stop orphanage tourism
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 were 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 transferable 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.


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.


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 is over 60 years of research that demonstrates that growing up in residential care such as orphanages can be harmful to 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(s) 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 been 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 to 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

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.

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 this post, there’s a chance to make a tremendous impact.

Additionally, 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. F

or more information, visit, and if you want to learn more or get involved, email [email protected].

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.

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.

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  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!

    1. If I was to volunteer at an orphanage, I would be good at it… I would truly make a difference there, and give the staff there a break from the kids… The reason why I would be suited for the job is because I grew up on an orphanage in a third word country… I was that kid, I lived in Plevin Totleben orphanage in Bulgaria for 12 years since infant… It takes great deal of patience to deal with a group of kids who don’t know who you are… The longer the volunteer stays at the orphanage the worst it will get for that child/children… As a kid, there was a volunteer that I was very attached to, and when her time was up, she returned back home. As days gone by, I missed her smile, the talks, the care she provided to me and to my fellow orphans, she actually made a difference in my life, and when she left, I was devastated, and it took very long time to get over her… As other volunteers came and go, there was never a volunteer to replaced the one that left so long ago…
      Orphans are the children who are unfortunate… Before I was adopted at 12 years old, I was having problems with headaches, and waking up to a closed airway, and when I got adopted, my father took me to see a doctor and I found out that I had overgrown adenoids and they need it to be removed as soon as possible… I found out from my doctors that if I left that untreated, I would have died in my sleep… Imagine that.. “ I fear that orphans who are in the orphanages are living in a borrowed time, and this is purely from experience… I considered myself very luck and blessed…
      I wrote a book describing some of my past history Imbedded in my novel books…

  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.

    1. I agree with you Leena, but I also agree with Anna. Not all orphanages are alike. I think the term “orphan” was actually revised into two statuses, “single orphan” and “double orphan”. The orphans Anna wrote about, concerned mostly of “single orphans” (who have at least one surviving parent or relative that can care for them). The orphanage I came from, were only full of “double orphans” (children who had no surviving parents or relatives who could care for them).

      Anna is right that advertising orphanages as giving children a better chance at life with education, is a false assumption of hope. In fact, studies have proved that children who receive education while living in some type of a family setting, have a better developmental and learning capability than those who don’t. So while, it may appear to be a good thing for parents or relatives to forfeit their child to an orphanage for the sake of education, it is much better to build schools, so that the child can remain with their family/relatives.

      Coming from a background, with the orphanage as my first experience in life, I can tell you it’s pretty depressing… it’s like a prison. In orphanages like the ones I was in, I can see the need for volunteers because we were always neglected and felt alone. The caregivers were too lethargic to do anything more, other than feed us and clothe us… they made us feel as if spending time with us, was similar to getting the life sucked out of them by a vampire… it was depressing. I’ve seen my orphan brothers and sisters die of sadness. They die in their sleep. So, yes, volunteers in those situations are a great necessity, because for us (when I was in the orphanage), visitors were the only highlight of our day.

      Therefore, I believe you are both correct, but it depends on the orphanage and background and also, culture. This was a good article.

      1. The world is not a fair place .breaks my heart to read some of your brothers and sisters died in sleep in sadness.we can surely make this world a better place.Sorry you had to go through all this.

    2. Interesting and extremely helpful to be aware of the pitfalls. But I don’t entirely agree with you, seems a little simplistic to say it’s all bad, you may be right but I would need to investigate further.
      Also, your statement that it’s not all about us volunteers, and that helping in an orphanage is a sort of ego trip is offensive to me. I would never ever work for an organisation of that kind for it to be entirely about what I could get out of it. I like to think I’m empathetic and care for the people who I help a bit more. I think you shouldn’t assume that everyone is like that.

  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?

      1. I agree with you 100%.
        I have been volunteering at orphanages in India since 3 years and although the kids aren’t all orphans, some being single parent children, they all do have terrible histories and find succor n solace in staying in a stable environment with other kids of their age. Also they love having volunteers from other countries come interact with them. I don’t know what this author is talking about. Sure if you don’t have enough empathy with kids, then this work isn’t for u, but if u love kids, hey just use some common sense while choosing an orphanage and go ahead

  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!!

    1. Hi Ellie – sounds exciting! Would be very happy to chat. Drop me a note at [email protected].

      1. Please feel free to have a look here: Contact me if you like: [email protected]

        1. Thank you Jim! Email on its way.

  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 They get young people to do social impact fellowships in their local communities to try and address some of the problems there.

    2. Anu, I would like to tell you why I’m not working in my neighborhood in the United States and I’m going to be volunteering in India. It’s my and my husband’s goal to change the lives of beggars and widows by teaching them useful life skills, so that they can support themselves. Here in the US, the government easily gives money to support people who are poor and homeless, and there are hundreds or thousands of places around the US to freely help us get on our feet, to help us get jobs and a place to live. (I know because I used to be homeless.) In India there is a huge problem of poverty, as you know. I’m not going there to make myself feel better or so people will admire me. I just care about the people who need help.

      1. Pl be aware that begging in India in general is a business. Sure there will be individual beggars who will be happy for help rcvd but if you come up against organized begging gangs, don’t try to change them. Many of these ringleaders deliberately mutilate or disable kids so they can earn money thru them and they arent going to take kindly to your attempts to reform them. Good intentions are one thing but you got to be smart n shrewd too. Anyways good luck.

      2. And a good thought indeed . Hope you continue the good work.Its true my country India ,like many other developing /under developed countries lacks govt support to marginalized poor people.i aslo agree on some points of the author about consistency .The vounteers should be around the vulnerable kids longer and should be able to keep in touch thereafter. like i commented before its so sad the world isnt a fair place.

      3. Hi Ashley,
        I will be going soon to India to visit an orphanage/school. This home does not get any form of support from the govt. considering they just obtained the minority status as a Christian home/school. Too much of persecution from the govt. However, 90% of the children there are Hindus, with grandparents caring for them but have become too old to deal with teenagers and young children. Some of them had been through a traumatic life with being sexually or physically abused. Some of them had been thrown out of govt. school as they have consistently performed extremely poorly academically or have social or behavioral issues. The only source of income is from offerings of the church and public when the pastor who runs the place goes about preaching. Very few sincere and honest workers makes it difficult to run the place. Court cases are still going on after 25 years with obtaining approval to have the school and orphanage running. I intend to go check the place out first and study what is actually lacking there with a confirmation of funding and adminstration issues. Many volunteer to work there with meagre income due to their own destructive family situation but eventually become quite ungrateful when things get better in their homes. Since this is in a remote village in India and a lot of persecution towards the Christians too, approval from the govt is a struggle and constant fight with them demanding bribery ever so often . In the long run I intend to return there with my whole family, teaching life skills to the children and caretakers so they could continue with this. Including setting up proper adminstration and looking into the overall well being of the children. Looking for support from various resources one way or another as a network with integrity and honesty is a definite requirement. I am hoping to get some light shed about what I could possibly expect in India.

  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.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story, Laura. I posted a general response to your comment and another below.

    2. This is really great, its so kind of her. Am part of those helped by an angel volunteer here in Kenya. I really recommend orphanage volunteering. Though not anyone can just do anything.

  10. Carolyn Henderson

    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.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Carolyn. I’ve posted a comment in response to this and another comment below.

  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 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 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 and There are other examples, these are just some I know about. I’d also recommendation 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 – [email protected].

  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 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, or Hope and Homes for Children. In fact, today, the Executive Director from Hope and Homes has posted a blog about this very issue .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).

    1. Ryan Hendrick
      I would like to know more about the children’s home you represent

    2. This is the most beautiful thing I have read from this whole article

  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.

  16. It is an interesting article, but I cannot completely agree with you. Your goals and means of achieving them when leaving were selfish. So, in this case, yes, unprepared volunteers should not be let to volunteer at orphanages, especially because this is a very sensitive category of people and everything should be planned in the minimal details. And more than that, how to achieve long-term impact should have been your first question. Considering your situation, I agree with the content of your article. But there are people that really may have a positive, long-term impact.

  17. Well said Anu.

    1. But in saying that, I’d still like to help where its needed no matter where it is or who it is. Isn’t that we’re suppose to do in this life help our fellow man?

  18. I found this post while looking for local orphanages to volunteer at. I agree with the comment that Anu made “volunteering is a fashion statement” when we travel the world to volunteer. If your post was about the travel volunteer I totaly agree, it’s snobish and selfish. It seem your still in the save the world while forgeting the home front. However, children every where have no power over the condistions they are born into and any help is better than no help. I feel you want to through the baby out with the bath water. Maybe encourage responsible volunteerism in the programs that are, while finding better solutions for the future. A child can not wait for a better solution that might never make it into his or her life. They need now.

  19. Mia, that is exactly what Anna McKeon is saying in her story: that you need to be well prepared as a volunteer – and also be clear about your intentions. She did learn this the hard way – however this experience enables her now to bless us with the sharing of her story and precious advice. Rather than blaming her (haven’t you done any mis-takes in your life?) – we should thank her a million for that.
    So thanks a million, dear Anna, for being here on this planet and doing what you do.
    The world is a better place with you.

  20. I really like this post. Thanks for sharing your experience with us. All your suggestions are considerable. Also, People should help the local community instead of volunteering outside the country. Know more on

  21. My husband and I are directors of an NGO in sub-Saharan Africa and whilst we have nothing to do with orphanages we are an education based charity with a great emphasis on gender support. We often get people applying to volunteer and we would love to have those who want to come and do office work, or do a new website and so on – in fact we get quite desperate for help sometimes. But the vast majority of volunteers don’t want to do that. Volunteers want to come and ‘teach’ small children in primary schools in spite of being unable to speak the language or having qualifications or understanding the system. And they want to come for just a week or maybe two. In some circles it is known as ‘the hug an orphan syndrome’. So often volunteering is about the volunteer only.
    A well written article – thank you

  22. Brilliant job done Anna. I would Like to say thanks for your humanity. I run an NGO with the name Child Heart Foundation is New Delhi. I raise funds for the treatment of poor children born with congenital heart disease.

    1. I had some experience locally in my own nation with local charities. Over time I was able to understand some issues with regard to charity. It was surprising for me to find that helping can do harm! It doesn’t cross your mind, as you said ” your natural reaction is to want to help” so you just ” jump in”. But the issues are complicated and run deep in a working charity as the article points out above. Right now I’m feeling a bit frustrated and confused given to my mate, who is overseas as a tourist for 4 months. He has just wondered across an orphanage in Indonesia and he is in shock mode. He took a bunch of photos and sent them to me asking ‘ how much can you kick in” (money) I told him “nothing just chill for a sec and get more information”. So he got pretty mad. However ok yes, ill get him to buy some food or sacks of rice and Non-perishable. But that is very short term. As for my mate my mate, he has decided to “save the kids”! He is setting up a go fund me account – asking friends and family to send money, has our local pub back home ready to do a charity night and so on. Helpful very short term but what of long term? Forming relationships with the kids, giving gifts, taking them out as a volunteer, feeding them, taking them to a movie, some shopping and so on…. and then, he will be gone! He can’t sustain his life or theirs over there forever. He has no clue as to the nature of the orphanage, its issues, their social issues, its needs, the kid’s needs, the politics, programs, structures, and so on, he can’t even speak or understand the language. This is a kind of ‘makeshift’ orphanage he wondered past…he says for a group of kids who lost their families in earthquakes last year in parts of Indonesia. From what I gather there are a few kind caring local ladies who do what they can to help the kids. He says 3 kids died this year due to no vaccinations so he is trying to find out how he can get vaccinations. 4 months or a little less, he will walk out of their lives as fast as he strolled in when his visa expires, what will that do? And I don’t understand how do these little ‘community orphanage’ places just pop up? Is it that there is no established place they can go? I have not been there and have no understanding of the issues. But in reading the article above It just re-enforced my gut feeling that he may not be doing the best thing by the kids at all however it is hard not to help too I understand my friend entirely. Thanking you for an interesting article and the opportunity to reply Anna.

  23. You advise people not to help orphanages then who will be there to hold, cuddle , love these children? Do you think it would have been better to have let the young boy attack her? With no one to at least say something? It doesn’t take a brilliant, schooled person to love listen to and in general be there for children.

  24. Steven Anderson

    I think that all kindness should be encouraged. Yes, there may be better ways to help than volunteering at an orphanage, but helping a child in need is to be encouraged. When I pick a place to volunteer I’ll try to pick a place where I can help and it will be rewarding to me as well. Voltaire said that “the best is the enemy of the good.” I want to do to do, if not the best.

  25. Great Article Anna ! this has fascinated me because its what i thought before but couldn’t expressed in words . I volunteered before in one of the orphanage in Thailand before i went to universities.This was 18 years ago ,at that time I was just thinking to do something useful during my free time . During my experience at the orphanage i had a special attention to this 1 little girl whom i felt that she look like myself when i was young and one day i realized how wrong i was to creating a special bond with her and to leave her to cry when i had to leave. i felt bad at the second of that thought because realizing that my good intention to make them happy has actually created bad effects on them as i wouldn’t be able to come regularly if i started at university as it’s far away. I stopped going to orphanage out of many reasons but it taught me a good lessons .

  26. So happy I stumbled across this article as I was searching for a volunteering position! Your points makes sense and should be heard for future volunteers to really know where to put their time and efforts in order to make a bigger long-term impact.

  27. I have many thoughts about this article. But all I will say, is that not all of your points are true for all orphanages. I recommend looking up Esperanza Viva youth home in Puebla, Mexico.

  28. Hi. I believe you experience in these orphanages is real and true to you. But I believe you could be making a mistake by making determinations based on experience from a few centers. I agree that some volunteers never take any time to prepare themselves and their sending organization don’t care to give them any cultural training. I have worked with children’s homes for over 16 years and a beneficiary of such without which I would not have been able even to read your article. I believe before amputating an organ that has an ailment a good medic will try to heal it first. It is a system that is well intended but sure has got it’s faults. Some voluteers spend a fortune to co.e and have fun , an amount that could feed 100 children for a month. I believe you have a better perspective part of which transformational leaders could use to change the whole landscape of the much, publicised, commercialized, misunderstood, less developed, culturally diverse, less seriously taken and we’ll intended aspect. I wish I could get in touch with you to learn from your perspective since I am from Kenya but working extensively in East Africa. My email is [email protected]

  29. This article is VERY NARROW!!! It sounds more like the VOLUNTEER PROGRAM was terrible, NOT the volunteering itself. It is so irresponsible to promote “Stop Orphanage” volunteering, or what the hashtag reads, “stop orphanage trips”. It’s awful. I have traveled to several countries and volunteered at women’s prisons, orphanages and homeless shelters. I would NEVER, and have NEVER referred to my time as an “orphanage trip” – it’s not a zoo!!! Further, these experiences led me to adopt, twice. Not out of pity but out of love. Just because a child has a “living relative” does not mean that that relative is able or equipped to raise the child. These relatives may have only known the child briefly or not at all. If you, as a young foreign woman were asked to run an orphanage in another country where you do not speak the language and have NO skills for such a position, it sounds like the agency you worked for was just completely unprepared to serve appropriately.
    As a practicing psychologist with a Ph.D. in Special Education, I can say that in every orphanage I have volunteered, I was asked to play with children, hold babies, and sometimes, clean. I we NEVER put in a position of managing others, that was left to local people who could communicate with each other, understand the local customs, and traditions to support children.
    It angers me to no end that you have published such an article when there are children who desperately need the company of another human being for simple play, connection, and joy. You should direct your discomfort at those who created the terrible business you worked for and NOT the children struggling in those facilities who do not have a choice.

  30. Two things I would say about this nearing the end of a varied and challenging life. One is, looking back, there have been moments when the universe sent me the chance to help someone or an animal. Usually I did, but there are five times when I was tired or discouraged or whatever, and I turned away. I will never forget those five times, they haunt me forever. If I’d stepped up to the plate those five times I would have prevented great suffering and sorrow in each case. I know I usually did respond but those five times I did not and they haunt me and I wonder why I so easily gave in to giving up and saying I can’t really help when clearly, I could, though only for that one time. For those of you who were on the spot and tried to help, I can guarantee you this for absolute certain: some of those kids – and adults- you brushed shoulders with in those situations, some will never ever forget you and the example you set; the time you said, no don’t do that, it will hurt someone; the time you said, if we do this instead, she’ll have more fun and be safe; why don’t we have a meeting and get opinions; whatever you said and did, it was so much more enlightened than anything those who have no schooling and no world experience could do and you are remembered. I promise you that. You maybe missed many things you could have caught and fixed, but you were there, on the spot, you did things. You cannot imagine what small things are memorable and precious in the memories of vulnerable children. It’s the love, you see. The love coming out of you went into them altho you could not see it or feel it, it went. They caught it in their chest and it stays there and the memory of a kind word or gentle help will last till they die. That’s worth it.
    The other thing I want to say is that the most astonishing adults are sexually assaulting the kids. They have routine places and times when the child knows they have no choice but to submit. Their tears and despair matter not at all to the offender. They have amazing confidence that they will always get away with it. They have no fear of being caught, ever. And they usually are not caught. If you are trained enough to know what to watch for with abused children, you can catch someone in the act. You can stand up for a child. Love comes in many forms and is NEVER forgotten.

  31. Thanks for sharing. Nice reading.

  32. Thanks Anna!

    Can you explain volunteering for old age homes? It seems volunteering for elderly people can also go wrong.

  33. My dearest Ana,
    You seemed to have quite a sour adventure. From what I read there were several red flags you should of considered. Perhaps the desire to help make a difference in the world clouded your better judgements
    However I commend you on your efforts. Unfortunately nothing in life is free and that is true even for life experiences. Nevertheless volunteering and devoting time to serve others is never a choice to be discouraged.
    Instead of looking to serve and volunteer abroad you should of served a little closer to home. There is need all around dear.
    Best wishes always. Rosy

  34. I an so with you on this! I am glad that you are trying to make people aware of the dangers of voluntourism. The emotional damage experienced by vulnerable children in ‘orphanages’ by having an endless stream of young, mostly white, totally inexperienced volunteers passing through their lives is immeasurable. Would this be permitted in the UK? Not for a minute! In addition, many so called orphanages are set up as businesses to attract volunteers and donor funding and are filled with the kids of the extended family. I lived in Tanzania for many years and saw this at first hand. If you want to volunteer, do something harmless like painting a mural on a school wall. Don’t do something which harms children or takes jobs from local people. Rant over!

  35. What a deeply complex and difficult issue; surely there is not just one answer.
    I received at least as much from reading the comments as I did from reading the original article. Thanks to all who spent the time and effort to comment and share their viewpoints. And especially thanks to so many who try to give and help others as they understand they should. I applaud you all. This world needs more people who truly care for the less fortunate and reach out to help.

    This is a very complex issue and clearly one solution or approach cannot fit every situation. I completely agree that children should be reared in families (intact families preferably) and have the benefit of loving parents to raise them. We should be supportive of families raising their own children, assuming of course the children are not being subjected to physical/sexual abuse. Children end up in abusive situations often because fo their own families. For example, I was shocked to find that some families in very poor countries actually sell their children to groups who then sell them to others for sexual exploitation. These poor children are very young, and usually only last a few years before they are infected with STDs HIV and then discarded to die on the streets as worthless. This is heartbreaking, no child is worthless.
    I have witnessed children who were used as beggars in the streets of Johannesburg SA, usually maimed and disfigured, who were picked up at the end of the day by someone driving an expensive Mercedes. It made me sick to finally understand what was really going on.
    I agree with much of what many people have shared, but want to point out that certainly, not all situations are the same, there are many orphanages that gather children off the street with no parents, and with no prospects of any help. To ignore the suffering (emotional, physical, etc.) of these little children just because there is a theoretical better way to care for them (in families) should not blind us and stop us from giving of our love and support. Not letting the “best” be the enemy of the “good” I believe applies here.
    Yes, we need to chose wisely and give of our time and resources to the pure and good organizations who are not exploiting us, the givers and just pretending to help the children or poor. I have used Charity Navigator… to help in my decision making and investigation of worthy charities.

    I am a bit perplexed that apparently some people are suggesting that it is better to ignore children’s suffering and just walk away then to share our love and affection with very needy and starving children, (even if only for a short time).
    Should we not do what we can to meet some of their needs for love and attention and in doing so provide some happiness to spiritually and emotionally starving children? (However, I completely agree that showing up for a photo shoot is so wrongly motivated; its clearly about the person and not the children).
    I believe it is good that we as loving and caring people reach out to our less fortunate brothers and sisters, all God’s children, in the best way we understand. The fact that this article and the many comments exists gives me hope.

  36. When I was young I lived in Haiti with my parents who ran an orphanage. To be perfectly honest I’m not sure how they ran the finances but between donations of time and money everyone’s needs were mostly met. We had an RN who lived at the center with us and groups of volunteers coming through every month. My parents mostly always placed our volunteers with the infants and those of us who lived at the center worked with the older children. We placed volunteers with holding and rocking and feeding the infants because they were starved for human touch and would lose their will to live without it. Although the concept of an orphanage is horrible in itself, I also can’t imagine how bad the situation would have been for these children had we not been there for them.
    I’ve never seen depravity like I saw in Haiti. They had no regard for human life. Begging was as a common form of income and there were actually women who starved their babies to death and then used them to beg with in the market in Port AuPrince. Evidently begging while holding a dead baby would earn them more money than begging with a living infant. There were men who would save enough money to buy a small boat and then sell “tickets to America” but then actually murder their passengers, dump the bodies overboard and come back to Haiti to sell more tickets. There were Haitian men and women selling grain in the market out of sacks that read, “Not For Sale”, “US Aid” etc. and of course there were the rampant issues of human trafficking and child prostitution. I could go on and on about the cruelty I saw first hand. Sometimes it all felt so hopeless but then I would hear the good news that we had found a home for one of the children or that we had been given a donation of something we desperately needed or a medical team would arrive just in time to help a sick child that we had been worried about. I can’t even begin to pretend like I know any answers to the issues we faced. All I can say is that I’m thankful we were able to be there for those few children we were able to help because Haiti is an extremely dangerous place for a child to be homeless. In my option the people were barbaric.

  37. I disagree with article and what she said is very selfish. I came from a orphanage and it was a better place then living out in the streets. You have food you have a roof over your head and schooling. Third world country’s orphanages have better change of the kids getting adopted then foster cares. Foster homes you get throne from one home till next until you’re eighteen and I think that does more damage then being in one place where you get to stay with people you get to know and grow with

  38. Thank you to everyone who has been reading and commenting on this article. I wrote it in 2016 and didn’t realise that it was still being shared and commented on.
    I appreciate all of the comments made – one commenter above mentioned “I received at least as much from reading the comments as I did from reading the original article” – which is exactly why I wrote it – to stimulate discussion and critical debate about volunteering in orphanages overseas, and volunteering internationally more generally.

    For those interested in these issues, on 18 December 2019 the UN adopted a Resolution on the Rights of The Child which prioritises family-based case for children over institutions (orphanages) – this article from Hope and Homes is helpful: – this move recognises that institutions can be damaging for children, and other forms of care should be prioritised.

    I recognise, as many commenters have pointed out, that this is a complex issue that differs from country to country, as well as within countries, and even from child to child. However, having campaigned on this issue, and talked to many people around the world, I know that my experiences were not unique. While there are similar, more positive stories, my belief is that these tend to be the exception, not the rule. My goal in writing the article is to challenge those people living in industrialised nations, who have the passport and the wealth to be able to travel and volunteer, to think more critically about their choices. When you volunteer abroad – whether you like it or not – you are participating in an industry (whether travel, development, even criminal unfortunately – or a combination of all of those) and it’s important to be able to understand what your well-intentioned efforts could be supporting, and some of the narratives and history around that industry.

    The answer is not to turn a blind eye to suffering and inequality, but to support organisations and people in a thoughtful way that is more likely to have a long-term, sustainable impact. There are loads of ways to do this – from travelling ethically and supporting local organisations and businesses, to supporting family-based care organisations by giving time or money – or a combination of all of them.

    I do not claim to now have “got it right” – for me, the journey of figuring out how to do good in the world is a never-ending one. But as long as we can share experiences and challenge each other then hopefully we’re moving in the right direction.

  39. well written article but do not agree with you 100%

    I believe you jumped into this conclusion depending on a single experience you got. First, you were unprepared, not the right person for the job. That’s why it is required to have valid educational qualifications related to child care. If you have studied in that area, you could have made a big difference in those children. Also when orphanage request volunteers to work with them, they should have mentioned the educational qualifications they should hold. I personally know kids who are remarkably good at studies came to live with their relatives, coz her own family cannot afford for education. Even though relatives send her to school, the child has to work as a maid and treated like a maid within the family. she was not in a good mental capacity always felt like an outcast and living on their mercy. A classic case was my mother her self born in a very poor family of 5 kids, excellent in her education. grandmother was forcing her to stay home and look after younger kids. Thanks to the school principal who involved and supported her ( she was carrying her 1-year-old sister to school;). She graduated high school and selected for the university at the age of 16! My mother becomes a school principal in a well-reputed city school in Srilanka. Changing many lives of children in need. Not always story ends like that if there was no help…. especially children’s homes and orphanages help these poor kids. I’m aware of scammers who maintain orphanages just to earn money from donors. take action against them….. but hugely accusing all the orphanages publicly just because you ate one bad apple? no way. Its a damage you are doing more than a help…
    Also, you said they arrested all the volunteers because they were on the wrong visa? seriously…. simply you guys had no common sense at all about what you are doing though?? You might get angry with me, but I feel like you are quite fast to jump into conclusions, just like now you are promoting another campaign against volunteering…… take your time, do more research, take action against orphanages, who use kids to earn money…… god bless you.

  40. Nice article but your negative experiences should not lead you to campaign against orphanage volunteering. This article has a lot of hits and I just hope the percentage of people you have put off is low.

  41. Brothers and sisters…
    Let’s help orphans and needy people in Indonesia with us
    Please support us at

  42. It’s provide lot’s of information, I really enjoyed to read this. Thanks for sharing this information.

  43. Thank you for writing this and all the comments. I am forever changed.

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