Leading short-term mission trips that do less harm and more good for orphans

Photo by Kai Oberhäuser

The pictures tell it all. 

Adorable kids. Laughter and connection. Hard work and dirt. Teenagers, hair braided by little fingers, hugging children they’ve only recently met as if they were committed to caring for them for the next decade. Lives transformed forever. 

Looking back at these photographs now, I wonder about the real impact—the deeper story. As a young college leader and as a youth pastor, I both participated in and led trips where serving orphans was one of the primary goals. Some of my photos feature me holding children, and some of my memories involve special connection with older kids and teenagers at these orphanages. 

Surely this was all true. On some level, real care was given, and real lives were changed. 

On another level, though, the quality of that care and the ways lives were changed should raise serious questions for us today. Unfortunately, much of the short-term mission work done in the name of orphan care risks more hurt than help for the vulnerable children who feature as the objects and main characters of these trips. We sometimes put them at even more risk of exploitation. We operate in ways that threaten their dignity and long-term wellbeing. We end up caring more about our story than theirs. 

While I continue to be passionate about the need for global care, and about the church’s response to global pain and injustice, today I’m grateful for others who have invested in research and gathered courage to call us to better work with orphans—work that can truly lead to justice and shalom. 

Moving toward better orphan care 

We’ve long been proponents of better practices in short-term missions (STM) at FYI, reaching back to our first summit with STM leaders and youth pastors in 2006, and our publication of Deep Justice Journeys (2009), which was eventually revised and re-released as the Sticky Faith Service Guide in 2016. Over the past dozen years, we’ve seen a number of organizations move toward more thoughtful approaches to STM trips with students, and many youth ministry leaders do the same. Now we are excited to introduce a new resource that offers a very specific look into global orphan care and how STMs can do less harm and more long-term good.

In Short-Term Missions: Guidance to Support Orphans and Vulnerable Children (free PDF download), the Faith to Action Initiative offers a clear research-based guide for those who want to protect children in these environments. Not only does the guide offer substance behind their call to caution, but it also provides seven STM best practices from research that truly benefit orphans and vulnerable children. These seven practices are followed by six models of STM to support these populations more faithfully. 

Here are just a few of my big-picture takeaways from the resource:

1. Many kids who we call “orphans” are not.

According to the report, of the estimated 140 million children globally who are considered orphans, approximately 125 million are in the care of a remaining parent or family member. Among those 8 million children who are in residential care centers, a large proportion have a living parent or another family member who could care for them with some level of additional support. It’s often poverty, not lack of caregivers, that drives families to place children in orphanages and other facilities. The report describes a growing movement toward family support among mission organizations and other NGOs: 

A volunteer’s experience of receiving affection from children often feels rewarding and may lead to the assumption that the volunteer is providing an important benefit for children as well. This can result in children forming premature bonds with volunteers, only to have those bonds broken when the volunteers leave. This cycle of insecure attachment repeats with each new STM team, aggravating an already fragile sense of connection, eventually contributing to a child’s distrust of others or an inability to invest in relationships.


Increasing our education about vulnerable children and shifting our language can go a long way toward preventing any objectification or unintentional exploitation. Rather than only focusing on children as isolated individuals who need outside help, let’s talk more about what it might look like to support families and communities to care for the children they love. 

2. We may help kids more by interacting with them less. 

Many of us love direct interaction with kids on STM trips. This is regularly what students remember most. It feels like we are doing something tangible when we hold a child’s hand, play games together, or engage in care in some way. But the strong suggestion of this guide is that STMs should shift their focus from engaging directly with children in residential care centers to engaging in support of family-based care instead. 

For children who struggle with attachment because of their experiences of unstable living situations and relationships, our short-term team causes another disruption that in some cases can undercut the hard work of ongoing caregivers. The report shares: 

A volunteer’s experience of receiving affection from children often feels rewarding and may lead to the assumption that the volunteer is providing an important benefit for children as well. This can result in children forming premature bonds with volunteers, only to have those bonds broken when the volunteers leave. This cycle of insecure attachment repeats with each new STM team, aggravating an already fragile sense of connection, eventually contributing to a child’s distrust of others or an inability to invest in relationships.


Our very presence in residential centers can jeopardize children’s safety by increasing expectations for particular behaviors, objectifying cultural traditions (e.g., having children perform cultural dances for guests), and by increasing the number of strangers in the facility, normalizing access to children in ways that could invite predators. 

One alternative to direct interaction with vulnerable children is to partner with local leaders in ways that help empower families to care for their children. For example, helping families prepare for children’s return home by participating in home renovation, increasing access to safe water and/or sanitation, or helping set up a family or community garden. And in some cases, organized group experiences like hosting a sports camp or an arts workshop can be appropriate, positive experiences for children in residential care. The key is following the lead of local partners, which is the next main takeaway. 

3. Partnership is almost always better than trailblazing.

Among the suggested best practices for STMs in the report, partnership is a core theme. Find organizations who are already invested in caring well for kids, families, and communities globally, and research their track record and legitimacy. The guide offers tips for going about this. Long-term partnership is the goal, where relationships with leaders grow over time, and where we can follow local leaders’ guidance before we make any plans for action or investment. 

Growing in true partnership must mean we grow in our cultural understanding and continue to seek to learn from our local partners and hosts. It also means we trust them to have a better sense for work that’s needed and work that isn’t needed, and that we can discern together whether our best investment might be through advocacy, financial support, or providing critical resources rather than utilizing all of our resources for a costly international trip. 

4. And about those photos …

American insensitivity to sharing pictures and stories from international trips is rampant and infamous. Most all of us can do better here. I found the following list so helpful for any kind of cross-cultural work that I’m sharing it verbatim: 

  • Seek permission from parents or primary caregivers before taking and sharing photographs of children.
  • Once you have received permission, share online only what you would share in front of the children and their parent or caregiver.
  • Consider how stories and images can convey dignity and respect before sharing them. Avoid sensationalism and stereotypes, and consider how your words and images reflect upon the children, families, and communities you are sharing about.
  • Avoid photos and videos that place your image as the focus.
  • Do not exchange contact information directly with children. Their primary caregivers should mediate all contact.
  • Be cautious when sharing information on social media or otherwise that could expose or endanger children and families. De-identify all stories and images, removing geotagging, distinguishable landmarks, and names, and changing any personal details where necessary.

Check out the guide for much more from the Faith to Action Initiative that can help you plan and lead more thoughtful engagement with orphans and vulnerable children in your ministry. And be sure share your own ideas for better STMs in the comments section below. Together, we can do less harm, more good, and truly help children globally.

Additional resources from FYI for planning short-term missions and service projects