Volunteering doesn't always involve t-shirts and clipboards. It's often best to volunteer your specific skills. For example, if you're a web-designer you could volunteer to build a website.
We talk a lot about where to donate, but people also often ask us about where is best to volunteer.
This is not something we’ve researched, but here are some quick notes on the topic.
First we’ll discuss some ways in which volunteering can be overrated and not as impactful as it first seems. But then we’ll go through how volunteering can be impactful in some circumstances, especially if you’re trying to explore an area and build career capital, or are applying a particular skill you’ve developed.
One problem with volunteering 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.
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.