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Tenby at Savong Orphan Centre, CambodiaGroup photo of the children and staff of Savong Orphan Centre in Cambodia

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“If the orphanage is legitimate, they would ideally have an active family reunification program, but the unfortunate truth is that some organizations, looking to profit from the lucrative business of volunteer with orphans, have gone as far as to pay families to give up their children to the orphanage.” — Jessie Beck

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Whatever your opinion on voluntourism, there is no denying its growth as a new and popular way to travel while at the same time giving back.

Unfortunately, some imitators have found a way to profit from altruistic tourists by running legitimate looking operations that are actually scams – such as the fake orphanages that dupe tourists into paying to participate in this popular voluntourism project.

In Cambodia, for example, an increase in the number of orphanages has accompanied the voluntourism trend. Many of these establishments are genuinely trying to make a difference in a country that undoubtedly needs the service, but hit “volunteering with orphanage scams” into your search engine and you will be bombarded with stories and blog posts about disgruntled travelers who fell for it.

So, with an increase of illegitimate orphanages out there (especially in Southeast Asia) how can you spot one? And what should you look for when choosing an orphanage to volunteer at to avoid being scammed? What can individuals sincerely hoping to make a difference through their volunteer program do to avoid contributing to this unfortunate trend?

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Lotto Mum Jane Surtees with Orphans in Ethiopia“Lotto Mum” Jane Surtees spending time with her orphans in Ethiopia

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Worth Noting: Cultural Differences in What “Orphanage” Means

It’s important to keep in mind that in some cultures, organizations called orphanages don’t necessarily mean that the children have no family or parents. Particularly in countries with a high rate of poverty, families often send children to orphanages because they believe they are more likely to be fed and have access to basic necessities, or because their parents are incapable of taking care of the children because of a disability, mental instability, or drug abuse. In fact, only about 28% of children in Cambodian orphanages have lost both parents.

The fact that many of the children may still have one or both parents does not automatically mean the orphanage is a scam. If the orphanage is legitimate, they would ideally have an active family reunification program, but the unfortunate truth is that some organizations, looking to profit from the lucrative business of volunteer with orphans, have gone as far as to pay families to give up their children to the orphanage.

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Volunteer at an Orphanage in IndiaA volunteer entertains children with soap bubbles at an orphanage in India

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What Volunteers Should Look Out For

Even if an orphanage is a legitimate organization, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s being run well. That’s not the sort of orphanage you want to volunteer with. Not only should you try to avoid scams while searching out a volunteer opportunity with orphans, but also strive to do meaningful and effective work with a well-run organization. A great way to learn more about volunteer opportunities before you depart is to read reviews of other people’s experiences volunteering abroad.

Volunteers should look for an orphanage that runs background checks and has systems in place to protect the children from predators. A minimum time commitment, asking volunteers to apply well in advance from when they actually show up, and assigning volunteers to tasks supporting staff are other signs of a well run orphanage.

According to the Singapore-based Expat Living blog, volunteers often confuse the warm and gratifying feelings of working with children with effective volunteer work, which is why this type of volunteer work lends itself so easily to scammers.

In reality, working with staff to make sure daily tasks get done is far more beneficial for the children than singing them nursery rhymes. It is especially difficult when children get emotionally attached to volunteers who will leave in only a couple of days or weeks. Make sure you have a clear outline of what the volunteer position will require of you, and that the organization’s philosophy lists the children’s development and well-being as their main priority.

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Orphanage Volunteer Program GhanaVolunteers learn to nurse babies at an orphanage in Ghana

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Key Signs That This Volunteer Program Might be a Scam

These red flags will help you quickly determine whether an orphanage is a legitimate organization or actually a scam:

1)  They openly solicit tourists – any orphanage that allows tourists to visit immediately and unplanned isn’t likely a well run or trustworthy establishment.

2)  They don’t request a CV, references, and police reports in advance – well run orphanages should have steps in place to protect the orphans from predators, which means knowing as much as possible about the volunteers they put the orphans in contact with. The more information you are asked to provide, the better.

3)  They ask volunteers to work directly with children rather than supporting staff – although it may be more emotionally fulfilling to work directly with the children than support the staff with daily tasks, an orphanage that requires volunteers to work only with the staff are demonstrating that they have the children’s best interest in mind.

4)  They ask volunteers to pay fees in advance with no mention of how a portion of it is being passed on to help run the organization – any program that you volunteer for should be transparent about why they ask volunteers to pay fees and what they are being used for. Orphanages are no exception.

5)  They allow volunteers to work for just a couple of days – to make a real impact in volunteering with orphanages, travelers should expect to commit for a couple of weeks or longer rather than to just drop by and play with the kids for the afternoon. Be sure to reflect on the pros and cons of short-term volunteer programs before you yourself commit to anything.

6)  They ask for large donations of food – one of the most common ways of scamming tourists is to re-sell bulk food donations for a profit, then redistributing the money amongst the orphanage owners. However, donating goods rather than money (after checking the legitimacy of the organization and consulting them of their needs is a great way of giving support.

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Care Volunteer at an Orphanage in ThailandA care volunteer works with children at an orphanage in Thailand

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Another good way to assure you get a volunteer opportunity with a good organization is to track down local NGOs and ask for their advice, or ask someone who has previously volunteered in the area about their experience. There is no substitute for the kind of knowledge they have picked up by witnessing the orphanage first hand.

Scams and the questions of ethics are an unfortunate part of the reality that has accompanied the boom of well-intentioned travelers looking to give back to communities in need. However, when done right, volunteering in an orphanage has the potential to make a huge impact on the lives of the volunteers and the children they work with. The need for volunteers is real, so don’t let the fear of being scammed stop you from trying. Just be smart and know what to look for!

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Jessie Beck

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About the Author

Originally from the Washington, DC area, Jessie Beck studied in Dakar and Malta, taught in Costa Rica, and volunteered with the Peace Corps in Madagascar before finally ending up at the Go Overseas office in California. She is currently the Teach Abroad & Content Director for Go Overseas. When not at work or traveling the globe, she can be found rock climbing, blogging, or reading travelogues in her local coffee shop.

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