Peace Corps recruitment revamp: Has it confused the mission or professionalized the process?

A Peace Corps volunteer teaching science class at a school in Malawi. Photo by: Peace Corps

Extensive reform to the Peace Corps’ application process has met with pushback from returned volunteers who worry that the ease of the new system will dilute the overall mission: for volunteers to simply serve where they’re needed.

The 53-year-old organization last Tuesday announced a series of steps — after a string of larger reforms in the past four years — meant to make it more attractive to volunteers, including shortening the initial application from eight hours to one and transparently assigning “apply by” and “know by” dates to alert applicants as to when they can expect to receive an invitation to serve.

The new process also promises to shorten the year-long application period to around six months — three months at the fastest — and to put a heavier focus on recruiting minorities and young people.

But the most contentious change has been the new allowance for candidates to choose their preferred country in which to serve, as well as the program type and even the specific program.

Prospective volunteers who explore the site are now met with  “Where do you want to go?” and “What do you want to do?” complete with lists of options of regions and programs. So those who want to be work on youth programs in North Africa and the Middle East — specifically in Morocco, for instance — can do just that, assuming their availability and skills match up.

Where do you want to volunteer?

Many observers have pointed to lower-than-ever application numbers as the impetus for the reform, but it has to do with much more than increasing volunteer volume, Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet told Devex. It’s part of the larger planned strategic reform process, she suggested.

“We spent a lot of time working on improving the quality of our technical training and program support, so it makes sense that we would want our application process to mirror that,” Hessler-Radelet said. “We want to make sure that there are no barriers to entry and that we we are attracting the best and brightest.”  

The worry? That a program about serving communities that need it most will become more about the volunteer and less about the volunteer’s mission. But a closer look shows that the recently rolled-out changes, while easier at the initial stage, aren’t entirely new to the Peace Corps and won’t change the rigorous road to volunteering otherwise. In fact, the Peace Corps is just one of many volunteering organizations making changes to professionalize what has always been advertised as a professional — as well as personal — growth experience.

How big of a change is it, really?

The flashy new online platform and expanded volunteer control is not something that stalwart “toughest job you’ll ever love” supporters are quite comfortable with, especially since volunteers have been headed wherever in the world they’ve been placed by recruiters since 1961.

Or have they? In the mid 1970s, the recruiting process featured a binder with information on different programs in different countries, including the required qualifications for each program. Prospective recruits were encouraged to select a country and program from the binder, where they could be matched if they met the qualifications. This method is thought to have ended in the ‘80s, according to a Peace Corps spokesperson.

“When my husband served in the ‘70s, he went to the proverbial binder [to] pick his country of service,” said Nancy Clifton-Hawkins, a returned Peace Corps volunteer. “When I served in the ‘90s, it was chosen for me based on talents. Both aspects worked for each of us.”

Nevertheless, more recent volunteers are concerned that the increased emphasis on volunteer choices will confuse the mission of the Peace Corps.

“I am afraid that relaxing the application process and allowing volunteers to choose their destination will transform the Peace Corps into a ‘choose your own adventure’ story where the focus is placed more on personal benefits, travel and new experiences, a focus far removed from the original mission President Kennedy envisioned in 1961,” said Cecilia Kern, a returned Peace Corps volunteer who served in Cape Verde from 2009 to 2011.

But aside from the shortened initial application, many other steps remain, such as interviews and a background check.

The old process required people to immediately “jump through hoops that weren’t ultimately accepted,” Hessler-Radelet said. Now, Peace Corps recruiters are empowered to ask for that information from volunteers as they need it.

Research on Peace Corps applicants who dropped out of the process showed they were people who had strong personal and professional goals and wanted more control over the outcome — and they had other choices, Hessler-Radelet noted.

To be sure, the option for Peace Corps applicants to identify assignment preferences is just that — an option. The program remains competitive and if everyone applies to the same place, not everyone will get to work there. But applicants now have the opportunity to apply to up to three specific countries and work areas at a time, including the option to go anywhere. They can also opt simply for the choices of “Anywhere I’m needed” as well as “Any work sector.” The available positions applicants can browse from are still determined based on the needs of host countries around the world.  

“It’s as rigorous a process as ever,” Hessler-Radelet told Devex.

But the change could also mean a shift in the way that recruiters present the experience, according to former Peace Corps recruiter Scott Webb, who explained how he used to frame the experience by relying on the “three W’s”: When and where do you want to go and what do you want to do?

“I’d say, ‘You can be rigid on one, but you would need to be flexible on at least two,’ or: ‘If you want to be in West Africa, you’d need to be flexible on the project and dates of service,’” he said, suggesting that recruiters may not be able to require similar flexibility from volunteers going forward.

Opinions are split on whether the change in recruitment will affect the number of Peace Corps volunteers who “ET” or terminate their two-year contract early. The power to research and choose one’s own placement has the potential to reduce this rate, but it could also lead to unrealistic or unmet expectations in-country.

An essential component of being a successful volunteer is being able to adapt and thrive in a challenging environment, said Tania Smith, a current Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco.

“If people get to choose where they go and their expectations are unmet, this could result in more volunteers terminating their service early,” she said.

In the wake of last week’s announcement, returned volunteers expressed thanks for serving in countries that never would have made their “preferred” list, and questioned the ramifications for volunteers burdened with choosing their assignment country — and having only themselves to thank if it’s great or blame if it’s not what they expected.

“I would have never chosen Mali as my country of service,” said Monica Jeannormil, who served from 2011 to 2013. “It wasn't on my radar, but I'm forever grateful for the experience and how it’s changed me and my view of the world.”

One former volunteer noted that he ended up working on a health program in Malawi when he had no health experience and his skills may have been best suited elsewhere. But he, too, was happy with his experience and actually still resides and works in Malawi.

Webb, who likewise might never have chosen Niger but was happy to have served in the country from 1997 to 2000, said the change professionalizes the Peace Corps and the updated online platform perhaps makes the application process more closely resemble a modern-day job search.

But anyone who has served in the Peace Corps knows that it is not at all like a traditional job, and the unique, challenging situations volunteers face on assignment call for people who are willing to put the mission first.

“That could be lost, the idea that you’re doing it for the service,” Webb said, especially in countries that are already hard to recruit for.

When it comes time, it’s up to recruiters to fill training classes, and “no one will choose to go to some of these countries that are really difficult,” Webb said.

Hessler-Radelet isn’t worried, noting that a “certain subset of our applicant pool really want to serve in the most remote places possible; it’s who they are.”

Helen Lowman, associate director of volunteer recruitment for the Peace Corps, reported at an event in Washington on Wednesday that roughly every other Peace Corps hopeful who has applied through the new system — which was originally tested on approximately 30,000 applicants — so far is still opting to go anywhere rather than give country preferences.    

“It’s a worthwhile experiment,” Webb said. “It’s just a tough change for people to accept.”

The professionalization of volunteering

Though it’s too soon to know how the change will affect Peace Corps numbers and retention long-term, the volunteer group isn’t the only one that has undergone considerable change to make its recruitment process more applicant-friendly.

VSO, too, has taken steps over the past few years to better apply its “people first” strategy to recruitment and give volunteers more choice. Until December 2013, when VSO’s new platform for applications launched, interested volunteers had to physically visit one of the organization’s offices to apply.

VSO has had a 20 percent increase in the number of applications since the launch, partly because it is now better able to attract candidates in countries with little brand presence previously, according to Jaki Walker, head of global resourcing for the independent development organization which sends volunteers on six-month to 2-year assignments to fight poverty in one of 24 countries around the globe.

“It very much mirrors an employee process,” Walker said.

Similar to Peace Corps changes, VSO now only captures information at the application stage to assess volunteers technically in order to keep the form “as light as we could,” Walker said of the 40-minute application process.  

And the countries where they’ve had difficulty recruiting? They’ve remained difficult, she said.

Nigeria, for example, has always been difficult to recruit to, and VSO hasn’t seen any change in the rate of applications to work there. Volunteer motivations, though, have stayed strong and follow the same pattern, Walker stressed.

“With VSO, the top reasons for volunteering are career development and also wanting to share the skill set they have in the fight against poverty; they are still by far the top two motivations, according to a survey VSO conducts of its volunteers every year,” she said.

Walker is keeping a close eye on the organization’s yearly early return rate, but hasn’t seen a change yet.

VSO changed its recruitment process largely to be more agile as well as take advantage of technology to be more cost-effective, according to Walker. The Peace Corps also needs to remain nimble, especially to make the transition from 2010, when it had it’s highest budget ever — $400 million — to its post-recession $370 million.

“We are highly budget-sensitive; we had to reduce the numbers of our volunteer dramatically,” Hessler-Radelet said of the budget loss.

The agency reported receiving 10,118 applications in fiscal 2013, down from a peak of 15,384 in 2009. Application numbers in the past two years have been the lowest since at least 2003, according to Peace Corps statistics.

Many news outlets have pointed to the Peace Corps’ drop in applications as the motivation behind the overhaul, but the agency has always received more applicants than it can place as well as a greater demand from host countries than it has been able to service with its given budget, Hessler-Radelet noted.

The Peace Corps director has challenged staff to double the number of applicants, which could make a strong case for Congress to increase the budget once more.

The Peace Corps and VSO’s new online platforms are in good company. A quick glance at Austraining International, for example, which manages volunteer programs such as Australian Volunteers for International Development, shows that volunteers can check back to see approximately 100 new assignments on the first of each month. And those interested in volunteering with Cuso International, which places people of all ages with local groups around the world, can narrow their results by searching placements based on skill, country, language requirement and duration.  

Peace Corps recruitment changes, while seemingly drastic, are also on par with the professionalization of volunteer portals at large. But it is too early to tell whether the changes will help the agency increase its volunteer force from today’s approximately 7,000 to 10,000 by 2018, which Carrie Hessler-Radelet has suggested as a goal.  

What do you think of the Peace Corps’ recruitment revamp? Chime in by leaving your comments below.

Tell us your own volunteer story on Facebook or tweet us using #DoingMore, and check out all Doing More content here.

About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.