I have been around the Peace Corps so long that I remember the first RPCVs who organized against the Vietnam War back in 1965. This group managed, by the way, to take over the old Peace Corps offices in the Maiatico Building at 806 Connecticut Avenue during the Nixon years.

Various local and county-of-service groups began to organize in the mid-sixties. One such group in Washington, D.C. iniated planned and launched the 25th anniversary conference on the Mall in 1986.

At that same moment in time a national RPCV organization began, this time in Colorado at a reunion of RPCVs. They were spurred into action because Sam Brown, who was running ACTION and the Peace Corps for Jimmy Carter, told the RPCVs he wouldn’t have anything to do with them (yes, the distrust by the Peace Corps administration for RPCVs started way-back-then: disown the kid once he’s/she’s served!)

The Colorado crowd of RPCVs didn’t want anything to do with D.C. or its ilk, so they organized  the National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, the NCRPCV (God, what an acronym!) as a grass roots and local organization, no national office inside the Beltway.

As the D.C. RPCVs progressed with their plans for the September 1986 conference they applied for and received a grant (thanks to Harris Wofford - CD/Ethiopia 1962–64) of $25,000 from the McCarthy Foundation. With that impressive coupe, the Peace Corps, headed by the beloved Loret Ruppe realized that the reunion was happening, whether they were on board or not, and offered their cooperation. Over that planning year almost half a million dollars was raised by RPCVs to make the conference possible. 5,000 RPCVs attended the conference, and it was deemed a great success.

After the conference, Ruppe would show her “better angels” by giving the NCRPCV $10,000 of her own money to help start a national organization of returned Volunteers.

Tim Carroll (Nigeria 1963–65) was hired as executive director in January 1987, there was a staff of five, and the budget was $278,000. There were high hopes that the NCRPCV would grow to 10,000 members from the pool of the then 120,000 RPCVs. However, in its first year, the membership in the NCRPCV was only about 4,500; and even then there was a significant gap between reliable income from membership dues and rising operating costs.

Today there are more than 200,000 RPCVs. The total membership of the now named National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) stands at  anywhere between 5,200 and 6,000, depending upon which staff member provides the numbers. There are 14,000 names on its monthly email newsletter list; 100,000 unique visitors to the website Peace Corps Connect since it went up in January 2009; and 12,000 have filled out profile info to access the site. However, in the recent NPCA Board election, only 300 members voted. (God, Iraq does better than we do!) And membership dues have declined to the point where they make up only 15% of the NPCA’s total $1,654 million budget.

According to Kevin Quigley (Thailand 1976–79), President of the NPCA, the organization, after many years, is in the black, and its debt is paid off. Obviously the NPCA is NOT supported by membership, but rather by grants — particularly from the Peace Corps. Kevin estimates that the NPCA has received about $577,000 from the Peace Corps to do Third Goal activities over the past ten years. The recent MorePeaceCorps Campaign was funded by a grant from a foundation, and it was announced at the recent NPCA Annual Meeting that  the Gates Foundation is funding a project called Africa Rural Connect that was launched in July. The grant is for $400,000, and the NPCA will receive a % to ‘run’ the  program, enough to pay the salary of the NPCA staff member, the lovely Molly Mattessich, who also runs the website.

Word has it that since there is no money in membership dues the NPCA is thinking that everyone should be a free member, much like any university alumni association.

The reality is that many of us belong to local groups (remember the NCRPCV?) or our country-of-service groups, and many of them are cash cows. Look at the Wisconsin RPCVs with their wonderful International Calander that they have produced for years! The funds from that continue to pay for community activities both in Madison and in Peace Corps countries around the world.

Local groups, either by city or country-of-service, had been the mainstay of the RPCV community.  They have coordinate volunteer work at home, provide support for projects back in their host countries and facilitate the social connections and reconnections that we all appreciate. Year after year these groups run in the black and produce results.

What’s wrong with this picture? Why do we have so many RPCVs who are uninterested in NPCA or worse yet, do not even know it exists?

It is because the NPCA has never been able to connect with the majority of RPCVs? It is ineffective when it does venture out of its office, and it will not stand up to the Peace Corps because it is afraid of offending the administration, regardless of what party is in power, in order to keep the financial support coming? What ever the NPCA by-laws mandate, the organization does not see itself as an organization of and for RPCVs.

The 50 Anniversary  is being planned now, but not by the NPCA but the Peace Corps. Where the 25th conference was staged by the D.C. RPCVs this event is being organized inside the agency. Additionally, it was announced at the recent Annual Meeting that the NPCA will not provide any logistical support or programs to RPCV groups or individuals who plan to come to D.C. for the celebration.

While the Vice President of the NPCA, the longest serving employee of the organization, Anne Baker, is sitting at the planning table, she is not carrying any weight.  No events are being organized by the NPCA. They don’t have the money or the manpower to organize for the 50th. Country reunions will take place on the weekend of September 23–25, 2011, but they must be arranged by volunteer work from country-of-service groups, not by the NPCA.

It has been five years since the last national reunion — held in Chicago — was organized by the NPCA. Shortly after that event President Quigley stated that the NPCA won’t have another because they lose money.

We do not have a failure of communication. We have a failure of organization. With 200,000 + RPCVs  and nearly fifty years later, the NPCA can only claim (at most) 6,000 members. Something is wrong !

And what is wrong is that there are no compelling reasons for a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer to belong to the  National Peace Corps Association. Or to phrase it another way: If You Give Us A Reason, We Will Come.

But you have got to give President Kevin Quigley credit. He knows how to spin reality with the best of them in Washington. Listening to NPR the other day, I heard Kevin, after being  asked how many members were in his organization, say without hesitation and in full confidence,  ”90,000.”