Effective Volunteering

by Khorton24th Jan 20189 comments





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.