Case Study: Volunteer Research and Management at ALLFED

by vaidehi_agarwalla2 min read25th Apr 20202 comments

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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.

About ALLFED

  • 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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