Most volunteering is a waste of time for anyone except the volunteer

Volunteering is primarily driven by the need of the volunteer to feel good about themselves, not to do the most good; the way to really do the most good is to know how to do something valuable, like make a computer do what a person wants, or building things. Not that many people can or choose to learn how to do something really valuable, but many people can rehab trails or serve meals to the homeless.

Nonprofit and public agencies know this and many don’t really want volunteers, though they also can’t really turn volunteers away for PR reasons.* Nonprofit and public agencies want cash, which is fungible and can then be spent hiring professionals who don’t consume a lot of time and energy. Programmers know that the smallest number of programmers possible should work on a given project, because each additional programmer increases the communication overhead of the project. Sufficiently large projects often collapse because programmers cannot communicate effectively and ensure their code works coherently together. Volunteers face a similar problem, albeit to a lesser extent.

Low-wage labor is also widely available. Someone with a skill that can be sold for a couple hundred dollars an hour is better off doing that, and then donating their wages to hire at least ten people for ten dollars an hour. That’s much more useful to society as a whole. We’re in the habit of automatically admiring volunteers and volunteerism, to the extent that claiming volunteer hours has become yet another way of gaming college admissions through dubious altruism.

The primary way to usefully volunteer is to have a specialized skill that can be effectively deployed by the organization, but that rarely seems to happen. If the organization really needs a given skill, it tends to pay for it, because it needs that skill delivered reliably and, often, to precise specifications.

Mastering a complex skill, however, is a labor-intensive process; it’s famously been said to take ten years. Maybe one can master a skill in less time, but certainly it takes thousands of hours of dedicated practice. No one can wake up and decide to write a (good) novel or (good) operating system or whatever. One can go off and seal envelopes or make cold calls or serve meals for a couple hours.

One sees this at work in the misguided efforts to send expensive American teenagers to developing countries to build houses. Developing countries by and large do not have a shortage of effective construction workers (the U.S. imports plenty of Mexican construction workers)—they have a shortage of money. The thousands of dollars it takes to feed, secure, and transport American teenagers or twenty-somethings would be much more effectively spent on local labor and materials. But the purpose of volunteer trips is of course not about building houses but about making the volunteers feel good and useful.

Still, if the choice is between volunteering or watching T.V., volunteering is probably a “better” thing, but if the choice is between volunteering and mastering a unique skill, master that skill (and perhaps teach it to others). Be an example to others by becoming an expert, instead of by sacrificing time that should be optimally spent doing something useful for a large number of people.

* I’m a grant writing consultant. Many nonprofit and public agencies will admit in private that they don’t want volunteers. I suspect all or nearly all professions generate uncommon or counter-intuitive knowledge. The Internet is pretty good at letting people discuss that knowledge in a pseudonymous environment.

11 responses

  1. Pingback: Most volunteering is a waste of time for anyone except the volunteer | Blog

  2. I’m a volunteer surf lifesaver in Australia. In my club (all volunteers) we conducted 66 rescues, 811 preventative actions and treated 116 patients who required first aid. We train new surf lifesavers every season (on their weekends) and even if they don’t stay on the beach, they go back into the community knowing how to perform CPR, first aid or rescue a drowning child.

    “Not that many people can or choose to learn how to do something really valuable” is wrong. Anyone can and many do. Volunteers make a world of difference in organisations in my state, such as Surf Lifesaving Australia, Rural Fire Service, State Emergency Service, St John’s Ambulance and innumerable others.

    I invite you to come to Sydney, visit our beaches and dive into the surf knowing that you’re being looked out for; by volunteers.


  3. One of the few worthy things out there to volunteer for is to be a hospital visitor. There are very sick people out there who are anxious and alone in their treatment who have no-one for company. It is one of the few times and places in the volunteer sphere that isn’t a racket, because the hard-won time-tested assent one brings to it is an affection for people and something that not everyone develops: the compassionate decency to simply sit and listen to someone with a lifetime of stories to tell, and lessons to impart.

    It also requires the volunteer to check their BS and simply lend an ear and be friendly and patient.


  4. Pingback: 11 articles that I really enjoyed reading this week « Martin's thoughts on the web. And life.

  5. You are mistaken in your assessment of the value of volunteerism I think. A community of people might be able to make more efficient progress if they hire professionals to do their thinking for them, implement their plans, and acheive their goals, but then – they really won’t be a community. Living and learning with the people in your community is a community-building activity in addition to whatever other action the volunteer activity may entail. Not only is that not a waste of time, for a good quality of life it is one of the most important uses of time you can find. IMHO.


    • they really won’t be a community

      Maybe—but this nebulous “they” aren’t already. If Saul Alinsky-style community organizing ever existed, it doesn’t anymore, and has long been subsumed by the professional-service appartus.

      This is interesting in theory but seldom happens in practice.


  6. At last! I worked for the Red Cross and saw first-hand the type of self-centricism that motivated most people to volunteer.The most notable example came in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami that ravaged Thailand. Hundreds of people approached us wanting to volunteer to help the victims, and became very upset when we told them that, no, it would not be the most cost-effective thing for us to spend thousands of dollars to fly them to a foreign country where they don’t know the language or the customs, just so they can fill sandbags or deliver water or do any number of things the local population had already mobilized to do. Their response was always the same: “I feel like I need to do more!” I was short-time, so I would reply, “This really isn’t about how you feel.”


  7. Pingback: Volunteering – a benefit, not a burden – Liberty League

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