Should I volunteer at an orphanage?

Volunteering & Travel Advice / 05 January 2015 Should I volunteer at an orphanage?

Please see our article An end to orphanage volunteering which provides an update and Pod Volunteer's current position on orphanage volunteering


It all starts so simply and admirably, you want to make a genuine difference in the world and give something back; helping at an orphanage appears to be an obvious way to do so and has become a popular type of volunteering. But international development is a complex balancing act and what starts out as very well intentioned volunteering can have unexpected negative impacts if not managed carefully.

We think there are some fundamental questions which we, Pod Volunteer, and you as a volunteer should consider:

  • Does the world need orphanages?
  • Is every orphanage good?
  • Should Pod Volunteer work with orphanages? By doing so are we supporting the existence / growth of orphanages?
  • How does Pod Volunteer choose which orphanages to support?
  • How does Pod Volunteer select and manage its volunteers?
  • Do volunteers do more harm than good?

We acknowledge that the word “orphanage” is an umbrella term for residential care and within this there may be children who do have one or both parents and are not considered “true orphans”. The “orphanages” that we support care for children from a variety of backgrounds including abuse, neglect and those whom the local social services have deemed “at risk” in the family environment.

Does the world need orphanages?

I don’t think anyone would disagree that we would much rather live in a world where there wasn’t a need for orphanages.  Ideally, children lacking parental support would live in alternative arrangements such as extended family environments and in many situations this is the case. However, it is not always possible and the management and funding of this system is challenging in many of the countries we work in.  It is critical that children are safe from abuse and cared for in a supported environment.

Is every orphanage good?

Unfortunately, as we often see with foreign aid, there are unscrupulous people out there willing to take advantage of others and use charity for their personal gain.  We are very aware that orphanage tourism is a growing problem and there are concerning stories such as hearing about orphanages being set up solely to profit from foreign donors and visitors.  Here at Pod Volunteer, however, we know from our own experience there are orphanages and children’s homes carrying out inspirational work with young people and transforming lives.  It is places such as these that Pod Volunteer chooses to support.

Should Pod Volunteer work with orphanages? By doing so are we supporting the existence / growth of orphanages?

Where there is a genuine need for orphanages and where the orphanages have a genuine need for volunteers, we want to help support them as we do with all the different types of charities and organisations we work with overseas.

We have developed long term relationships with a small number of orphanages and are pleased to report that some of the children have been placed back into extended families or adopted families and, where possible and safe for the child, contact is facilitated between the children and extended family.  The orphanages that we work with were all established prior to volunteer support and were not founded in reaction to the increase in “voluntourism”. We would happily withdraw from these projects if there was no longer a need for our volunteers and this is our ultimate goal.

In terms of any financial motivation to receive volunteers, we ensure that all local costs of volunteers are covered so that the orphanage is never left out of pocket but there is no significant financial incentive for them to take on volunteers.

How does Pod Volunteer choose which orphanages to support?

We are regularly contacted by orphanages who want us to send volunteers to them, however we choose to foster long term relationships with a small number of projects which are very carefully selected. We are completely independent from the projects we support so are in a position to impartially evaluate and select where we send volunteers. We conduct regular reviews and visits with the orphanages and only work with projects where we have established that there is a genuine need and a well-managed volunteer programme.

They are all officially licensed or regulated and are working in conjunction with the social services departments in the countries they operate in, only taking on children when absolutely necessary for their welfare. They are all monitored and regularly visited by one of our UK based Pod Volunteer team.

Do international volunteers do more harm than good?

As with all forms of foreign aid or assistance, it is vitally important that the impacts of support are carefully assessed and evaluated to ensure any negative impacts can be mitigated as far as possible.

We believe the most important overall consideration is whether the children benefit more from having volunteers support for a period of time, than not having them there at all? Having worked with a number of orphanages around the world, we would say that in our experience volunteers make a positive difference to the lives of the children, if managed effectively.  This includes:

  • Resources and time: volunteers provide additional support to caregivers and allow children to receive one-to-one attention that the normal staff quota would not otherwise allow. Local staff are often overstretched and volunteers help with the general workload and day to day running of the orphanages with tasks such as maintenance, cleaning and laundry enabling there to be more time and opportunity for the local staff to spend directly with the children
  • English skills: volunteers can help teach English which is often required for further education or highly valued in employment in the countries where we work
  • Additional skills: volunteers with specific expertise such as vocational skills can train the local staff or pass on their skills to the children
  • Activities and fun: volunteers bring energy and enthusiasm along with new games for the children which the staff can also learn for the future sessions. Volunteers are in a unique position to bring fresh ideas and fun into environment  

Although volunteers change over time, continuity and stability is provided by a permanent team of local staff and volunteers never replace local staff. We believe this helps to mitigate against any attachment issues that the children may form to volunteers.

Drawing a parallel with our own situation in the UK, consider the impact if all volunteers were withdrawn from care homes in the UK.  The system would probably collapse. There isn’t enough budget to provide sufficient staffing at levels where real care and attention can actually be provided.

How does Pod Volunteer select and manage its volunteers?

We select our volunteers very carefully including written applications, interviews, references and criminal record checks.

We help match each volunteer to the most appropriate project for them through the information we provide and our application management process, ensuring that their skills can be best utilised where they are most needed.

We recognise that volunteers may not have specific skills needed for looking after vulnerable children so they are placed in roles where they are supporting the skilled caregivers, with the team of local staff maintaining responsibility of care. Volunteers fulfil supporting roles, never replacing local staff.

We work with each orphanage to define the number of volunteers required with the needs of the children in mind so that there isn’t an inappropriate ratio of volunteers or any motivation to maximise the number of volunteers to benefit financially.

All our volunteers are required to sign up to our Code of Conduct and Child Protection Policy, which puts in place protocols to protect vulnerable children and adults (and our volunteers) in the course of the volunteering projects.

Conclusion and our advice for volunteers

As a volunteering specialist, Pod Volunteer faces many issues when considering volunteering projects overseas and in this particular case whether to send volunteers to work with orphanages. At Pod Volunteer we take a proactive approach to these issues by carefully selecting and continuously reviewing the projects that we work with; this has been the basis of the Pod Volunteer philosophy since 2001.  We work hard to ensure that we are in a position where we are creating a change for good in the world.  

We believe that there is still a great need for and benefit from volunteers, but it must be through a very careful selection of orphanages and well-managed volunteer programmes. We also recognise that, sadly, there are some organisations out there with very different ethical standards and approaches.

We encourage you to carefully research the organisation and project you are considering volunteering for - make sure you know the background, ethics and financial status of the organisation (e.g. profit, non-profit, charity), the full details of the volunteering role and the project itself.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions, make sure you read past volunteer reviews and look for the organisation’s child protection policy and code of conduct.  

Through an informed choice we hope you will take part in overseas volunteering.

Alex Tarrant (Director) and the Pod Volunteer team
View Pod Volunteer’s carefully selected and managed projects working with children:

Read Pod Volunteer’s Responsible Volunteering Policy:

Read Pod Volunteer’s Child and Vulnerable Adult Protection Policy: