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This post has been crossposted to my blog.

There are limited opportunities for volunteer research within the EA community. One organisation that does provide such opportunities is ALLFED. In a series of career change interviews I conducted last year (upcoming), ALLFED was mentioned by 3/19 of our interviewees and I had heard of a few other EAs mention it as well.

Given that they have been running volunteer-based research for many years, I thought it would be useful to interview Dr. David Denkenberger who co-founded ALLFED, on their volunteer management strategy. Sonia Cassidy, ALLFED’s Director of Operations, also provided further details.


  • ALLFED is a EA research organisation that "seeks to provide practical food solutions so that in the event of a global catastrophe governments and communities can respond quickly, save lives and reduce the risk to civilization."
  • Their publications to date are 15 papers, with 6 under review (some David published some before ALLFED was founded)
  • They have about 12 active researchers. Some are paid (these researchers typically started out as volunteers) and some are volunteers.
  • Historically, most volunteers have been EAs, and some have been Dr. Denkenberger's students.

How does ALLFED do research?

  • ALLFED's basic model for research is that a generalist researcher does initial research and collaborates and/or is guided by experts
  • Requirements for research questions
    • Research questions that don't require a lot of specialized background knowledge
    • Project size is variable, and can range in size from a small project to a thesis

Idea generation

A few volunteers I spoke to noted that ALLFED’s long list of concrete projects made it easy to choose topics, so I asked about ALLFED’s process for idea generation.

  • Collected over time through research in this space
    • Some ideas from research proposals when they needed to write research proposals in the past - what to do with the money, prioritise projects
  • Take suggestions from academic experts to get started (papers)
  • Specific examples
    • Surveying different foods that could be:
      • rapidly scaled, reasonably priced
      • how much the project would cost to implement, how much closer to feeding everyone
    • Research on catastrophes that could disrupt electricity or industry (including non-food examples)

Research Process

  • Volunteers choose a project from the suggested projects list in consultation with a senior researcher
  • The volunteer builds a spreadsheet of relevant information
  • The volunteer reach out to relevant researchers - for example, a group OPP funded group gave them climate model results, and then another person to collaborate
  • Throughout the process, there are weekly calls with the whole research team, and additional weekly calls with 2-3 other researchers working on related projects
    • In the smaller groups, the other researchers are very familiar with each others’ research, since they see the research being developed from the get-go

Volunteer Management

Who manages the volunteers: Dedicated volunteer/team coordinators (either ALLFED employees or senior volunteers).

Time spent on volunteers: David estimates that a volunteer spending 5 hours a week would attend only the smaller research meeting, and present for about 20 minutes, and have some interactions outside the meeting of about ~10 minutes. So the organisation spends about 10% of a volunteer’s time managing them.

Taster Tasks: As of 2020, prospective volunteers are asked to complete “Taster Tasks” where volunteers complete a small task that’s representative of their research/placement being sought, which gives them a “taste” of potential collaboration before progressing to more substantial project work.

Time Tracking: ALLFED is currently testing opt-in time-tracking for volunteers, so as to gather project and resource allocation data and also better understand and recognise volunteer contribution , but is not in a position to make any observations yet.

Volunteer Retention

Accountability: The two weekly calls mentioned above help keep volunteers engaged/accountable

Handover Process: If a volunteer leaves, then the other researchers part of their smaller group calls could potentially take over their work. Where this is not possible, a norm has been set that you will need to do a handover process if there are no researchers familiar with your work.

Flexibility: If desirable, volunteers can transition internally to/from other areas of the organisation (ALLFED also has communications, operations, finance, planning & preparedness volunteers).

Internships: ALLFED is currently looking into setting up an Internship Programme, which would provide an additional pathway to career development and involvement.

For reference, a copy of ALLFED’s volunteer policy can be found here.

If you’d like to learn more about ALLFED’s volunteer program, or volunteer yourself, you can contact them at team@allfed.info.





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Some of AllFed's theory of change comes from change in government policy, through increasing resilience of food production to large risks. I am sceptical of the ability of research conducted by generalists outside of the academic system to be effective in this goal. Is there another way that Allfed is aiming to cause change, or is volunteer research helpful for another reason, providing ideas and analysis for more credible (to govts.) to compile

Thanks for your feedback. People inside the academic system (Joshua Pearce and myself) are advising most of this research and we publish mostly in peer reviewed journals. As for the policy engagement, we are working with government experts such as Tim Benton. You can see some of our recent policy-related work here.

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