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EA Volunteering

December 22nd, 2016

Many EA organizations don't take volunteers. GiveWell used to but stopped, 80,000 Hours doesn't take volunteers, and CEA generally doesn't either. At first this seems weird: these organizations all have a huge amount of work, volunteers are offering to do some of this work. Why wouldn't organizations want to take advantage of this free labor?

It turns out that having volunteers is a bunch of work, enough that at this sort of organization it typically takes more staff time to manage them than the volunteers save:

(Many charities outside EA typically accept volunteers despite them taking more time than they save on balance, because they're a great way to attract donors. People feel a personal connection to the organization, and when they stop showing up to volunteer they often feel guilty and send money instead. But I would hope we wouldn't need this in EA?)

On the other hand, there are cases where EA volunteering can work well. Thinking back over times I've done things that I think worked well:

I think they key thing made these cases work was seeing something that needed doing and doing it, without needing to coordinate with organizations about what needed doing. If I had started one of these projects and then lost interest, I wouldn't have been wasting anyone's time. [2]

(This isn't saying to do things unilaterally. While I did a lot of instigating in these cases I didn't go from start to finish without getting others involved.)

[1] For a surprisingly long time I interpreted discussions of "going into pro-phil" as "making a career of philosophy". Which isn't as silly as it sounds: most of the people saying "pro-phil" were Oxford philosophy undergrads.

[2] The exception being the InIn piece, where I was working collaboratively, with various people waiting for us to finish it so they could reference it. And, in fact, I did lose motivation for several weeks in the middle, which is why there's a big gap in the graph of changes over time, and why it took two months to finish.

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