Orphanage scam – how to recognize?

It is quite easy to become a volunteer in Southeast Asia and find a local organization in which we can work. But how to find a well-run one? Unfortunately with growing number of tourists and volunteers, the number of illegitimate orphanages increases. Before contributing your time and money, watch out for the danger of supporting money-making business.

It is hard to believe that people can take advantage of homeless children or orphans. Unfortunately this is the first belief that is used to mislead tourists and volunteers. The internet is full of stories telling about child exploitation in developing countries but it is hard to recognize which is which, when you do not even know what to expect from your placement.

Between poverty and unacceptable conditions

It is true, that most of the orphanages in Southeast Asia are poor, and the standards are much lower than in the West. Nevertheless, the lack of money should not be an excuse for not carrying for the children. If visiting an orphanage, check what is the system of keeping the children safe. Is there any adult supervisor? Is the gate closed? Is the playground safe? Are there any dangerous objects (like knifes etc.) in the children’s surroundings? It is good to keep in mind, that there is a difference between poverty and unacceptable conditions.

Orphanage tourism

Orphanage is not and should not be a tourist attraction. Check whether the orphanage you want to work for have scheduled time for tourist visits. If it openly solicits for tourists and invites them literally anytime, it shows that it does not care for the children’s privacy and their daily schedule. In well-run orphanage, children are the main priority.

“No” to short-term volunteer programs

Short-term volunteer programs have many advantages, but more for volunteers than for the children. Why is that? It takes approximately one or two weeks to not only learn the children’s names but also to learn what is their real English level – it happens that in one group you have children with advanced English knowledge and the ones knowing just the very basics. To make the impact, volunteers should rather consider committing at least 4-6 weeks.

Let’s talk about money

Do not be afraid to ask about money, latest modernizations and future investments. Well run orphanage have financial reports and can wisely use even from small donations. If the orphanage is regularly visited by tourists, one should be able to see what their money went for. It does happen that directors of illegitimate orphanages try to maintain poor living conditions for children, to secure funds from tourists (a tourist feels more guilty when they see a child who seem underserved, so they give more money or gifts). Donating food and other necessities is also not a solution, because they get sold soon after the tourist’s departure.

Involving children in securing funds

Many orphanages invite tourists for traditional dances performed by children. Even in some guidebooks one can find orphanages in the “Entertainment” section. Even though these shows can be really beautiful and attractive for tourists, it does not change the fact that children are not the ones responsible for raising money. They should not be used as promotional tool or to secure funds for the orphanage – it is good to remember, that these practices violates children’s rights.

Do volunteer placement organizations guarantee a good placement?

Many volunteers who want to avoid scam orphanages decide to find international organization that facilitates volunteer programs. Unfortunately, it does not always work. The bigger the organization is and the more programs it runs, the harder it is to control whether all partner organizations based in the country are doing good job. This is why volunteers should not always count on the choice of placement organizations, especially if they notice some of the problems listed above.


Volunteering is about making an impact. If you turn up volunteering or simply just visiting an illegitimate orphanage, remember to report it to an NGO watchdog, which has the expertise in protecting the rights of victims of exploitation and oppression. Sometimes, this is the only way and, at the same time, the best way to help.