For many first time (and even experienced) volunteers, volunteering abroad with children is often a popular choice, especially for those with an interest in social justice and empowering the youth. Working in refugee camps or providing care in orphanages may seem like a natural choice.
However, in recent years, the ethics behind volunteering at foreign orphanages have come into question, with a slew of unsavory organizations taking advantage of the hype to scam volunteers into funding unsustainable -- or even phony -- initiatives, resulting in an unexpected surge of orphanages and child trafficking.
Though we don't want to dissuade you from volunteering with children overseas, it's important to understand the complexities at work in this particular area, as well as figure out if your assistance is truly the best decision for the children that you'd like to help.
Keep reading for important questions to ask yourself, if you're considering a project volunteering with children.
Am I qualified to volunteer with children?
Wondering what will you be doing during your volunteer placement? When it comes to projects involving children, many organizations just need a pair of extra hands. As long as you know what’s expected of you, the work should be manageable.
However, if you're being enlisted for instruction beyond kickball and basic child supervision, it should definitely raise an eyebrow. Elementary education typically requires multiple degrees or certifications in the US and many other countries for a good reason; The kids you’re volunteering with deserve a great education like everyone else.
If you’re qualified to teach and highly-motivated, then yes, we encourage you to share your expertise. If not, be wary of any organization asking you to take on work you aren’t qualified to provide or do.
Questions to ask the organization
- What qualifications would you need to do this job in your home country? Do you have them?
- Do you need to obtain any certifications before you go, like CPR or TESOL?
- How many hours will you be expected to work?
- Are you passionate about the project you're being asked to contribute to?
Where should I volunteer?
In some ways, deciding where to volunteer abroad with children is the same as deciding where to go for any other trip. Think about the climate you want to work in, and remember that the northern and southern hemispheres have opposite seasons. Cities and towns close to international hub airports will likely be cheaper and have more options for pre- or post-placement travel.
You should also consider your language abilities. Unlike a regular trip, you will be working with locals, so your language skills and theirs will make a big difference. Also, children are less likely to speak a foreign language (unlike staff on an environmental conservation program) so knowing their language will help you communicate better with them.
Read more: The 10 Best Places to Volunteer Abroad
How long should I volunteer for?
Regardless of the volunteer project, if you really want to leave an impact, a longer duration is always better. Time allows you to build a rapport with your colleagues and the local community, making you a more helpful volunteer and ensuring you get the most out of the experience.
Two weeks is a good start, and usually the minimum for a lot of volunteer projects abroad. However, some programs can require volunteers to commit to 6 months of volunteering.
But what if you can’t commit weeks or months of your time?
Fret not! There are plenty of organizations with opportunities better suited to shorter commitments, like staffing an outing or a field day. Most organizations make their minimum commitment clear, but you should also check to see if a shorter duration limits the kind of work you can do.
How can I pick an ethical organization to volunteer with?
Deciding which organization to volunteer with is one of the most important decisions you will make when it comes to volunteering with children abroad. Therefore, asking a lot of the right questions is essential.
If the organization is responsible and cares about their volunteers, they won't mind answering all of your questions and will likely have an FAQ document to answer many of them. Whenever possible, read and compare reviews from volunteer alums. You could also try directly contacting past volunteers to get honest, first-hand opinions.
Questions to determine if the volunteer program is ethical
- Do you require background checks for volunteers? (The answer should be "yes")
- What kind of checks do you have in place to protect children and make sure the project is in their best interest?
- Will there be any cost associated with volunteering?
- Are room, board, and local travel included in the cost?
- Will I have a supervisor?
- What information can I expect pre-departure?
- What language skills are necessary?
- What physical skills are necessary? Is the location and the work accessible?
- Will there be any training or an orientation?
What kind of impact will I have as a volunteer?
We all want to make sure that our volunteer hours go toward an ethical company, and that our efforts accomplish as much as possible. The best organizations put their clients’ needs front and center, and work toward resolving an issue, effectively putting themselves out of business.
Aside from reading reviews and talking with a staff member, you can look at their website and annual report, where they should share their history, mission, examples of success, and financial information.
Questions to ask to consider impact
- Why was the organization founded?
- Where does their funding come from? Is it in jeopardy?
- How effective is the organization? How many people do they reach, and what impact do they have in their lives?
- To what extent do locals own and operate the organization?
- What ties do employees have to the population they’re serving?
- Are any locals being put out of a job so you can volunteer?
- Are the children’s needs the top priority?
- What kind of vetting process do volunteers have to go through?
Should I bring or make a donation?
Some volunteer placements ask you to make a donation, whether in the form of a volunteer fee, a tax-deductible donation, or by bringing some supplies with you. While the idea of paying to volunteer abroad can scare some people off, it can absolutely be done ethically.
If you’re asked to make a donation, you should feel comfortable asking a few questions about what it will cover. If you’re paying a fee, look at some other similar groups and see how their fees compare. There’s nothing wrong with covering the cost of your room, board, and other logistics, but you want to be sure the fees are fair and going to the right place.
If you’re asked to bring supplies, be sure to request an updated list so you can bring what they need most -- sometimes the needs of the organization aren't what we would expect them to be. It’s also worth checking on numbers and who you should leave the donations with, so you don’t accidentally cause a mob scene over the soccer balls or colored pencils you bring.
Does the organization have any rules in place to protect the children?
Organizations always set rules and guidelines for their volunteers, but it’s especially important to follow them to the letter when you’re working with children or another vulnerable population. Children form attachments easily, and the rules are put in place for their safety and emotional well-being.
They also may have allergies or other issues you don’t know about, so refrain from treating your first day like Halloween. It may be hard not to spend extra time with your favorite little one, and you may find promises accidentally slipping out of your mouth when surrounded by cuteness, but remember that in the end, you can have a damaging impact if something goes wrong.
Often, the children at organizations actively seeking foreign volunteers are vulnerable in other ways as well. They may be refugees, orphans, live in an impoverished area, or have special needs. Your supervisor will likely let you know if there’s anything else you should be aware of, but to be on the safe side, try not to make assumptions -- good or bad -- about the home life or histories of the children you work with.
Keep an open mind, and don’t press them for details. They may open up to you in time, but they may not -- after all, you are in their life on a temporary basis.
Are you able to give back, beyond the duration of the project?
Many volunteers find that they don’t want their time abroad to end. There are certainly ways you can keep that great feeling in your life, beyond just extending your stay. You could volunteer with a youth organization back home, or consider a career involving direct service with children.
It’s not unusual for non-profit and international development professionals to cite a volunteer abroad experience as their career inspiration. Another option is more indirect action, like fundraising for your host organization or an international group that supports children, like UNICEF.
Ready to volunteer?
Volunteering with children can be incredibly rewarding and even a lot of fun. You will find your belly aching from laughing so hard, but you might also feel heartsick when it’s time to go. Ask the right questions, do the research, and during your time abroad, try to take in every moment, because it will be over before you know it!