How much is a volunteer worth?

An organisation called Feed My Starving Children once held a volunteer event at my college. Feed My Starving Children relies on volunteers in the US to package meals that are sent to nearly 70 countries. This strategy—use labour from a high-wage country to pack food that is then shipped to far-flung regions of the world, at great cost and without improving regional agriculture—seems suboptimal. But the organisation, with a budget of $25.1 million and 92 new staff members hired in the most recent year, seems to be doing well.

This example illustrates one problem with volunteer labour: since volunteers are unpaid, charities have an incentive to recruit them as long as they contribute some value to the charity. In the case of Feed My Starving Children, not only are volunteers unpaid; they’re a source of revenue. Feed My Starving Children don’t recruit volunteers in the US for their adept food-handling skills or their convenient location: they recruit them to attract donations, which volunteers are encouraged to make.

Clearly, the effectiveness of a charity is a primary consideration in determining whether you should volunteer for it. But once you’ve found a highly effective charity that’s recruiting volunteers, how do you know whether the work you’re being asked to do is a good use of your time?

One way to get a handle on this problem is to ask the charity whether they would prefer that you complete a certain assignment or that you make a donation. When you find out the amount that you would have to give to the charity for them to be indifferent to whether they receive the donation or have the assignment completed, you have a good estimate of how much the assignment is worth to the charity. This information can help you decide whether to volunteer or donate. For example, if 80,000 Hours would rather have had this post than a donation equal to the value of the time I spent writing it, and they do, volunteering was the better choice—and vice versa.

This technique isn’t perfect. It relies on the knowledge of somebody within the charity—somebody who might also lack a clear idea of what your work is worth. The person you ask might give you an artificially high estimate of the value of your work to avoid hurting your feelings. But somebody from the charity probably will have a better idea of how important the work is and how much it would cost to hire someone to do it. And if you make a charity choose between your money and your time, you are likely to get an honest answer that will help you decide what to do.

Another example of a organisation for which volunteers were a source of revenue was FORGE, which experienced a decline in donations when it reduced its reliance on volunteers.

80,000 Hours and Giving What We Can are looking for volunteers, and they’d love to have you help (though they might prefer your money). More volunteer opportunities are linked to on 80,000 Hour’s job board. These organisations do assume that volunteers are more likely to get enthusiastic enough about their ideas to persuade friends and family to join. But they also have a lot of research and community-building tasks that relatively inexperienced volunteers can do very effectively, which makes volunteering for them much more effective than many other charities. And, as you can imagine, one of those research tasks is working out exactly how much value each volunteer contributes.