Carrie Changes the Business Model of the Peace Corps

By Andrea Useem on 17 May 2013

inShare3 Carrie Hessler-Radelet, Peace Corps acting director

Carrie Hessler-Radelet, meeting here with a Peace Corps volunteer and community members in West Africa, said a partnership with food-and-beverage giant Mondelez International will help modernize the volunteer experience. Photo: Peace Corps.

Earlier this spring, the Peace Corps announced its second corporate partnership, with Mondelez International, a food-and-beverage company previously part of Kraft Foods, to train young entrepreneurs in the Domincan Republic’s cocoa supply chain.  

According to acting Peace Corps Director Carrier Hessler-Radelet, this type of partnership represents the future of Peace Corps: working in partnership with other organizations.

Peace Corps already works with Coca-Cola, through the Water and Development Alliance, a partnership involving the U.S. Agency for International Development that aims to improve water and sanitation conditions for local communities in the developing world.

Hessler-Radelet, along with Corey Griffin, associate director of the Peace Corps’ Office of Strategic Partnerships, talked with Devex Impact about how partnership is modernizing the volunteer experience and what Peace Corps brings to the partnership table.

What’s most exciting for you about the Mondelez partnership?

Carrie Hessler-Radelet: I have long been a proponent of public-private partnerships, having come from the private sector myself. The private sector has taken an increasingly important role in development. Other government agencies, especially USAID, are promoting public-private partnerships, and the Obama administration is deeply committed to it as well. So it seems like a logical thing for Peace Corps to do. Partnership is our strategy going forward across the board.

Our mission has always been to help host countries to achieve their development goals, and the private sector and non-profit partners play an important role in those local agendas. The added value of Peace Corps is that we are at the last mile, working with local communities in 77 countries around the world.

What’s especially exciting to me about this new partnership is that it’s one of the first to go operational. It focuses on entrepreneurship and building the skills of young people to realize their dreams, which plays right to the core of Peace Corps’ work.  It’s our sweet spot, because our volunteers-many of whom are young - really connect with young people.

I also love the innovation that’s part of this: the entrepreneurship training, and engaging local entrepreneurs to help young people develop their business plans through contests.  It’s a fantastic model that’s happening in our own country as well. To be able to take something that’s cutting edge here in our country and apply it to a developing country setting along with a corporate partner is an exciting first step for Peace Corps.

Corey Griffin: The other piece is financial literacy offered through the partnership, which helps move young people from concept to opportunity. It’s about local capacity building and creating a culture of entrepreneurship in the Dominican Republican. A large multinational like Mondelez brings a myriad of resources, and the Peace Corps brings what it does well on the ground, which is operating through our through volunteers and providing the face-to-face interaction with the communities.

How do partnerships fit into the traditional model of Peace Corps, of a single volunteer working alone in a village?

Hessler-Radelet: The way we’re working is changing, because the world is changing.

The iconic view of the Peace Corps is a volunteer working independently in a village.  But what’s happening now is our countries themselves are interconnected, with strong development agendas that go down all the way to the village level. Since we’re there at the invitation of the host countries and the villages, we have to show how our volunteers are fitting in with their development goals.

What that means is our volunteers are no longer working in isolation. We’re part of a larger development program in each country that involves a myriad number of partners, including corporate and NGO partners. And of course we work very closely with local and national government.

Partnership is a strategy we are using to change our business model. We are still volunteers working at the community level at the request of our countries, speaking the language, living as a member of community - that does not change. But what is changing is that our volunteers are not working in isolation, we’re part of a network. We’re using partnerships - and technology - to link us up with the rest of the world.

How is technology changing the way Peace Corps operates?

Our volunteers are very tech-savvy, and they bring their own technology with them. Ninety-eight percent have cell phones, most have laptops, and some have tablets. Volunteers are using available technology to help promote development change in their local communities.

The bandwidth of our countries in changing dramatically too. A fiber-optic cable was just laid along the coast of West Africa, which is going to make all the difference in those countries. A similar cable was laid a few years ago across East Africa, and it’s made an enormous difference. I know I can get a better cell phone signal anywhere Liberia than I can going over the Roosevelt Bridge [in Washington D.C.] 

Peace Corps is committed to using the tools available to us open source. We use Skype and Google Plus, Twitter, all the social media platforms. Very soon we will have a new knowledge-management platform, called PC Live, which will enable us to communicate with all of our staff and volunteers around the world and enable them to communicate with each other. It’s been pilot-tested in various countries, and it will allow us to create communities of practice.

Has Peace Corps incorporated partnerships into volunteer training?

Carrie Hessler-Radelet: We are right now in the middle of the biggest reform we’ve ever undertaken in the history of Peace Corps. A big part of that is our “Focus In/Train Up” training initiative, which is designed to equip our volunteers to do what they do best, which is to deliver excellence in development at the community level. 

They still receive the language and the cross-cultural training, but the difference is now we’re delivering technical training linked to the development work of others through partnership. In all of our six sectors, we are partnering with corporate partners, NGO partners, university partners, to ensure that we are delivering the best possible training for our volunteers.

One of the best examples is our malaria program. We have a malaria boot camp that’s been funded through a partnership with the President’s Malaria Initiative and various other NGOs like Malaria No More. The bootcamp brings staff and volunteers from all over Africa to participate in an intensive training. We use Skype to beam in some of the world’s leading experts in malaria from the [Center for Disease Control], the World Health Organization and PMI. It prepares our volunteers to deliver interventions in malaria in their communities that are proven through evidence to achieve greatest development impact. 

The Mondelez partnership is another good example. We’ve worked with them to create “Build Your Dreams,” the program that the young people in the Dominican Republic will participate in.  It’s also part of a youth entrepreneurship module we use to train our volunteers.

This state-of-the-art training is equipping volunteers for careers in development, diplomacy or even business. When our volunteers come back after their two-year experience, they have already been exposed to development work, and they’ve been working in partnership with other organizations.

Is the idea that the volunteer experience can help launch a career a new one?

Hessler-Radelet: It’s absolutely a career path, and it’s becoming more that way for sure. The nonprofit and development community has been aware of this, but increasingly the corporate world is realizing that returned volunteers have the kind of skills they want. We’ve had discussions with corporates about our training programs, and they are interested in training their corporate managers in how to work internationally.

There’s nobody who’s more globally competent than a returned Peace Corps volunteer.  They are committed, flexible, and they’ve shown they can handle tough situations. They have language skills, experience at managing cross-cultural teams, a strong understanding of how communities in developing countries work, and a good sense of the opportunities and obstacles in their host countries.

Griffin: The agreement with Mondelez is an ideal scenario. They have a business challenge, and there is a Peace Corps volunteer on the ground helping them with that challenge. The returned Peace Corps volunteer will have a knowledge base and skill set of interest to those corporations.

How is your network of returned volunteers responding to these partnership initiatives?

Hessler-Radelet: We have a strong network of returned volunteers who feel passionately that Peace Corps transformed their lives. Some are skeptic about partnering, especially with the corporate sector, because that wasn’t their experience. But once they see it in action, they understand how important it is, and how we’re able to leverage the resources of others to achieve greater impact. Our younger volunteers, those coming right out to college, they get it, because partnership has been a way of life for them.

We are careful about our brand. Many of our staff people, including me, are returned volunteers, and we feel great responsibility to make sure we are doing it right. But we are confident that partnership is an important strategy for us going ahead in the future. We can deliver results at the community level that are just not possible if we hadn’t worked together. It’s good for both partners, and we want to do more of these.

Griffin: It’s also good for the community. Mondelez is addressing the need to ensure there is a crop of young farmers who are carrying on cocoa cultivation. So for Mondelez, it addresses a business need. For the community, it helps the local economy. As much as it helps the Peace Corps with what we are trying to do and helps Mondelez with a business challenge, it’s also benefiting the community. That’s the nexus that is really the value of partnership.

Is the Peace Corps building up new internal capabilities to partner with corporations and other organizations?

Hessler-Radelet: The biggest step was creating our Office of Strategic Partnerships, which has been up and running for about a year. We are structuring ourselves so we can make strategic partnerships a much more important part of our work.

 As a federal agency, we needed to review our legislation and see what we are allowed to do under the law. That’s taken time. Every time we have an agreement, it makes it easier the next time. We’re taking examples from USAID and the White House and other federal agencies who have embraced public-private partnership, and we’ve been able to learn from their experiences.

 Griffin: We’ve seen others take notice of the work we’re doing at the Peace Corps. There is a bit of an awakening, because all the federal agencies are thinking about ways to do public-private partnerships. The Peace Corps has cut its teeth, learning how to do corporate-sector engagement, and I’m hoping we can grow that portfolio over time.

 The White House will be powerful convener in helping us think about how we work with these organizations and corporations more systematically, so that we’re not all reaching out differently. The White House Homeland Security Partnership Council, which brings together 19 agencies, has issued a set of guidelines for federal agencies for creating offices of strategic partnerships. That’s helping a great deal.