Why we don’t support orphanage volunteering

The idea of “giving back” while on holiday, gap year, or career break is becoming increasingly common. One of the most popular types of volunteering is working in orphanages – spending time caring for or teaching young children who are living in residential care.

Here at Save the Children we’ve been getting increasingly concerned about this trend and what it means for vulnerable children.

A series of articles has highlighted the problem of orphanage volunteering in countries such as Cambodia, Nepal, and Uganda, and we’re aware it’s a growing concern in at least 15 further countries worldwide.

We’re worried about unskilled and untrained volunteers having access to extremely vulnerable children – and that the demand for this kind of volunteering is contributing to the harmful practice of building and funding orphanages.  

A serious threat to development

Children living in orphanages simply don’t get the secure care they need to survive and thrive. Decades of research point to the fact that the experience can have a terrible impact on the physical, social and intellectual development of children.

A major study of Romanian orphanages, published in 2009, found that that institutionalisation of children under the age of three is one of the biggest threats to early brain development, with effects similar to that of severe malnutrition, lead poisoning and drug use during pregnancy.

Who’s responsible?

Back in 2006, we conducted a study in East and Southern Africa and found that on average it was 10 times more expensive to fund an orphanage compared to community and family care.

We thought the statistics would help convince governments to shift their funding to community and family care – until we realised the majority of funding for orphanages wasn’t coming from the government. As a Liberian Government official told me, “we aren’t running that many orphanages, the churches are.”

Liberia isn’t an isolated example, either. In most of the countries where we work orphanages are being run by church groups and those who start as volunteers. The institutions are poorly regulated and they’re doing a job that could be done by the children’s families, with the right support.

A staggering 80% of children living in orphanages have at least one surviving parent. But even children who’ve lost both parents should be able to turn to their extended family – an incredibly valuable resource in countries where the state is not well funded or well-functioning. They’re the ones who look after you when you’re sick, pay for your schooling and care for you when your parents can’t.

They’re incredible care networks. But instead of getting support, they’re being pulled apart and disempowered by the establishment and over-reliance on orphanages – often funded by visitors who just want to help.

Finding a solution

Save the Children, together with the Better Care Network, established ReThink Orphanages – a collaborative initiative aimed at discouraging volunteering in orphanages and promoting more responsible alternatives. Read this paper to find out more about this complex issue.

Throughout May, Better Volunteering Better Care (now renamed ReThink Orphanages) has been collaborating with the responsible travel community to release a series of blog posts on the issue of orphanage volunteering.

These posts will conclude on 1 June – International Children’s Day, and are linked to a petition to encourage travel organisations to remove orphanage volunteering from their product offerings.

If you or your friends are thinking about volunteering, don’t be discouraged. You can learn so much about the world through traveling and working with others. However, it’s important to conduct careful research, and ask the right questions about safeguarding and protecting children.

For some great resources on responsible volunteering, visit learningservice.info and globalsl.org, and read through Next Generation Nepal’s guide to ethical volunteering.

And if you would like to volunteer with Save the Children in the UK, find out more here.

For more updated information please see Rebecca’s most recent blog on the topic of orphanage volunteering


Leave a Reply


  • We are beginning to get the message through, although it is a shame we were unable to prevent it escalating. Whether cure or prevention to social ills, we must start awareness-raising where it can have most impact. That is with children themselves, especially at school and through peer-sharing, the main way they obtain their information. So teachers at schools anywhere in the world, especially in developed countries like the UK where overseas travel and volunteering has become a rite of passage before adulthood, should be debating the cons (and pro’s) with pupil from the age of 15+. Yet despite our efforts we cannot persuade publications like the Times Educational Supplement to feature the issue. They should do so. Timely articles mid-academic year could influence students as they make their post-graduate plans.

  • Anwoju Fatimah

    I also dont support orphanage volunteering. The psychological effect of Institutionalizing children is usually very subtle, that is why its most times goes undetected. More energy shld be channeled into good family support and care system.

  • Anwoju Fatimah

    I also dont support orphanage volunteering. The psychological effect of Institutionalizing children is usually very subtle, that is why its most times goes undetected. More energy shld be channeled into good family support and care system.

  • Licia allara

    Mine is a little story that can show that it is difficult to decide what’s absolutely right from what’s absolutely wrong. I volunteered one month in 2013 in an Orphanage in Livingstone, Zambia. Kids were in scholar age, some of them still had part of the family; all of them wouldn’t have been able to attend school if they had stayed in their villages. The Orphanage give them the possibility to graduate from high school. The Orphanage was struggling with the most basic needs; when I came home after that first month, I didn’t forget them. Together with the pastor who takes care of the structure and the kids, we set a plan to help the Orphanage become self sustainable; we drilled a borehole on a piece of land, we installed water tanks and pumps, they started a farm with vegetables, maize and chickens; they are building a piggery and planting an orchard; they have much improved their daily diet and they start selling, ti pay the Orphanage expenses. Every kid who graduate from high school, follows further education classes to learn a profession, to have more chances of a better living and to help what is left of their families. I went back in 2014 and 2015, I will go back this summer. These kids have become my extended family, and the pastor a good friend. I like to believe that neither me nor the Orphanage itself were of any harm to these kids, given the current situation in their country. Regards

  • Rebecca Smith

    Dear Licia, I agree that it can be very challenging and there aren’t always easy answers. Although I also try to put myself in the mindset of a mother in the horrible position of having to decide whether or not to keep her child with her or place her child in an orphanage to access education. I don’t think that’s a choice any mother should have to make. Instead of building and supporting an orphanage, why aren’t we investing time and resources to make primary and secondary school more accessible to children in their own communities? An orphanage isn’t addressing the root cause of the problem. I realise that in many resource poor countries, this is a reality, but where children need to travel long distances to school, we need to look at creative ways for them to travel safely to and from school.

    If they do need to stay at a boarding school, the parents should be encouraged and assisted to regularly visit and for the children to travel home during school holidays and weekends if possible. As much as the orphanage needed the resources you provided, so to do the communities around them. They would equally benefit from boreholes and farming opportunities. The problem is that once you’ve spent your entire life in the orphanage, it is very difficult to then go back and be part of your family.

    When they turn 18 and “age out of care” they don’t have anyone supporting them anymore and they lose the orphanage, the one “stand in” family that they had. I’m not saying that you should immediately stop your support, but your next visit you may want to look for ways to include parents in activities and look for ways to support the surrounding community, especially with an identified problem like access to education. Save the Children has a very large programme on deinstitutionalisation in Zambia at the moment and I urge you to get in contact with our team to learn more about the activities they’re doing. I hope this is helpful.

  • Sarah

    You mention Romania in your blog post, where, you’ve only mentioned some of the research. Other research conducted into abandoned/orphaned Romanian children more than suggests sensory and social deprivation can also play a significant role in a child’s wellbeing. Children have truly suffered in the past due to being institutionalised, and the thing that has pulled them through, arguably, is volunteers giving them attention and care that the employed carers are far too stretched to do. Now, there is a system whereby ‘family type homes’ exist, and a much smaller number of children live together in flats or houses, consequently receiving much more attention than in huge institutions. Now things have improved, and continue to improve, but I would argue that volunteers do really help the children to develop their social skills.

    I agree that we should not be sending unqualified, low caliber volunteers to do things that they cannot do sufficiently, but it is not right to condemn everything they are doing. Yes, what really needs to be worked on is getting rid of these large institutions and working on family and government help that could be provided. However, it’s not going to be an easy task by any means (the new homes in Romania were only as a result of then joining the EU – it was part of their conditions), and perhaps some donation from volunteers could be put towards that help, but you cannot stop what incredible work people are currently doing there. Helping in the interim is just as important as figuring out a long term plan. Otherwise you will just end up with these institutions still existing, with children suffering the same lack of interaction that caused serious developmental and psychological issues not so long ago. The problems will not go away if volunteers do.

  • Rebecca Smith

    Throughout the month of May there are new blogs being featured daily. I highly recommend that you read a few of the following:
    – A blog from Stephen Ucembe who grew up in a child care institution: http://epicureandculture.com/like-grow-orphanage-kenya-around-voluntourists/
    – A blog from the London School of Economics: Universities have a duty to stop promoting orphanage volunteering: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/careers/2016/05/19/universities-have-a-duty-to-stop-promoting-orphan-volunteering/
    – A blog in the Guardian from Mark Riley from the Alternative Care initiatives in Uganda: Volunteers Stop Visiting Orphanages and Start Preserving Families: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/may/16/volunteers-stop-visiting-orphanages-start-preserving-families
    – A blog from the American Gap Association: What Does Responsible International Volunteering Look Like?: http://globalsl.org/learning-to-help/

  • I feel that young people who are inspired to work in orphanage should be welcomed and trained.

  • Al Binks

    Look up Lumos. They are up and running, closing down orphan ages is on of their achievements.

  • Sarah

    I do agree with you that more work should be put into helping families, and that we should never send any unqualified volunteers to orphanages. The articles you sent were really interesting, but particularly the one that looks into how to volunteer internationally responsibly, and I may just be fortunate in that I already support an organisation that specialises, and only sends specialised volunteers, and is completely not for profit, so my views very much come from that anyway.

    Voluntourism, I wholeheartedly agree with you, must be very damaging. But the problem is SO much bigger than stopping these trips. If you get governments who aren’t willing to help improve the care systems, how do you actually go about trying to change the care systems? I think that often, the charities who do work internationally, try to work on this anyway, using donations from volunteers.

    I essentially agree and think that what needs monitoring more are the types of organisations who offer these ‘experiences’. It’s not a ‘rite of passage’, and people should only go if their skill set would be useful. I say this because I’m a strong believer in making things better in the interim as well as working towards a long term goal, and the institutions won’t deplete if volunteers do. The people in those institutions still won’t receive the care and attention that they might need.

  • I agree that we should not be sending unqualified, low caliber volunteers to do things that they cannot do sufficiently, but it is not right to condemn everything they are doing. Yes, what really needs to be worked on is getting rid of these large institutions and working on family and government help that could be provided. However, it’s not going to be an easy task by any means (the new homes in Romania were only as a result of then joining the EU – it was part of their conditions), and perhaps some donation from volunteers could be put towards that help, but you cannot stop what incredible work people are currently doing there.

  • Hi there, thanks so much for taking the time to comment.
    Please know we understand this is not the case in all instances as there are many great volunteers doing such amazing work, and we are in no way condemning everything they do. However, there are a number of cases where this happens quite a lot and we do believe it is better to strengthen extended families rather than turning to orphanages which should only be a last resort. We are very proud to work with many wonderful volunteers and completely appreciate the incredible work they are doing over there.
    Many thanks, Lucy.

  • Dear Rebecca,
    this is really strange but i received a letter from Uganda yesterday, a letter I think was meant for you. It included a photo of a family in Kampala. The letter was written to the child’s sponsor by the childs mother.
    I recently started sponsoring a boy in Uganda and thought that the letter was from him. Did you by any chance get MY letter???
    I published a blog post today on the matter
    Please get in touch if you think or know that you are the ‘right’ Rebecca Smith!
    Kind regards
    Ulrika a k a Tofflan

  • Dear Tofflan,

    Thank you for your message. I don’t think this is the right Rebecca Smith – sorry! Have you tried contacting Child Fund to see if they can help? https://www.childfund.org/

    Best wishes, Sarah

  • OK, thanks anyway! I’ll go through childfund. 🙂

  • Carl Freer

    I agree with you to not support orphanage volunteering as doing this we are increasing their income, we should help orphans directly.

  • abdelkader

    hi can i Working in the orphanage or Volunteer in !!

  • Hi, thanks for taking the time to read our blog and for your comment. However for reasons as detailed in this blog we do not support volunteering of this nature. To find out the other ways that you can get involved with our work please visit our website at

  • yan mukaza

    I grew up in a orphanage but not that I am an orphan my father volunteered and he was mostly playing music and teaching music so when I grew up I have become a teacher five years now that I have worked in privates school in Lusaka end of day I felt really missing how it used to be in a orphanage and I decide to volunteer in one one but these webside I apply in no response ever cold some one give me proper address of orphanages I make history like my father

  • I agree with the emotional developmental and psychological effects of children being in such institutions but in some countries this is the norm. So I think any help while these things are the way that children are cared for is of benefit and most of the time positive.
    Yes change is needed to dissolve this type of care but I personally will continue to visit orphanages while they are still being used to “care” for children. Yes I support change but while that change hasn’t happened I want to support such children.
    Discouraging volunteers won’t stop orphanages. It’s effectively discouraging people from offering the children some human interaction and time?

  • Rebecca Smith

    Dear Emma,
    Thank you for taking the time to comment. Unfortunately, we’re seeing that the majority of orphanages in many countries are not being established in the places of most need, but often in areas with the most tourists. Volunteering, donating, and contributing to orphanages contributes to them being a viable business. In Cambodia and Indonesia we have seen cases where children are being actively recruited into orphanages to meet the demand of those visiting. As I wrote in the blog, when I spoke to the Ministry of Social Affairs in Liberia about the costs of orphanages versus family based care, they commented that they were not the ones funding the orphanages. To stop the proliferation of orphanages, we need to stop the funding and support.

    It was not that long ago that orphanages were the norm in the UK – we need to start investing in community and family support and stop supporting orphanages. As soon as the business model has changed, so too will the practice. We build the capacity of local social workers to engage children and work to reunite them with their families. By addressing the root causes of children in orphanages, most often poverty or lack of access to education, we will stop a practice that we know is harmful to children and families. We are not talking about depriving children of human interaction, but to work on returning them to a safe loving family.

  • Federico

    Dear all,

    Unfortunately I have to disagree with what you are writing.
    I went many times to an orphanage in Bucharest and I can assure that they don’t take kids there just to make money from the government or foreign associations.
    Defintively, keeping the kids in family is the biggest goal, but it is not always possible if kids are abandoned or forced to commit crime in the street by their family.
    Would you support these families?
    If the Country has blocked the international adoption, like Romania, so the only temporary solution is to create “family houses”/little orphanages and make them the most comfortable as possible.
    In this condition, preventing volunteers from going for short time period to play causes lack of opportunities and stimolus. These kids won’t even receive some smiles.
    So before taking Cambodia or other Country as benchmark for all the world looked like to pretentious according to me and damaging the good part.

    In conclusion, stopping all the volunteering in everypart of the word is wrong and it would be better to write stopfundingvolunteering or stopgoinginorpahanage just for ourselves.


  • Rebecca Smith

    Dear Federico,
    Thank you for taking the time to reply and to point out the differences in different contexts. I am always happy to discuss and debate the need for care further. I agree that Romania is a very different context from Cambodia and Indonesia, but it doesn’t mean that institutional care is the right option even for children who have been abandoned or committed a crime.

    Why not consider extended family and domestic adoption for children? While small residential care may temporarily be needed for a small number of children while a longer term solution is found, I do not believe volunteers should come for short periods of time to provide play and stimulus. Surely there are Romanians that can provide this role over a longer period of time and in a more sustainable way. A volunteer with a specific skill set could be used to train Romanian staff members in a specific expertise, like physical therapy or occupational therapy if there wasn’t this skill in country, but a volunteer coming to an orphanage, helping, sharing a bond with a child and providing stimulation, just makes another loss of attachment for the children when the volunteer leaves. More good would come from engaging Romanian staff members and the local community.

    I would urge you to look at the good work Hope and Homes for Children and the Opening Doors for Europe’s Children and get more specific information on the current situation in Romania.
    Thank you,

  • Mr Akram Khan-Cheema

    We established an orphanage near Mombasa. We r looking for alternative ways of helping orphans now. Thank you for sharing the results of your findings. Very useful.

  • Yasmeena

    I hope this email finds you well.

    I am looking to do some volunteering with children and I was wondering if you were in need or would like some extra help! Even if it may not be directly assisting children, I really want to help where I can.

    Thank you in advance and I look forward to hear back fro you.
    Best Wishes,
    Yasmeena Fontaine

  • Lewis Bazley

    Hi Yasmeena,

    It’s wonderful to hear you’d like to volunteer. There are lots of ways to get involved. }

    You can find out more here https://www.savethechildren.org.uk/how-you-can-help/volunteer or give our Supporter Care team a call on 020 7012 6400 if you’d like to have a chat.

    Best wishes,
    Lewis, Save the Children