We’ve written before about how volunteers often end up costing charities more in time and resources than the work they do for the organization is worth. (Charities seem to justify taking on these volunteers because of they often become donors and informal fundraisers for the charity.)
In our experience, valuable volunteers are rare. The people who email us about volunteer opportunities generally seem enthusiastic about GiveWell’s mission, and motivated by a shared belief in our goals to give up their free time to help us. Yet, the majority of these people never complete useful work for us.
We ask new volunteers to first complete a test assignment that takes about 2-4 hours. The assignment involves fixing the formatting of our list of sources on two practice pages and allows us to get a sense of their attention to detail and commitment to volunteer hours. Of the 34 people who emailed us expressing an interest in volunteering between September 2010 (when we started keeping track) and May 2011, only 7 have completed the test assignment and gone on to complete valuable work for us.
Of the 34, 10 never responded to my email outlining what GiveWell volunteers do and asking them if they’d like me to send the first assignment. 13 responded to this email and I sent them the first assignment, but they didn’t complete it. The final 4 completed the test assignment, but didn’t send back the next (real) assignment I sent.
It seems rather surprising that almost 80% of people who take the initiative to seek us out and ask for unpaid work fail to complete a single assignment. But maybe this shouldn’t be surprising. Writing an email is quick and exciting; spending a few hours fixing punctuation is not.
Our overall success rate may be low, but I think the system works fairly well. Benefits include:
- It allows us to concentrate our management resources on those individuals who provide a credible signal of their commitment and work ethic. This screen works well for vetting people interested in jobs and internships, as well as volunteering.
- In cases where volunteers go through the initial screen but don’t turn into long-term contributors, they generally add value by giving us feedback on our work.
- We’ve identified people who have added significant value. We’ve hired two volunteers: one who is now full-time staff member and another who contributed useful part-time work for about 6 months and is now working with us full-time for the summer. Another volunteer has taken the lead on a difficult and important research project that wasn’t a good fit for any of our staff.
We’ll keeping working with volunteers, not because the time is usually well spent, but because, in rare cases, it’s a great investment.