How everyone gets something out of it

The choice of volunteering projects is huge and it is often difficult to identify what is good and what is not. We have seen many projects not having the positive impact promised. Indeed, many volunteer placement agencies are selling products that are not in the best interest of local communities, such as missions in orphanages, which can cause harm to children. We provide volunteers with the necessary tools to engage in responsible and ethical volunteering.

For the local communities

When  embarking on a volunteering mission, the best interest of local communities should be at the heart of your actions. They should benefit directly or indirectly from your work and there should be no negative interference or consequences for them. For a number of reasons ChildSafe does not support volunteering to work directly with children in another country, for example in orphanages, children’s homes or schools.

Why ?

Let’s think about it: most volunteers don’t know the local language and cannot communicate effectively with the children they are working with. Short-term international volunteers often have no previous experience of teaching and so lack the skills to teach English as a foreign language. Most volunteers only stay for a short period of time before moving on and being replaced by new volunteers, and the lack of adequate background checks on volunteers contributes to a situation in which child sexual exploitation can occur.

Whilst volunteering with children may represent an interesting and memorable experience for the volunteer, ask yourself what long-term good it does for the children? Bonding with a succession of volunteers who subsequently leave them, being exposed to potential abuses by not so well meaning volunteers, getting poor quality English lessons with no continuity in the curriculum… we wouldn’t want that for our own children, right?

Below are a few more things to think about before volunteering to work in children’s residential institutions:

  • Children do not develop well in institutions: Institutions (orphanages, shelters, children’s homes) are never a better environment for children than living with a loving family. In institutions they are denied the individual love and care they need to develop properly. Increasing evidence shows that infant’s brains not only fail to develop fully when placed in institutions but parts of the brain may actually die and this is not reversible. Research also shows that in institutions children are often exposed to abuses from their peers or from caretakers.
  • Institutions can tear families apart: Out of 8 million children living in institutions across the globe more than 80% are not orphans. They are separated from their families mostly because these are poor and can’t afford to send them to school. In Cambodia for example, UNICEF is working closely with the government to reduce the number of orphanages and convince those funding and running orphanages to return children to their families and support community-based services instead.
  • Volunteering in institutions allows them to expand:  by contributing your time and money you are supporting a system that is clearly not in the best interest of children and you are undermining Unicef and many governments’ efforts to reunite children with their families! Some orphanages are taking advantage from volunteers’ genuine desire to help and are more interested in the financial benefit the volunteer might bring than in any benefit he may bring to children.
  • Volunteers don’t have a long lasting positive impact: Children need permanent caregivers and teachers with whom they can develop stable and long-term reciprocal relationships. Such attachments form the foundation for other relationships and are paramount to the development of their self-confidence. Volunteers who are only passing through, who are from a different culture and speak a different language cannot function as stable attachment figures.
  • Children in institutions are exposed to abuses: Some organizations allow volunteers to have direct and unsupervised access to children, without doing any background checks. This increases the chance of “predator volunteers” to have access to children and these children of being taken advantage of or abused.
For the organizations

Volunteers can represent a real added value for the work of organizations if the following conditions are fulfilled:

  • Volunteers should stay for a minimum period of time (ideally at least 3 months) and bring a specific set of skills to the organization.
  • Volunteers should always work with local staff and transfer their skills to them to ensure a long lasting contribution to the organization. Students who need to gain field experience should volunteer if they can carry out a specific duty or provide a specific skill that is useful to the organization (i.e. physical work).
  • Field experiences need to be delivered in a way that is sustainable for local organizations and/or communities, not taking jobs away from local staff or businesses.
For the volunteers

Volunteering with an organization should provide a rewarding and beneficial experience for the volunteer. Working with local staff is a great way to learn about different cultures and to develop skills that can be an asset for future employment opportunities as well as a plus on the volunteer’s curriculum vitae. In order to ensure a positive experience, the volunteer should be adequately supervised and supported by the staff of the organization. The volunteer’s expected duties and working hours should be discussed and made clear with the recipient organization.

Positive and meaningful volunteering missions can only take place if this triple bottom line is met.

News articles

Banning-Lover, Rachel. Seven Questions You Should Ask before You Volunteer Abroad, The Guardian (The Guardian), January 4, 2016.

Biddle, Pippa. The Problem with Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism, The Huffington Post, February 23, 2014.

Brown, Jonathan. Voluntourism Is a “Waste of Time and Money” – and Gappers Are Better off Working in Britain, The Independent – News & Advice, October 24, 2014.

Coldwell, Will. Volunteer Holidays: How to Find an Ethical Project, The Guardian, January 27, 2016.

Kushner, Jacob. The Voluntourist’s Dilemma, The New York Times Magazine, March 25, 2016.

Papi, Daniela. ‘Viewpoint: Is Gap Year Volunteering a Bad Thing?’. BBC Magazine, May 1, 2013.

Papi, Daniela. Why You Should Say No to Orphanage Tourism (And Tell All Tour Companies to Do the Same), The Huffington Post. Posted 20 November 2012.

Purvis, Katherine and Lindsey Kennedy. ‘Volunteer Travel: Experts Raise Concerns over Unregulated Industry’. The Guardian, January 26, 2016.

Rousseau, Noémie. Tourisme humanitaire: la vrai fausse pitié, Libération, August 15, 2016.

Werner Gillioz, Emmanuelle. Le Business de La Pitié, Le Temps, July 1, 2014.

Werner Gillioz, Emmanuelle. Le Nombre D’orphelins Croit Avec La Pitié, Le Matin Dimanche, September 13, 2015..

Werner Gillioz, Emmanuelle. ‘Les Enfants Du Népal Ont Besoin de Soutien, Pas D’orphelinats’. Le Temps, May 17, 2015.


Yes, you can and should volunteer

Do your research
Think before seeking the services of sending organizations, which often charge large fees for volunteering missions. You can get in direct contact with reliable in-country organizations advertising volunteer positions on their website who ask candidates to apply by providing a full CV with references, a cover letter and a police record. This will save you money and you can choose to make a donation to the organization if you wish.
No direct work with children, then what?

There are many ways you can support and volunteer with organizations working with children without being yourself in direct contact with them. Organizations may need administrative and fundraising support, web developers, graphic designers, database specialists, photographers, filmmakers, social workers who will train local staff, etc.

Before you commit yourself, make sure that:

  1. The organization is legally registered
  2. The organization has policies and procedures in place to protect children. Child protection policy should be based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and provide a framework of principles, standards and guidelines to become aware, prevent and respond to abuse.
  3. All staff and volunteers in the organization should be required to agree and abide by a Code of Conduct aimed at safeguarding the physical and mental well being of children.
  4. The organization carries out background checks.
Adopt the right attitude
  • Your contribution to beneficiaries and local communities should be your primary focus.
  • Local communities and in-country organizations are not here to entertain you, help you in your current life situation nor train you.
  • Do your research before arriving in country and think about how best you can help and what set of skills you can offer.
  • Stay humble and be ready to learn from the people you are going to work with.
  • Adopt the right attitude and enjoy a meaningful and rewarding experience!
7 Tips for Volunteers

Tip 1: Do your research before arriving in country.

Tip 2: Do not work directly with children.

Tip 3: Stay at least 3 months.

Tip 4: The best interest of beneficiaries should be your primary focus.

Tip 5: Transfer your skills to local staff.

Tip 6: Make sure your volunteering is sustainable for local organizations/communities.

Tip 7: Stay humble and be ready to learn.


And have a real impact

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