How valuable is volunteering?

This essay was written for high school and college students who are considering volunteering. I’m interested in finding high social value activities for high school and college students to engage in, and would be grateful for any suggestions.

High school and college students are often just starting to think about how to make a difference and improve the world. One salient option available to them is volunteering. How valuable is volunteering?

One way in which volunteering can be valuable is that it can be enjoyable. This is the primary motivation of some volunteers. Another way in which volunteering can be valuable is that it can build skills. Building skills is valuable to the extent that you need them later on. As an example, working on an open source software project is often cited as a good way of developing programming skills.

What of the direct social value of volunteering to others? There are many factors that cut against volunteering having social value to others in general:

 

Factors that cut against volunteering having social value

Volunteering to help people who can afford to pay generally doesn’t help them much, or simply saves them money

In general, people are willing to pay for work that they find useful. If you’re doing volunteer work to help people who have the capacity to pay, you’re often either:

  • Doing work that doesn’t help them enough for them to be willing to pay for it.
  • Saving them some money.

Saving people money when they can afford to pay is not an effective way of helping people.

Volunteering to help people who would be willing to pay can reduce the job prospects of those who would be paid

The article before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do reports on Americans doing volunteer projects in Cambodia. The projects are ones that locals would have otherwise been willing to pay poor Cambodians to do. Because the Americans were willing to do them for free, the poor Cambodians weren’t hired.

Volunteer activities targeted at those in need are often less helpful than giving cash

People generally know what they need best better than outsiders do, and this points in the direction of giving them money to purchase the services and goods that they need most rather than providing services that they may or may not benefit from.

There are exceptions to this – for example, it may be more efficient to have a soup kitchen for homeless people than to give them money to buy food, because one can serve many homeless people simultaneously, cutting down on the costs of facilities and preparation. But unless you have reason to believe that

  • The services would be the best for the beneficiaries, but they would be irrational and not purchase it
  • Providing the services to many people has substantial efficiency benefits

you should adopt the presumption that giving cash is better than engaging in volunteer activities to help the beneficiaries.

Relatedly, GiveWell ranks GiveDirectly (which transfers cash to poor Kenyan families) as one of its three top charities, above a multitude of organizations that implement other activities in the developing world.

Even when volunteer activities help the beneficiaries, they can hurt others

Consider the case of fundraising for a nonprofit. The activity helps the nonprofit. But what effect does the activity have on other nonprofits? Fundraising might make donors give more in general. But after a certain point, people aren’t willing to give more money to charity. By getting people to give to one nonprofit, you can make them reluctant to give to other nonprofits, reducing their funding.

Consider the case of volunteer tutoring. A lot of what people learn in school is material that they don’t need to know later on in life, so that the primary way in which learning helps is to get them better grades, which helps them get into more prestigious colleges. But there are only a limited number of slots at a prestigious college. So tutoring can have the effect of knocking people out of the running when they don’t have access to quality educational resources.

Volunteering can be costly to nonprofits

According to the report the cost of a volunteer, training and supervising volunteers often costs a nonprofit a lot of money, reducing the resources that it has to use for its activities.

Volunteering is often worse than donating

In Donate Money, Not Time or Stuff Jeff Kaufman points out that to the extent that nonprofits need people to do the work that volunteers do, in cases where the nonprofit could hire someone just as good (or better) than you are for the work for a wage below your earning power, it’s generally better to donate $X than it is to volunteer $X worth of your time.

What to do? 

Learn about economics and effective philanthropy 

In view of the above considerations, finding volunteer activities with high social value can be very tricky. To figure out which ones they are, it helps to

If you do these things sooner rather than later, you’ll be much better positioned to make the most out of your volunteer time. I’d be happy to correspond with high school or college students who are interested in the subjects above.

Consider creating online content that many people can benefit from

One promising area for contributing social value through volunteer work is creating online content. This is because (i) the number of people who can benefit is large (ii) people are seldom willing to pay for online content even when they benefit from it.

By engaging in activities like writing Wikipedia articles on important subjects, you can hope to have a large social impact relative to the impact that a high school student would usually have.

This is only one promising activity, and it won’t be right for everyone: we’re in the process of searching for other promising candidates, and welcome any suggestions.

Build skills to help people later

Learning skills like programming, and writing can situate you better to help people in the future. This is true of high school students in particular, who have the potential to become much more knowledgeable and skilled. The resulting humanitarian benefits can be much larger than the benefits of volunteering now.

One thought on “How valuable is volunteering?”

  1. There is so much to be said about volunteering. It is a good use of time; it can be very rewarding. It connects people to a universal whole; it raises self-confidence. It helps uncover skills; it can lead to a more appropriate career path. It brings people closer to target populations so that they learn much more about those facing certain challenges. It puts people together with other volunteers with whom they may form life-time friendships. It helps people learn about themselves. It creates advocates for issues. It activates the mind and heart.

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