Peace Corps has three goals but devotes most of its attention to one of them, even though volunteers generally end up saying their biggest impact came from the other two, which focus on communications and enhancing international friendship.
As someone who thinks a lot about communications and cares about the Peace Corps deeply, first serving as a volunteer four decades ago and now again, I’ve tried to understand the logic of this. I still don’t get it. Americans and people in other countries need more than ever to understand each other. I think the Peace Corps, which just celebrated its 57th birthday, could be more impactful by fully embracing its communications role and bringing its portfolio into alignment with its mandate.
I have spent my career as a writer, editor and communications strategist. I know many people view our field as “getting the word out” or, less charitably, as cheap publicity. At its best, though, communications has the deeper purpose of advancing organizational goals. I worked in the philanthropy world for many years and saw that even as some foundations focused on their slick annual reports and websites, others embraced communication as a strategic tool. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for example, spent a lot of money on advertising and other communications activities to fight Big Tobacco and raise public awareness about the dangers of smoking. It played an important role in turning the tide on that issue. Other foundations helped change attitudes towards the LGBTQ community and on other issues.
When we turn to the attitudes American have about people in developing countries, Peace Corps is uniquely situated to provide facts, stories and perspective. Indeed, that is its mission.
President John F. Kennedy established three goals for Peace Corps, which still guide the organization. Goal One is to build the local capacity of people in interested countries and help meet their need for trained men and women. Goal Two is to promote a better understanding of Americans among people in other countries. Goal Three is to increase America’s awareness and knowledge of other cultures and global issues.
A national survey of more than 11,000 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) several years ago found that most felt their biggest long-term impact was with the second two goals — changing how Americans and others view each other.
Yet even though two-thirds of our goals deal with communications, and more than a half-century of experience suggests this is where we can be most successful, Peace Corps focuses on Goal One. Obviously, this is our primary job and deserves most of our time and resources, but the other two goals need attention, too.
During my own training, our “community and organizational development” (COD) group spent countless hours learning about community needs assessment, community mapping, community surveys, etc. Champa’s English education group studied teaching techniques and the like. Our overall group met together many times but never had a serious discussion about how we could pursue Goal Two and Goal Three more effectively. Just this past Friday, my volunteer group was invited to participate in a detailed review of COD. Goals Two and Three were never addressed until I asked about them at the end.
This past summer, Peace Corps Moldova added a training session for incoming volunteers on using blogs and social media tools, training that paid off with increased volunteer activity in these areas. But it was one session and was not followed up with more training or programmatic activity.
A management rule is that the amount of time people and organizations spend on a topic reflects its importance to them. The small amount of time Peace Corps devotes to communications as a strategic activity speaks for itself.
I am not picking on Peace Corps Moldova, which has expanded its communications activities and supported innovations by its chief communications staffer, who I’ve been assisting. Some volunteers here have organized wonderful classes and cross-cultural events, such as during the recent “Peace Corps Week” or to celebrate American holidays.
Rather, I think this is a challenge for Peace Corps generally. The agency has taken some positive steps in recent years to promote PCV communications, such as a video contest that just completed its annual competition (see the winner here) and previous blogging campaigns. It has beefed up its online and social media activities and provided communications training for local staff around the world. It created a “Third Goal” office, which maintains a media library and assists outreach activities such as the talks Champa and I gave when we visited home last summer. Many returned volunteers also share their experiences and perspective through RPCV groups and in other ways.
Yet all of this remains at the margins of what I’ve seen Peace Corps emphasizing while I’ve been a volunteer. To be sure, most volunteers advance Goal Two through their daily activities, showing by example the best of American values. But so much more could be accomplished if Peace Corps simultaneously made communications a real priority in its recruiting, training, program development and assessment. What other great things would volunteers be doing now if Peace Corps had challenged them to promote cross-cultural understanding with the same passion it promotes education for girls or community health care?
I don’t expect every volunteer to participate or be as active as I am with this blog, but I do think many more of them around the world would get involved if Peace Corps made clear this is a central part of our mission, not a “would be nice” if they have extra time.
I’ve spent the large majority of my own time in Moldova on Goal One and am proud of what my partners and I have accomplished together. Many of my fellow PCVs here do amazing things at their job sites and in their communities, as do PCVs in more than 60 other countries. We are all trying to make a difference. But we’re also charged with teaching our host communities about America and our families and friends back home about distant places they may regard as mysterious or dangerous.
The Peace Corps changed my life for the better. I think it’s an amazing organization — one that can become even greater by finding a better balance among its three goals while remaining nonpolitical and committed to its development agenda.
President Kennedy was right when he defined our multiple missions. He’s still right today.
13 thoughts on “Balancing the Goals”
To have a better Peace Corps fundamentally requires a better balance among the PC’s interlocking three goals as David suggests in this timely and important blog post. Thank you for this recommendation and for serving again so well.
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Thank you, Kevin. I know you have thought a lot about these issues yourself in your roles as a Peace Corps volunteer and country director, as president of the National Peace Corps Association, and now as president of Marlboro College. I look forward to working on them with you and others who share our concern.
I agree! I became a Peace Corps Volunteer (Vanuatu 1997-1999) because my father regularly told his own PCV service (Dominican Republic 1965-1967) with his slide shows. And I became a blogger because my grandfather wrote a book about my father’s service, and that inspired me to use the web for the Third Goal. I hope my stories inspired my own children to global service.
David, thanks for our impassioned plea for more focus on communicating the Story of Peace Corps, and the many stories of our interactions with peoples around the globe.
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Thanks Anton! Your comment is an example of what I said in the article, which is that our stories often end up being the most impactful part of our service, a reality that Peace Corps needs to acknowledge and embrace.
I agree whole-heartedly. Something that really stood out to me lately was that Peace Corps Week was never mentioned in our weekly highlights other than after the fact or a simple mention in the upcoming events. Even the emails I received from Peace Corps focused on how RPCVs could celebrate the week but not how current volunteers could participate. We also have no objectives or indicators that address either the 2nd or 3rd goal, despite having about 20 indicators for the 1st goal (for EE volunteers at least).
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Thanks Beth. I appreciate your comment, which concurs with what some other members of our group have told me offline since reading this post.
I totally agree — when I think about it, I worked hard on Goal 1 for 2 years, trying to get the job done– but actually Goals 2 & 3 have been huge parts of my life ever since I COS’ed… over 3 decades ago! I can’t help wishing and wondering that If all our voices had been more visible on the local and national scene on behalf of other cultures and so-called shithole countries — would we be experiencing the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim fervor that we are today?
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I completely agree with this post. I have honestly found the most personal fulfillment in what I have done with my blog, but it does not seem like Peace Corps values that at all–despite it being an effective way to meet one of its most basic tenements.
Bobbie, thanks so much for your comment. I was especially interested to read it since you are a PCV in Botswana, which I’ve heard has an active communications program. If they don’t value what you’re doing there, that’s especially discouraging. I love your blog, so keep doing it! By the way, I’m curious how you found your way to my post. ?? Thanks again for writing. –David
We definitely have a more developed and support social media presence than a lot of posts… It just seems blogs in particular are kind of throw away activities–like the only reason they are read is so we do not cause an international controversy. haha
I just typed in Peace Corps in the blog/post search and your post popped up! Thanks for checking out my blog as well–that’s so sweet. It is the pride and joy of my service.
Thanks for this post, and for bringing attention to the Third Goal.
At National Peace Corps Association, we’ve always said that “our first goal is the Peace Corps’ Third Goal.” With a network of over 175 affiliate groups across the United States and reaching around the globe, our Peace Corps community has meaningful impact when it comes to creating better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
It’s free to join NPCA, and many of the affiliate groups, all of which are dedicated to the causes we care about most – ensuring the future of the Peace Corps, peacemaking, promoting social justice, fostering intercultural understanding, preserving our environment, and caring for refugees and immigrants, to name a few. We’re a tremendous force for good, and will be most effective when working together.
Here’s what Joe Kennedy has to say about NPCA: https://www.peacecorpsconnect.org/cpages/about-npca
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Hi Glenn and thanks for sharing this comment. I’d agree with you about the National Peace Corps Association even if you weren’t the president. I’ve been proud to be a member for many years and consider its work essential. Ironically, your message arrived moments after I posted about Joe Kennedy (or perhaps that wasn’t a coincidence). Like you, I am following his career with interest even as I welcome all of his continuing support for the Peace Corps. Thanks again for the message. Please give my best to Jonathan, Anne and all of your NPCA colleagues.