Volunteering: when doing good does harm

Volunteering has conventionally been linked to good people with good intentions. When done well, volunteering can benefit many people, communities, professionals and governments as well as raise awareness on social issues beyond the duration of the volunteering itself. In recent years, however, we have come to understand that there can be severe harm done due to irresponsible volunteering.1 Whether volunteering is the right thing to do depends entirely on the context of who you are, what you will be doing, where and for how long. While this article was written with the situation of well-meaning but inexperienced people working directly with vulnerable children for a couple of weeks in developing countries in mind, it is applicable to all types of volunteering and acts of kindness anywhere. The focus is not just on ‘random acts of kindness’, but on ‘responsible acts of kindness’. There are many ways you can benefit others. Doing volunteer work that is damaging to those you want to help, is not one of them.

Before you go, make an assessment whether your plans are the right way to go. Questions to guide this are:

WhoAre you the right person? Do you have the right qualifications and experience to do the work that is expected of you? Are you empathetic and aware? Are there nationals who could and want to do the work? Do you have integrity?

WhatIs this the right work? Will your work be part of a sustainable solution, tackling the root cause(s) of the problem(s)?

WhereIs this the right place? Does the organisation put the best interest of the child first?

For how longWill you stay long enough? Considering your tasks, will you stay long enough not to cause harm?

Who – Are you the right person?

While it is truly great that you want to do something good for others, it is not just your wishes that matter, your knowledge and skills do too. Do you have the right qualifications and experience to do the work that is expected of you?

Often, volunteers are not required to have any particular knowledge or skills to volunteer. Yet, looking at the nature of the work, it involves responsibilities that may have a severe impact on the beneficiaries if done irresponsibly. For example, you get to work directly with vulnerable children (children who were abused, neglected, abandoned or suffer other forms of trauma). You may think: “It’s only playtime and cuddling, what’s the harm?” But if you think about it, vulnerable children need specialised care by people who have the right knowledge and expertise, in order to overcome their trauma. They do not need disruptions by ‘random people’ in this process. If you volunteer abroad, think about whether you would be allowed to do the same work in your home country? Can you just walk in at child protective services or child care institutions to play or cuddle with children? Most probably not, if you: don’t have the right skills and knowledge; been subject to a thorough background check; and are hired to stay long-term. Those requirements were set to guarantee that children are safe. The same goes for visits to orphanages,2 children’s homes or wildlife ‘rehabilitation’ centres,3 for example. They may make it seem like you are helping out, but if you look beneath the surface, you will find that you are in effect perpetuating harm.

In addition to qualifications and experience, empathy and awareness are equally important when you work in a different country and culture. Most people can have sympathy, but do not understand that empathy is something entirely different.4 I have witnessed volunteers who were not aware of their own biases or cultural insensitivities. I have worked with volunteers who wore clothing so skimpy that the Director had to call a meeting for all staff to emphasise how to behave and dress appropriately. I have heard foreign volunteers and expats speak negatively about the local population. While these were probably qualified and experienced professionals, they did not seem to be aware of their own generalisations, biases or lack of knowledge on country contexts. These harmful stereotypes were part of them when they carried out their daily work and defined the framework within which actions were taken and decisions were made, affecting the children and communities they worked with. Check your empathy5 and/or bias.6 Before you go to work elsewhere, prepare and educate yourself.

Perhaps most importantly, are there nationals who could and want to do the same work? If so, they should do the work instead of you, since they are likely to communicate in the local language, understand the culture and context and stay longer. When foreigners are preferred while nationals can and want to do the work, the local economy and labour market becomes disrupted and, perhaps unintentionally, a system of superiority and inequality is reinforced.7

Finally, ask yourself another question. Would you do this if you were not allowed to talk about it or show it on social media? Don’t do it for the selfies. Don’t make it about you. Integrity matters.

What – Is this the right work?

Think about the work you will be doing and be clear about your exact role. Besides making sure it suits your particular skillsets, think about whether this will be a true and sustainable solution to the problem(s)?

When it involves vulnerable children in shelters, the problem is not that the children need volunteers to play with them; the problem is that the children are in shelters.8 Think about the root causes of the problem(s) and the sustainable solutions to these root causes. Poverty is not a reason to separate children from their parents, yet 80% of the 8 million ‘orphans’ in institutional care still have one or both parents who want them.9 Institutional care brings with it severe negative impact on children’s cognitive, social and emotional development and should be the ultimate last resort and only temporary.10 Solutions should be focused on preventing children from being separated from their families and/or needing specialised care and protecting children who are in institutional care, allowing them to successfully reintegrate into their (extended) families or family-based alternative care. If the work you will be doing leads to keeping children in institutions, this means that you are doing work that does harm, even if you think the children are ‘well taken care of’. Be critical of the information you receive from the organisation you are planning to work for; they have an interest in recruiting you and may portray the children’s situation and the impact of your work as positive, even when it is not.

Many volunteers are recruited because ‘there is a lack’ of resources or staff. As long as volunteers will do the work for free (or even pay for it), organisations will not recruit long-term local staff. Similar to the problem with begging and working children; as long as there are short-term easy and financial rewards, there will be no effort to finding long-term, sustainable and better solutions that put the best interest of the child first.

Do your research well; don’t only ask people who are or were involved with the organisation, but ask independent third parties who have the best interest of children at heart.

Warning signs: the work is focused on providing short-term quick fixes to problems; the work does not offer solutions and is focused on keeping children in the problematic situation they are in.

Good practices: the work is focused on fixing root causes of problems and have a long-term, sustainable and community-based strategy; the work is focused on prevention and remedying problematic situations.

Where – Is this the right place?

Get to know the organisation or institution you will work for. Does the organisation or institution have the same ethics that you do? What is their vision and mission? What are their principles, values and standards? Do they put their beneficiaries’ interest first, above any other interest including financial ones? Do they use harmful stereotypes to raise funds? What are the requirements for volunteers/staff? Do they prioritise hiring local/long-term qualified staff? Do they conduct thorough background checks? Do they have a child protection policy? Are they transparent about how they spend their money? What (community-based) solutions do they offer to the problem(s) and are they focused on sustainability?

Warning signs: anyone can volunteer there, no specific qualifications and experience required; there are no safeguarding policies in place; money can buy you anything, including access to the children; children behave in a manner that is unnatural/harmful (running into strangers’ arms indicates the existence of attachment disorders); children stay in institutional care (no exit or reintegration plans); children are depicted in a helpless, vulnerable (or other stereotypically harmful) way to raise funds; they receive money from funding sources that do not require transparency; the impact of their work is not clear; annual reports are not available, not clear and/or not audited; management is and stays with foreigners; local communities and community members are not involved.

Good practices: there are clear role descriptions; there are strict requirements for volunteers staff that include certain qualifications, years of experience and thorough background checks; local recruitment and local community-based initiatives are prioritised and promoted; the best interest of the child is the primary concern: access to children is strictly regulated; a child protection policy, code of good conduct (and/or other) policies for good behaviour are in place; prior to commencing work, the completion of an induction and/or training is required; fundraising is done ethically, without the victimisation of children; funding sources require accountability through transparent, thorough and regular reporting; the impact of their work has been assessed and reported on; the focus is on sustainable solutions (e.g. exit and reintegration plans for children, exit strategies for the organisation or institution itself).

For how long – Will you stay long enough?

Think about how long you will stay in the project. Depending on the type of work that you will do, the short duration of your stay could be irresponsible. The more vulnerable your beneficiaries are and the shorter your stay is, the more care you have to exercise. If you provide training to social workers or update the IT or monitoring and evaluation systems, it should not be too much of a problem if you stay only a week. But if you will be in direct contact with vulnerable children, your short stay is likely to cause harm. Children who have suffered trauma will already have psychological damage to recover from. When volunteers take the role of caregivers in institutional care, the children quickly form unnaturally close bonds with people they have just met. Each time a volunteer leaves, this bond is broken and the child once again experiences rejection. This is extremely detrimental to a child’s development and therefore, only committed long-term staff should assume caregiver roles for children in orphanages.11

Warning signs: stays as short as a few weeks are allowed.

Good practices: in addition to the right qualifications and experience and a thorough background check, a commitment of a minimum of six months to a year is required.

How irresponsible involvement causes harm

Harm to children

In Cambodia and Nepal, orphanages have become tourist attractions.12 In Ghana and Uganda, the number of orphanages increased, not due to an increase in orphans, but due to the demand from volunteers.13 When volunteer work is driven by profit and the demands of volunteers and visitors, instead of the best interest of the child, there is a big problem. Orphanages have become money-making machines and children have become a commodity. Despite the harmful effects to their development, children are taken away from their families and kept in institutions.14 Research has shown the damaging impact growing up in institutions has on the child’s cognitive, social and emotional development. Common issues for children in institutional care are a significantly increased risk of sexual and physical abuse, a lack of stimulation, and harsh discipline. Children in institutions are less likely to attend school, and are frequently isolated from their traditional communities. Long periods in an institution make it harder for a child to assimilate back into a family and community, and deny them access to the life-long attachments and community support systems that family relationships and communities can provide.15 In connection to volunteering, the coming and going of volunteers leads to children developing attachment disorders. The development of unnatural close bonds with people they have just met increases their vulnerability to child sex predators, who often seek out access to vulnerable children through orphanages.16 Attachment disorders also form the basis for unhealthy relationships in the future. Children in institutional care are at much higher risk of suffering from abuse and neglect than in any other type of care setting.17 Children are kept undernourished and in poor conditions to solicit donations from volunteers and visitors who feel sorry for the children and genuinely want to help.18 Do no harm. Do not volunteer or donate to organisations that reinforce these systems and situations. It is more ethical to do nothing than to do something that causes harm.

Social media and saviour complex

Most often, photos of local children are taken and shared on social media. Would you take photos of children in your home country and share them on social media? Would you like it if a stranger took a photo with you and put it all over their social media? ‘The poorer, the better’ often applies, reinforcing stereotypes by showing only one side of developing countries. Children are depicted as poor and helpless,19 often next to a well-meaning foreigner. In addition, the danger in showing off on social media is that it may trigger an “I want to do this too” effect in others. It is great when people are motivated and inspired to do good. But the emphasis should not only be on ‘random acts of kindness’ but ‘responsible acts of kindness’. They may end up volunteering without being critical about themselves, the work, the place and the duration or they will travel in search of the perfect profile picture child(ren).


It reinforces ‘saviour complex’, the idea that you need to save the world (on your own). Humanitarians of Tinder and Barbie Savior make fun of this by shaming people and illustrating situations, thereby raising awareness. Saviour complex is based on assumptions that the people you work for cannot ‘save’ themselves and that what you do is actually helpful. I know several well-meaning foreigners who have set up their own orphanage in a developing country in Africa or Asia. They wanted to make sure the children are raised well, with the values in ‘our’ culture. Besides the harmful effects to children when they grow up in institutions, this also had the effect that children would grow up disconnected from their own culture and country context which is likely to cause harm to their psychological health and reintegration as an adult. Something I often witnessed was foreigners telling locals what works and what does not, failing to understand the needs and local context, learn from the communities they work with, thinking that what works in their home country also works in their guest country. This is a problem on the smaller scale (individual volunteers or ‘saviours’) as well as the larger scale (foreign policy).

The local/international divide, inequality and harmful stereotypes

If the basis of your work is merely that you come from another country and can ‘do good’ for children or a whole community without much foundation, it reinforces neo-colonialist ideas that people from the Global North are more capable and know better than people from the Global South. In addition, when volunteers work for free (or even pay to work), local economies and labour markets become disrupted.20 The same applies when expats are paid salaries and benefits that are many times higher than those of local staff; not on the basis of their qualifications and/or experience but on the basis that they are ‘expats’ from another country.21 The idea that foreign staff is better skilled is based on the outdated notion that local staff do not have the knowledge, skills or capacity to do the work that is required.22 These systems create and perpetuate the idea of superiority among ‘saviours’ and other harmful stereotypes and forms of inequality and racism.

What can you do?

Think, and act accordingly.

If, following this article, you come to the conclusion that you should not go ahead with your volunteering plans, you may think there is nothing you can do. Well, there is!

You can start by talking to the organisation you were thinking of volunteering with. If their practices are harmful to children, confront them about this. Inform them on how they can change, how to put the best interest of the child first and give them a chance to do better. Only agree to work with them when all child protection safeguards are in place. Demand a system of equal pay for equal work.

At the same time, you can raise awareness on the dangers of irresponsible volunteering. Prevent others from unintentionally supporting a harmful situation.

If you want to go abroad, volunteer with community-driven programmes. You could teach a language, sports or arts and crafts, if you are good in any particular ones. If you don’t have the required background to work with vulnerable children, you can work with children who are not vulnerable23 or don’t work directly with children. Volunteer with programmes that keep or bring families together; programmes that support parents in taking care of their children, help poverty alleviation and prevent family separation. Volunteer in needs-based community programmes that allows you to use your specific qualifications and experience to help out.24 Use your knowledge and skills to build capacity of organisations and their staff who work with children and/or communities instead.

If you are unsure about what to do, you can learn about issues and understand them so that you can raise awareness and advocate for change.

If you want to volunteer at home, look within your own community. Problems are everywhere and there are always community organisations requiring support: help out at a soup kitchen or food bank, help people of old-age with their chores or be a conversation partner, volunteer at an animal shelter or support cultural or environmental organisations.

Each time you want to do good; think, be critical and go through each of the steps above. Be responsible, sincere and committed. Do good, do no harm.


More useful resources:

Better Care Network, ‘Better Volunteering, Better Care’.

Next Generation Nepal (2014), ‘The Paradox of Orphanage Volunteering: Combating child trafficking through ethical volunteering’ (Martin Punaks and Katie Feit).

Institute of Development Studies and VSO (2015), ‘Valuing Volunteering: The Role of Volunteering in Sustainable Development’.

ECPAT Germany, Working Group Tourism & Development, Tourism Watch and Bread for the World (2015), Voluntourism Policy Paper ‘From Volunteering to Voluntourism: Challenges for the Responsible Development of a Growing Travel Trend’.

Tara Winkler (2016), ‘How (Not) to Start an Orphanage… by a woman who did’ (Allen & Unwin Book Publishers).

NCVO, ‘Safeguarding for volunteer involving organisations: A guide to help you develop a comprehensive approach to safeguarding in your organisation’ (Garfield Weston Foundation).



1. E.g. The Guardian (2015), ‘Does Voluntourism do more harm than good? (Matthew Jenkin); ABC (2015), ‘Making mistakes with people’s lives’: the ethics of orphanages and voluntourism’ (Rosanna Ryan); The Huffington Post (2015), ‘Why I am Ashamed to Call Myself a Volunteer’ (Sarah Pycroft); Al Jazeera (2012), Cambodia’s Orphan Business: People & Power goes undercover to reveal how ‘voluntourism’ could be fuelling the exploitation of Cambodian children (Juliana Ruhfus). See also: The Voluntourist (2015), ‘Documentary ‘The Voluntourist’; #doinggood; Volunteer Correct (2014), Volunteering With Children: Dangers of Doing Good.
2. Friends-International, When Children Become Tourist Attractions’; The Huffington Post (2012), ‘Why You Should Say No to Orphanage Tourism (And Tell All Tour Companies to Do the Same)’ (Daniela Papi).
3.  Mashable (2016), Elephants continue to suffer in ‘humane’ wildlife sanctuaries (Sarah Dean); World Animal Protection, Tiger selfies exposed: A portrait of Thailand’s tiger entertainment industry.
4.  The RSA (2013), Brené Brown on Empathy’.
5. Empathy Quotient.
6.  Understanding Prejudice, Implicit Association Test’; Project Implicit, Implicit Association Test’.
7.  Daniel A. Guttentag (2009), The Possible Negative Impacts of Volunteer Tourism (International Journal of Tourism Research).
8.  The same goes for wildlife ‘rehabilitation’ centres. Think about the harm done to animals kept in captivity. Even if it may be in their best interest to keep them captivated in certain locations/situations, is it in their best interest to have them interact with people – strangers even? Wildlife interaction is never for their best interest; it is exploitation to gain your money and to satisfy your wishes.
9.  Save the Children, Better Care Network (2009), The Risk of Harm to Young Children in Institutional Care(Kevin Browne).
10.  Better Care Network, Effects of Institutional Care; Lumos Charity (2015), Children Need Families Not Orphanages.
11.  Kinnected, Ethical volunteering with vulnerable children.
12.  The Sydney Morning Herald (2015), ‘Don’t fall into Cambodia’s orphanage trap, Australians told’(Lindsay Murdoch); The Rising Nepal (2014), ‘Stop The Orphanage Business’ (Ramesh Danekhu); The Independent (2011), ‘Cambodia’s orphanages target the wallets of well-meaning tourists’ (Robert Carmichael); The Phnom Penh Post (2007), Orphanage tourism: a questionable industry (Tracey Shelton and Sam Rith).
13.  UNICEF, Weeshuizen en vrijwilligerstoerisme; Defence for Children (2016), Het aantal kindertehuizen stijgt door vraag vrijwilligers.
14.  Friends-International (2015), ChildSafe Movement – Don’t Create More Orphans; The Sydney Morning Herald (2015), ‘Cambodia: too many orphanages, not enough orphans’ (Lindsay Murdoch); The Guardian (2014), Cambodia: child protection workers call for end to ‘orphanage tourism’ (Helen Davidson); The Sydney Morning Herald (2013), Stealing a generation: Cambodia’s Unfolding Tragedy (Lindsay Murdoch).
15.  Sophia Fischer, Claudia Dölitzsch, Klaus Schmeck, Jörg M. Fegert and Marc Schmid (2016), Interpersonal trauma and associated psychopathology in girls and boys living in residential care (Children and Youth Services Review); Robert B. McCall and Christina J. Groark (University of Pittsburgh, 2015), Research on Institutionalized Children: Implications for International Child Welfare Practitioners and Policymakers (International Perspectives in Psychology: Research, Practice, Consultation, American Psychological Association); Save the Children (2014), Policy Brief ‘Institutional Care: The Last Resort; Lumos Charity (2012), J.K. Rowling: This is Lumos; Better Care Network, Effects of Institutional Care.
16.  Better Volunteering, Better Care (2016), Expert Paper International Volunteering and Child Sexual Abuse (Global Study on Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism). See e.g.: Reuters (2016), ‘Texas man sentenced to 25 years for abusing orphan boys in Malawi’; The Guardian (2016), Rickard Huckle given 22 life sentences for abuse of Malaysian children’ (Kare McVeigh); The Guardian (2016), ‘British paedophile ‘planned to marry victim and abuse foster children’’ (Caroline Davies); Al Jazeera (2016), Former US missionary jailed for abusing Kenyan orphans.
17.  E.g.: The Huffington Post (2015), ‘Ukraine Orphanages Feeder for Child Trafficking’ (Laurle Ahern).
18.  The Sydney Morning Herald (2013), Stealing a generation: Cambodia’s Unfolding Tragedy (Lindsay Murdoch).
19.  It does not help that this is also still the foundation of many communication and marketing strategies of child rights organisations to raise funds. It is an easy way to appeal to public, but it is harmful to the beneficiaries. See also: CNN (2016), ‘The dangers of poverty porn’ (Nathalie Dortonne); The Guardian (2014), Emotive charity advertising – has the public had enough?’ (Aimee Meade).
20.  Daniel A. Guttentag (2009), The Possible Negative Impacts of Volunteer Tourism (International Journal of Tourism Research).
21.  And this while ‘migrants’ are often exploited. The whole expat-migrant divide is another problem. See also: The Guardian (2015), Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? (Mawuna Remarque Koutonin).
22.  The Huffington Post (2016), The Local/International Divide: Reflection of a Deeper Problem in Humanitarian Aid? (Mark Canavera); Quartz Africa (2016), ‘Help Not Needed: Kenya is pressuring thousands of expat NGO workers and volunteers to go home’ (Lily Kuo).
23.  Camp Counselors USA.
24.  E.g.: Doctors Without BordersLawyers Without Borders; Engineers Without BordersTranslaters Without Borders; Veterinarians Without Borders; Plumbers Without BordersBankers Without Borders. See also: WhyDev (2015), ‘A better way to volunteer overseas: Go experteering’(Nafessa Kassim).


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