I Volunteered At An Orphanage, And Now I Campaign Against It

volunteering at an orphanage

I Volunteered At An Orphanage, And Now I Campaign Against It. Photo via sevenMaps7/Shutterstock; Edited by Epicure & Culture.

By Anna McKeon from the Better Care Network

Back in 2010 I was fed up with living in the United Kingdom. I wanted an adventure. I wanted to do something more socially orientated – something “worthwhile.”

I did a bit of research and talked to some friends, and ended up finding out about an organization that ran orphanages and educational centers in Kenya, Thailand and Indonesia. They were looking for Co-Directors, long-stay volunteers who would run one of their centers for at least a year. There was no salary, but accommodation and food was provided – and, so the conversation went – you would get first hand experience running a small non-profit and volunteering at an orphanage.

This sounds perfect! I thought.

The opportunity fit my budget, timeframe, the kind of commitment I wanted to give, and the things I wanted to learn. My friends were amazed at what I was doing. “You’re so brave” was something I heard often. The only person who questioned my choice was my Dad.

“What skills do you have to be the Co-Director of an orphanage, Anna?”

I shrugged his question off. I had a lot of great transferrable skills. They just needed someone smart and motivated. And I wasn’t prepared to let a small matter of relevant experience stand in the way of my life plans.

So, I got on a plane and went to Kenya. A white 29-year-old British girl with no qualifications in child care, child development or international development. I had no knowledge of Kenya, no knowledge of any languages spoken there, no understanding of the culture. The only vaguely relevant experience I had was a one-week teaching-English-as-a-foreign language certificate I had gained 10 years previously.

And somehow, I thought this was a good idea.

volunteering at an orphanage

A Kenya sunrise. Photo via Anna McKeon.

The Problem With Orphanage Volunteering

As you may have guessed this is a cautionary tale. I was completely, completely unprepared for just how bad an idea it really was. I spent a month in Kenya before I was transferred to another orphanage in Thailand where I spent a further five months. Although I was supposed to be there a year, I left halfway through. Why? Because during the experience I realized I was so under-qualified and unprepared that my best and most responsible recourse was to leave.

I did, however, learn a huge amount in that short time. To ensure you don’t make the same mistakes I did volunteering at an orphanage, I’d like to share some of these with you.

volunteering at an orphanage

Volunteering in Thailand. Photo via Anna McKeon.

Here are the top five lessons that I learned…the hard way.

1. As a volunteer, you MUST have appropriate skills. 

If you don’t, at best, you’ll be pretty useless, and at worst you could be putting yourself and others at risk. I discovered this when I was faced with a situation where one of the older boys at the orphanage was threatening one of the younger girls with a hunting knife. She had accused him of coming into her room at night and sexually assaulting her. I had no idea how to handle the situation. This incident made me wonder what on earth I was doing there. The children didn’t need me. They needed trained staff and social workers who spoke their language. There is no place for unskilled volunteers in working with vulnerable children.

There is no place for unskilled volunteers in working with vulnerable children. #StopOrphanTrips Click To Tweet

2. As a volunteer, you have a responsibility to think of the long-term impact of your actions.

It’s not just about you. Once you complete a project you go back to your home country and your real life, while the children and communities you have engaged with stay put. I didn’t think about this when I left the UK. I was so wrapped up in what the experience would be providing me that I didn’t even consider the impact I would have on the children I would be working with.

As it happened, the children were really sad when I left. Some were even angry, because volunteers tend to make promises they don’t keep like staying in touch or coming back to visit. I had promised to stay in Kenya for a year and left after a month. Vulnerable children shouldn’t have to deal with that kind of disruption in their lives.

volunteering at an orphanage

Your orphanage volunteer stint can do more harm than good. Photo: Volkan Olmez/Unsplash.

3. You need to find out what you don’t know before you go.

Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. There are many things I knew I didn’t understand when I went to Kenya — such as language and culture — but I was prepared for that and interested in learning; however, there were other things I hadn’t considered, mainly to do with the social and economic causes of why children end up in orphanages and why that’s a problem. Also to be considered is why those things meant it was even more of a bad idea for me to be doing what I was doing.

What I didn’t know then that I know now is that orphanages should never be a long-term solution for children. There’s over 60 years of research that demonstrates that growing up in residential care such as orphanages can be harmful for children’s health, development and life chances. So orphanages also shouldn’t be used as a solution to larger social issues such as poverty or access to education.

Most of the children at the orphanages I worked at had parents, or some living family members (as is the global norm). They were there because they came from marginalized communities. I witnessed two children being separated from their father to come and live in the orphanage so they could go to a better school in the city. While I am a big believer in education, I also believe that a child should have a right to live in a family and have access to education.

The trauma that I witnessed those children go through in being separated from their parent was real and distressing. Separating children from their families should not have to be the only solution for them to be able to access better life chances. The more you support orphanages, the more you support this as a solution to challenges facing marginalized communities. We can — and should — do better. Instead, support organizations who provide rural education, income generation for families, foster care or provision of social workers.

I pictured what #volunteering would do for me; I forgot to think about those I was helping. Click To Tweet
volunteering at an orphanage

Don’t just think about your experience. Take into account the community’s, as well. Photo via Liane Metzler/Unsplash.

4. Volunteers can undermine local initiatives for change.

In the context of the orphanages I worked with, this was very apparent. The founder didn’t trust local staff as she thought they would steal from her, hence it was only foreign volunteers who could be in charge of finances and key decision making. The children had few role models within their own community to look up to.

On a larger scale, and what child protection experts are concerned about in many countries around the world, is that volunteers make orphanages look like an attractive option for families. Volunteers bring money and resources, and are often assumed to be well-educated. Therefore, they are more likely to send their children to orphanages.

5. It doesn’t make sense to support badly-run organizations.

It’s very common to read volunteer stories where they visit an orphanage and find it half-built, with children in dirty clothes with little food. They are moved to help such organizations because they are more “in need.”

This is an understandable response, but actually doesn’t make sense in the long-run.

The organization I worked for was badly run, and as a result there wasn’t enough money to give the children nutritious meals or pay for school supplies. I felt compelled to work 16 hours a day for six months to try and see how things could be improved.

Realistically, I shouldn’t have been working with that organization at all. It would have been much better to give my time and money to a well-run organization that might have be able to give those children better support services.

In addition, badly run organizations can put people at risk. I saw this both with the children (see Point 1) and with the volunteers. Shortly after I left Kenya all the volunteers at the orphanage were arrested because they were volunteering on the wrong visa. They spent a night in jail, had to pay a fine and were then deported. The organization did nothing to step in to support these volunteers during that time.

#StopOrphanTrips: volunteers make orphanages look like an attractive option for families. Click To Tweet
volunteering at an orphanage

Work for positive change. Photo via Mongkol Rujitham/Shutterstock.

Working For Positive Change

All of this (and more) is why I am so grateful for the opportunity work with the Better Care Network and Save the Children UK to support their initiative to discourage volunteering in orphanages. Better Volunteering Better Care began in 2014, and is a global movement working with advocates from a range of backgrounds and sectors to raise awareness of these issues. Better Volunteering Better Care also seeks to support positive alternatives to orphanage volunteering, as there are lots of (better) ways to support positive change.

For ideas on responsible volunteering abroad, check out this advice from Next Generation Nepal – an organization working with vulnerable children in Nepal. Watch these videos from Learning Service and read up on these articles on Globalsl.org.

To learn more about how to support vulnerable children and families, explore the work of the ChildSafe movement, discover Kinnected’s work in Australia and find out about what Alternative Care Uganda are trying to achieve.

It’s a little weird to be campaigning to stop people doing something you once did yourself. Some of my friends have tried to reassure me about my experiences, telling me that “it worked out in the end” and “now you’re trying to put things right.” To be frank, I don’t think it works that way. Vulnerable children and communities shouldn’t have been put at risk just so that I could learn a few lessons and start making better choices with my good intentions. And it didn’t really work out in the end – the children I worked with are still in the orphanages, with volunteers still arriving all the time. I’m no closer to changing that situation than I was five years ago.

What I do hope can change, is that more people become aware of the problems with orphanage volunteering before they make the decision to book a trip abroad. That’s one of the reasons why this month, Better Volunteering Better Care is working with bloggers across the world to raise awareness of these issues. There will be a different article published everyday for a month, in the run up to International Children’s Day on June 1st. We’re also calling on volunteer travel organizations to stop offering orphanage placements as part of their product offerings.

Want to help #StopOrphanTrips? Here's how: Click To Tweet
volunteering at an orphanage

Support projects with a positive lasting impact. Photo via STANZI/Shutterstock.

Get Involved

If everyone who reads this can share at least one blog post in the month — if not more — there’s a chance to make a tremendous impact. If something shocks you, if you learn something, if something’s interesting or appalling, share it to your networks and raise awareness across global sectors and bring about the change required to #StopOrphanTrips. Don’t forget to include the hashtag!

Sign the Avaaz petition calling for travel operators to remove orphanage volunteering placements from their websites by the next Responsible Tourism day at the World Travel Market in London in November 2016. Don’t forget to share it and include the hashtag #StopOrphanTrips, too!

If you’re a volunteer tourism operator who is happy to #StopOrphanTrips, then please let us get in touch – we’d love to highlight your support of the campaign. For more information, visit www.bettervolunteeringbettercare.org, and if you want to learn more or get involved, email volunteering@bettercarenetwork.org.

What are your thoughts on volunteering at an orphanage? Please add your voice to the comments below. 

volunteering at an orphanage

Anna McKeon

About Anna McKeon

Anna McKeon is based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Since her experience volunteering in orphanages in Kenya and Thailand, she has worked as a Communications Director and freelance consultant designing and implementing strategy for NGOs and social businesses. She is now the Co-Coordinator for Better Volunteering, Better Care, a global initiative facilitated by The Better Care Network and Save the Children UK aimed at discouraging orphanage volunteering and promoting ethical volunteering alternatives. In her spare time she enjoys facilitating educational travel trips challenging concepts of volunteer travel and international development.

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Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.

24 Comments

  1. Brilliant post, Anna. Like you, I have also learnt from my past mistakes as a voluntourist, and hope to prevent others from doing so, too. I have signed the petition. Best of luck!

  2. All that you have written is good, but i don’t think so it is fully correct. In developing or under developed countries have a cause of their own. Moreso, it is not as simple as ABC to foster institutions that would be generating incomes or educational opportunities who could not afford even a meal everday. It is a a vicious circle! Yes that is apt, trained & apt staff should look after the kids, but completing talking against volunteering is unfair.

  3. All that you have written is good, but i don’t think so it is fully correct. In developing or under developed countries orphanages have a cause of their own. Moreso, it is not as simple as ABC to foster institutions that would be generating incomes or educational opportunities to certain areas that could not afford even a meal everday. It is a vicious circle! Yes that is apt, trained & educated staff should look after the kids, but completely talking against volunteering is unfair.

  4. Hi Anna,
    Thank you so much for this article!
    I do agree completely and made similiar frustrating experiences throughout the years.
    Interestingly enough, I even considered applying for the position at that Organisation as well and really glad now, that I did not.
    But I do think that there are also healthy ways of volunteering, where the volunteer and the service users/the organisation can profit from the experience – it’s just a bit tricky to find them 🙂
    I do would like to thank you for making the issues obvious and fighting fir awareness!
    Keep up the good work!
    Many greetings, Lisa

  5. Thank you for the comments and support.

    Leena – I do agree with you, it’s not a black and white issue. Rather it’s very complex and differs country to country, region to region and even institution to institution. It’s also true that in many countries residential care (orphanages) will be needed in some form for some time until the social work and alternative care systems are robust enough to adequately support vulnerable communities. However, what I have heard from my colleagues working in child protection in a number of countries is that while there are efforts to develop these systems, the volunteering/missions/service industry supporting orphanages is so powerful, and supporting the growth of residential care at such a rate, that children are are being separated from their families faster than the government and civil society can reintegrate them, or support the families to stop that being necessary. In 2011 the government of Cambodia requested in a report that volunteer travel companies stop orphanage placements for just this reason. Ideally we want to shift some of this support away from orphanages and towards organisations that support families and communities.

    For me, in terms of volunteers, I’m certainly not against all forms of volunteering. However, I am against volunteering in these settings, where I believe, based on my experiences, and the advice of many organisations I know working in this area, it is not appropriate. If just 20% of the volunteers who went to orphanages instead supported education organisations, or social work organisations – by assisting with administration, fundraising, advocacy, or with a skill they have that’s relevant – that would be huge!

    I also think in general it’s really important to highlight these discussions – and so really appreciate your comments and feedback. The more we can promote critical, open discourse around these issues, the more likely we are to move towards better practice and more positive social change.

    1. Then, in response to your penultimate paragraph…don’t you think it’s better to encourage people to continue with those initiatives after traveling and evaluating the situation rather than discourage ALL volunteerism with orphanages? I think people often start these campaigns with good intentions but you don’t realize the damage you are doing to the GOOD programs out there with this vicious hashtag that is putting a bad name for ALL orphanage programs out there. There are many shades of grey, and you’ve just agreed that that’s the case. Why not work to encourage the positive instead of condemning it all?

  6. This is great. I am extremely interested in and dedicated to sustainable volunteering and sustainable development overseas. As a university student, I’m leaving next week for a three moth research trip to East Africa to look directly at the results of voluntourism and its negative impacts. Would love to talk more about it if you’ve got the chance. Well written!!

  7. My daughter volunteered weekly at an orphanage for about three years. However, we did not get into the caretaker role, but we spent an hour each week helping the caretakers. Sometimes this meant sitting and holding babies and toddlers, playing games with them or helping them with different activities. We were in it for the long haul. We also lived in the culture and I am a social worker who has worked a number of years in adoptions. I am against volunteers coming to a country with no experience and thinking they are making a great contribution in some child’s life by spending an hour or two with them. That is not helpful and is very selfish actually.

  8. I think volunteering is a fashion statement to put it more dramatically. We do not work on our neighborhoods but travel across the world to help someone whose world we do not even understand.

    1. And that’s a great point! There are so many pressing issues in our home communities, and yet sometimes it seems “easier” to help those who are further away. I know of one really interesting organisation in the UK (I’m sure there are many others elsewhere!) called Year Here http://yearhere.org. They get young people to do social impact fellowships in their local communities to try and address some of the problems there.

  9. I definitely understand your experiences but must disagree in part. It was extreme negligence to take a foreigner with no knowledge of orphanages, Kenyan culture, language, etc. and make them a “co-director” but that doesn’t mean all volunteering is bad. I volunteered at an orphanage in South America. Despite having an advanced degree, I and they understood I had limited useful skills and thus my job was to just hang out with the kids who really craved adult attention. There is just no way kids in an orphanage are going to have enough time with adults. This orphanage relied heavily on volunteers to help kids with homework, get them to doctor appointments, change diapers, mop floors, play sports with the kids, etc. etc. Most of the volunteers were grad students from Spain with relevant experience who return again and again. I myself returned 7 times in 2.5 years – the last time I left with 2 amazing children from the orphanage who are now my son and daughter. I really hate to see people “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” My 12 year old son remains in frequent contact with some of the volunteers and it is an important link to his past. Also, the local, paid employees come and go as well – this is the sad reality of life in an orphanage. Had I not gone, my kids would almost certainly till be living in the orphanage. I know the trend now is to stop “orphanage tourism” and I cringed at the honeymooners who would stop by the orphanage with a tour guide for the afternoon with supplies instead of just donating without requiring their photo op with the kids — but there are many well run orphanages who desperately need the help of volunteers to give these kids the attention that they need.

  10. It is so sad to hear there are orphanages like that taking care of children who have families that could look after them while other countries do not have enough orphanages to care for those who are truly in need. I have seen many orphanages of the later kind who look after children who are true orphans. In some cases they survived while their whole village was massacred during civil war. In some cultures living with relatives is not a good option since it often leads to slavery and sexual or physical abuse. In these cases often one relative will bring the child to the orphanage to protect them from something far worse than instituational life. Other children were found by police wandering the market begging at 4, or working as prostitutes at 8 , and turned into the orphanage after finding no relatives willing to give them a descent childhood. these children do come into the orphanage tramatized, but get used to it and often come out well educated, confident, and able to beat the cycle of violence, alcohol and sex that may have placed them there . It is not the ideal place to grow up in, but is much better when the only ulternative is a life of sexual and physical abuse. When volunteering at an orphanage it is so important to make sure it is well run, and looking after children that really do not have any better options. The orphans love volunteers, they wait eagerly when they know a new group is coming. Maybe the coming and going is far from ideal, but it is better than no attention, or sexual attention. how desperate some of these orphans are just to hug you, or to get a piggy back!! Please dont give up on orphanages, just be wise.

  11. Just wondering what your thoughts are on school groups going to a country to help a community for a week or so. Maybe helping with a small building project or inputting into a school or community activity. The aim I guess is for the students to have an experience where they see the world differently and experience first hand poverty or another culture. Do you think these types of “third world tourism” are detrimental to people living in these communities or beneficial?

    1. Hi Jenny. Ah, that’s a difficult question, and lots of people will have different answers for you. My recommendation is always for “learning” over “service” (check out http://learningservice.info for some great resources on this). I think we’re doing young people a disservice by telling them that a week of digging soil to build a well is “helping”. The realities and causes of global inequality are much more complicated. For me, the more we can support young people in understanding their position of privilege, and the best way for them to advocate for social justice (whether on a global level, or for a local community they have built relationships with), the more likely they will be to make smart decisions in the future.

      There are some organisations that run very well-thought through community engagement initiatives. Check out https://amizade.org. Also, you can go on “learning trips” where students spend a week (or longer) learning about the country, culture, development challenges, meeting with local leaders etc. Check out organisations such as https://www.wheretherebedragons.com and http://pepytours.com. There are other examples, these are just some I know about. I’d also recommendation http://globalsl.org as a brilliant resource site for educators – loads of stuff on how to plan and implement ethical volunteer service projects abroad. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you want more info, or to chat to someone who specialises in this area – volunteering@bettercarenetwork.org.

  12. Great article. Have seen American volunteers, there for their own reasons, not thinking about their effect on the community.

  13. To respond to your comments Carolyn and Laura:
    It is true that there are circumstances where sometimes children can’t live at home, or have no-one to look after them. However, this is less common than you might think – page 8 of this working paper from The Better Care Network http://www.bettercarenetwork.org/sites/default/files/attachments/Families%20Not%20Orphanages.pdf has some statistics for a range of different countries. Globally, the average is that 80% of children in orphanages have one or more living parent, and one of the most commonly cited reasons for children being placed in an institution is poverty.

    However, if children do need to be placed in an institution, as per the UN Guidelines, they should only be there temporarily. Many governments, and civil society actors are trying to set up systems in order to reintegrate children back into families. (you might be interested organisations such as Lumos http://wearelumos.org, or Hope and Homes for Children. In fact, today, the Executive Director from Hope and Homes has posted a blog about this very issue http://www.hopeandhomes.org/news/2016/orphanage-tourism) .Children might go back to live with their immediate family, their extended family, or a foster or adoptive family. Of course, this needs to be done carefully, with appropriate support from social workers, and often other kinds of financial support too. These are the kinds of initiatives that I believe it’s crucial to support. I don’t want to fund orphanages, because I don’t want children to stay in orphanages. I want them to stay in families. So my money and support goes to organisations who train social workers, develop foster care systems etc, who can support these children (and the orphanages who are trying to care for them) in gradually finding better solutions – family solutions – for the children and eventually closing their doors.

  14. Some of your points are very correct but by painting all childrens homes with the same brush you will end up hurting children that are in good childrens homes in the end. I’ve read a handful of these types of articles lately and frankly it scares me. I’m a foreign director in a childrens home in a very underdeveloped area in South America. The home in which I work, as with most homes that I know in this area do not take in kids with good family members. We take in kids where sexual or physical abuse is in the home, the parents have abandoned the kids, or where the parents are deceased and there are no fit family members to care for the kids. Another problem with your article is that you’ve painted all countries with the same brush as well. The country in which I work culturally does not care about children (the government or the citizens)- especially street kids. When they’ve tried foster care in the past the children that were brought in were only used as servants- and this is after training to treat the child as your own. Realistically, some countries are not ready for foster care and will not be until the culture changes. In the cases of our kids where there is little hope, we work to get our children declared abandoned so they have the hope of being adopted but adoption here is a lengthy process full of bribery and often ends poorly so few kids are able to be adopted out. Not everything is the way it is in Kenya and Thailand. So until the culture changes here we are going to try and give our kids an amazing upbringing while trying our best to find them a family. And if there is no family to be found we will love them as a family should. And we welcome volunteers to help our kids with homework, drive our kids to appointments, and be another source of encouragement and support (because honestly very few people in this country care enough to give any attention to our kids).

  15. I think is a great post. Im doing volunteer work in a school for poor childrens with special needs for 3 months already. Now i wanted to go to work in an orphanage and i found this post, and its really interesting, at least in my case i know isnt good for childrens being exposed to new people come and go, but in this case is a school and they are use to have this friends new friends and then another one, they love to learn english and play, but in my case i felt like wouldnt be any usefull just sharing with them for a short term.
    I came for a month thinking i was going to help in a house with childrens with special needs, changing diapers, giving them food, etc, but the ngo change director when i just came, new directors now just want to take money out of volunteers, so there were not a home anymore (coz that home belong to the ex director), now the new director found this school so they just ask you for money that you give thinking is for the school but its not…they take your money and show you the school but if you dont go they dont care…) so i have realize that volunteering is getting a business in many places in south est Asia. And is affecting the real NGO´s.
    So i left the organization when my month finished but i kept on going to help in the school but in my case im doing treatment to some of the kids, ( therapeutical massage), and teaching some techniques to the nurse of the school. I really felt there is no point to come and just being there for a week or 2 and not really make a change, but i hope the nurse keep doing the technique to the kids…
    So, volunteering its getting a touristic thing in everything, with elephants as slaves, special schools, orphanage etc (i heard in africa they are making fakes orphanage taking kids from their families for foreigners than go and pay for doing it) , its getting a real issue, that we can change being more carefully.
    But in my case i was careful and i end up in a fake ngo… i apply through wolrdpacker, i asked them if they research about the ngos or any of their host, and they said yes, that they do it whit every new host…so i apply to CVTD in Hanoi Vietnam, and its everything opposite to an ngo…they are making lots of money with foreigner that wants to help and sadly thrust in this ”travel doing volunteer” pages…so now i want to volunteer doing more social work but its really hard to find a real thing… (i have to left this place because im doing the volunteer by myself, i dont have free accommodation or food, so i cant afford that anymore or i wouldn’t leave) i think volunteering with people needs to be a long term thing.

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