Volunteering with children or at an orphanage sounds like a worthy and worthwhile cause. Unfortunately, within the world of orphanage volunteering, it's far more likely you'll do harm than good if you don't do ample research, find a responsible organization, and prepare yourself for the real work required to support orphans around the globe. Impactful volunteering at an orphanage is not about snuggling young children or playing games; this guide aims to prepare you for the reality of what orphanage volunteering is actually like.
UNICEF estimates there are 2.7 million children in institutionalized care. A large number of orphanages for volunteers have been set up to scam volunteers from their time and money, to take advantage of well-meaning travelers, and to do meaningful and long-lasting harm to the children in their care. In this guide, we attempt to give you a balanced but realistic picture of the orphanage volunteering industry and to educate you about the risks involved for you and for the children you hope to help.
Before you dive into this guide, we advise you watch the following videos about orphanage volunteering: 5 Things to Know About Orphan Tourism by Learning Services and The Love You Give by Re:Think Orphanages.
The United Nations defines “orphan” as a child under 18 who has lost one or both of their parents. This does not account for social orphans, children whose parents have been stripped of their parental rights due to neglect, abuse, or inability to care for another human being. When a child does not have a parent that is alive or capable of caring for them, their basic human rights and needs are not met. Their first line of protection is absent, leaving them vulnerable.
The reasons that children become orphaned are varied around the world. On all continents, poverty is a leading cause of orphans and is the underlying factor for poor healthcare and education. The AIDS epidemic, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, is a major contributor to orphaned and abandoned children in the region.
Countries that have been plagued by war or natural disasters (like Haiti, Chile, Sri Lanka, Darfur, Niger, Pakistan, Mali, Chad, Syria, and Indonesia) also have an overwhelming amount of children missing one or both parents, in addition to a dwindling amount of people able to care for them due to the country’s dangerous and despondent circumstances. Countries with limited government stability are typically unable to produce funding for public assistance programs or qualified people to run and oversee orphanages or care homes.
As you can see, in all cases, it is the most vulnerable population in society -- children -- who are at risk of being taken advantage of. While this may make you all the more committed to helping orphaned children, you should be aware of the whole situation before you commit to any volunteering program. Read the "What to Know" tab for more information.
Most volunteers are not aware of orphanage scams -- or if they are, they often overlook the warning signs and are shocked to arrive in their volunteer placement and end up contributing to a system that takes advantage of a highly vulnerable population of children.
It is your responsibility to do your research before committing to a volunteer program of any kind, to ensure that the program is ethical, responsible, and does 'good' business. The onus is on you to both ensure you're ready to be a good volunteer and the program you choose is a responsible one.
When it comes to orphanage volunteering, it's important to keep some of the following additional issues in mind:
- Up to 80% of children that are marketed as 'orphans' in orphanage volunteering schemes have one or more parent or extended family member still living who could provide them care. These children are often used to lure volunteers who pay to work at the orphanage. Those volunteering fees go to the administrators with little left for education or nutritious food as may have been originally promised; this takes advantage of your generosity to divert your volunteering dollars away from the children who need them.
- In almost any situation, including non-orphanage settings, children can form strong attachments to someone showing them affection or with whom they develop a bond. They can also be deeply hurt, confused, and retraumatized by abandonment when that person leaves or does not keep promises to keep it touch or visit -- an inevitability in the case of orphan volunteering placements. For that reason, volunteering at an orphanage can actually have more of a negative than positive effect on the children, regardless of their orphan status.
- As a result of our previous point, very rarely should you actually be allowed to interact directly with the children. It's more responsible to get involved with tasks that don't have you interacting with children on a day-to-day basis, like cooking, cleaning, or administrative tasks. If this isn't what you hope to do on your volunteer placement, you may not be ready to volunteer abroad.
- Consider your previous experience and skills to see if you would be qualified for volunteering at an orphanage. Do you have knowledge of the local language or culture? Do you have a degree in education, childhood development, social work, or international development?
The rapid growth of the voluntourism industry around the globe has also sparked a growth in fake orphanages that are run as money-making schemes -- rather than to benefit the children in need.
At scam orphanages, fake 'orphans' (usually children from families in the area who have been promised their child would get a better education or quality of life) live in poor conditions while tourists are allowed to visit for a few hours or days and pay an on-site fee or then donate to the children. The best way to avoid a scam like this is to make sure your organization runs a background check, has a minimum length of stay, and has been vetted.
Assuming you find a reputable and vetted orphanage volunteering opportunity, being an orphanage volunteer, especially those traumatized from the loss of family, can be incredibly challenging and distressing. You should also look for programs that provide mental health support to employees and volunteers to help them manage the stress of this work.
Becoming a volunteer in an orphanage is not something you can do for a short amount of time or without serious consideration and research. If you choose to participate in the system of orphanage volunteering around the world, you can do great work to support the most vulnerable children in need -- but you can also do great harm. We trust you'll do your research (you can start with reading orphanage volunteer reviews and interviews from alumni on Go Overseas), prepare yourself mentally, and commit to doing the volunteer work these children and orphanages need, in addition to volunteering to grow personally and give back.
Worth noting that if your research leads you to question the ethical implications of orphanage volunteering -- that's a good thing! Education and awareness are key to learning, development, and meaningful change. Taking this a step further, if you'd like to learn more about how you can get involved to take a stand against orphanage child trafficking in particular, visit Freedom United's Campaign to End Orphanage Child Trafficking.
Orphanage Volunteer Programs Abroad
How many children live in orphanages?
UNICEF estimates there are 140 million orphans around the world, with 2.7 million in institutionalized care such as orphanages.
How can we help orphans?
More than anything, we need to be educated about our actions and how they can do harm even with good intentions. Educate yourself on the issues affecting orphans, including scams of 'fake orphanages,' and make sure the volunteer organization is properly vetted. Read reviews and interviews from previous volunteers to make sure this is the kind of program you want to be a part of.
What do you do when you volunteer at an orphanage?
If you want to volunteer at an orphanage, it's more responsible to get involved do tasks like cooking, cleaning, or administration instead of interacting with children, unless you are credentialed in child development, education, or casework.