How to Responsibly Work with Orphanages

At the Adventure Travel World Summit last week I met Andy Woods-Ballard from GVI and he believes GVI has developed a sustainable model through which it sends volunteers to orphanages without any harmful effects felt by the community. I welcome this kind of post as I think its something we can all learn from and hopefully take to heart and incorporate into our daily activities.

They also have fabulous examples of video from the host communities – I’ve been calling for this type of media, if you don’t have any you really need some now to prove to your future customers how effective your in country work is.

So where is your video? And what do you think of the guidelines for orphanage work below?

Much of running a successful programme is experience in the particular areas you are working in. If you and the partners are working with the goal of helping the children rather than making money it would quickly become apparent if the situation were being abused. Importantly I think its worth recognising that sometimes the term is used in a slightly different way in that there will be children who have one or two parents alive attending orphanages/schools/drop in centres and the definition is not as cut and dried as it is in the UK.

There is a huge list of things that can be done to ensure this type of program is not exploitative or exploited a few comments from our team in Cape Town on what they have felt most important. They work in an orphanage that has taken in children from around the township who are in need. Some are disabled and outcast from their families, others may be orphans or neglected.

1. Ideally you should try and ensure that any orphanage where you send volunteers is linked to a social worker and that all children that are placed their have come via the correct system and that the establishment is regularly monitored and checked by social services.
2. If you are running safe houses or education programs for street children it is very important to have a strong link and regular input from a respected community leader who understands the inner workings and dynamics of the community.
3. It is very important to have longer term staff to act as mediators between the community and volunteers and to provide continuity and consistency.
4. It is extremely important for children to only be allowed to eat on the premises and not be allowed to take any food away with them. In addition it is very very important that volunteers do not hand out any gifts or money directly to children at any time and any resources which are provided need to remain on the premises. For this reason it is imperative that volunteers are supervised and managed as they would more often than not make these common mistakes meaning well with out realising the consequences.
5. We have also looked into ways of encouraging support to parents and other adult members of the community by getting them involved at the centre’s in exchange for food, never money as more often than not this would go to drugs or alcohol. So for example if they came and worked in the vegetable garden for a day they would get a box of groceries which would last a family for a week. Thereby offering them the opportunity to get food for themselves without exploiting children in anyway. However this does need to be very carefully monitored by a strong community leader as you have got to be very careful from a security point of view who you allow onto the premises and how things are managed.
6. It is also imperative that all volunteers are background checked, e.g. our volunteers obtain a CRB check (Criminal Record’s Bureau) in the UK or national equivalents if from outside the UK.
7. For programmes with the older children, education forms a vital part of the work we do.

3 thoughts on “How to Responsibly Work with Orphanages

  1. Two parts to my reply. One on video and one on Andy’s guidelines. I know Andy, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for him AND for GVI and their programs.

    Unless you’re providing instructional video, it’s marketing. If you provide video about how to write out your application, how to teach a language, how to do this or how to do that, your video is marketing. I’m not against marketing videos at all. I AM against using them as supportive evidence that a program “works.”

    Video is fun, video uploaded is “moderated” by staff, video portrays what is going on right now, when the video was taken. Just like photographs, it is representational of what is going on right then. GVI has great video, great host communities, great programs and extremely talented and dedicated staff. THAT is what you use as evidence an industry should trust them to do orphan programs. Not a moderated video.

    I live on a private road where there are 12 homes. We don’t like any car to go down the road more than 25 mph. I can show you video all day long of cars going 25 mph as a great example of how safe our road is. But today, my kids were going to be late to get to the top of the road and be in time for the school bus. I drove 35 get there. I would have moderated that video and would have made sure it doesn’t show up. And if I did decide to show that video with the others, I’d make sure I get a lot more GREAT videos to lessen the impact of the one of me going 35 mph. KInd of like what GVI does with


    At some point, we have to take a stand as an industry. All in all, orphan programs handled within the confines of our industry, need to go away. This statement has nothing to do with GVI or their standards. It has everything to do with someone stepping up and saying…enough.

    I realize there is another side of the coin. Put all the GVIs out there in front of our industry and ask them to continue to run orphan programs with the highest ethical standards that exist in their guidelines but also, appoint yourself as the orphan police and make sure the rest of the industry knows about your guidelines. But I don’t think that is going to happen. At WYSTC, there were two workshops on Voluntourism. Both inane content. Orphan Voluntourism would have been ideal with GVI presenting their guidelines would have been fantastic.

    The problems with Orphan Voluntourism include the projects are revolving doors, the voluntarists are not trained in anyway, and projects know volunteers pay to come and begin to rely upon that income. And while I applaud GVI’s guidelines, I don’t see anything in there to provide trained volunteers (or to train them before they arrive) and how to get that particular Orphanage to rely less on international volunteers and more on themselves and their local community.

    Of the guidelines you presented, I’d like to suggest that guideline 5 is the most important. And I’d like to suggest it is ground-breaking, that one. No pun intended. I love it.

    GeoVisions has taken the stand to get out of Orphan Voluntourism totally as an ethical decision. I don’t think the world will start rotating more slowly or more quickly because of that. We just decided the ethical response to an unethical program is to remove it and not support it in anyway. We did the same thing with Google Ad-Words. One day we advertised. The next day we did not. That was in November 2008 and we’ve never used them again. And orphan tourism is gone from our program catalog, and it will never return. Somewhere, industry leaders have to take a stand even when it impacts negatively on the bottom line. It’s called integrity.

    I love the GVI guidelines, and I wish all the voluntourism senders who have chosen to do orphan tourism would accept them. They won’t. So does GVI sleep well at night, knowing their orphan voluntourism projects are ethical and well-run? I hope so, because these are great guidelines. Do they sleep at night knowing they have taken a stand and are activists on doing it right? I dunno. Andy didn’t mention that.

    I’d love for Andy to present this topic at WYSTC in San Diego or WETM in Budapest this coming March. Actively seek to change the industry from the inside.

    I guess, at 62, doing this since 1975, I’m looking for someone young (like Andy) to step up and kick some ass. Metaphorically, of course. Share your guidelines and your research. Video THAT, and I’ll watch it.


  2. Can I just start with asking, is it not extremely irresponsible sending volunteers to a place which doesnt even have any of the mentioned ”guidelines” in place?

    And in terms of them being guidelines,

    No 1. Many countries, yes even the developing ones, have some kind of policy on when and how and why a child should be placed in an orphanage. Hopefully ,also in Cape town, this means that everything possible has been done to prevent that child from having to leave their families. You will probably also find policies or guidelines for how residential care should be performed. If that is not the case the Convention of the rights of the child is a good place to start looking.

    No 2 Are you running safe houses or street children programs without being in contact with communities or authorities? Maybe that should have been the first step if you want to work with these very vulnerable children.

    No 3 Spot on, yes it is very important that you have long term local staff working with vulnerable children, that can build trust, speak the language and know the culture. I would suggest that maybe they are the ones who should build all the contact with communities and be the direct contact to the children rather than a foreign volunteer.

    No 4, 5 and 6
    These are points that in general should be in an orphanage or organisations Child protection policy which should clearly state how they protect the children in your program. If an organisation uses volunteers it is also useful to have a volunteer policy.

    Responsible volunteering with vulnerable children?

    Vulnerable children are not a commodity for western unqualified volunteers to practise on. Volunteers working with vulnerable children shouldnt. They should be qualified trained people, nothing else, who then work with staff to improve the staff capacity in running these programs. This would also have a more long term impact on the program.

    Direct contact with vulnerable and maybe orphaned children by kind hearted volunteers is creating attachement which these children will suffer from everytime the person leaves and thus adding to their trauma. This is damaging to childrens psychological and sometimes physical development. They need strong attachement to a caregiver from their own culture who speaks their language and understands their background. Without the proper protection measures in place in you are also providing opportunities for people wishing to abuse children to get in contact with very vulnerable children.

    So yes please voluntourism industry, the ones that do decide to stop with orphanage programs, I take my hat off because you are in that way doing a big part in protecting vulnerable children in developing countries. Children that has the same right as children in western countries to grow up in a safe and loving home.

  3. Over the last ten years working in Children’s Homes the reason for children being placed in care has changed very little, the word orphanage and orphan has always been over used. If you are to go into any children’s home anywhere in the world, very few of the children will be what we traditionally classify as an orphan. For a child to be classified as an orphan in South Africa they need to have lost one parent, which would then include a huge number of children. Now even if a child has lost both parents, that does not necessarily warrant that they need to live in a children’s home, as the last option is removal. First social service should try and explore all reliable family members.
    Many of the children that fill homes are there for other reasons, such as abuse, rape, neglect, financial situation, behaviour issues and so on. Many of these children will have family, who just are unable to care for them. The number of children needing care all over the world is increasing daily, but this is more related to the ills of society than the impact of foreign money. The governments of most nations are aware of these issues and with that they are trying to create viable solutions. But with the currently global financial crisis the reality is that without foreign donations most children’s homes would not be able to function, because government subsidy is simply not enough. In South Africa you are now not able to register new children’s homes, as the government sees the issues with raising children in homes. This is not because of the foreign volunteers, but because of the care required by the individual child. Being that many of these children come from horrendous situations, they need the love and care that a home simply cannot provide. So foster homes are now considered the optimum option for children in care or cluster homes with a house mother.
    Child protection legislation is meant to be followed by all organisations brining in volunteers (both national and international) to children’s homes. This would ensure the issues that arise in the article do not become an issue. All volunteers should also be provided training in youth at risk and child protection policy. The children’s act in South Africa forbids photography of children’s faces and also ensures that all volunteers are checked on the international child abuse register. International volunteers are mostly coming from countries that have strict child protection procedures are followed and as volunteer organisations we should ensure that such standards are also practiced in the children’s homes and community projects we work with.
    Volunteers can bring many positive aspects to a project if managed appropriately. Children’s Homes are often understaffed due to funding and volunteers provide enthusiastic people to come and assist. Saying this it is very important that it is well managed to make sure that the children do not grow up with attachment issues and that local staff are not disempowered. There are times where the love provided by a volunteer can change the path of a child’s life but it is our job to ensure that this is always a positive change. Volunteers also provide funding for programmes not covered by government funding, such as private education, extra mural activities and therapy, all of which are necessary for the rehabilitation and development of the child.

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