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EA Volunteering

December 22nd, 2016
giving  [html]
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:

  • Volunteers are putting in their spare time, which may be pretty variable, so you can't allocate tasks to volunteers that are time-sensitive. And most things are time sensitive.

  • People often get into EA and think "I should be volunteering for EA organizations with my spare time", but aren't actually that motivated. Maybe they offer, but then the work is dull, or they have less time than they thought they would, or they have trouble prioritizing it, but GiveWell found that of 34 people who expressed interest in volunteering, only 7 actually ended up doing useful work.

  • People don't normally hire just anyone who walks in the door: they look for specific skills, organizational fit, general competence, etc. But with volunteers we tend to expect organizations to take anyone who asks.

  • Probably other reasons: I haven't worked for an organization that takes volunteers.

(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:

  • In the early days of 80,000 Hours they referred to earning to give as "professional philanthropy" and abbreviated it as "pro-phil". [1] This name sounded confusing to me so I started a discussion to brainstorm alternative names, and we consensed on "earning to give". To encourage 80k to make the change—and to make it easier for them—I went through their website to find all the uses of the old term and sent them a diff.

  • It became clear in the comments on my Intentional Insights post that many people in the EA community had concerns with Gleb's behavior. I put together a googledoc summary of these concerns, and then with Carl, Gregory, and others worked to fill it out in response to pointers from others, ran it by Gleb for review, and published it on the EA forum.

  • The EA Forum is based on a very old fork of Reddit, designed with desktops screens in mind. It was pretty awkward to use on mobile, needing lots of zooming. I added media queries to make it much more usable on phones, and worked with Trike to get it merged.

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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