Young childen sitting down

Can I volunteer at an orphanage abroad? 

One of the most popular activities to do as a volunteer abroad is to spend time in an orphanage with children. Although this may seem like a great way to help children, it actually has the opposite effect.

Check out The Love You Give film to find out why volunteering in an orphanage is not a good way to help children abroad.

Why is orphanage volunteering harmful to children?

Here are the 4 main problems with volunteering in an orphanage in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe or Latin America:

1. Orphanage volunteering is contributing to a global industry which is separating children from their families

Orphanages are never the best place for a child to grow up. We know from decades of research that growing up in care has severe effects on children. Despite this, up to 8 million children are thought to be living in orphanages. What's more, over 80% of children in orphanages are not actually orphans and have parents or families who could care for them.

The desire of volunteers to get involved in an orphanage placement is creating a demand for more ‘orphans’. Children are being recruited to fill the spaces in orphanages across the world. By volunteering in residential care institutions abroad, we contribute to funding an industry which is purposely separating children from their families in order to make a profit. Find out more about why orphanages are fundamentally harmful to children.

2. The practice of orphanage volunteering poses huge child protection risks 

Across Europe, Australia and the US, if you want to volunteer with children you will first have to undergo a strict criminal records check to ensure your suitability. International volunteering does not always require the same checks, which means that complete strangers might be given intimate access to vulnerable children - even if they have harmful intentions towards them. By volunteering in orphanages, we normalise the practice of unchecked individuals having access to children.

3. Orphanage volunteering contributes to attachment disorder

Children who have been separated from their parents and placed in an orphanage are at increased risk of developing something called attachment disorder. This disorder is made worse when children are encouraged to form an attachment to a volunteer only for them to leave a few weeks or months later. The process then begins again when the next volunteer arrives. This means that children learn not to trust or invest in healthy relationships. 

4. Orphanage volunteering violates a child’s right to privacy under the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child

Children growing up in orphanages have very little privacy, due to living in a large group and having frequent visitors and volunteers in their home.

Take a look at these volunteer testimonials to see what returned volunteers have to say about their experiences. 

Can I volunteer in a good orphanage?

Volunteers often ask if there is ever a situation when volunteering in an orphanage is a good thing to do. Unfortunately, the harms of orphanage volunteering are not only happening in a handful of places, but in countries across the world. 

It’s important to remember that an orphanage, regardless of how it is run, is never the best place for a child to grow up. By volunteering you are supporting an industry which is keeping children and their families apart.

If I can’t volunteer in an orphanage can I raise money for them instead?

Governments across the world have agreed to move away from orphanage care in the knowledge that it is not the best option for children. However, efforts to move away from the use of orphanages are being undermined by well-intentioned Westerners continuing to support them by volunteering or donating. People are more likely to give to an orphanage than they are to a family-based care initiative, which only means that more children are unnecessarily separated from their families. Some orphanage owners even purposefully exploit the children in their care by keeping them malnourished and dirty in order to leverage more donations from unsuspecting volunteers and tourists. Volunteering and donating are both great things to do, but make sure you’re supporting an organisation that is working to keep families together and not an orphanage. 

What about if I just visit an orphanage?

If you travel to places such as Cambodia, Tanzania or Nepal you may find yourself being offered the opportunity to visit an orphanage for a few hours. It’s common to see these trips being advertised in hostels, hotels, restaurants and even by your taxi or tuk tuk driver. It’s important to remember that often the individuals or businesses promoting these orphanage visits are getting a cut of the profits. Just by visiting you are supporting the continuation of this model of care for children. Learn more about orphanage visits.

What’s a better way to help children abroad?

Poverty is the main reason why millions of children still live in orphanages. In order to ensure that we can move away from the orphanage model of care it is important that we redirect support away from orphanages to programmes which help to strengthen communities and keep families together. 

Here’s some suggestions of alternative ways you may wish to support:

  • Spread the word! The only way we can make sure that the practice of orphanage volunteering can no longer fuel the separation of children from their families is if as many people as possible know about the issue so that they can change the way they volunteer too. Why not share our campaign film on your social media?
  • Donate to or volunteer for programmes which keep children and their families together. Volunteer with an organisation that doesn't offer orphanage volunteering or support one of organisations actively tackling the underlying reasons why children are ending up in orphanages.
  • Support ethical businesses where you’re travelling. When you know where you’re going, do some research to find out about local social enterprises or businesses that pay their workers fairly and offer some benefit to the community. Remember, if parents can afford to care for their children they won’t be as likely to be placed in an orphanage
  • Vote with your wallet and avoid giving your support to organisations who run or promote orphanage volunteering, visits or day trips. If the demand isn’t there children will not be unnecessarily separated from their families. Doing so only keeps them on the streets for longer.
  • Check out our page on other ways you might consider volunteering with children abroad.

Don’t volunteer or donate to an orphanage. Instead, help us build a better alternative for children. Find out more and get involved.