So, What's with the NPCA?

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.”



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  • John has this right. I attended the recent NCPA Group Leaders meeting. A profoundly depressing event. The sense I came away with was that the NPCA had very little interest in the country of service groups or regional groups of RPCVs. NPCA is interested in big projects financed by big grants. These may be good and worthy projects, and may even extend the Third Goal of PC, but, in the end, do not really involve the RPCVs and surely not the groups. And not even the RPCVs.

    The purpose of the Peace Corps 50th Anniversary celebrations in 2011 is to further NPCA activities. More grants. Fundraising. Even membership. Throwing a big party or sponsoring seminars or even meeting together as a RPCV group is not the point. The idea is to get as many people to the Mall as possible and build support for PC and NPCA. Oh, yes, RPCVs are welcome. Do stop by and sign a membership card. But you’re on your own.

  • Where does this 200,000 plus figure come from? I thought it was around 195,000 have joined, and not all of those are “RPCVs.” If Chuck Ludlum is to be believed, 35% of them at lest ET’ed so only around 125,000 RPCVs are out there right? What the heck is the definition of an RPCV anyway?

  • What are you talking about “the failure of the campaign.” Here’s yesterday’s newletter. Let’s have some more failure. You’re right it is funded separately and run largely separately from NPCA but it is repsonsible for the fact that the Peace Corps is going to get robust funding next year. The amount is still uncertain but it will be far beyond anything that would have happened without this campaign: This is crucial to the future of the Peace Corps and I think you should change this or admit there’s a typo or something.
    n Important Update

    Yesterday, history was made for the Peace Corps in the House of Representatives: the full $450 million was approved for FY 2010. Congratulations to all of you. You made this happen with your passionate letters, phone calls, and outreach. Those who have been our champions on the Hill since the beginning didn’t let us down on this day. When Rep. Cliff Stearns (FL-6) offered two amendments to scale down Peace Corps funding, Chairwoman Nita Lowey , showing incredible courage once again stood up in ardent defense of full funding, mentioning the thousands of letters she and her colleagues had received from former volunteers. She stood up for the people in those 25 countries that want volunteers. She stood up for the 13,000 applicants to the Peace Corps who are hoping to have a chance to serve America and the world. When Rep. Stearns countered that we should not be investing in costly job creation abroad, Representatives Sam Farr and Betty McCollum , who have been our heroes from the beginning of this movement, delivered passionate defenses that reminded those present of the days of Sargent Shriver. They talked about the great work volunteers do. They talked about creating a new American foreign policy that was built on peace and development. When Rep. Stearns mentioned the costliness of the Peace Corps, Rep. Steve Driehaus was incredible as he stood up and stated he was paid $280 a month as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal and asked Rep. Stearns if he knew of a job in the United States that cost so little. Representative Stearns countered that he was just defending President Obama’s $373.4 million and his amendment could even be called the “Obama/Stearns” Amendment.

    The Peace Corps is alive again and it’s because of you. We still have a lot of work to do and we are struggling in the Senate, but please take a moment and celebrate what we have achieved. Please send thank you notes to the hard working staff of our most ardent champions:

    Rep. Lowey –
    Rep. Farr –
    Rep. McCollum – Rep. Driehaus – Rep. Kirk – Senator Kit Bond –

    Senator Leahy and other members of the Subcommittee received literally thousands of phone calls, letters and faxes including a beautiful epistle from Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary.

    In the Senate, the full Appropriations Committee met to consider its version of the State/Foreign Operations bill. The Committee unanimously passed a bill that includes just a $373.4 Million recommendation for Peace Corps. But we can still get the full $450 million if we continue to scale our movement and build co-sponsors on s.1382, Senator Dodd’s Peace Corps Improvement and Expansion Act 2009 , which presently has two co-sponsors (Senators Durbin and Kennedy). We can get the full amount if we just keep at it. Likely in September, the Senate and House will come together in “conference” and at that time if we build even more support, our heroes will be there for us again and fight the low numbers out of the Senate.

    It deserves to be mentioned that one Senator stood up alone yesterday. Senator Kit Bond (R-MO) was our hero, and when we eventually do get the full $450 million out of the Senate as well, by amendment or other means, it will be Senator Bond who we’ll have to thank. Not only did he write a letter opposing the $373.4 million appropriation, but he made a statement in which he challenged Congress “to put the money where its mouth is” for the Peace Corps. He cited the importance of Peace Corps as a “smart power” investment, and made positive reference to the need for higher funding levels.


    Because of you, we are in this position. Don’t let up. Now we should all be focused on growing co-sponsors on Senator Dodd’s bill and building broad support in the Senate for $450 million when all is said and done.

  • John is right in what he writes. The NPCA has been a wash-out for its entire existence. Over the years, I worked in several misbegotten ventures in re-thinking the damn thing.

    First, I surely agree that the NPCA has NEVER stood up to the PC, never called it the inconsequential member of Washington’s foreign affairs establishment that it is. Because, just like the NPCA is never at the table, neither is its patron, the PC.

    Second, the NPCA has NEVER had a presence on the Hill. That is, it has never, to my knowledge, organized a Congressional hearing on any country-of-service and its problems, or offered to provide any Congressional hearing with expert RPCVs who could have testified on behalf of their country or against current policies or whatever.

    Had the NPCA, from the beginning, worked to provide Congress with assistance on country-specific issues or on matters of what works for America overseas and what doesn’t, then the NPCA would have, by now, had a loyal following. I remember, decades ago, when some of us tried to get the NPCA interested in getting on Congressional panels, and we got NOWHERE.

    Frankly, it is time for the thing to close down to make way for something new.

    Tom Hebert, Nigeria 1962-64.

  • At a White House meeting with Peace Corps Volunteers in September 1961, JFK told us “I don=t know if this Peace Corps is going to work . . . but AI look forward to your return and want to hear what it=s really like down there.@ One year later, a group of us held a conference with the elite of Bucaramaga at the elegant Chamber of Commerce building. After our presentations of the work we were doing and anecdotes of our daily lives in remote villages a distinguished looking member of the audience, a Colombian industrialist, remarked, “you young men have a deeper understanding of our compatriots in rural communities than we do.”

    One of the Peace Corps goals is for Returned Volunteers to tell other Americans “what it’s really like down there.” This information is critical to informing the perspectives and opinions of Americans including those in Congress, the Executive and in the media. The perspectives will often be at odds with those in the State Department and from Washington think tanks. The messages need to be delivered in schools and in the offices of our elected representatives and through the media. The core message, one expressed by Ned Chalker in a conversation with me at his kitchen table is that “what I learned in villages was that people were just like me except they spoke Spanish.”

    Ned’s perspective is the one that needs to be repeated and repeated. It should be a key foundation of foreign policy and our foreign assistance. In the long run, the recognition of the shared humanity and hopes throughout countries and cultures will increase peace and security in the world more than the short term strategies about what is “in America’s best interests.”

    Returned Volunteers and their local and national organizations can help make this happen. How to do this should be at the center of the agenda for the 50th Anniversary conference.

    Dr. Ronald A. Schwarz
    Colombia One

  • ” RPCV’s Against the War” meeting in Gerry Schwin’s townhouse on R St. off 16th..we were always trying to figure out who the FBI informants were!!! Hard to see how this all morphed into the current organization.Regardless, your best idea is to make everyone an alumnus like the universities and than hold phone-a-thons ( do they still do this) to raise money, if needed. Press on with grant support to pay the staff competitive Washington advocacy salaries.

    What are the benefits? This what alums (RPCV’s) want and need…
    My universitiy plans provide low cost health insurance during periods of unemployement, discount on car insurance, e-mail account, recruitment center…

    and “Take back the Reunion” , RPCV’s need more than a place at the table for planning the 50th..they need to be the planners..

    Dennis Grubb

  • Hello!–The MorePeaceCorps campaign started a year ago with the stated goal of doubling the number of PCVs in the field within a year, and it would be a new day dawning with our new administration. The reason the MorePeaceCorps campaign ‘failed’ was because in the recent votes there isn’t the money for such an increase in numbers. Now, Congress has been talking about increasing (at least to 10,000) the number of PCV for twenty years and they vote yes on that idea, then never fund the agency so it can happen. That is what happened again this year, but added to that fact was the fact that the Obama Administration also did not go for a larger budget for the agency. Therefore, I stated, that the campaign failed. You can slice this pie anyway you want, but the $$$ isn’t here for the campaign to say they were successful….There is spin and there is spin!

  • Mellow Johnny–to answer your question….you are a PCV when you are sworn in by the agency, so if you ET, you are still an RPCV…I don’t think we have an exact number of Peace Corps Volunteers, and within the last few years, staff has been added to the basic PCV numbers. It is mostly guess work!

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