By Lydia Dean – Co-founder GoPhilanthopic Foundation

People are drawn to give where there is need, but they do so emotionally and often without the needed experience or ability to monitor. We are raising our voices for more Informed Philanthropy. This means that donors need to be more intellectually invested in their giving, they need to ask more questions, probe more, learn more, be more diligent and active. Philanthropy can be dangerous if it is passive, causing more harm than we could ever know…

From our very beginning, GoPhil has focused its support towards the most at risk and vulnerable sectors of society. Children are logically at the center of this work. Ill-equipped to care for themselves, they are oftentimes the most exploited, most neglected, most in need of care and protection. Shelters, orphanages and child care institutions have at times appeared to be the only safety net for children who slip through the cracks of life, especially in impoverished regions facing a confluence of political, economical and societal problems. These shelters come in all shapes and sizes —from large government-run institutions to small privately run programs founded and managed by foreigners. Some are registered and are monitored closely for quality. Others are the antithesis, offering a child no better than the horrors they experienced on the streets. At times, worse.

Over the years we have visited hundreds of long-term child care programs and have formed close partnerships with a few across Cambodia, Uganda and India. Knowing that the landscape involved such a wide range of largely unmonitored institutions, we felt our job wasn’t to evaluate the need for their existence (which until now has seemed a moot point), but rather to focus our energies on identifying and vetting the very best ones to assist. 

What to look for? 

A variety of variables—their local registrations, the qualifications of their staff, whether they were professionally trained, staff to child ratio. We ensured we were working with programs with strict child protection policies, ones that actively and genuinely had the rights of each child at the forefront of their daily activities. We avoided any who showed signs of “orphanage tourism”, parading donors and visitors through the homes and snapping pictures as if they were visiting a zoo. And of course, we did our due diligence in other areas standard to our vetting procedure, exploring transparency in accounting and assessing the program’s ability to stay on a strategic course. Visiting on a regular basis, GoPhil has come to know many of the children by name within the programs we funded, as well as the members of staff. Globally speaking we have been really impressed with the results of our family-like institutional care center partnerships. Children who had been abandoned or neglected by society were receiving love, care, education— arguably a much brighter future. Mission accomplished? Perhaps not so clear…

Specialists across a wide variety of disciplines have recently been asking some really tough questions, pushing back on the assumption that these institutions, even if top class, are the best solution for a child lacking parents who are able to adequately care for them. But to make things even more confusing, there has been misunderstanding around the term “orphan,” itself.  UNICEF and global partners define an orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents. Of the more than 132 million children classified as orphans, only 13 million have lost both parents. They report that “this ‘orphan’ statistic might be interpreted to mean that globally there are 132 million children in need of a new family, shelter, or care. This misunderstanding may then lead to responses that focus on providing care for individual children rather than supporting the families and communities that care for orphans and are in need of support.” [1]

It then begs a vital question—If governments, NGOs, development partners and funding agents concentrated more on creating better health, educational and economic opportunities for parents and families in impoverished and marginalized areas, might we decrease the probability that a child would need the external support of a shelter? 

At GoPhil, this has certainly given us moment to pause. Alongside a vast network of other NGOs, researchers and child protection specialists, we are now focusing on gaining a much better understanding of why children end up in these homes and orphanages and if they are the best way forward for them.

The Major Reasons for Institutionalization

Key evidence is emerging that will help us gain insight. According to research conducted by Save the Children, poverty is the main reason children end up in institutions, rather than the death of a mother or father.  It is estimated that of the approximate 8 million children living in institutions (thought to be a gross underestimate due to incomplete data), 80% of have at least one living parent. [2]

“It is a myth that children in orphanages have no parents. Most are there because their parents can’t afford to feed, clothe and educate them,” says the report’s author, Corinna Csaky, a Save the Children child protection adviser. “Mothers and fathers are forced to make the agonising decision to put their child in an institution in the hope that they will have a better future.” [3] Some parents from poor communities see it as the golden ticket— the boarding school of sorts that offer all they can’t due to poverty.  With such dire needs and their own lack of education, despite being difficult, it can be a huge relief for a poor parent have their child cared for at a shelter where health, education and overall livelihood is all-inclusive. 

In places like Malawi and Nepal, the situation gets more complex as traffickers exploit this desire. Poor families are lured to pay a sum of money to take their children to the cities for education. GoPhil has been collaborating with Next Generation Nepal (NGN), an organization focused on reuniting children who have been trafficked into institutions. “Traffickers take children to urban and tourist areas where they are placed in orphanages and children’s homes. There is evidence of traffickers falsifying documents declaring the children as orphans.”

The Risks of Uninformed Giving

So where does the charity world fit in—how are we influencing any of this? 

The more funding that comes in for orphanages, the more it becomes an alternative to remaining at home—the sort of “build it and they will come” concept. At what point do we,as donors, become a part of this trend of separation of child and family?  Is the charitable world unknowingly creating a system whereby leaving one’s family is an easier, more viable option? Again—if governments, NGOs, development partners and funding agents concentrated more on creating better health, educational and economic opportunities for these parents and families within their communities, might we see a different outcome?

Tara Winkler, the Managing Director of the Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT) recently published a book —How (Not) to Start an Orphanage… by a woman who did. Her story reflects the dangerous pitfalls of uniformed giving, often times sparked by a trip.  After visiting a small orphanage in Cambodia with a tour group in 2005, she was inspired to return, eventually starting her own orphanage of 14 children. Along the way, she realized that many of the children she was caring for were there because they came from desperately poor homes. CCT has since closed it’s orphanage and is currently helping vulnerable children to escape poverty and be cared for within their families. Tara now speaks out against the unnecessary institutionalization of children around the world, fueled by the good intentions of foreign donors.

Let’s face it, helping “orphans” and “orphanages” has always tugged at the heart strings— it’s an easy sell at a fundraiser and an all too popular tourist activity. Considerable evidence now indicates that international voluntourism is increasing the rate of orphanage presence. The more tourists and volunteers want to visit, the more they want to help, the more they want to give… you can see the pattern. Unfortunately, visiting and funding these institutions is a very delicate matter and doing so without experience is extremely risky for a multitude of reasons. It’s only logical then that with all the well intentioned charity flowing into these institutions, that corruption has played a significant part in the thousands of orphanages that have popped up like weeds over the past couple of decades. In many countries, owning and running an orphanage has now become an incredibly profitable business, with foreign donations serving as income. With so many of them unlicensed, there can be little or no oversight and therefore no way to truly grasp what harm might be taking place. 

But it gets worse.  Shocking facts from Nepal reveal the horrific consequence of this “uninformed charity.” According to Next Generation Nepal, children who are trafficked away from their parents with promises of education are put into fake orphanages, where managers fundraise and solicit foreign volunteers to support their profit-making enterprises. Traffickers are making money on both ends—from desperate parents who want a better life for their children and from foreign volunteers who are completely unaware of the implications of their funding. Children are forced to lie about their backgrounds convincing tourists and volunteers that they are “orphans” and profiting from their generosity. As a consequence, many “orphanages” have become a lucrative, corrupt and abusive businesses funded by well-intentioned donors.

It has not been confirmed, but many believe that a significant driver in the increase in institutions figures has to do with donations from abroad. GoPhil has been speaking with Tessa Boudrie, a philanthropic advisor and a well-known figure in the world of child protection. Tessa has spent her professional careers working within institutions and is currently assisting in a research study focusing on Nepal and Uganda to explore where the funding for institutional care is coming from exactly. This should give us the important data we need to see exactly where these orphanages are receiving their income.

Where does GoPhilanthropic stand in this:  Our Funding and Focus

It is pretty well accepted that across the board that if a family had better means to strengthen themselves in all aspects of life (economically,health-wise, psychologically) they would be less poor, less sick, less vulnerable, less prone to alcoholism and abusive habits. They will be less likely to send their children into labor, less vulnerable to trafficking and less likely to be the position where they believe their child is better off raised in an institution, than under their own roof.

Our experience has taught us though that the way forward is probably not a black and white issue. It requires an open mind and continued collaboration and dialogue with leaders in the field. We believe the recent models developing around the “Families First” concept make a compelling, not to mention evidence-based argument, that we should be focusing our investments on creating healthier, stronger family units.

GoPhil’s multi-dimensional approach

Focusing on Family First Campaigns

We are currently directing a good portion of our new fund dollars on community-based NGOs aimed at helping impoverished families stabilize. This has come in many forms across all of our regions- from funding workshops for parents of disabled children, to providing health care to rural communities, to offering basic education and vocational training to mothers, fathers and children within ethnic minorities. Our Families First campaigns don’t just support mothers and children, they promote the health of the entire unit— fathers too. Shifting the gender-biases and harmful traditional practices towards women and girls involves change at the root, where the bias sits. Education for men and boys is a critical element in fostering strong, healthy families and their inclusion is essential.


Helping Orphanages to Transform & De-Institutionalize

GoPhil is making partnerships with new programs who are showing themselves to be the leaders in reintegration and de-institutionalization — helping orphanages to transform away from this traditional model to ones that foster the natural bonds between a child and their families. GoPhil has just given its first grant to a small NGO in Cambodia called Community Cares First Organization (CCFO) who has been assisting other NGOs to transition out of residential care and supporting families and children with reintegration, kinship or foster care. This work in combination empowers people and supports strength in family units to prevent the myriad of problems stemming from weak family foundations.

On-Going Support for Shelters

While some organizations are advocating for the blanket closing down of all orphanages (complete de-institutionalization), for the moment, and until alternative care models are fully developed, millions of children need to be cared for today. We continue to invest in the efforts of a small handful of exceptionally run shelters who function with a family-like setting. Ensuring they continue to provide constant, quality care for severely at-risk children is important. In an ideal world, there would be no need for them, but we are simply not there just yet.

Our partner Child Rescue Nepal (CRN) in Nepal rescues children from slave labor in factories. They spend months reuniting victims with their families yet some, for a variety of reasons, cannot find their way back to their homes or are at too much of a risk of being re-trafficked if returned.  At this very moment in time, these children still need a safety net and there are no alternative care programs set up. Additionally, TARA Homes for Children, one of our longstanding partners who run 4 small family-like shelters in India are taking active steps by expanding their outreach to slum communities in order to strengthen families. The hope is that the flow of children ending up in their homes, or others, is minimized. 

Advocating for Informed Giving and Ethical Volunteering and Travel

People are drawn to give where there is need, but they do so emotionally and often without the needed experience or ability to monitor. We are raising our voices for more Informed Philanthropy. This means that donors need to be more intellectually invested in their giving, they need to ask more questions, probe more, learn more, be more diligent and active. Philanthropy can be dangerous if it is passive, causing more harm than we could ever know. Let’s not fall asleep at the giving wheel 🙂

Short term, unskilled volunteering, especially at orphanages, should be avoided at all costs. Not only is it providing a foundation for the demand for orphanages, but it can be psychologically damaging for children to have a constant stream of under-qualified foreigners through their home. GoPhil supports careful, thoughtful volunteer placements where skills sets are matched with specific needs of the program and where ideally, a volunteer can spend significant time (3 months or more) fully immersed in the culture and context. This can rarely happen in a 10-14 day period.

In sum, while we may not have all of the answers, we remain very committed to the due diligence needed to navigate these big shifts in humanitarian work. GoPhil takes its fiscal stewardship very seriously AND we have always been about getting to the source of a problem. We find great comfort in knowing that our continually expanding network of carefully selected programs promote the best possible outcome for people facing the greatest difficulties.






Some Great Resources

Next Generation Nepal

Better Care Network

This website is a vital source of information for people working on issues related to children who lack adequate family care.

Better Volunteering, Better Care is an interagency initiative, co-facilitated by Better Care Network and Save the Children UK, aimed at discouraging international volunteering in residential care centers and promoting ethical volunteering alternatives supporting children and families. Individuals or organizations interested in learning more about this initiative, or contributing to its development, are encouraged to contact the project team at [email protected].

Learning Service

A group dedicated to responsible volunteer travel.

Global Facts About Orphanages: