The GiveWell Blog


We haven’t done much work on charities that try to help orphans and vulnerable children, and we intend to do more. Here are some preliminary thoughts, though.

At first glance, this area might seem among the simplest and least controversial. SOS Children’s Villages states, “Our sponsors and donors help children whose parents are not there for them. They may be AIDS orphans, street children, child soldiers or children orphaned by war, poverty or natural disasters. We give these children a mother and a family in a home within an SOS Children’s Village. Donations pay to build the Villages and run them until child sponsors cover the running costs.” Could any sort of “impact evaluation” be helpful here? How can one deny that children without homes should be provided homes if at all possible?

However, the picture becomes far more complex upon reading something like Saundra Schimmelpfennig’s series on orphanages.

  • Donor demand for funding orphanages may be outstripping actual need (we have speculated that cleft surgery and microcredit may face similar issues).
  • Many of the children in orphanages are not actually orphans. Parents may send them there because they find caring for them to be too expensive; orphanages may weaken the incentives for children’s other relatives and community members to take them in.
  • If, in fact, orphanages are one option rather than the only option for care, it becomes much more crucial to determine whether they are providing good conditions for children. Ms. Schimmelpfennig raises questions about this issue.
  • There is an ongoing debate in academia about whether abandoned children are better off in institutions or being cared for by relatives/community. One person with field experience told me he personally saw a situation in which he believed that orphanages were actively making the situation worse, and Ms. Schimmelpfennig’s series also implies that this is a serious possibility.

None of this means that donating to orphanages is a bad idea. What it means is that, as usual, the appealing story you see on a charity’s website has a great deal of complexity and open questions behind it. As usual, it is essential to ask critical questions, and not to let your due diligence end with “That sounds like a clear need.”


  • Jane Reitsma on March 4, 2010 at 12:20 pm said:

    I realize this is an old post, but I was doing a little poking around about SOS Villages. The organization is incredibly well respected by people I know that have worked with them (and they are tough critics).

    I am not sure if describing SOS Villages as an orphanage is accurate. I think they are very careful NOT to present themselves as an orphanage. As you probably know many children do have parents or family members that are not able to or choose not to take care of them. SOS does its best to replicate a family environment. In Canada the SOS Village (they are in Canada too) is considered something along the lines of a foster care environment. In Swaziland where AIDS has had a huge impact on the adult population they provide support to many children. As well it is a village where children go to school, have access to medical support, and eventually get vocational training.

    You may want to do some further research on this organization. To be totally frank your analysis seems a little superficial at this point. I would be curious what you find out.

  • Holden on March 8, 2010 at 10:18 am said:

    Jane, thanks for the thoughts. As stated above, we haven’t looked into this cause much and intend to do more.

  • Jane Reitsma on March 8, 2010 at 2:06 pm said:

    I need to do some more research myself. If you are interested, I could pass on what I find out.

  • Holden on March 9, 2010 at 12:29 pm said:

    Yes, please do.

Comments are closed.