Two young girls

Other volunteering programs with children abroad

Thousands of people, from countries such as the UK, Australia and the US, decide to volunteer abroad with children each year. Although often a hugely rewarding experience for the volunteer, programs with children can be quite controversial and don’t always lead to as much positive impact as you might initially hope. How can you make sure that the program you’re involved with doesn’t do more harm than good?

Whether volunteering with children in your own country or abroad, careful consideration should be given to the type of program you’re giving your time and money. After all, most people would agree that when a child’s safety, development and well-being are in question, you can’t be too careful! 

There are literally thousands of international volunteering programs with children available today, involving everything from teaching to childcare, sports coaching to art therapy. One of the most popular ways to give back is by volunteering at a children’s home or orphanage.

What is an orphanage?

The word ‘orphanage’ describes a residential institution where a group of unrelated children live together and receive care from paid staff members in the form of shelter, food, clothing and sometimes education. 

Orphanages no longer exist in countries such as the UK, USA and Australia, but do still exist across Africa, Asia, South America and parts of Eastern Europe.

The term ‘orphanage’ itself is quite misleading, as it implies that all children living there are orphans i.e. both their parents have died. However, we know that this isn’t true and that around 80% of children growing up in these types of facilities have one or more living parents. Read more about why orphanages are not all they seem.


Whether you’re taking a gap year or sabbatical, hoping to volunteer whilst studying at school or university, looking for an internship or study abroad opportunity, involved in a mission trip with your church, or simply considering visiting an orphanage whilst travelling, much has been written on how this practice is sustaining an industry that is exploiting and harming children. But what about other types of volunteering programs with children?

Gaining skills and experience through volunteering abroad

People often volunteer abroad because, as well as wanting to make a positive difference in the world, they hope to have new experiences and develop invaluable skills.

You might be considering volunteering with children abroad to learn more about early childhood development, gain new skills in childcare or social work, or have an opportunity to gain experience in teaching before entering a career in education or international development. Whatever your motivation, it’s so important to make sure that the experience you are receiving is not at the expense of the children the program is claiming to help.

In most roles, employers expect the candidate to have some previous experience, but they’re only going to be impressed if this experience is responsible, sustainable and impactful. Here’s some advice from Rebecca Smith, Senior Child Protection Advisor at Save the Children UK about getting experience to work in the children’s rights or child protection movement:

“As a child rights organisation, we are looking for candidates who are able to listen closely to community members, who understand power and privilege, can reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses, understand the importance of keeping children safe, and can think about the potential positive and negative impact of their actions. Save the Children does not support orphanage volunteering as we feel very strongly the evidence proves the negative consequences can have on children and their families.”

UCAS Points and University Credit

Lots of young people decide to undertake voluntary work with children whilst still at high school or during a gap year to earn UCAS points or University Credit. However, more and more Colleges and Universities are now becoming clear on the harms of this type of volunteering. Check out this petition signed by Universities across the UK pledging not to support orphanage volunteering! 

Whether you’re interested in teaching, childcare, sports coaching, mentoring or volunteering with children with additional needs, here are our 5 potential harms to be aware of.

1. Orphanage volunteering by another name

You can read about why orphanage volunteering should be avoided and hopefully make the decision to search for a different volunteering program to get involved with. But it’s important to realise that not all orphanages go by that name! As the public in countries such as the UK, USA and Australia have become more aware of the harms associated with orphanage volunteering, institutions and some program providers have begun ‘rebranding’ in order to stay in operation. You may see orphanages referred to as: children’s homes, shelters, safe houses, children’s villages, childcare centres, transitional homes or residential care institutions. Just remember that if you are able to visit an institution where a group of unrelated children are living together and receiving care from paid staff members in the form of shelter, food, clothing and sometimes education, it’s an orphanage and the harm to the children is the same.

2. Volunteering programs facilitating child abuse

As horrendous as it is to imagine, programs which give adults easy access to children have become a target for child abusers. Many programs working with children do not require any background checks from their volunteers, meaning that if someone had a criminal record it would go unnoticed. Even when vetting is conducted, many schools and care centres across the developing world do not have the procedures in place to be able to recognise and deal with abuse when it happens.

3. Children being exploited as attractions 

The idea of playing or working with children for a few weeks or months sounds like great fun, but how much choice is the child actually given when it comes to participating? Children are not attractions and should never be treated like something to tick off the bucket list. It is vital for the safety and well-being of all children involved that the volunteer program be designed with their best interests at the absolute centre - not the interests of the paying ‘customer’ i.e. the volunteer.

4. The well-intentioned, but unqualified

The vast majority of volunteers head out to countries throughout Africa, Asia and South America with the very best of intentions - they want to help. However, if good intentions alone were enough we would have solved all the world’s problems by now. Unfortunately, some social issues require qualified professionals with the experience to ensure that no unintentional harm is being produced. For example, children with additional support needs deserve to be cared for by a knowledgeable and qualified individual who will be present in that child’s life longer than a few months. As a volunteer, it is important to consider if you could do what the role requires of you in your own community at home? If you wouldn’t be able to because you don’t have the relevant experience of qualifications, why should you be able to do it in another part of the world?

5. Project sustainability and volunteer dependency

When it comes to volunteering projects abroad, a big problem exists with regards their sustainability. By their very nature, volunteers are only there temporarily. What happens to the project when they have packed up and gone home? Is it able to continue without the volunteers and the money they bring in or will it simply grind to a holt? The severity of this issue is escalated when you consider volunteering programs with children. For example, if you and your fellow volunteers are teaching in a school, will those children be able to continue with their education after the volunteers depart or will there be no one left to teach them? Volunteering programs come in and out of fashion. It is unethical to assume that volunteers and funding will be able to go to projects indefinitely.

These potential harms paint quite a negative picture of volunteering abroad with children. But there is a way to do it ethically and responsibly! Read on for more.

What are the best ways I can support children abroad?

Excellent news! You want to volunteer abroad with children but are conscious of how you can do this in the best way possible. Below we’ve listed our top 5 recommendations of things to look out for when it comes to choosing and applying for a volunteer role overseas with children. You can read a longer and more thorough checklist here.

1. You’re the right person for the role

When it comes to considering what volunteer program with children you might like to apply for, firstly have a think about the skills and/or qualifications you already have. Is it appropriate for you to do that particular role if you aren’t a qualified teacher or social worker? Would you be permitted to do the same role in your own country? Are you taking a role that a local professional would be more qualified to do?

2. It feels more like a job application than booking a holiday

When volunteering with children certain checks need to be completed. All before confirming a volunteer role, you should expect to fill out an application form, have an interview (on Skype or in person) and complete a DBS check (otherwise known as a criminal record check). If the organisation is a good one, they will want to know exactly who you are in order to confirm that you are suitable to volunteer with children abroad. If you can book onto a project without being asked any questions you can assume that your experience is being put above the safety and well-being of the children.

3.The organisation doesn’t offer orphanage volunteering placements

A quick-fire way of determining whether an organisation is ethical is by seeing if they run placements in orphanages or children’s homes. Choose to volunteer with an organisation that doesn't.  

4. There are strong child protection policies in place

Any organisation that works with children should have a child protection policy clearly accessible on their website. If you can’t find one, ask the organisation to see one. If they don’t have one, you shouldn’t volunteer with them. A child protection policy will include things like a statement outlining the organisation’s commitment to the safety and wellbeing of children, as well as detailed information with regards the steps taken to ensure their safety.

5. You’re doing more than cuddling children

Unless you are a qualified teacher or social worker, the volunteer roles you should seek out are supportive ones. For example, teaching or coaching assistants, working alongside local, qualified teachers and coaches. You should never be in a direct care role where you are bathing, feeding or dressing children, as this suggests the organisation are not prioritising the needs of the child.

Other ways of making a difference

Of course, you don’t have to step on a plane at all to support children. Here are a few final suggestions of other ways you may wish to consider supporting children across the world.

Become an advocate

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.

Volunteer with children in your own community

Sadly, there are children in all communities across the world who could do with some extra support. Why not look at volunteering opportunities closer to home that you could stay involved with for a longer period of time?

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?