The GiveWell Blog

Is volunteering just a show?

To me, the most interesting part of the recent discussion of FORGE (see the last several posts on Tactical Philanthropy) is the disclosure that moving to a more effective model directly caused a loss of revenue, because it lowered volunteer involvement.

In a nutshell, FORGE runs programs for refugee communities; it shifted from having volunteers manage the programs to having the refugees themselves manage them. (More here). I’ll take FORGE at its word that the refugees were easier to manage (it’s plausible to me that they were more plugged into their communities and therefore more effective).

But apparently, the lack of work for volunteers translated directly into a loss of funding, because volunteers doubled as fundraisers. Logically, I’d think that if you were volunteering for a cause you were passionate about, and then you were released in order to make the program more effective, you would now be more excited (not to mention having more time) to raise money from your friends. But that isn’t what happened.

This story matches with anecdotes we’ve heard from many people in the nonprofit sector, claiming that volunteers are essentially useless in program terms (i.e., they cost more time to manage than the value they add). I believe that to many charities, using volunteers is a way to get people personally involved with, excited about, and personally invested in the organization so that they’ll donate and fundraise, the real value-added.

I’ve generally found that adding a new person into a work process nearly always costs a lot of time, especially up front, for training and managing. It can be worth it if (a) they’re going to put in enough hours to overcome that cost eventually; (b) the task they’re working on is extremely well-defined, meaning minimal management. As we get more systematic about our research process, we are able to use volunteers more effectively (and in fact have several working well now, with more slots open); but there have been times in the past when we’ve had far more requests for volunteer work than useful things for people to do. (When this has happened we’ve simply turned away the volunteers – our policy is to take volunteers only when we have good work for them.)

Next time you’re thinking of volunteering for a charity, ask yourself if you’re looking to do good or feel good. If the former, take a hard look at whether what you’re doing is really worth as much to the charity as a donation.

(As a side note on FORGE: I applaud FORGE’s honesty about past mistakes in this area. I agree with Sean’s claim that “in a world with limited transparency, we need to celebrate transparency on its own.” And I even think that there’s some argument to be made for promoting and supporting FORGE just for showing unusual honesty. However, I also agree with with Curtis Chang that FORGE hasn’t yet made a good case for its actual impact on people’s lives.)


  • jsalvati on November 13, 2008 at 1:15 am said:

    I guess I am not particularly surprised. This is very Hansonesque; “Volunteering is not about helping”

  • Joanne on January 25, 2009 at 7:04 pm said:

    I agree, whether you agree with it or not transparency is rare these days. Very refreshing.

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