Affordable volunteering. How can UBELONG be so affordable?

Sarah Mathews

UBELONG has revolutionized how people volunteer abroad.In line with our mission to make international volunteering more accessible, we have made it more affordable, flexible and supportive. UBELONG Founder Cedric Hodgeman answers a question we often receive: How is UBELONG so affordable?

I am often asked how UBELONG can be so much more affordable than the other international volunteering organizations that also work across the world and with thousands of people every year. It’s a fair question, especially considering UBELONG fees can not only be more than 50% lower in some cases, but also offer more service—for example, each UBELONG Volunteer 2works one-on-one before, during and after their placement with a UBELONG Mentor who guides them through their international volunteering experience.

The question goes to the core of how UBELONG has managed to introduce a new model of short-term international volunteering that is big on affordability, but also service. I answer here as plainly as possible in five points:

1. Before considering how UBELONG can be so affordable, it’s worth asking why everyone else is so expensive. Well, volunteering abroad is a relatively new idea. The Peace Corps, which brought us international volunteering as we know it, was launched in 1961, barely more than 50 years ago. Most non-governmental international volunteering organizations weren’t founded before 1990 and, even today, there aren’t many for a variety of reasons, namely that launching an international volunteering organization is not easy.

However, the demand from people wanting to volunteer abroad has grown exponentially over the years. So, with the number of opportunities not keeping up with demand, as any econ 101 professor would then tell you, if there are more people wanting to volunteer abroad than there are spots for, then organizations can charge more. This applies to for-profit volunteering organizations, as well as “non-profit” ones, which are sometimes the most expensive of all.

So, while it’s true that UBELONG is affordable, it’s important to consider that almost everyone else is really expensive.

2. The UBELONG model keeps our field costs low. In all our locations we work with a network of local partners. Like most other international volunteering organizations, we have partners that are clinics, NGOs, schools, etc.  That’s where our volunteers work. However, we go beyond that and manage networks of local individuals and organizations that run everything else, for example airport pickup, orientation, housing, meals and field support.

While most volunteering organizations will ship an American or European representative to their locations to run the program, we rely on locals. From a development standpoint, it makes more sense to us—we’re empowering and hiring local capacity. And, getting back to the dollars, it fits us better. Yes, working with locals means we have to put more upfront work in terms of bridging cultural gaps and preparing them for the expectations of Westerners, who are 80% of our volunteers.

However, once our local partners are up the learning curve, we’re working with people who are more effective navigating the local context—it’s their country after all—and more likely to work with us long-term because they’re already at home. In terms of dollars, we’re doing more with less.

3. Connections are really important for developing new projects, recruiting volunteers and managing an organization like ours. We are fortunate to have many great connections, and these help us fulfill our mission to make international volunteering more accessible. Our connections come primarily from two sources:

-We started and remain connected to Washington, DC, which is a great city to be in if you’re involved with international volunteering and service learning as UBELONG is. When you walk down the street in DC you can’t help but walk into embassies, think tanks, government agencies and universities. This access is free and enormously valuable in building an international volunteering organization. Simply, we don’t have to hop on a plane to meet important people. We’re already living with them.

-To my chagrin, our team is not as young as we would like to think! We’ve been around the block, and we bring to UBELONG with an enormous network for us to tap into. Our team has consulted, volunteered and worked with a plethora of different organizations, from multinationals to investment banks to grassroots NGOs and major international development organizations. In leading UBELONG, we tap into these already established networks, further saving us time and money.

4. Marketing is expensive and takes a big chunk of most international volunteer organizations’ budgets. We also spend our fair share, but we’ve also embraced a very old fashioned mentality that keeps costs low: We really, really care about each UBELONG Volunteer. Our goal is to exceed their expectations. We do it because delivering excellent service is part of our organizational culture, but also because it reduces our costs so we can charge less.

Recruiting volunteers by purchasing Google ads is very expensive. But doing so through word of mouth is free. We’ve had people say UBELONG Volunteers are “over-serviced”—they pay half and get twice as much. But we believe it’s the right thing to do, and the results prove we’re on to something. Many of our volunteers come to us after being referred by a UBELONG alumnus. And, as our news section, volunteer reviews and UBELONG Facebook page show, the vast majority of our volunteers really like us and are willing to tell the world about UBELONG.

5. Who we are and what we expect is also very important to consider. We’re not a tourism company. We don’t offer volunteering opportunities next to bike treks and beach getaways. In fact, we are uncomfortable with the word“voluntourism” because we think the motivations of volunteers and tourists are very different. We want to help educate the public about that difference. Many people take a vacation to volunteer abroad. But taking time off work or school to volunteer is very different from taking a “volunteer vacation”. UBELONG does not offer “volunteer vacations” – we offer volunteer opportunities for people to engage with locals in meaningful work.

Instead, we’re mission driven. We want to make international volunteering more accessible because we believe international volunteering can change the world for the better. Human exchange is powerful. Learning, sharing and traveling breaks down barriers and brings people together to solve problems. And so, while we keep an eye on our economic bottom line like any organization, we also remain committed to our mission of offering more people the chance to volunteer abroad.

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