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What is “effective volunteering”? A group from EA London met biweekly from September to November 2017 to try to develop a straightforward method for someone to decide where s/he should volunteer. We thought Effective Altruists might want to volunteer for a combination of these reasons: (a) direct impact, (b) personal wellbeing, and/or (c) career capital. We suggest listing several volunteer opportunities that might do well and evaluating them against these criteria, weighted based on your volunteering goals and multiplied by personal fit. A copy of the spreadsheet we used is available here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1tJtJ6lpIjE7Dv5hUo_HCXb8mNGYvDgiQSQYvNfJGJyU/edit?usp=sharing

The score you get from the spreadsheet can help you narrow down your options. We recommend asking questions and thinking more carefully about your top few options. Based on this project, I am now volunteering for three hours a week with EA London.


Effective Altruism has a complicated relationship with volunteerism. On the one hand, our community recognizes that a good deal of volunteering is useless or even harmful; on the other hand, we have countless examples of valuable projects being completed by volunteers from the Effective Altruism, like running the annual survey or coordinating local groups.

Unlike donations or careers, Effective Altruism doesn’t have clear advice about how to volunteer effectively. I facilitated a group as part of EA London from September to November 2017 to try to develop a straightforward method of finding “effective” volunteering opportunities.

Participants were: Mathilde Guittard, Stephen Ayres, Ellie Raison, Enrico Calvense, Victor Damian, and Colin McClure.

Goals and Agenda

At our first meeting, we defined “effective volunteering” and planned the next several weeks.

We defined “effective volunteering” as “using pre-allocated volunteering time to do as much good as possible, using evidence and reason.” We recognised that there might be better things I could do with my time than volunteering, such as paid work or skill-building. Despite that, I was still committed to volunteering, and I thought other aspiring Effective Altruists might be as well. For many people, volunteering is an important part of their life and wellbeing, but they’re open to changing where they volunteer.

Everyone who attended the first meeting was already familiar with Effective Altruism. Many had participated in an earlier research project, the Equality and Justice project run by Sam Hilton. Drawing on this experience, we created a plan together for how we would answer the question of the most effective way for me to volunteer.

The schedule we agreed on:
Week 1 - Define goals and make a plan
Week 2 - Consider possible priorities and clarify my priorities; make or find a "personal fit" tool and determine what kind of roles I would have a good personal fit with.
Week 3 - Determine criteria for evaluating different volunteering opportunities; limit what opportunities we'll look at (eg based on location).
Week 4 - Consider causes I could work on; find (or make!) as many volunteer opportunities for me as possible.
Week 5 - Narrow down volunteer opportunities; consider risks and costs of top 3-5.
Week 6 - Choose a volunteer opportunity!

Priorities and Personal Fit

In Week 2, we considered different priorities or goals Effective Altruists might have when volunteering. We identified three goals that Effective Altruists might have for volunteering:

·        Direct Impact: An Effective Altruist might want to use their unpaid work to make the world a better place.

·        Career Capital: An Effective Altruist might want to use their volunteering time to develop skills, reputation or relationships that will allow them to do more good with their career.

·        Self-Care: An Effective Altruist might choose to volunteer because they enjoy volunteering or to improve their mental health.

Although some Effective Altruists might only focus on one of these (eg volunteering at a local animal shelter as a form of self-care), we hypothesized that many might prefer combining two or all three of these goals (eg building marketing career capital while also having direct impact by editing videos for AMF).

I decided to weight my goals—60% direct impact, 20% career capital, and 20% self-care. In other words, I care 3x as much about the direct impact I could have as I do about the career capital I could gain or the amount it would improve my happiness and wellbeing.

Next, we tested out different methods of determining personal fit. We paired up and tried giving others advice about their strengths, comparing ourselves to the “average person” based on past achievements, and comparing ourselves to the “average person” based on intuition.

We’d advise identifying strengths based on past achievements and asking a friend or colleague for advice to determine “personal fit.” This might be more worthwhile after you’ve listed possible roles.

Listing Possible Roles

We decided on a means of evaluation (described below) and then listed opportunities.

I posted in the EA London Facebook group and received a wide range of suggestions. I also sought out opportunities that I thought might do well on a particular metric—for example, I sought out a tutoring opportunity because I’m a qualified teacher, and I asked Effective Altruism London about high impact volunteer opportunities.

In the end, we listed 17 possible roles at 12 charities. We evaluated 15 roles, because we didn’t have  enough information about two of the suggestions.

We think an independent project like research or blogging could have been high-impact, but we didn’t think of any projects to list. If I were running the project again, I would spend more time thinking about independent projects I could run.

Short-Listing Opportunities

We created a spreadsheet to help me evaluate opportunities based on the metrics I cared about. We rated Self Care, Direct Impact and Career Capital on a scale from 1 (not good) to 5 (very good). We rate Personal Fit as 1 (no better than average), 2 (I have some advantage in this role), or 3 (better than most people I can think of).

I filled in my thoughts about how much I would enjoy each role, which I used as a proxy for self care; how much I thought each role could improve my career prospects; and how replaceable I would be.

Impact was more difficult. I filled in my best guess; then Colin and Ellie filled in their best guess about the impact of each role without seeing my answers. Most of our “impact” ratings were identical, and for the few that were different, we discussed which rating to include in the final decision.

Our spreadsheet uses a formula inspired by 80,000 Hours:

(Weighted Self-Care + Weighted Impact + Weighted Career Capital) x Personal Fit = Total Score

After checking the answers to see if they lined up with our intuitions, we decided to shortlist the three highest-scoring roles and think about them more carefully. All three of the top-scoring roles were with EA London:

1.      Giving What We Can Pledge Drive Coordinator

2.      Volunteer Coordinator to encourage other EA London members to volunteer effectively

3.      Diversity and Inclusion Advisor to increase diversity of viewpoints and demographics within EA London

Choosing a Role

For our final week, we invited David Nash to consult because he’s on staff with EA London and would supervise me in whichever role the group chose. He suggested a fourth opportunity—that I could run a group for Londoners interested in a career in artificial intelligence strategy and policy.

I tried to facilitate the conversation without influencing it too much, as I was aware the group was very sensitive to what I wanted and I had promised them that they could decide.

First, the group eliminated the pledge drive coordinator role because I haven’t yet taken the pledge. Then they eliminated the volunteer coordinator. They thought that most of the benefit of the volunteer coordinator would be me conversing with people looking for volunteering opportunities, and I would likely do that anyway. They struggled to decide whether I should host the AI group or work on improving diversity, so while I was out of the room they decided to ask me to split my time between both.

As of December, I have been splitting three hours a week between setting up an AI Strategy and Policy group in London and making EA London more attractive to a more diverse range of individuals. I’ll continue until May at least.

Suggestions for Effective Volunteering

·        Consider how you’d like to weight Direct Impact, Self Care, Career Capital, and any other criteria you’d like to focus on.

·        Identify your personal fit/comparative advantage by looking at past achievements and asking a friend or colleague.

·        Make a list of a wide range of opportunities.

o   Seek out opportunities that will do well on specific criteria.

o   Ask around about opportunities.

o   Consider independent projects that may be high-impact.

·        Make a copy of our spreadsheet and use it to narrow down your options.

·        Create a short-list of the best opportunities. (These might not be the highest-scoring opportunities on the spreadsheet.)

·        Try to get more information about your top options eg by talking to someone you’d be working with.

·        Make a consistent, long-term commitment. Volunteering can be net negative if it wastes the time of a staff member or another volunteer at a high-impact charity.

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Awesome job! :-) Is it possible to see the list of the volunteering opportunities you found and considered?

These are the opportunities we originally found and compared using the spreadsheet. We added the AI group in later:

Effective Altruism London-Volunteer Coordinator

SoGive-Charity Researcher

Against Malaria Foundation-General Volunteer

Against Malaria Foundation-Video Editor

Results London UK-Lobbyist

No Means No International-Fundraiser

Light Up a Life-Packing Mini Hygeine Kits


Effective Altruism London-Pledge Drive Coordinator

Robes-Administrative Assistant

The Access Project-Tutor

Effective Altruism London - Diversity and Inclusion

HIPE-Research on how to have an impact in the Civil Service

All Fed ?

Ecology of Systems Thinking ?

Effective Altruism London-Welcoming New People

Effective Altruism London-Career Advisor

I tried to include a picture in the original article, but encountered technical problems. ;)

Thanks for mentioning ALLFED! We are indeed interested in volunteers. I agree that for many things, having a steady commitment is best. But sometimes there are self-contained volunteer activities, like classifying whether papers are relevant to X risks for CSER.

There are a few things I did not see on the list that I learned in a volunteer management class.

  1. It is important to understand what stage of life you are at and what your nature is. ie you might normally really love to work alone in a high powered way but you recently lost your husband and suddenly team work would be much more helpful in getting you back on your feet faster.

  2. Sometimes highly professional people want to volunteer in an area outside of their area of expertise. Not only for their CV but to allow a part of them they never had time to cultivate a chance to flourish. Although this might not look like the most "effective" choice it might unleash a lot of passionate new inspiration and turn into something productive indeed.

  3. The last point you made is so important It takes valuable staff time to orient a volunteer and manage them so you need to be really certain that your contribution warrants it. I find that even if I want to help an organization more directly as a volunteer, if they do not have a dedicated staff person that integrates volunteers then it can be quite frustrating for both sides. It is interesting to me that many orgs hire fundraisers. I would think it might be really useful to train fundraisers to be friend raisers for the organization as well and have them help integrate people into gratifying and meaningful volunteer positions.

Sadly, EA negatively selects against do-ers, because do-ers need opportunities to make a direct difference. There are plenty of opportunities to do things within meta-EA, but people need to buy into EA before they want to work on meta-EA, so we need some more immediate volunteering opportunities to bridge the gap. I do like the Self-Care, Direct Impact, Career Capital and Personal Fit breakdown, although I'd probably split motivation off into a seperate category, as some volunteering opportunities can motivate you more to give to charity or to work to make a difference in the world.

Could someone provide more evidence/guide me to find more evidence regarding the claim that a good deal of volunteering is useless or even harmful? I'm curious about this but can't seem to find much when I google online. Thank you!

A starting point for this view is that volunteering isn't free for the charity you want to help: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/6uXZc2QqHXsHKaLy9/volunteering-isn-t-free

This Guardian article gives an overview of the most common criticisms of volunteering overseas, including links to articles that go into more depth: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/sep/13/the-business-of-voluntourism-do-western-do-gooders-actually-do-harm

Here in Wisconsin, unless you're living in Milwaukee or Madison, there are few genuine volunteer opportunities. Sure, one can mow the lawn of a church or dust shelves at the local library--but non-altruistic activities usually outweigh the free grunt labor.

I used to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. I considered each time there genuine. I helped with three houses over three summers (age 15 16 17--before they had an age requirement). Hammering nails, putting up siding, painting, etc. At age 22, after taking the student GWWC pledge and becoming vegetarian, I decided I could still volunteer locally for Habitat. EAs can still volunteer locally. Even if, I believe, the greater more important struggle is lessening absolute poverty. And so I volunteered, twice for a fourth summer. For the experience (or the misnomer "self care").

Although, in my hometown, Habitat changed. They now get the workers of large companies (and the company pays for their time). I still pounded some nails, moving though the rafters like a monkey; a few other odd jobs too--but I really wasn't needed anymore.

Even before, not every weekend was there a bunch of work to do, and one could always clean up the site and do prep work for the next phase. But today (for the Habitat in my hometown) it's different. They have a large pool of workers. I was "extra." And everyone else was getting paid!

In the end, the picture isn't that bleak. There is always an opportunity to do good. It just won't be formally defined or published. Informally, one can post on Craigslist to shovel snow for elderly or disabled people. Or ask a librarian to put up EA posters. And that's where I'm at right now. I'm looking for EA posters specifically for university students (to put up in academic buildings). Audience targeting is crucial.

This is good for freshman or sophomores, but not upperclassmen: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BwwvTgW1FiT_a3BaakZhQ19Yb3VpLVpLUUxuU3F1U2tRZk5B/view But no pictures!

Banners here don't give enough information, no web links: https://drive.google.com/drive/u/0/folders/0B23EuZlq6yJ1UkY4NEdxRDl6X2c

All the rest are brochures, having too much information for a large poster: https://drive.google.com/drive/u/0/folders/0B6GSBBEzLsorR2E4elVPa2p6VkU

I think volunteering opportunities that aren't formally defined are often the highest impact available. Well done for finding an opportunity to do good in your town.

"the misnomer self-care" I'm also not about the name for this category of motivation. Can you think of a better name for it?

I don't think it's something that can be defined. An experience is unique. The outcome is unknown. Sure, you could come up with some general ideas:

  • activist networking (potential EAs ~ i.e., guiding an altruistic person into being effective--or at least pondering the core question: How to do the most good?) opposed to getting someone who hasn't volunteered a day in their life
  • the power of a positive role models
  • general methods or how to approach new things or refining work ethic, such as always finding work to do--even if it's cleaning, preparing or planning the next task
  • unknown "career capital" (e.g., learning how to use power tools which will greatly improve my chance of gaining an electrical engineering internship at a power tool company years later)
  • unknown unknown

That is why, I simply like to use Experience. It's multidimensional--not fit for a spreadsheet. Although, there are different types of volunteer positions too. I'm really only discussing unskilled volunteer opportunities. They're usually not a formal "position" per se.

On the other hand, skilled volunteer opportunities require more time. And that's where I lose the scent of the trail. I'm just a college student.

I personally believe that just making money "paid work or skill-building" would outweigh local volunteering here in the States (unless living in a major city). But I'm not acknowledging the fact that just convincing one person (such during a local volunteering opportunity) to become an EA would make much more of an impact. But then again that's unknown--a second unknown. Not only is the Experience itself unknown; it's unknown who I can convince (what I like to think of as "convert" ~ a lifestyle change in my mind).

I've never been able to convince a friend, family or classmate about EA. That's why all I really think these days is about informing people about the suffering of chickens within our borders and of absolute poverty abroad. Marginal efforts, yet worthy of mention. Something worth the breath rather than complaining about professors ;)

And putting up posters! around campus specifically geared towards university students. Seems to me, page 67, that Solomon makes a good point about using more pathos than logos: Singer And His Critics (1999).

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