Interview with Chris Engler, Founder of World Unite!
What is World Unite! for you?
I see the World Unite! as a creative and enriching environment under which we offer a plethora of options which are "learning opportunities" abroad. We offer our participants the chance to broaden their horizons and their intercultural understanding in many countries. Our aim is to blur the boundaries between traditional providers of voluntary services and internships abroad, travel agencies and educational institutions.
As we are an NGO ("The World Unite for Environment and Social Sustainability") and we cooperate with many NGOs that are involved in development, employ locals who we compensate at a fair price, and give space for personal development, we consider ourselves also a part of international development cooperation.
In how far does World Unite! differ from other providers?
We are authentic in the way that we are not a planned business construct. World Unite! is the result of several individuals who act out of full conviction and who are highly motivated for what they are doing with World Unite!. We are a great team and I'm particularly thankful to have had the luck that I got to know such highly engaged and proactive individuals since the beginning of World Unite!. Without them, World Unite! wouldn't be what we are today. No system, no strategy and no perfect planning can replace the commitment of people who don't see their work as just another job, but as a vocation.
Their motivations may differ though - some want to improve the understanding between peoples by means of cultural exchange. Others want to achieve positive results for local development in the so-called developing countries. Others who have been World Unite! participants themselves in the past and who today work in the preparation and support of our participants, told me that they see their previous selves in every single participant and can therefore perfectly understand their sorrows, wishes and difficulties, and that it is their personal concern to prepare them for their stay abroad the best way possible. Others simply want to provide the best service on location to our participants.
Our team members are however not only highly motivated, but also competent. All the members of our core team hold BA or MA degrees in relevant subject, and work experience. As World Unite!, since our start in 2006, and with currently around 1000 participants per year, we were able to acquire a lot of experience, allowing us to constantly improve our work.
A large difference and one of our main advantages is also that we are ON LOCATION. At all destinations where we regularly have a larger number of participants, we have our own staff, and we are locally registered as companies or NGO. We are not a "sales and marketing company" sitting somewhere in an office in a Western country, far away from what's going on locally, but we are actively involved in the way how our programs are run locally and how the services are lcoally provided to our participants. Only at a few locations we work with external partners, who we have been successfully cooperating with for a long time. However, we are also reachable at our contact offices and provide support in Germany (Berlin, Dresden, Essen) and Austria (Graz).
We prioritize on quality, however without high fees. In fact our program fees are amongst the most affordable ones. We make this possible because firstly maximization of profits is not priority, but for the volunteering programs our revenues should only cover our operational costs. Furthermore, we try to organize ourselves in the most efficient ways possible, making use of newest technologies.
It is our team members, their motivation, our experience, and the individual and fair way we deal with our participants and everyone else involved that make the difference.
How did you start World Unite!?
In 2005, I was at the International Tourism Fair in Berlin, and met Salim, the director of a small tour operator company in Zanzibar. He told me about Zanzibar and suggested that I should go, to experience the place. A week later, I was in Zanzibar and stayed for 3 months as Salim's intern. I travelled in the buses with the tourists and got to know all the places of the island. People from Germany knew that I was in Zanzibar and asked me if I could organize a volunteering assignment in Zanzibar for them; at the same time, local NGOs were constantly at Salim's tour operator company asking for money.Tourism is Zanzibar's main source of income and Salim was already very active supporting NGOs, e.g. by supplying the SOS Children's Village with drivers and buses free of charge for their school excursions. That was when I realized that it made sense professionally to bridge these two interests - to arrange worthwile volunteering and internship assignments in Zanzibar, which at the same time support the charitable organisations. Salim and I started organising volunteering opportunities in Zanzibar. A short time later, we expanded our offering to the Kilimanjaro region on the Tanzanian mainland.
How has World Unite! continued to grow?
There were almost always committed individuals in contact with me, who knew what I was doing in Tanzania, asking whether it wouldn't be a good idea to do something similar in their home country. In this way, all other countries in which we operate today were added in subsequent years.
What are your future plans with World Unite!?
We want to be a quality leader in our sector, not only in the direct services that we provide to our participants, but also in the sustainable use for the charitable projects we work with at many locations.
To achieve this, we put more and more effort into the preparation of our participants who play an active role at what they are doing at their host countries and therefore have a crucial impact on our local success.
In 2016 we have also started our worldwide "Go Green" initiative, which is already partially implemented at many of the accommodation we use, but which will be continuously developed further with clear environmental guidelines for our worldwide operations. The most comprehensive implementation of these guidelines can currently be found at our "Mother Nature Forest Camp" in Zanzibar where we use high tech compost toilets from South Africa, solar energy, solar water heaters, and further environmentally friendly techniques. We are, by the way, currently planning for further Mother Nature Camps at further worldwide destinations.
To reach our goals we make use of technology, which nowadays through cloud-based software and smartsphones, is usable at almost every corner of this planet. In this way we can organize ourselves more efficiently, as all team members can always update all details about each participant and each project, which helps us to avoid mistakes and to keep the costs low for our participants. We want to further optimize this.
We also want to support and empower our team members and partners at all locations where we are active, to make them grow professionally and personally, and to always keep up their high pleasure and motivation for the work. We don't see ourselves as a "Western" organization, trying to impose our concepts to our international team members, but within a certain framework, a lot is being developed directly in the countries where we are active, always taking into account local circumstances.
Also, we want to keep on growing and we want to add further countries, however not at any cost. It has to happen at a pace that we can manage while keeping quality and sustainability high.
We will continue to focus on NICHES. On World Unite! you can find exciting activities at destinations that nobody else is offering!
Which is your favourite country or place?
I find it particularly attractive to operate in many places and to be able to enjoy the best of each country. However, every place and every country has particular advantages and disadvantages and I find no country "100% perfect"; it is exciting for me to get to know countries extensively by working there. Nevertheless, I feel a special affiliation with Zanzibar and Tanzania, as that was the beginning of the journey for me. Of all the countries in which we operate, I have spent most of the time there.
Three special locations I want to name however, because they are particularly special. Those are: the peer at "Mbweni Ruins" in Zanzibar with the Indian Ocean, the tropical rain forest and the villages at the "Cultivation Zone" on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, at a height of where the coffee plantations are, with their pure and vitalizing oxygene, the mountains around Kangra Valley in Himachal Pradesh in northern India, and the forests, ocean and cultural mix of Japan's tropical island of Okinawa.
Where do you hire the staff of World Unite! from?
Their attitude must be right. One must be excited and want to make a difference. Several of our employees today were participants of World Unite!, loved what we did and sent an unsolicited application. As we are constantly hiring new team members, everyone interested can do so! You don't need to be a former participant.
What annoys you about your work?
What annoys me is the media sensationalism, which causes a completely distorted perception of the world in many people. This is not only the so-called yellow press, but also those who consider themselves serious, that oversimplify complex issues, are one-sided and manipulative in their writing, using lurid headlines to achieve clicks, ratings or circulation. I have experienced situations all over the world, and see that the representation in the Western media hardly corresponds to the situation on the ground. Everything is sensationalised and portrayed as horrible; as a result, the readers get panicked and become hysterical. The average citizen has the idea that in India, women are very likely to be raped, due to the representations in the media, that all of Africa is full of Ebola and that every Muslim is a terrorist. This reporting is irresponsible and is counteractive to our efforts towards giving people a realistic view of the world beyond us. Here, I would hope that journalists and editors, in their thought leadership function in society, see clearly and act ethically responsible.
What advice would you give to young people today?
They should go out into the world and create their own opinions and outlook about it. Our intercultural preparation and our services help them to quickly understand behavior and thinking of people from other cultures and thus, make their stay more meaningful.