offers several cultural immersion activities to program participants including:

●  Language lessons and cultural integration trainings during orientation

●  At orientation, interns go on field visits to meet with community members.

●  Students live with host families and share in the daily life of those families.

●  Performing community assessments allows students to understand the local cultural context and resources that can be leveraged for their project work.

●  Volunteers are encouraged to attend festivals, celebrations, and special events.

●  A midterm retreat often has a cultural component, where participants learn more about the country and its history.

Concerns over safety often come up while traveling. How does the foundation ensure the safety of its participants?

FSD’s approach to safety melds planning, education, and community integration to ensure program participants work safely in the field. Our safety and security protocols meet international standards and have been developed through the experience garnered in FSD’s 20 years of operation, and from the practical experience of our staff. Orientation to culture, cultural expectations and the local environment is a big part of how we help participants prepare for and navigate the everyday risks inherent in travel.

Integrating the participants with host families and host organizations also provides another level of protection. When you are connected to local people who understand the environment, they look after you in ways that you don’t experience just traveling around.

In addition, we have rigorous safety and security procedures that are very conservative in response to threats. These may include restricted travel, curfews, and buddy systems should any threat or potentially threatening situation occur. It is an unfortunate but common part of development work that emergent issues arise, and we have had experience dealing with a variety of issues, from localized civil unrest and natural disasters to total evacuation of programs.

Where do you see the Foundation for Sustainable Development five years from now? Do you have any new programs or exciting program sites in the pipeline?

We are currently in the exciting process of envisioning what kind of organization we want to be in our third decade. We’re early in the planning process, but we are very excited about building a vibrant global community in support of community-led development around the world. This year we’re opening a new program site in Jaipur, India and hope to add a second site in Bolivia and possibly Kenya next year.

Beyond that, we’ll see where our vision takes us. In terms of new programs, we’re offering an official Spanish language program in Bolivia this year to help volunteers whose Spanish isn’t quite up to the level of proficiency that our partners need. We’re also piloting a community-based participatory research program this year for those who want more of a research focus for their experience.