In recent years, a trend has been on the rise where travelers and short-term mission groups volunteer in residential care facilities with children. When traveling to economically poor countries, it is easy to become overwhelmed with the difficulties that orphans and vulnerable children face, and it is natural to want to take action, but how we engage can make a world of difference.

Motivations for volunteering are diverse, and most visitors have good intentions. Many Christian groups have made these types of visits to orphanages during short-term missions trips to provide care for orphans. Other volunteers make this part of their vacation – referred to by some as “orphan tourism.”

There is also an increasingly growing interest – within the orphan care community, churches, mission organizations, higher education, and beyond – in conversations related to better volunteering practices and working with children. The Faith to Action Initiative recognizes these conversations must be navigated with sensitivity, while also balancing the best interests of children, families, and communities around the world.

The practice of visiting children in orphanages is expanding and the number of volunteers is growing. While most visitors have good intentions and want to have a positive impact on the lives of orphans and vulnerable children, short-term visits can too often promote more harm than good for children. As our publication the Summary of Research to Help Guide Faith-Based Action notes, connection and attachment are crucial to the healthy emotional development of every child. Children living in orphanages have experienced some form of separation from their parents or relatives, and many children living in orphanages can feel lonely. When volunteers come to an orphanage to play with the children and spend time with them, it can actually be harder on the children in the long run. Although for a visitor it may seem like a positive act of love to spend time with children that appear to lack the care and attention they should have, children can quickly attach to the volunteers, who then leave and never return, perpetuating the children’s already-present abandonment challenges.

Orphanages in some countries rely on the donations of visitors to keep their operation running, and of concern is the rate of children living in orphanages has grown along with the rate of orphanage volunteerism in many countries, perpetuating institutionalization over placement with a family. Children can also be in vulnerable positions if the orphanage does not have child protection polices, or if they do not screen or conduct background checks on all volunteers who visit.

Faith to Action encourages participation in activities that support local caregivers, helping provide them with training and tools (if needed) that will continue to strengthen their care for children long after they have left. By offering skills training in child development and abuse prevention, or by working alongside community members to build a children’s center, for example, churches or groups can build up the local circle of support that protects and nurtures children day to day (Journeys of Faith, pages 50-52).

What does this mean for us as Christians and how we engage—for our churches, mission groups, schools? How do we thoughtfully and sensitively understand the issues and the impact of volunteering and engaging with children during short-term trips? To date, there aren’t many specific resources for a Christian audience on these topics, but there are many conversations and resources that can help frame the discussion and help us contribute as well-informed churches, groups, and individuals who want to promote better volunteering and support family-based care.

To engage ethically in orphan care and better volunteering, we must also understand the broader structural incentives that frame our individual service experiences, as well as the types of questions to ask if we wish to engage ethically and make a meaningful difference. An important first step to providing long-term, sustainable care for orphans and vulnerable children is to be informed. Click the Stories tab to read more about organizations who are working to strengthen family-care around the world, or read our publication, Journeys of Faith, provides additional guiding principles for short-term mission trips.

Faith to Action serves on the Better Volunteering Working Group and will continue to engage in conversations around these complex conversations with other organizations. In the coming months, we will dive deeper into these conversations, seeking to be a bridge for faith-based organizations with other voices and resources already engaged in these complex topics.

Although the views and opinions expressed in these resources do not necessarily reflect those of Faith to Action, these resources do provide an introduction to the topics at hand. We invite you to consider the following resources as a voice in these conversations:

Better Volunteering, Better Care: Executive Summary

Orphanage Volunteering– Why to Say No

Ethical Volunteering With Vulnerable Children

Interview with Anna McKeon, Communication Consultant, Better Care Better Volunteering Network (Part I)

Orphanage tourism: help or hindrance?

Learning Service: Orphanage Tourism (video)

Orphanage Tourism, Faith Communities, and Holistic Development (video)