Can you give us some background about when UBELONG was founded, and why?
Cedric: Raul and I have been involved in international volunteering and development for over 25 years. We’ve volunteered, worked and lived in over 40 countries throughout the world. We’ve never lost touch with the field and it is our belief that people are at the center of change.
UBELONG was founded in 2009 in Washington, DC to raise the bar in international volunteering. Prior to UBELONG, finding an opportunity to volunteer abroad was hard. There was limited flexibility, for example the Peace Corps that requires a multiple year commitment.
Moreover, tourism companies charging extremely high prices and having little capacity to support volunteers and make a genuine impact on communities were suffocating short-term international volunteering. Their driver was profit, not impact.
UBELONG stepped in to offer affordable and flexible short-term volunteering opportunities. We are a social venture. Our model is the first of its kind and has completely changed how people volunteer abroad. We’re not a tourism company. We don’t offer volunteering opportunities next to surf getaways.
And we are uncomfortable with the “voluntourism” fad-- we believe the motivations of volunteers and tourists are very different. We're mission driven. We make international volunteering more accessible because we believe everybody has something to learn and share.
If done right, international volunteering can change the world for the better. Human exchange is powerful. Learning, sharing and traveling can break down barriers and bring people together to solve problems in incredibly powerful ways. And that’s UBELONG-- changing lives, inspiring people and building communities.
What kinds of placements do you have? How long do these placements usually last, and what types of work do volunteers do?
Cedric: Our Volunteer Abroad program is currently across Africa, South America and Asia. We have over 120 projects in everything from education to business to health to the environment to more. Projects run one week to six months.
We offer international volunteering opportunities for all, from college students to professionals to retirees. Additionally, we’ve had volunteers from over 30 different countries around the world. UBELONGers are everywhere.
How do you choose your volunteers?
Cedric: The selection process is simple, in line with our mission to break down barriers and make international volunteering easy.
Any person 18 and older can apply on our site. We will then review your application and first look that you have the skills to join the project you are looking to be a part of and second the right attitude, or what we call the “UBELONG spirit”.
The first criterion is obvious—for example, if you’re looking to join a health project you need a medical background. The second is more intangible, but gets to the heart of why UBELONG volunteers have the well-deserved reputation of being the finest international volunteers in the world.
We’re not looking for tourists or people with a “me, me, me” attitude. We’re looking for people who are humble, open and proactive. You don’t need years of experience or an incredibly deep CV; many UBELONG volunteers are fresh out of high school. But you need the right spirit and we look for that right from the moment you apply.
What do volunteers' fees cover?
Cedric: I’ve been a volunteer for years of my life and, prior to co-founding UBELONG, went through almost every imaginable volunteer program. I know this for a fact: without compromising safety, flexibility and support, UBELONG offers the most affordable international volunteer programs in the world.
In addition to housing, meals and logistical support like airport pickup, UBELONGers work one on one with a UBELONG Mentor who supports them throughout their UBELONG experience. They also receive the 24/7 support of our local team, the opportunity to make an impact on real development projects and the peace of mind that comes from being part of the powerful UBELONG network, which is based in Washington, DC and stretches throughout the world.
How do you prepare your volunteers for their projects, either before they leave or as they arrive in-country?
Cedric: Among other world-class services, our volunteers work one on one with a UBELONG Mentor who supports them throughout their UBELONG experience, from the moment their application is submitted to the moment they return home.
Additionally, we have incredible local teams who provide UBELONGers with continual support, from orientations to networking opportunities to genuine friendship. It’s an incredible family of great people doing really good work. Being a UBELONG volunteer is a one-way ticket—the experience will change your life.
What's your favorite part of working with UBELONG?
Cedric: Being a UBELONG Mentor. UBELONG volunteers are some of the finest people I’ve ever come across, and I get to mentor them every day. I get to work with them before, during and after their experience. I get to know them on a professional and personal level, and I get to see the incredible growth they experience from their UBELONG experience. I don’t have a job, I have a passion.
What is the idea behind the name UBELONG?
Cedric: The name UBELONG is a call for action, and very much reflects the spirit and values of our organization. UBELONG is the simplification of a very simple but powerful statement: “you belong”. When we say “you belong” we are talking to the thousands of people who yearn to serve and get involved in international volunteering but struggle to find the right opportunity. We aim to offer that opportunity to them. There are so many people who want to understand and contribute to solving some of the most pressing issues the world is facing now, particularly in disadvantaged communities of the developing world, but find they do not belong to the world of international development.
What we are doing at UBELONG is trying to make it as easy as possible for common people to serve abroad because we believe that everyone has something valuable to contribute if they are given the chance. In addition, when we say “you belong” we are also talking to the local people who live in the communities across Asia, Africa and Latin America where we work. Through our programs we aspire to strengthen a sense of social inclusion in these communities. UBELONG volunteers fuel a feeling of “belonging” among project beneficiaries. By bringing locals and international volunteers side by side to work together they feel that they matter, that they belong to the same world, and that they have much more in common than they initially thought.
Besides, UBELONG is obviously an invented word. UBELONG sounds like the name of a new territory, a newly discovered land, and that also resonates with our mission. International volunteer service is not a new concept but we are trying to do things differently. UBELONG is new territory, almost like a state of mind that embodies our ideals and our vision of bringing people together, regardless of age, professional background or nationality, to learn from each other and make a difference.