Why international aid needs a viral social media presence

Sharing the Peace Corps experience with other Americans requires focused strategies and concentrated efforts

The Peace Corps boasts a roster of nearly 200,000 current and former volunteers since it was founded in 1961. And with thousands more family members, friends and fans in the loop, it would seem like a prime candidate for a successful social media strategy.

And in fact, the Peace Corps has a growing presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media sites to spread the word about its activities in 77 countries.

However, the Peace Corps is somewhat eclipsed on those sites by the hundreds of independent social media Web pages and groups created by current and returned Peace Corps volunteers, along with many independent websites, wikis and blogs that volunteers run.

People have set up sites specifically for countries that the Peace Corps serves, such as Lesotho, Ghana or Fiji. Other networking groups have organized pages based on when they served. Independent sites offer dozens of up-to-date blogs and news from Peace Corps members. On the whole, the Peace Corps on the Web appears to be dispersed as if it comprises hundreds of small villages.

Sharing the Peace Corps experience with other Americans is the agency’s much-discussed “Third Goal.” Many supporters say social media is the key to achieving that goal. But to do so, the agency might need to sharpen its strategies and concentrate its efforts.

In past years, agency supervisors were wary of allowing volunteers to visit Internet cafés to write online about their experiences. Some felt that high-tech contact would contradict the Peace Corps’ value of being totally immersed in a foreign community. Others raised fears about privacy, safety and national security.

Times have changed. Internet cafés are in every village, and the Peace Corps has finally embraced the idea of volunteers blogging and participating in social networking sites, as long as they mind security and safety protocols, said Erica Burman, director of communications at the National Peace Corps Association, an advocacy group.

The agency endorsed social media in its open government plan this year and is proud of its social media efforts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other venues. Other federal agencies with similar cohorts, such as the military services and Foreign Service, have made advances on the social media front, too.

“We are extremely happy with what we have helped to foster,” said Joshua Field, press director at the Peace Corps. “It is fairly organic growth.”

But many supporters say the agency could be even more aggressive in advancing the Third Goal. For example, activists at Peace Corps Online have complained that the agency spends far too little on Third Goal activities. “There is a general feeling that the Third Goal is an overlooked part of the Peace Corps' mission,” said Burman, whose association has lobbied Congress to increase the agency’s budget for publicizing its efforts on the Web and elsewhere.

And with a relatively fragmented presence on the Web, it is difficult for the Peace Corps to have a broad impact in reaching other U.S. residents, said Jason Pearce, a former volunteer to Guyana and creator of ThirdGoal.com, an independent website that aggregates Peace Corps volunteers’ blogs. “The volunteer efforts are decentralized,” Pearce said.

To be sure, some say fragmentation serves a valid purpose. “In the Peace Corps, you can have a bad day, bad week or a bad experience, and those might not be the type of stories the agency wants on their website,” said Mike Sheppard, former volunteer to Gambia and founder of PeaceCorpsJournals.com. “But those are the stories the applicants want to hear, the good and bad.”

Still, it's hard for volunteers to keep the momentum flowing and maintain a strong Web presence on their own, as many have been doing. “Over time, you lose steam,” said Pearce, who created ThirdGoal.com six years ago.

With an official role and much larger budget, the Peace Corps is in a much better position to marshal its long term social media efforts.

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