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:
- You get free space from whoever you’re volunteering for
- You can distract yourself with the volunteering work
- The event lifecycle is dictated by however much work you have to do
- It’s a reason to get people together that’s better than just “let’s all hang out in one place”
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?
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. ↩︎