The GiveWell Blog

A good volunteer is hard to find

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.


  • Ian Turner on July 14, 2011 at 8:27 pm said:

    As one of the people who asked about volunteering and then never ended up completing useful work (besides a blog post), I can empathize with the pain of this article. In my case, I had recently left an employer, and was surprised by how little free time that generated for Givewell.

    Another aspect of this that I noticed is the support or seriousness that I got from others in this context. If a friend invited me to lunch, and I said that I had to work, they would understand and that would be the end of it. But if I said that I had to volunteer, the response would be a litany of pleas. This discrepancy was reduced somewhat if the volunteer work had a deadline, or if it was a scheduled event with other people (such as a meeting).

    I think that in general in American culture, the assumption is that work is a high priority and that volunteering is a low one, so if you make something a lower priority than work, that’s accepted, but if you make something a lower priority than voluntarism, that’s insulting or demeaning (depending on the circumstance). In other words, social pressures make it easier to commit to one’s job than to one’s desire to help.

  • Nadine Riopel on July 18, 2011 at 1:23 pm said:

    I think it’s important to note that many of your inquiries that go nowhere stop at the stage where people find out the nature of the volunteer work. It seems safe to assume that the type of work you need done is a poor fit for the skills and/or interest areas of these people.

    It’s very good that you are clear about this early on. I find that many voluntary organizations avoid facing the reality that not all prospective volunteers will be a good fit. This leads to one of two things; either the volunteer is pressured into doing work they don’t want to do; or the organization is pressured into creating make-work tasks that are more attractive to the volunteer, but not really needed by the organization.

    My point is this: there is a way in which your low inquiry-to-meaningful-volunteer-relationship ratio can be seen as a good thing. By filtering out bad fits early on, you are preemptively avoiding a lot of waste and frustration.


  • Sana on July 20, 2011 at 1:28 pm said:

    As someone who has been on both sides of this situation, I think you’re totally spot-on with your early “filtration” approach. So many people like an organization’s work and want to help, but a) don’t enjoy the work the org needs them to do, and b) don’t realize that they can’t sustain working for free on something that’s not fun for them. both sides should communicate better and earlier.

  • Just Jane on July 21, 2011 at 6:44 am said:

    I understand the frustration you might go through, but since I have volunteered for multiple organisations, let me tell you, it’s even more frustrating for the volunteer when you do not give the exact details of what the job would entail. I suggest you should have a complete outline of volunteer duties to at least cut back on the first explanatory email which might not appeal to the other person. This would make it simpler and easier for both parties involved.

  • Mia Schmid on October 3, 2013 at 3:20 pm said:

    Would you be willing to share the “test” you send to potential volunteers? That would be very helpful. I currently work for an organization that is re-designing its volunteer program. We have had mixed results with volunteers, a few have been worth the investment, but the majority come in wanting to “make a difference,” but have trouble understanding that sometimes a valued contribution is data entry or filing. I really like the idea of sending a pre-test even before bringing the volunteer in.

  • Alexander on October 4, 2013 at 11:37 am said:

    Mia – we’ve moved away from using volunteers in general, so we no longer have a test that we’re using consistently. The kind of thing we’ve used in the past is asking someone to proofread a document with a number of errors.

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