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
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)
- 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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.