A father and his two children

Ethical volunteering abroad and alternatives to orphanage volunteering

If you’re reading this it is probably because you’re aware that sometimes volunteering abroad can cause more harm than good. But with thousands of volunteering programs available in countries across Africa, Asia and South America, it can be very difficult, as a prospective volunteer, to know which one to choose.

The debate around the pros and cons of international volunteering has been raging for the past decade. With hundreds of articles, blog posts and exposés out there, both in favour and against volunteering overseas, it is difficult to know what to think or where to begin when deciding what program is best to give your time and money.

We have pulled together some advice on the main things you need to look out for when researching voluntary work programs, as well as some examples of the types of activities you might like to consider - especially as alternatives for orphanage volunteering placements. 

But first, let’s look at some of the key ethical issues surrounding volunteering abroad, so we know what not to sign up for.

5 things that make volunteering abroad unethical

1. Taking local jobs

A big criticism of international volunteering is that it takes jobs away from qualified local people and gives them to international, usually young and unqualified volunteers. Volunteers should be either qualified to do the work or be fulfilling a legitimate skills gap which exists in the community.

2. Creating dependency

Another criticism of the practice of volunteering overseas is that little thought is given to what happens after the program ends and the volunteers go home. Can the work still continue? Has it been sufficiently set up so that eventually it can be fully sustained by members of the local community? After all, trends come and go and volunteers prepared to participate on one particular project in one specific country won’t be around forever.

3. Programs designed for the volunteer and not the community

Placing the volunteer experience before the needs and desires of the community is another big criticism thrown at the volunteer travel industry. This leads to projects which are not particularly impactful and can actually place a burden on the community in the form of having to adapt to meet the expectations of the volunteer.

4. Are we making money off of poverty?

One of the big moral arguments against volunteering overseas is that the practice can sometimes be exploitative, whereby money is being made or an ‘experience’ is being offered off of the back of poverty. Volunteering abroad as an industry is worth billions of dollars a year. Now, not all of the money generated from a volunteer program can realistically go directly to a host community, as volunteer programs cost a lot of money to run - especially if they’re being run well. But a question is posed about the amount of money being made by NGOs or volunteer travel companies versus the amount of impact being achieved at the local level. Some commentators have even argued that organisations that offer volunteering abroad programs, have an incentive to keep people poor, as without poverty they wouldn’t be needed and they’d go out of business.

5. An attitude problem

Probably the most damning criticism of the practice of volunteering abroad is that it can be neocolonial, paternalistic and racist. To some, volunteering overseas is founded on the assumption that an outsider from countries such as the UK, USA or Australia, could have better knowledge or skills to tackle a social challenge than the people who actually live in that country and understand the language, history, culture, religion, economics, politics and climate. The practice can risk creating a sense of superiority, where volunteers are told that they will be able to arrive in a country and make a difference to its people, without the need for any prior experience, skills or qualifications. The consequence of this is that those living in countries which receive international volunteers end up being portrayed as helpless, incompetent and in desperate need of help - even by someone without any knowledge of the issue or country.

Volunteer Checklist: What to look for when choosing an ethical volunteer abroad program

The above makes for some pretty depressing reading, but don’t be put off! Volunteering your time on an issue you care about is extremely important and a very worthwhile thing to do. It just needs a bit of thought and preparation first.

With more and more organisations using the word ‘ethical’ or ‘responsible’ in their marketing it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell what actually is a good program and what’s simply utilising the latest ‘buzzword’.

Below you can find listed our top 5 recommendations of things to look out for when it comes to choosing and applying for an ethical volunteer role overseas. You can read a longer and more thorough checklist here.

1. If feels more like completing a job application than booking a holiday

When it comes to volunteer programs abroad, although you’re paying some money to be involved, it is not a holiday and so the organisation should have some kind of criteria when recruiting you. Ethical organisations will run an application process  whereby you will be expected to complete an initial application form and attend an interview, which could be online or in-person. During the selection process, the organisation will be assessing your suitability for the role - especially if you’re hoping to work with children.

To make sure you’re in with a great chance of landing a role that you are well-suited to, have a think about what skills or qualifications you already have before applying. When researching possible programs, consider if you would be permitted to do the same role in your own country, or whether you would be deemed unqualified. For example, you wouldn’t be allowed to practice medicine or offer direct care to vulnerable children without being fully qualified in countries such as the UK, US and Australia. Also think about whether you could be taking a role away from a local professional who would be more qualified to do the job. For example, if you’ve never built a well or a toilet block before, there is very likely qualified builders in the local community who could do the work better than you. 

Choose a program that will benefit from your skills and get ready to complete an application in order to prove this to the organisation.

2. The project is designed with the needs and wishes of the community at its heart

Too often volunteering programs abroad are designed to focus on the experience and enjoyment of the volunteer and not on what is going to benefit the local community the most. When considering programs try to determine the reason the project came about. Ideally it would be through a long-standing relationship with the community, whereby the specific project was requested. If you can’t see any evidence of this on the organisation’s website, feel free to ask them directly. 

Similarly to thinking about how the program was set up, you also want to be thinking about what will happen when you leave. Can the project only continue with the presence of volunteers or is it self-sustaining? Look for projects which have been designed with longevity in mind. For example, a program where volunteers teach local teachers English is more long-term than volunteers directly teaching children, as when volunteers leave, the project itself can continue.

3. The organisation doesn’t offer orphanage volunteering and has strong child protection policies in place

Orphanage volunteering poses real risks to children and is also helping to sustain an industry that is purposefully exploiting children for financial gain. When checking out a volunteering provider, one of the first things you should assess is whether or not they offer programs in orphanages. If they do, we would recommend you vote with your wallet and shop elsewhere. 

Similarly, if the organisation offers any programs directly volunteering with children, check to see if they have a child protection policy in place and if a criminal record’s background check is required by all volunteers. If not, you can assume that they are not an ethical provider. 

4. Local people are represented with dignity and respect in all marketing material

In order to try and sell their programs lots of organisations rely on two things: 1) they want to make it seem that your support is extremely needed, and 2) they want to make it seem like you’ll be able to make a huge difference in the short time you’re on the project. This leads them to use images and phrases in their marketing that portray whole countries as in desperate need of help. They also use phrases such as ‘change the world’ and ‘change a child’s life’ to make development work seem easy and achievable. Unsurprisingly, solving complex challenges in countries across the developing world is actually extremely difficult, and the people most capable of doing it aren’t volunteers from other parts of the world, but local people who have in-depth knowledge of their community. Any organisation that uses pictures or words which rob individuals of their dignity or agency should be considered unethical. Instead, look for genuine emphasis on equal partnership, where projects are locally-led and change in being driven from within, with the support of international volunteers.

5. There is evidence of past impact

When choosing an ethical volunteering program abroad, you should be able to see how the project has benefited the local community already and how it plans to continue to do so in the future. Statements simply claiming to have ‘made a difference’ are not good enough if you’re looking for an ethical program. Instead look for quotes or interviews with local community members talking about the benefits the project has helped to bring about. You could also look for the organisation’s impact report where they will talk about what they’ve achieved over the past year. Remember, you’re looking for quality not quantity, evidence not hearsay. Reaching a thousand people with a terrible project is not as good as reaching a hundred people with a brilliant one. Claiming to have helped is not the same as showing how you helped.

How long should I volunteer for?

As the conversation around responsible volunteering abroad has become more mainstream, a commonly held belief has developed that if you volunteer for a long period of time there is less chance of you doing harm. Although it’s true that extremely short-term projects (2 weeks or less) are unlikely to make much - if any - real impact, volunteering for months or years on an unethical project is still going to result in you doing harm. For example, if you’re considering volunteering in an orphanage it makes no difference if you are there 2 hours or 2 years it is still damaging to the children involved.

How much should I spend on an overseas volunteer program?

Volunteering overseas trips are rarely cheap or free to volunteers because they cost money to run. For example, organisations have to cover the cost of things like volunteer accommodation and food, any training and support offered, all the logistics of the project itself, as well as the salaries of any paid staff members. The more expensive the project is to run, the more expensive the program is likely to be.

There is a common misconception that the more you pay to volunteer abroad the more ethical or responsible the project is. Unfortunately, this simply isn’t true. When assessing if the project you want to volunteer on is responsible, consider asking the organisation for a breakdown of how your program fee is spent and assessing whether you think a decent proportion goes to the local community.

Alternatives to orphanage volunteering

If you’re interested in volunteering with children abroad you may already be familiar with some of the arguments as to why you shouldn’t volunteer in an orphanage. But how else can you volunteer to support vulnerable children in countries such as Cambodia, Sri Lanka and South Africa? Here are some suggestions to help you do just that:

Support organisations working to keep families together

We know that the vast majority of children in orphanages have families who wish to care for them if they only could. One of the best things you can do for vulnerable children across the world is to support the organisations who are working to make sure that families can access the support they need in order to be able to provide appropriate care to their child. Do this and we can reform the care system in countries across the world, meaning that children will no longer have to grow up in orphanages, but instead can enjoy a loving, caring family for their whole life like they deserve. Here's a list of organisations working to strengthen families.

Volunteer on family reunification programs

If you want to volunteer, look for programs which are specifically working to help prepare families to be reunited with their child. Speak to local churches or organisations to understand the best way you could give your time.

Help raise awareness of the issue

Although more and more people are becoming aware of the issues surrounding orphanage volunteering, the practice is still extremely popular. Why not discuss what you’ve learnt with friends, family members and colleagues and help raise awareness for the betterment of children everywhere. Check out our campaign video and share it amongst your network.

Other ways to help make the world a better place

If you want to do some good in the world, you don’t have to volunteer abroad at all. There are plenty of other ways you can help.

Travel ethically

If you’ve been bitten by the travel bug and want to go and explore other parts of the world, know that you don’t have to volunteer in order to make a positive difference. Why not plan an ethical travel adventure making sure you buy locally and support social enterprises who give back to the community whilst you’re there? 

Build your own learning adventure

Check out this great book by Learning Service which talks about how you can plan your very own travel journey that gives you an opportunity to meet and learn from people along the way.

Become an ethical consumer

Whilst at home and on vacation, think about what you buy and where it comes from. Are workers being treated and paid fairly? Do your research and consider making a switch if necessary.

Learn about issues in the world and campaign in your own country

It’s true that regardless of how ethical your volunteer abroad program is, you will be able to make a bigger difference by being an active citizen in your own country - not just a few weeks or months, but across your whole life. Learn about how change happens and get advocating for the things you care about.

Volunteer in your own country

Sadly, there are issues and challenges in every country and community in the world that could do with some attention. Why not look at volunteering opportunities closer to home that you could stay involved with for a longer period of time?


What is family and community based care?

When it comes to children living in orphanages across the world today, we know that around 80% aren’t actually orphans at all, but have at least one living parent. One of the key drivers which sees them placed into institutions is poverty. Poorer families with very little social support, who are unable to cover the costs associated with education or healthcare, can sometimes feel that sending their child away to live in an orphanage is the only option they have to provide a good standard of living for them. 

The practice of volunteering in orphanages sees more and more money going towards sustaining the status quo, instead of towards programs which provide support to families and help them to stay together.

We want to see an end to orphanages as a model of care for children and a move towards what is called family or community based care instead. 

Family or community based care is where a child is able to grow up with their parents, their wider family or a foster family, ideally from the same community as them. We know that these care alternatives are the least invasive and disruptive to children, and the most likely to lead to their healthy and stable development. The very last resort should be to send children to orphanages.