80,000 Hours: Where's the best place to volunteer?

by Aaron Gertler3 min read25th Jan 20216 comments

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Volunteering80,000 Hours
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People often ask us where is best to volunteer.

We haven’t researched this topic very much, because volunteering doesn’t typically seem like the best way to have an impact. Here are some notes covering three reasons why we usually prefer donations or advocacy to volunteering, followed by some quick tips on how to find an effective volunteering opportunity.

The first problem is that volunteers need to be managed. If untrained volunteers use up the time of trained managers, it’s easy for them to cost the organisation more than the value they add to it. The reason many volunteering schemes persist is that volunteers are more likely to donate in the future. For instance, when FORGE cut their volunteering scheme to be more effective, they inadvertently triggered a big drop in donations.

This also explains why many volunteering schemes involve unskilled work, like yard work or serving food — the aim of the scheme is just to get people involved, rather than directly have an impact. If you’re skilled, it makes more sense to find a way to use those skills to do good, either by applying those skills to a pressing issue, or by using them to earn money and donate to pay other people to do the unskilled work. If volunteering schemes are mainly designed to get people to donate, why not just donate right away?

Second, you’ll probably be pretty restricted in which organisations you can volunteer at, while with donations or advocacy, you can target them towards the best organisations in the world, working on the most important and neglected issues. Since the best organisations and interventions are far more effective than the average ones, the reduced flexibility of volunteering makes it hard to be as effective.

Finally, it’s just hard to get good at something and make a big contribution if you’re doing it part-time. For instance, a company of 10 people working two days a week won’t normally get as much done as four people working full-time. This is because coordinating 10 people takes up a lot of time, so the remaining time for getting things done is a smaller fraction of the total (see The Mythical Man-Month). This is why high-performing organisations mainly use full-time workers.

For all these reasons, we usually encourage people who want to have an impact to focus on switching your career first. If you don’t want to change jobs, then we encourage you to instead focus on donations, spreading important ideas, or being a multiplier — ways that almost anyone can have a major impact.

Don’t end up like a top lawyer working in a soup kitchen – if they donated a few hours of salary, they could employ 10 people to do the same work.

How to find a high-impact opportunity to volunteer

Despite the above, volunteering can sometimes be an effective way to have an impact.

In choosing where to volunteer, we’d recommend a process similar to the process we outline for choosing where to donate, except that you should also consider whether the charity has a special need for your skills. For instance, if you’re a web designer, can you help build their website? If you’re a lawyer, can you provide pro-bono legal advice?

To help determine this, one question to consider is whether the charity would prefer a donation or your time. Suppose you’re a lawyer and you’d be happy to either spend a weekend doing pro-bono work or donate $1,000. If the charity has a genuine need for your legal advice, they’ll probably choose that rather than the money. In some cases, you can directly ask the organisation about what they’d prefer.

Volunteering can be a great way to learn about an area and build career capital, and we’re keen on people doing side projects for these reasons. Just remember, if you’re doing it to further your own career, try to avoid placing a burden on the organisation. In this case, you should assess opportunities in terms of whether they let you try out future career paths you’re interested in, or to practice a skill you want to develop, or generally learn about the world — for instance, we know many people who said that working in a poor country really changed how they saw their life, so that could well be worth doing (as long as you can find a way to do it without placing a burden on the local people).

Here are a couple more specific ideas for where to volunteer to have an impact (especially for those interested in effective altruism):

  • If you have an existing skill set, see if you can find a high-impact organisation that needs it, and volunteer your skills — just make sure it doesn’t take up too much management capacity. Here are more resources to find opportunities.
  • Look for high-impact opportunities within your existing job. In particular, if you work in government or a large organisation, there might be ways to improve things from inside, or there might be a high-impact project you can join. To find these opportunities, think about the most pressing problems your organisation can help address, and talk with people inside and outside the organisation about potential projects.
  • If you have the skills, try doing part-time research.
  • If you’re interested in promoting effective altruism, an especially good option in this category is to help run a local effective altruism group and to host events in your area or workplace groups. It’s often possible to get several other people interested in having a big impact, doing several times as much good as you might do by yourself.

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At least in the US, it is very common for cities/counties/other local governments to have boards and commissions that advise the elected officials (and in some cases have certain direct decision making power). These are typically part time volunteer positions that you have to apply for to get, but are often not that competitive. If you volunteer for your city's charter review commission and advocate for instituting approval voting or volunteer for the environment commission and advocate for policies that promote plant based food (e.g. meatless Mondays in schools) or volunteer for the grants review panel and advocate for directing funds toward relatively more effective organizations, then that might be a good use of your time. Typically volunteering in this capacity means that you are also committing to spend time on projects and policies that you might be less excited about, but that means you might run into other opportunities to learn something new or have an influence that you haven't thought about yet. The specifics will vary by location and your own interests/strengths, but from what I can tell these types of opportunities are pretty common across the U.S.

The reason many volunteering schemes persist is that volunteers are more likely to donate in the future. For instance, when FORGE cut their volunteering scheme to be more effective, they inadvertently triggered a big drop in donations.

This seems somewhat misleading to me. If you click through to the FORGE blog post, it states that "volunteers were each required to raise a minimum of $5,000." 

I don't think it's reasonable to extrapolate from 'an organization that required each volunteer to raise a substantial sum saw a large decrease in revenue after decreasing the number of volunteers' to 'many volunteering schemes are maintained because volunteers are more likely to donate.'

The way the article phrases the two sentences implies that the second provides support for the first when in fact it does not (at least not without citation to evidence that many volunteering schemes require volunteers to raise substantial sums). 

I wrote a post on this a couple years ago. One difference is that, where this post is focused exclusively on impact, I also talked about some people wanting to gain career capital from volunteering or wanting a volunteer opportunity that helps you feel good and recharge. https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/ScLHyCY6JCr5FtuiY/effective-volunteering

The criticisms of volunteering in this article seem directed at traditional volunteering: structured opportunities that produce direct impact. Under this definition of volunteering, the criticisms seem reasonable. 

But a person might be interested in a broader sense of volunteering: unpaid, non-job related ways of using their free time to have an impact. Under this definition, there are many worthwhile volunteering opportunities. For example, a person could do one on one video calls with college EAs interested in their field, provide feedback on draft EA content, or run an EA discussion group

The article does note non-traditional ways of volunteering at the end but I think it'd be more likely to leave the reader with an accurate impression of the author's position if it substituted "traditional volunteering" for "volunteering" in the first several paragraphs.

Hey Aaron, great post.
Maybe this isn't the best place to ask this, but should posts like these be tagged with the 80,000 Hours tag? We've discussed the tagging system in my recent post, but I'm still not sure when certain tags should be used. When I look at the 80,000 hours tag, almost all posts are from the 80,000 hours account. But the two bottom ones aren't. So should this tag to be used exclusively by the 80,000 hours account, or should it be used when people talk about 80,000 hours in general? And is mentioning them/their research in the post enough, or should the post be about 80,000 hours before you can tag it?

Of course, I'm just using 80,000 hours as an example. What I'm really asking is if we should create a tag guideline. Something like the New Tag Guidelines from Less Wrong. (I would be willing to write it if you want)

Also, for a totally unrelated comment. Congratulations on  your satisfying karma-score milestone: 

No need to ask permission to use a tag! Just tag the post with a tag you think belongs there. If others disagree, they'll vote the tag back off, and hopefully we reach some kind of reasonable consensus in almost all cases. That's why we have our voting system.

(I don't have a perfect mental list of every tag, so I tend to add tags until I can go a few seconds without thinking of another one that belongs, and then stop -- trusting that others will add more relevant tags if they think of something I missed.)