Dear J.K. Rowling

girl volunteering with small girl on the monkey bars

By Farhana Rehman-Furs, Chief Programs Officer, Cross-Cultural Solutions

In Regards To:

Dear J.K. Rowling, Orphanages Can Make a Difference

A few days ago J.K. Rowling released some tweets condemning #voluntourism organizations for sending volunteers to orphanages. Although our organization, Cross-Cultural Solutions, might mistakenly fall on Ms. Rowling and her Lumos’ #voluntourism blacklist, we sincerely support the spirit and intentions she had when composing the tweets and applaud her for opening this dialog.

Given Cross-Cultural Solutions’ over 20 year experience working with orphanages in the developing world, we feel J.K. Rowling simply falls short in acknowledging the vast differences in the quality of volunteer-sending organizations and the genuine need of many of these ‘orphanages’ who are the one’s seeking international support.

We certainly acknowledge and are equally appalled by the horror stories that come out about orphanages monetizing their children and volunteers who unknowingly perpetuate their bad practice, but it is reckless to paint an entire industry and the motivations of their supporters with a broad brush. Are all hospitals dangerous and not helping others because of singular instances of negative health outcomes? There are literally thousands of international volunteer organizations and millions of volunteers traveling every year.

The most important thing that we can do is foster thoughtful discourse and continue to improve the industry collectively, which it has dramatically in the last several years. We want to continue to challenge both organizations and volunteers to participate with the seriousness, thoughtfulness and diligence that this complex field deserves.

This is why Cross-Cultural Solutions was a founding member of the International Volunteer Programs Association. J.K. Rowling and many others voicing their opinions on #voluntourism unfortunately do not recognize that there is already an established standard-setting organization for this industry. It is made up of industry experts and practitioners in nongovernment and government positions who have developed 35 principles and practices that their members must adhere to in developing the most responsible programs.

Cross-Cultural Solutions has trained and deployed more than 40,000 volunteers over the last 20 years to effectively and ethically work abroad with vulnerable women and children. In that experience, we know that the motivations of our volunteers should never be summed up in so trite to just ‘enhancing’ one’s resume. There are genuine and authentic interactions happening every minute around the world where a CCS volunteer is contributing to the support and well being of a child.

To continue the dialog, we’ve asked our on-the-ground Country Directors working with vulnerable children to provide their insight on the controversy and discuss their realities. CCS has always relied on our in-country local experts that work, understand and know their own community and social context best.

Our Country Directors have on average over 20 years of experience working in development, hold postgraduate/doctoral qualifications and have each facilitated volunteer programs for thousands of volunteers since 1995. They each recognised that vulnerable children who don’t have access to family support and parenting face a complex reality...

So how does CCS ensure that the partners we work with in the community are focused solely on the best interests of the children they support? CCS commits to developing a deep relationship with all our partners to ensure we have a true understanding of them.

Managing Relationships with the Partner Organizations is a year-round commitment. We seek out organizations with a clearly accountable leadership that is mission driven. CCS has a protocol for assessing and selecting partners (criteria include legitimacy, reputation and institution). Approved partners must then meet a set of mandatory criteria to ensure it is a safe and appropriate partnership which benefits all parties. An MOU is signed with each partner establishing responsibilities and commitments.

CCS Directors are trained on how to actively manage and monitor relationships with the partner year-round - before, during and after the volunteers program. In addition, we formally survey all our partners annually to assess volunteer impact, effectiveness and integrity. Over the last decade we have noted consistent feedback from our partners, including those working with vulnerable children. CCS volunteers have been recognised for the moral and physical support they provide to the local staff, for the individual attention that’s possible to the children, improving language skills, and combating pervasive stereotypes. Currently each of our core partners have worked with CCS volunteers for over 10 years on average.

How do we vet, prepare and manage our volunteers in a way that ensures positive volunteer service that never undermines the wellbeing of children? We commit to screening and preparing every volunteer that is assigned to our partner organizations. We have a detailed screening and expectations Process. Every volunteer undergoes initial screening by our Program Specialists who are trained to assess: motivation, goals, and understanding of the CCS program design.

Volunteers are assessed throughout the preparation process with specific attention to background and health. Our application forms are designed to highlight specific areas that require follow up with reference checks or mental health clearance. In addition all US volunteers are run through the National Sex Offender database and we implement reference checks on a random sample of our volunteers every month. During the preparation process we commit to taking all steps and measures to safeguard and protect vulnerable populations.

The CCS Volunteer Code of Conduct was developed to specifically provide behavior parameters to volunteers working with vulnerable populations.It is introduced during the Orientation meeting in-country, discussed and signed. It covers physical contact, outings, discipline, and general behavior. CCS Directors are trained on spotting red flags and how to handle reported/observed issues from either party (volunteer or partner) of either low or high risk levels – this includes responding, reporting, and addressing issues.

In addition to the Code of Conduct we have a clear Social Media Policy & Photography Policy relating to vulnerable populations and partner Organization communities. Very importantly CCS has always maintained a strict Donations Policy, which ensures there is never a financial relationship with our partners.

So, where does this leave CCS? Ultimately our work has always been driven by our values and our mission. We have engaged in the dialogues and development of this debate fully and our increased attention to this challenge over the last 4 years has resulted in a robust assessment of our partnerships and the work of our volunteers.

We commit to providing safe and positive international volunteer experiences for our partners, community members, staff and volunteers. We are proud of our work and our impact. We do recognise that vulnerable children around the work are susceptible to the bad intentions of some, and we agree with child development experts that children benefit most developmentally from a secure family environment.

However what we equally recognise is that the reality on the ground in many of our countries is simply not conducive or developed to institute adoption and fostering as a possibility in the short to medium-term future. We support the campaign by experts to combat ‘pop-up’ profit making orphanages, yet we also know from experience that for many children, orphanages are the only alternative, and our responsibility is to ensure we only support those that are well-managed, non-profit, and driven by a commitment to the well-being of each individual child.

Our bottom line: there are good people and groups working in imperfect systems, who are making the best choices for vulnerable children and their immediate needs. CCS has worked hard to ensure that we support only these groups and continue our due diligence with every volunteer we assign.

We believe there is an ethical and meaningful way for volunteers to engage with this marginalized demographic. We welcome debate and questions.

If Ms. Rowling wishes to learn more about our model, we welcome her to come to one of our countries where we work to empower women and children in vulnerable populations worldwide.

To view our Orphanage Audit Process, click here.


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