Lumos launches campaign to end orphanage tourism

Oct 25, 2019

Posted by: Amanda Kirk

Education, J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling’s children’s charity, Lumos, is dedicated to getting children out of orphanages and into families—their own families, where possible, or other loving families that will raise them in a home environment rather than an institutional setting.  Spending one’s formative years in an orphanage is both mentally and physically damaging to children, leaving deep emotional wounds that can last a lifetime.  According to J.K. Rowling, “orphanages do ‘irreparable harm’ and ‘perpetuate the abuse’ of children and communities.” Although orphanage caregivers can, in individual cases, be loving and dedicated to their charges, they can’t replace a home and a family.  You can read more about the shortcomings of institutions as places in which to grow up here.

Children end up in orphanages for a variety of reasons; it’s not usually because they have no parents or other relatives to care for them.  Over 80% of the 8 million children in orphanages worldwide have at least one living parent, and almost all have living relatives.  Poverty, not lack of living family members, is the number one reason children are institutionalised.  In some cases, parents give up their children because they feel unable to meet their needs or they are coerced or lied to by orphanage directors who promise to provide education and food for their children. In areas with minority groups that face discrimination, children are sometimes involuntarily taken from their families.

Lumos’s latest campaign, #HelpingNotHelping, launched by J.K. Rowling at the One Young World Summit, addresses the role that “voluntourism” can play in vulnerable children being trafficked and exploited.

Although we think of orphanages as charities, reliant on government or private donations to provide a spartan existence for the children incarcerated there, they can be profitable for their owners.  The primary example of this type of exploitation is when tourists visit orphanages as part of the trend for “voluntourism”.  Like eco-tourism, this is a trend for using one’s vacation time productively, to make the world a better place rather than lounge on the beach sipping umbrella drinks (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).  Voluntourists are well-meaning, genuinely wanting to make a difference, perhaps feeling guilty over their relative privilege in a world of want and need.  We are naturally moved to ease the suffering of others, and want our efforts to make a real difference.  But opportunities to step into another country, culture, ecosystem, or institutional environment for a brief stay as an untrained volunteer may do more to make us feel better about ourselves, and even be a form of virtue-signalling, than make a positive difference.

How does that play out with children in institutions?  According to Lumos, the problems with volunteering in orphanages are as follows:

  • – The ‘orphanage industry’. The number of people volunteering in institutions, and the amount of donations given internationally, has become so great that it is creating a demand for more institutions. Every year, thousands of volunteers and hundreds of millions of dollars go to residential institutions. Although in isolation, every donation, every visit and every volunteering placement, may be minor – when combined, they create a multi-million dollar opportunity for traffickers. Whenever such a large amount of money and resource is available, especially in such an unregulated and unseen environment, it can be an attractive and easy way to make money. Evidence from across the world demonstrates that residential institutions are being set up to provide volunteering ‘experiences’, and receive vast amounts of money – little of which ends up supporting children.
  • – Attachment disorders. Children in institutions may often show a great deal of affection to international volunteers, sometimes running and hugging them on arrival. These displays of indiscriminate affection are often interpreted as evidence of the positive impact of volunteering. However, the fact that children relate like this to strangers is a sign that they are not able to develop healthy relationships. The regular turnover of volunteers who offer affection and care for a few days or weeks, means that children only receive pockets of affection, without consistent and stable support. This harms children’s ability to form secure attachments, essential to healthy development.
  • – Lack of appropriate skills. Volunteers in institutions are rarely required to have specific skills, experience or qualifications to work with vulnerable children. Supporting and caring for children requires specialised skills, knowledge and experience. In your own country, it is likely that there are strict procedures around access to children, particularly those with complex needs. The same principles to protect children in your country should apply internationally.
  • – Normalising access to vulnerable children. The lack of basic child protection procedures in many institutions creates an environment which can be taken advantage of by those with harmful intentions towards children.
  • – Risks to children’s safety. Not all volunteers are required to undertake background checks which may highlight previous criminal activities that should prohibit them from working directly with children. This relatively easy access to vulnerable children is seen as an opportunity by some child sex abusers, who pose as orphanage volunteers. Even where background checks have been made, many institutions, and the countries in which they operate, do not have strong child protection systems in place to prevent, recognise and respond to abuse.
  • – Prioritising the volunteer experience. The desire to sustain the influx of paying volunteers and visitors to institutions means that often, their experiences will be prioritised over the wellbeing of the children. Children in institutions are often forced to spend time with tourists against their will, to perform in cultural ‘shows’ for visitor entertainment, and to beg on the streets.
  • – Diverting money from reaching sustainable solutions. There is a growing movement of governments, businesses, charities, and individuals shifting away from supporting institutions. Without a corresponding shift in the behaviour of people who want to volunteer or visit institutions, the support will continue to prop up a system that has more sustainable alternatives, which result in far better outcomes for children.
  • – Support for volunteers. Without experience of working with vulnerable children, volunteers may be placed in situations that they are not trained to cope with, such as children confiding in the volunteer that they have been abused, or witnessing abuse of children. Where volunteers experience inappropriate or illegal practices in an institution, and choose to question these practices, they may also be putting themselves at risk. These experiences can be upsetting and potentially dangerous for the volunteer.
  • – Risks to personal safety. Well-intentioned volunteers will often wish to reform practices in institutions and improve the wellbeing of children. Evidence from some former volunteers demonstrates this may place volunteers in danger from institution directors who have an incentive to leave the children and facilities in a poor condition in order to garner donations.

Perhaps the best reason to avoid volunteering in an orphanage is that the cost of keeping children institutionalised is much higher than the cost of support to keep them at home with their families.  Propping up orphanages provides the wrong financial incentives, leading more children to be institutionalised rather than directing aid to communities in poverty and keeping families whole.  Lumos is hoping to educate well-meaning volunteers and donors to re-direct their support to programs that help children remain with their families.

At the One Young World Summit for young leaders today in London, J.K. Rowling launched the #HelpingNotHelping initiative by stating:

“Despite the best of intentions, the sad truth is that visiting and volunteering in orphanages drives an industry that separates children from their families and puts them at risk of neglect and abuse.”

Thanks to The Rowling Library, we have access to the entirety of J.K. Rowling’s talk at the One Young World Summit 2019.  It is well worth taking the time to listen and learn about the effects of institutionalisation on children and communities, and the efforts of Lumos to change the status quo.

How can you help?

1) Start by going to Helping Not Helping to learn more about why orphanage tourism and volunteering, whilst well-meaning and satisfying a basic human need to feel like you are helping, is harmful rather than beneficial to the children involved.

2) Call on your school or workplace to adopt (no pun intended) a policy against orphanage tourism.  People often volunteer as part of an educational program or during a gap year.  You can start by using social media to ask schools and companies not to run orphanage tourism programs, such as by modifying this sample tweet:

I call on [insert handle] to take action on @Lumos #HelpingNotHelping campaign to adopt policy to end orphanage volunteering and visits which are harmful to children. For more see 

You can also send an email to the CEO, President, Vice Chancellor, Dean, Principal, Headmaster or other top official of the organisation.  Identify yourself as a current student or alum, employee or customer, and keep your email straightforward and short.  You can personalise this sample email template:

Please support Lumos’ #HelpingNotHelping campaign to end orphanage tourism and volunteering

Volunteering in or visiting orphanages can be a popular option whilst travelling overseas. However, this can have serious unintended consequences for vulnerable children and communities. Evidence shows that a regular turnover of volunteers and visitors can harm a child’s development and, in some cases, children are trafficked to orphanages to raise profits from donations and visitors.

#HelpingNotHelping is a campaign from Lumos, the international children’s charity founded by J.K. Rowling, which aims to change attitudes about orphanage tourism and volunteering. As a [INSERT RELATIONSHIP AS APPROPRIATE], I want to help end this harmful practice and protect children from unnecessary risk. Therefore, I call on you to support this campaign and adopt Lumos’ organisational policy against orphanage tourism and volunteering, available at

The simple step of having a robust policy, in line with official travel advice from the UK Government, will make a huge difference in raising awareness and tackling this problem.

Please act today.

Contact Lumos at [email protected] or visit for more information and to share your progress.

Yours sincerely,

3) Amplify the message on social media.  Using hashtags #HelpingNotHelping and #EndOrphanageTourism, post the Lumos video on your Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts.

4) Join the campaign.  Click here to sign up to receive email updates from Lumos.

5) Follow J.K. Rowling’s message about thoughtful volunteering:

“My message to young people today is: yes, volunteer – but plan carefully and thoughtfully. Your time and energy are precious: use them wisely and they will help change the world. Do not volunteer in orphanages. Instead, look at what drives children into institutions and dedicate your time to projects that tackle poverty or support communities with vital services.”

The Leaky Cauldron is not associated with J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., or any of the individuals or companies associated with producing and publishing Harry Potter books and films.