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

Tip 1 - THINK! What can you offer?

Too often volunteers sign up for positions they are unqualified for which can lead to harmful situations and less than positive contributions.

Make sure you volunteer in a role that uses your existing skills and experience without taking away local jobs. Look for opportunities that allow you to transfer your knowledge directly to local staff. Remember, if it’s something you aren’t qualified to do in your home country – chances are you shouldn’t be doing it elsewhere. Ask yourself: What skills do I have? What knowledge can I share? This will help you identify volunteer opportunities where you can make a sustainable impact.

Tip 2 - THINK! Do your homework on the organization you wish to support.
Unfortunately not all organizations, willingly or unwillingly, put the needs of those they serve first and it’s important to ensure you aren’t participating in any harmful activities.

The organization should have clear online information, financial transparency, a code of conduct and be registered in the country they operate. Before choosing your volunteer project it’s your responsibility to do research and a background check on the organization first.

Tip 3 - THINK! Prioritize your health and wellbeing and come prepared.
Many people who leave unprepared find themselves in difficult and risky situations. It’s important to take the necessary steps before you travel to stay safe. Making proper arrangements can ensure you have a smooth and positive volunteer experience.

Create a checklist of the things you need. If volunteering abroad, confirm the visa situation, obtain travelers insurance and check any health requirements. It’s also a good idea to register with your embassy and identify in-country resources and support should you need them. Don’t forget to look at the political situation in the country you will be visiting to ensure you’re informed and able to avoid any unnecessary risks.

Tip 4 - THINK! Always protect children and put their safety first.

Volunteering directly with children can leave them vulnerable and at risk for abuse and exploitation. Working with children in institutions, such as orphanages or schools, is a job for local experts, not for unqualified volunteers who are just passing through. Children deserve more than good intentions, they need experienced, skilled and supervised caretakers and teachers who know the local culture and language.

Be sure you are volunteering with an organization that prioritizes children, with an active Child Protection Policy and code of conduct for all staff and volunteers. Avoid working with children directly. Avoid taking selfies or photographs of them. Always respect their rights and privacy. Learn about the risks children face in your selected country, know how to recognize abuse and find out how to report dangerous situations.

Tip 5 - THINK! Arrive with an open mind and respect the local culture.

Often when visiting a new country we encounter unfamiliar behaviors and customs. Arriving with a closed mind and unfounded prejudices could negatively impact both your own experience, and those in the community you interact with.

Volunteering can be a very rewarding and educational experience. Turn on your “wanna know” attitude, be humble and learn from field projects, local culture and people. Enjoy an invaluable learning experience!

Tip 6 - THINK! Leave something behind, take something with you.

Volunteering usually feels good for the volunteer, but often fails to have sustainable and long-lasting impact. Doing a job that someone could do locally isn’t sustainable and has negative effects on local communities.

Volunteering should be a win-win-win situation, for yourself, the organization and the individuals you wish to help. Look for ways to transfer your skills to local staff, expanding someone’s skillset will continue to have a positive impact long after you’ve left. If you are aiming at obtaining school credit or building your CV, be aware that many institutions require that your volunteering reflects a sustainable impact and many now ban activities such as volunteering in orphanages.

Tip 7 - THINK! Share your experience and join the Movement.

Share your ChildSafe volunteer experience with your family and friends so that others may learn from it.


And have a real impact

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