Liz Fanning, founder and executive director of CorpsAfrica, demonstrates the dedication and perseverance that successful leadership requires. CorpsAfrica provides Africans the ability to serve as “Peace Corps” volunteers in their own countries and has made innovative and substantial impacts since its founding in 2011.
Born and raised in New York City, Liz attended Boston University and majored in economics. Following a year in Saint Thomas in the Caribbean and then a few years working in New York City, she joined the Peace Corps and served in Morocco for two years. After her time in Morocco, Liz attended New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service and then moved to Washington D.C., all leading to her founding CorpsAfrica.
“After my time at Boston University, I started interviewing for Wall Street firms and it all just felt so wrong for me,” Liz said. “So I took off for Saint Thomas in the Caribbean, waited tables and that sort of thing. There it occurred to me that I could work for a cause that I really cared about, so I came back to New York City and started fundraising. I knew that fundraising was important to whatever I wanted to do. If you really believe in a cause, raising money is among the most important skills to furthering those efforts.”
Liz said following her instincts led her along the road that took her to the creation of CorpsAfrica.
“I’ve always paid attention to my stomach, to do what feels right for me,” she said. “I never really knew what I wanted to end up doing, but I always knew that what I was doing was going to help me be successful once I figured out what that was.”
Liz said she started working for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in New York after her time in Saint Thomas.
“I did all sorts of work with fundraising, foundations, corporations and grants with the ACLU. It was a wonderful thing, to work for something that I thought was so important to the world. It was inspiring to work with such incredibly brilliant and passionate people as a young person in my twenties and it really shaped me,” she said.
During her time with the ACLU, Liz said she felt led to apply for the Peace Corps.
“I didn’t think I’d get in, but I applied for the Peace Corps because I didn’t want to regret not trying,” she said. “But I got an interview and the recruiter called a week later and said, ‘Do you want to go to Morocco in three weeks? Let me know tomorrow.’ It was a shock! I was working for the ACLU in New York and I had a good life, but I wanted to be part of the bigger world. That’s why I decided to join the Peace Corps. It wasn’t really to save the world, but more to find my place in it.”
Liz explained many of the issues she saw and what she took away from her time with the Peace Corps that she was later able to apply to the mission of CorpsAfrica.
“It’s very humbling to live with people in a remote village of a foreign country and realize how complex their lives are, and how they know so much more than I do about what they need. There is a role for Peace Corps volunteers to bring in objectivity and skills, but really it’s about listening to the local people,” Liz said. “That’s where I was so profoundly struck by the need for humility in development efforts. The biggest lesson that I took away from the Peace Corps, which eventually led me to CorpsAfrica, was the humbling thought of, ‘Who am I to go to Africa and help people? Who do I think I am?’”
She said other Peace Corps volunteers recognized some of the same problems regarding the approach many Americans take towards development efforts. She feels strongly that the Peace Corps model provides the best impact of all development efforts, because they live with local people for a long period of time — that’s what leads to sustainable projects. She noted that many former and current Peace Corps volunteers have been instrumental in furthering the mission of CorpsAfrica.
“Many of the original board members with CorpsAfrica were Peace Corps volunteers,” Liz said. “One of them still on the board, Marc Douglas, served with the Peace Corps in several countries, and he was working to launch a similar concept, which he called ‘Peace Corps 2.0.’ When I started talking about my idea people said to me, ‘You’ve got to talk to this guy Marc, he’s saying the same thing.’ So I contacted him and we talked for hours and hours the first time we met. We decided that he had a full time job, so he would join my board and help me do CorpsAfrica, which has been great. Other board members have no experience in Africa, but they were friends and joined to support me. They’ve really come to value it. I hope they appreciate the experience of supporting something they knew nothing about before. Through CorpsAfrica, they’re learning a great deal and making a difference in a part of the world that really has nothing to do with the rest of their lives.”
Liz said her work with international development organizations after her time at New York University was an essential factor in the founding of CorpsAfrica.
“There’s a lot of money and ego involved in international development, and it’s hard to know who’s doing the good work. And a lot of times people are serving in foreign countries with the best intentions, but it just doesn’t work. A lot of that is because we go in as ‘the savior.’ We see it as our job to find solutions to poverty, but really if you want to help people you have to listen to them. We need to respect the fact that each community is unique and complex and what works in one isn’t necessarily going to work in another and you have to start from scratch every time. It’s about the local people. What they think they need is what’s going to be sustainable. And it should be local people doing the work. The CorpsAfrica volunteers facilitate small-scale, high-impact projects. The projects usually cost between $500 and $5,000 dollars, which the local people manage. We also require a 10 percent financial contribution from the community for every project. It’s so important to the success of these efforts. When I first started this, I didn’t understand how important that was, but it makes these communities ‘customers,’ instead of charity beneficiaries. That way they can complain if it doesn’t work. If they’re putting money in, they’re going to care more, they’ve got skin in the game,” she said.
Liz expressed the importance of focusing on the impact projects are making, rather than the amount of volunteers or the intricacies of the organizations.
“I’ve been really inspired by Peter Singer, who’s touched me with his logical way of looking at the world. He wrote a book on international development called “The Life You Can Save.” It was really one of a few books that inspired CorpsAfrica. It’s about how people need to think logically and not emotionally about their philanthropic efforts — especially about helping people in poverty. The second part of the book is about how donors are supposed to know where to give. Most of the charity watch-dog groups don’t do nearly a good enough job. They don’t look at impact, but rather programs and administration, how many board meetings per year, and other sorts of statistics, which are almost useless. But that’s what people have to go on and it’s not enough. When you’re looking to invest in the for-profit world, you look at numbers and the bottom line. There’s no such thing in the non-profit world and the impact measures that exist are usually self-defined. When you have so much money involved in international development, it gets corrupt fast. It’s hard to watch,” Liz said.
Liz explained the difference in the work of CorpsAfrica and the work of the Peace Corps.
“Unlike the Peace Corps, CorpsAfrica volunteers go to their sites with no pre-existing agenda. We train them in facilitation skills and teach them, ‘If you want to help somebody, listen to them.’ Go in without the answers, not as a savior, but as a liaison to outside sources. That’s the role of the CorpsAfrica volunteers. We reinforce the ideal of ‘servant leadership,’ which is really about checking your ego at the door and letting yourself be guided by the people you want to help. That’s what’s going to make them effective leaders. When the Peace Corps first started 60 years ago, in many African countries there were maybe two college graduates in the whole country. And now there’s hundreds of universities across the continent and plenty of college-educated young people. And, ironically in Africa, the higher your education level, the more likely you are to be unemployed. There is an inverse relationship there, so there’s so many of these accomplished young people without a way to apply it and without a way to be part of their community
“We used to say amongst ourselves when we were Peace Corps volunteers, ‘What are we doing here?’ There were college-educated people who wanted to be part of the Peace Corps but we had to say, ‘No, sorry, it’s only for Americans.’ So that’s why our volunteers are college-educated young Africans. They already speak the language and know the culture, but they sign on to live in a remote area of their own country. They’re going to learn and live with local people, do what they do, eat what they eat, sleep where they sleep. They develop the trust, friendship and respect that is so critical to development efforts,” Liz said.
She also said CorpsAfrica volunteers ensure that the local people become their own leaders through the guidance they need.
“We train the volunteers in something called human-centered design, which is simply a structure to the facilitation model,” Liz said. “It engages everybody and leads the local people to identify what they want. That whole process is about mindset change, and more about the mindset change of the community than it is about the volunteers or the project. It’s about helping them realize how to get things done and how to speak up. Their being able to do for themselves will have the biggest impact long-term. A big part of why development efforts fail is because the local people don’t have ownership of the efforts. They often don’t have control over their own lives, but when you go in there and live with them and help them obtain these skills, they start to do things on their own. And when you leave eventually, you know it’s going to continue.”
Liz added: “This isn’t because the people are poor or not skilled, but change is often hard due to the fact that when people are in these places of poverty they have a very low tolerance for risk. It’s hard for them to take a chance on trying something new, because they know, that even though they’re getting less and less yield out of corn, they know what it is and how it works. And though they can change over to a more efficient crop, it’s a risk that’s so hard, especially when you’re living so close to real hunger. So the CorpsAfrica volunteer can help them through the process. They can help them start with a small section of the new crop, which will show benefits, which they can save and invest elsewhere, and they hold their hands while they do it, because they know it’s hard to change.”
LEAVING HER MARK
A recipient of the Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service from the National Peace Corps Association in June 2019, Liz said, although she feels she has been able to make a substantial impact on young Africans, much of what she wants to instill in the volunteers is a sense of humility.
“CorpsAfrica is really about giving the volunteers the chance to roll up their sleeves and take the time to get to know people so unlike themselves. It’s getting out of their comfort zone and learning about themselves and being able to do something different and humbling. It’s about listening and not thinking you have all the answers. It’s not having to know what you’re going to do with your life or how you’re going to help people but being open to the process; following it wherever it goes and letting it take you.”
She explained the way CorpsAfrica has changed her and given her the opportunity to leave her mark on the world.
“CorpsAfrica sometimes feels like my child. It’s given me something to nurture and build,” Liz said. “And, like children, your success as a parent is when they can get along without you. When they don’t need you anymore, that’s the highest compliment to parenthood. It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but seeing it come to fruition has been so rewarding. We’re working to promote a culture of philanthropy in Africa, to make these efforts truly self-reliant and emphasize the importance of listening to others. Really, CorpsAfrica embodies so much of what I believe strongly about making the world a better place. It’s about local ownership and empowering young people to be a part of the solution. It’s about giving people a hand up, and not a hand out. And, it’s giving young Africans the opportunity to serve, like I did through the Peace Corps.”
To learn more about CorpsAfrica visit CorpsAfrica.org