I came across a program organised by Animal Advocacy Careers (AAC) called Skilled Volunteering in June 2021. Before that, I had only volunteered a couple of times and was a bit skeptical of the idea - after all, I was quite busy with my full-time job at Veganuary. All the volunteering I had seen available was entry-level kind of jobs, translations and on the groundwork as in sanctuaries, which I wasn’t so keen on.
Thanks to this program, I ended up volunteering for not one but two charities and I had even more lined up for later. I came up with an idea for my consultancy, applied for a grant to get started with it, got a promotion offer at Veganuary, and eventually accepted a very exciting job offer - leading Rethink Priorities’ first incubated charity Insect Welfare Project (not directly connected, but volunteering helped a lot). For your context, I volunteered as a project management consultant and trained teams on Asana at Equalia ONG and We Animals Media (both part-time) while working full-time at Veganuary as a Project Manager.
In this blog, I’ll share some benefits and also some things to be aware of when doing skilled volunteering so that you can decide whether it’s for you.
1. You’ll feel great.
It feels great to know that you’re contributing to a cause that’s important to you. I don’t have to go into too much detail as it’s an EA Forum, but making an impact for a charity with your hours and effort is more satisfying for me than donating to that charity. I want all or most of my time to go to farmed animal welfare, so knowing that I can contribute even more to the cause was awesome. People are usually very grateful that you can donate your skills and time, especially if normally a similar service would be unaffordable. I chose newer charities on purpose as I felt that their systems are unlikely to be set up yet, or will be most in need of structure. In the end, I felt that the counterfactual impact was quite significant and after each call or milestone I felt so happy and content and the effort felt very much worth it.
2. You’ll improve your skills in ways you didn’t anticipate.
I was quite confident in my project management ability, but having to apply it to different contexts made me see things I didn’t see before. I ended up using the newly found information in my Veganuary job and distributed the information to other people too. I think sometimes if you just work for one organisation, you can be blind to other ways of doing things, and it’s good to be exposed to other structures and challenges.
3. You can test your ideas without too much pressure.
If you have a skill you’d like to use as a consultant, or maybe you’d like to get a job in a new area, volunteering can provide a good space for you to test this out without having demanding paying customers. In my experience, the expectation from volunteers is quite low (it doesn’t excuse not doing your job well though, more on that later), so they won’t pick at your mistakes and errors, rather giving you a creative license to try new things. Also knowing that you’re not being paid takes the pressure off in comparison to being accountable because you’re paid as a consultant and results are expected 100%.
4. You’ll grow your network!
This is a hidden gem of volunteering. I honestly did not expect this (as I joined the program to help animals mostly), but I just kept being connected to people by my new adoptive teams. They gave me improvement tips, career advice, mentorship, and links to helpful resources and events. Once people have seen you in action, they’ll be more confident to recommend you for other opportunities and jobs, and they’ll be in a strong position to give you a job reference (for example, I was lucky to have one of my volunteer managers to give me a reference!) They will also spread the word about you and your skills and this will serve you for the whole duration of your career.
5. You’ll make friends!
It’s always best to avoid mixing friendships and work, however, you probably won’t volunteer at the same job forever, and will eventually move on to another opportunity. I’m coming away from this experience with at least three friends from the volunteering positions I held - I know we’ll stay in touch regardless as we have similar values and interests.
6. You are a lot more likely to get a skilled volunteering opportunity than to get a paid job.
Unlike normal jobs, skilled volunteering opportunities are a lot less competitive. Not only because the charities are looking for ways to save money, but also because you may be offering a skill they either needed already, or haven’t thought they needed and now can see how it can improve the organisation. As an example, I got 5 out of 5 responses to my volunteering offer, 2 of which worked out and the other three were lined up for the future, while with job applications I did this year the response rate 5 out of targeted 10 applications I did, and I got one offer (could have potentially gotten more if I waited but still, that’s 1 out of 10). It’s also worth mentioning that job applications are significantly more time and effort consuming. Some jobs averaged 20-30 hours in prep time in total for each role, ranging 1-3 months in application length, while for volunteering I only had to send one email and one CV and got invited to volunteer on the introductory call with the manager. If you are trying to get into EA or Animal Welfare for example but struggling to get a job, some volunteering on the side may be an easy option to get your foot in the door while you’re looking for a paid role - see point below.
7. You will be seen as a more motivated and EA-aligned job applicant.
In our increasingly competitive world, every little thing can make a difference when looking for work. More and more people are competing for the same EA jobs and it may just be that the volunteering experience, however short, will make your application stand out. I participated in a few hiring rounds on the employer’s side this year and got to know what EA-aligned organisations are looking for, and volunteering experience is very high up on the list. It shows that you are motivated by more than just money, and that you are able to discipline yourself to do good outside of your main job. Also, quite importantly, volunteering can lead to a job offer in the organisation!
8. You will get fantastic cultural and language practice.
As remote opportunities are more available, you’ll have a choice between a lot of international organisations. I was very fortunate to find a volunteering position in Equalia, which is a Spanish NGO. They speak Spanish there 100% so I challenged myself to only use Spanish when I interacted with them. It improved my Spanish in a way no course would and I’ve learnt lots about the Spanish people and culture.
9. You can be flexible in terms of time and commitment.
Unlike in normal jobs, volunteering can be a lot more flexible. Usually, you can lay out the offer in a way that is open but sets boundaries. For example, if you’re a project manager, you can start with a broad description of your skills, but later establish that you want to commit to consultations but not admin work that can be done by staff members. If you’re offering leadership support, you can listen to what the team needs and then offer monthly mentorship calls to improve it, rather than managing a team long-term.
It wouldn’t be an EA Forum blog if I didn’t also write about some things to be aware of when volunteering:
1. It’s time-consuming, often more than you think.
When I started volunteering at Equalia, I budgeted for 5 hours a week, but I got so interested in the work that I wanted to do more and more each week. We’ve discovered new areas where I could help out and it enjoyed getting to know the team socially. I think most weeks I averaged about 10h, which brought my overall working hours to 47. Needless to say, that is not a very good work-life balance, especially considering some weeks are harder than others. I really like working, so it wasn’t a problem, but I don’t think I would be able to do it all the time. For those of us with full-time jobs, I would probably recommend volunteering in “stints” - like a month or two, after which you take a break. But in the end, remember that the new team is unlikely to control your hours and won’t think about your workload like they would of an employee, especially if your commitment is small in comparison to a full-time job. Whatever you say you can take on, they’ll happily give you, so make sure you have boundaries.
2. It’s still work- it won’t be a complete break especially if you’re using the same skill at work (like I did).
Some people volunteer because they want to do something outside of work. My experiences did give me some kind of a break from work because I did it in a different language and the people were different, but I used very much the same skill I used at work. Which doesn’t count as “switching off”. So it should definitely count towards your working hours for the week, unlike, say, working at a sanctuary or a local shelter, which can be counted towards “switching off” for most people.
3. You may over-commit and burn out.
AAC did write about this and it’s true - I applied to four organisations at the same time as I really wanted to get started with at least one of them, but all four ended up getting back to me. I had to space them out as I spend about 37 hours a week at my full-time job, meaning that realistically I could only do 5-10 additional hours without burning out. Some organisations wanted me to help sooner and it was very hard to say no. So my tip would be to be very honest with yourself about how many hours you really have and then don’t go over them, even if the organisations ask you to. After all, you need to recharge too and as I always say, a dead effective altruist is of no use to anyone. :)
4. If you already have a high-powered role, or maybe if you’ve started a new job, donating your skills and time might not be a good idea just yet.
I would wait until things have settled down for a bit before you start helping out. Also, if you have challenging personal circumstances, or a recent change, such as a loss in the family, a move or caring responsibilities, you may find it harder to volunteer outside of your job. But at the same time, everyone’s circumstances are different, so it’s always your call at the end of the day.
5. You may feel less motivated to do it as you won’t get paid.
You will always prioritise your paid job as this is how you make a living as well as putting your family and well-being first, and this is where your long-term goals and your main focus lies. I had a change of personal circumstances during my volunteering period, and volunteering was the first thing I deprioritised when I didn’t have any bandwidth. This is normal and I always got back into it, but in those cases it’s important to err on the side of communication and keep people updated, so that they don’t think you’re unreliable. Also, as mentioned above, it’s important to stay flexible and not commit to so many hours that your changing life will disrupt them. Building in some slack between your projects is important for managing multiple commitments. Remember that managing volunteers is also taking time and resources away from the organisation, so if you commit to something, make sure that you think it through and keep your manager updated if your situation changes. They may plan a project with you in mind that other team members have worked on too, so they may need to find a replacement if you don’t participate, or the project won’t happen which may result in loss of valuable resources. Top tip is to treat it like you would treat a normal job as much as possible.
6. If you choose a skill you are already really good at, you may get bored using it.
For example, people often suggest that I volunteer as a translator for animal welfare projects as I speak 7 languages (5 of them are UN official languages), but I don’t like translating very much if I can help it. It’s a valuable skill that I have and for sure charities would benefit but I enjoy using my project management skills a lot more. However, it’s unlikely I’ll volunteer with project management again as now I’m more interested in developing my leadership and strategy skills. So I would go for a skill that you are not just good at and enjoy using, but also one that you would like to improve. Not only will you be helping, but you will also be learning, and that will increase your eventual experience satisfaction.
7. Volunteering may not be a long-term option for you
If you aim to eventually charge for the services you are providing, or get a new job, you may be well-advised to limit your pro-bono service time. If you’re amazing at what you do and your skill is needed, you are likely to be in high demand among charities and of course, they will want to work with you. But if you’ve worked pro-bono for more than two organisations, not only they are unlikely to consider paying you in the future (as why would they if you can already work for free) but other charities are unlikely to pay you a fair fee for your services (as you’ll be known as a free consultant). Even if they do consider paying you, they may agree to much lower fees than you’d otherwise be able to get. Of course, it’s good to help charities as they have limited resources, but they pay consultants (and employees!) all the time, so if they don’t pay you, the community may start questioning if your skill is as valuable and as highly developed, because you’re not charging for it. For example, I was advised to consider charging the next charity I’d work with or at least getting a grant to cover my work, as one of my next-step options was being a consultant. As AAC themselves point out, skilled volunteering is likely to be a means to an end rather than a long-term option, as a long-term career path is likely to be more impactful.
There are more pros for skilled volunteering overall, however, there are also some circumstances under which I would not recommend it to people. I got so much value out of the experiences I had that I would even go as far as saying that I’d pay to volunteer (although that would admittedly destroy the whole point of it). It worked out very well for me and I would definitely encourage you to try it out, at least once. If you would like to contribute to animal welfare charities, you can check out AAC Skilled Volunteer Program - all the charities listed there are more likely to be interested in your proposal. Cold-messaging other charities speculatively can also work.
What’s next for me? As I mentioned before, I took a new job that is likely to require my full attention and longer than usual hours, so I am not planning to volunteer in the next calendar year. However, I may consider doing some leadership or strategy consultancy like services on a pro-bono basis when I develop that skill a bit more.
Special thanks to AAC for creating this program and their great work for the animals!