The volunteering paradox

March 2015

Last post, I speculated on some alternatives to eating out for EA meetups.

One such alternative is volunteering! If you’re doing some repetitive task (e.g., preparing meals for the homeless), it has many of the same benefits for community events as eating out:

The only problem, of course, is that volunteering is an ineffective use of time.

If you make more than minimum wage, at minimum it would be more efficient for you to hire someone else to do the same work and donate the surplus.1 Plus, you’d be volunteering in the US, when the equivalent resources could do much more good abroad. Plus, even within the US, the charity you volunteered for would probably not be nearly as good as the most effective options.

So at first glance, it would be comically hypocritical for an effective altruism meetup to be focused on volunteering. These groups frequently repeat the standard talking points about comparative advantage and being location-agnostic, so it would send a bad signal for them to then go volunteer for a local charity at something that’s not their comparative advantage. Even if you’re volunteering out of self-interest rather than ineffective altruism, that takes a long time to explain, and most people wouldn’t stick around for long enough to hear it.

This pattern repeats itself in other places, too. A common refrain with Harvard College Effective Altruism and other student groups is that we need more things to do. HCEA is great at hosting talks and running fundraisers for effective charities. But it needs more real, tangible output in order for people to bond and feel like their work is important.

For lots of student groups at Harvard, that need is fulfilled by volunteering. They go make food for the homeless, or teach math to underprivileged children, or write and illustrate story books for orphans (seriously). And they get to bond and build character and feel like they’re doing something concrete and productive.

Unfortunately, for HCEA, this would seem completely self-contradictory. When you’re a student, there just aren’t that many things to do that are competitive with learning things and building up skills for later. And although some groups come up with the odd volunteering projects that’s plausibly effective, there aren’t enough of them to be more than an occasional sideshow.

In both of these cases, volunteering seems like a great option–but only for the donor. And because people misunderstand how effective it is, it’s off limits for effective altruism. What’s an EA group to do?

  1. Yes, I know there are a ton of caveats to this. Maybe it would only be efficient if you earned more than double minimum wage. The general point still stands, though. 

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I feel like the ineffectiveness of volunteering assumes volunteering time is coming out of your altruism budget. But if you’re using volunteering as a group bonding activity, wouldn’t it be coming out of your social budget? If volunteering is trading off against time spent eating food and hanging out with your friends, it seems at least ethically neutral and potentially slightly positive depending on the type of volunteering.



Anonymous: it’s the signaling I’m worried about, not the direct effects. If you repeat the standard EA talking points about comparative advantage and being location-agnostic, and then you go volunteer for a local charity at something that’s not your comparative advantage, it’s going to seem hypocritical to outsiders. Even if the time comes out of your social budget, that takes a long time to explain, and I suspect that most people wouldn’t stick around for long enough to hear it.



I’ve updated the post explaining that, since a number of other people were confused about it too.



This is kind of the whole problem of EA in the first place - it’s not glamorous to donate money. Writing books for orphans is. I don’t think there is an easy way around this.

Still, some thoughts off the top of my head.

If people want real, tangible output, it might be a good idea to make your outputs more tangible. Distribute pamphlets? When you do giving games, prominently display the amount raised on your website?

What about making new outputs? You could sell things for charity. The problem is with finding something to sell that makes effective use of your comparative advantage…

OK, these don’t sound like great ideas. But it’s probably an inherent limitation of EA.



It seems like a lot of the perceived paradox is coming from calling it “volunteering” - given that your group talks a lot, explicitly about what volunteering is and how it’s relatively ineffective to other methods of having an impact.

So, is it possible to strip the word ‘volunteering,’ keep the benefit list you outlined at the beginning of this post, and perhaps even manage to use the time somewhat effectively?

I don’t think there’s an inherent paradox at this point, just a set of unorthodox goals. You want to use the time more effectively than volunteering would typically warrant, so what are the resources of actual value to EA? From your post, it sounds like money (efficiently acquired) and awareness (getting more people informed about EA).

Perhaps instead of volunteering, you could sell a service that’s worth far more to people than is reasonable. I’ve been approached by groups that want college tours at rates that might make your efficiency cutoff. Or maybe programming could be made more social, like a hackathon? But these options would take effort to coordinate, and in so lose some of the appeal of ‘eating out’ type social events.

Promotion seems most likely to me, and I think there are plenty of places to volunteer for that would allow you to promote EA in either subtle or direct ways. Aka, form up a crew to volunteer as Splash security and talk with admins and teachers in the lounge about EA. Or go on a walk for breast cancer and do the same.

At this point, I believe the EA argument would be something like “but wait, if our goal is to promote EA, we should try to do that as efficiently as possible, and that’s probably by raising money and doing a publicity campaign, not doing it through volunteering.” This way of thinking is where I think you’re running into a paradox – you’ve got an internal goal (to promote community) and it’s being trumped every time you try to mix in the benefit of also working towards an external goal (EA). I don’t think it’s a paradox, but I think I see why balancing the constraints becomes confusing.

Lastly, just to put this out there, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with ultimately deciding to just use eating out. Communities are hard to make, and while slightly more effective defaults have some value, just making sure the social aspect is there can be hard enough without imposing extra goals.


Aceso Under Glass

One option (which we’ve toyed with for our local group but haven’t implemented yet): blood donation. Paid donation is a lower quality pool than voluntary donation, and donating to the 3rd world isn’t feasible or particularly what they need.