Orphanages are a controversial subject in the international volunteering industry. Over the past decade, stories and reports have highlighted poor practices in the industry, sketchy volunteer programs, and enough issues to give anyone pause. The fervor started over the orphanage scene in Cambodia, but spread to questionable tours in Africa and now fears grow for how expanding tourism might grow and exploitative orphanage tourism industry in Myanmar. It’s such a widespread issue that Grassroots Volunteering does not list short-term volunteering opportunities at childcare centers or orphanages. But not all work is negative. Some organizations have found a different model, and it’s working.
Caroline Boudreaux is the founder of the Miracle Foundation a nonprofit organization that works in India to empower all orphans to reach their full potential. She graciously offered to let me quiz her on her organization’s mission and methodology for working in India. Her organization accepts donations, runs small tours for donors, and does not place Western volunteers at the orphanages they support. I wanted to know more.
Caroline, how does your organization find and vet the orphanages you work with in India?
We have a methodology, it’s called the NEST, and it stands for Nurture, Empower, Strengthen and Transform. We nurture and empower the staff and the children, strengthen an orphanage’s processes and operational procedures, and help to ultimately transform the institutions into loving homes where the children and staff can thrive.
We work with local governments and our staff in India to identify and locate existing orphanages. We also have a large group of the diaspora of Indians living in America and Europe giving us leads to rural orphanages they know of that are doing the right thing but don’t have the resources to provide the children with even the basics.
How long do the orphanages work with you?
It varies by orphanage. We start with qualification and an independent accounting firm checks the orphanage’s financing, licenses, and governance structure. Then, the social work audit is based on the Convention on the Rights of the Child as written by the United Nations; the social worker measures how well the orphanage is meeting the child’s rights already, before we step in to help.
After passing qualification, incubation lasts between nine months and two years. We identify the gaps — where are the children and staff suffering the most? Usually it’s health care, so we work with them to build a project plan to overcome these battles, measuring results every step of the way.
At every stage, the Miracle Foundation exists to ensure orphaned children realize:
- The right to a stable, loving and nurturing environment
- The right to healthcare and nutrition
- The right to clean water and electric power
- The right to a quality education
- The right to equal opportunities
- The right to guidance from a caring adult
- The right to be heard and participate in decisions that affect them
- The right to be prepared for active and responsible citizenship
- The right to protection from abuse and neglect
- The right to live in conditions of dignity and freedom
- The right to spiritual development
- The right to live with their parents or relatives, if possible
After about nine months, we really know the lay of the land with this orphanage and if they have the best interests of the child at heart. At that point we either certify them or not. If they’re certified, then we continue to fund the orphanage; we’ll stay with them forever. If they’re not certified, and have not worked the program that we agreed to, then we have no choice but to leave the place. We leave them with children inoculated, house mothers trained, clean water systems in place, and a road map for how they can improve, but we don’t continue working with or financially supporting that orphanage.
So you have a long-term plan to work with the certified orphanages and maintain support?
Exactly, and it’s scalable. We can support, mentor and monitor many orphanages because they are already on the ground and operating. Our plan is to reach eight million children in the next ten years, which represents 30 percent of the children living in orphanages in India. Thirty percent is typically the tipping point. If we help 30 percent of the orphanages run efficiently and effectively, and give children the quality of life they deserve, then the chances of the rest of them running this way is much, much greater.
You run tours to your orphanages in India. What made the Miracle Foundation choose this method rather than volunteer placement?
Running a nonprofit since 2000, I can tell you that volunteers are fantastic, but they are hard to manage. If I’m working with a volunteer then I am not doing my job, I am training a volunteer how to do that job. With the tours, we want our donors to meet the children and experience our work firsthand. It’s another way we prove our transparency and effectiveness. The groups visit the children and are given a project that will leave that orphanage better than when they found it, so we’ll perhaps build a fully finished playground.
And it’s so much fun for the children; people come and they have this new fresh perspective and worldview. When we first work with an orphanage, typically every child wants to be a teacher or a social worker. And then, a year later, after a few tours have gone through, the kids say “I’m going to be a photojournalist,” or “I’m going to be a doctor.”
They open up each other’s worlds.
You emphasized finished projects. Have you seen a lot of unfinished projects in voluntourism?
Oh yes, people want to help, but they can only give two weeks or five days. The reality is that you can’t make a lasting difference in the orphanages with that kind of time. Sometimes with voluntourism travel, the winners are the people who travel. And the people the volunteers visit often end up worse for it.
I have seen projects that destroyed the landscape for an orphanage; the children have half a playscape, they have a swing set with no swings and less open space to run and play. The organizations simply abandon the project after volunteers leave. And oftentimes, the volunteer even paid to do this project that didn’t get finished. I have seen horrific examples of what happens when good-hearted people pay an organization and end up in a foreign country left to fend for themselves.
I really love how transparent the Miracle Foundation is with their financials. That’s an important part of this type of work, knowing where the money goes.
Yes, we are very open about our numbers. Perhaps my best tip for volunteers researching a company is to follow the dollar. How much is the organization charging? How much does the project cost? The organization should be willing to itemize every aspect of your fee or donation when you travel with or for them.
Thank you so much, Caroline. I respect the way you’ve structured the Miracle Foundation and the work that you do. Is there anything else you’d like to share with future volunteer travelers?
You know, I think it’s great for people to want to go over and see how the other side of the world lives, but I think with that comes a responsibility. If you go, know that the work is really not on the ground. People think “I am going to go and work on the ground and then I have done my deed.”
And that’s not true.
Your responsibility once you come back home is to take care of that project and the people you got to know. The work on the ground is the fun stuff. The real work is when you get back, to keep working on their behalf. I see people who go, they see, they get this valuable experience and then they run off and do something else. And it’s almost like taking. Support your projects financially once you return home. It’s important to share our talent and treasure to make sure we end the suffering NOW.