How valuable is volunteering?

post by JonahS (JonahSinick) · 2014-03-29T21:55:41.983Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 52 comments

Contents

  Factors that cut against volunteering having social value
    to help people who can afford to pay generally doesn't help them much, or simply saves them money
    to help people who would be willing to pay can reduce the job prospects of those who would be paid
    activities targeted at those in need are often less helpful than giving cash
    when volunteer activities help the beneficiaries, they can hurt others
    can be costly to nonprofits
    is often worse than donating
  What to do?
    about economics and effective philanthropy
    creating online content that many people can benefit from
    skills to help people later
None
52 comments

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:

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

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.

Cross-posted from the Cognito Mentoring blog

52 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by JoshuaFox · 2014-03-30T05:48:44.071Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes. But you might also mention what volunteering doors to you: it puts you in the habit of volunteering and helps you build a self image as one who helps others.

If you can work for years on maximizing income and actually give a leave amount to good causes--congratulations. But most of us humans need to hack our own persolalities for best results.

comment by luminosity · 2014-03-29T23:01:54.961Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Programming libraries and making them freely available, as in a large number of open-source projects seems to me like a definite positive. For instance, the jquery javascript library is freely available, such that learning it is a transferrable skill between jobs, a foundation that other projects can build upon, and means the messy work of ensuring cross-platform javascript compatibility only has to be performed in one place, instead of again and again. There are many other examples of useful pieces of programming infrastructure provided for by volunteer work, from graphics frameworks, to programming languages and so on.

I'd also contend that there is a lot of room for volunteer work within open source, for those looking to contribute in these ways. The project that doesn't have more issues in their bug trackers than they have people can handle is rare, and often many of these bugs are simple enough that even a relatively new programmer could contribute.

Replies from: Username, JonahSinick
comment by Username · 2014-03-30T05:03:55.451Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not too sure about that, actually. I've always wanted to volunteer in open source, but have found parts of the learning curve pretty close to vertical. As a high school student with substantial experience in programming and algorithms à la the USACO and other diversions but barely any in actual development (project organization, version control, etiquette &c.), I find it a bit of a Catch-22 that open source usually demands basic development skills but that the best way to acquire those same skills is apparently open source (or an internship). I've found [resources that are supposed to help with the process] but none of them really seem to lower the activation energy quite enough.

Am I approaching this from the wrong angle?

Replies from: Punoxysm, John_Maxwell_IV, kalium, mare-of-night
comment by Punoxysm · 2014-03-30T08:10:28.370Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are three ways to approach it.

1) Get involved in big, professional open-source projects with small bug-fixes, documentation, and bug reporting. Not glamorous, but it will let you understand the software structure and development practices.

2) Get involved in a more marginal project where they need all the help they can get, and contributing a new feature is easier.

3) Make your own project, like a webapp, that's more aligned with the typical design and features of project you might be interested in, letting you understand relevant aspects of design and version control that USACO won't teach. Don't expect anyone else to contribute, this is just a fun project for you to build your skills.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2014-03-30T11:42:14.119Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

1) Get involved in big, professional open-source projects with small bug-fixes, documentation, and bug reporting.

For a high school student it's not straightfoward to know the step by step process he has to go through to contrubute bug-fixes or even documentation.

If you want to edited an Wikipedia page that's a lot more straightforward than editing the documentation of an average open source project.

I personally have edited Wikipedia plenty of time and can't remember contributing to open source documentation because the complexity of figuring out how to go about contributing is too high to bother in particular cases where I see something that might be fixed.

A step by step guide about how to go about fixing a simple bug would be very helpful.

Replies from: luminosity
comment by luminosity · 2014-03-30T20:59:30.434Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

An easy first step is to just report the problem with the documentation when you find it. Something can't get fixed if it's not found, and reporting bugs should be pretty simple through the github interface for your standard project.

As for contributing fixes, you'll need to have a little experience with forking, creating pull-requests etc, but the nice thing is that these are basically free to play around with for open source projects on git-hub (or bitbucket). Most documentation will be in one of a few basic formats in the project's source code (markdown is popular, as is re-structured text for python projects). These are usually designed to be relatively easy to edit, and are fairly simple to find tutorials and introductions for.

Another way you can help out without fixing bugs is by triaging existing bugs. Not all projects need these, but a lot of larger ones have a problem with just sorting through bugs to find what matters, what's urgent, what's a duplicate, or a won't fix etc. Many are more than happy to welcome a new volunteer on board who can just read through new tickets as they come in and set labels such as 'duplicate' or 'blocker'. Being involved in the process in this way, you can then follow along seeing how the existing core developers go about fixing bugs, and pick up from there.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2014-03-30T09:10:55.311Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Figure out what technologies the open-source project uses, then google "X tutorial" for each such X. Or get an book on X. Build a simple app of your own using X, then start to extend it by searching an X reference for information on what you want to be able to do. Google ruthlessly whenever you run in to problems. (Professional software developers are Googling constantly.)

comment by kalium · 2014-04-01T03:31:05.898Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You may want to check out OpenHatch, a project that, among other things, organizes open-source projects you can help with by difficulty and language. This should help a lot with the learning curve. There are also some "missions" for beginners that teach development skills like how to use version control or apply a patch.

Edit: Huh, looks like all the available tasks are "bitesize" difficulty right now. I don't recall that being the case before.

Replies from: Username
comment by Username · 2014-04-01T04:55:29.899Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Actually, OpenHatch was going to be the target of the ill-formatted link in my comment. Sorry about that!

comment by mare-of-night · 2014-03-31T15:30:48.300Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Working on your own projects first, even if they're small things and not likely to be used by other people, could be an easier way to learn the basics. Building things from scratch can be easier than trying to understand someone else's code.

The using git, installing things on Linux, and co-ordinating with people already on the project were the parts of the learning curve that I still struggled with after learning programming in college. If you have any friends who do open source, maybe ask them to help you get set up to work on the same project? For the technical difficulties, I had to just keep googling and trying other things until I figured it out, in a lot of cases. It took a lot of patience to do it that way.

comment by JonahS (JonahSinick) · 2014-03-29T23:09:16.174Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks.

Do you have a reference point for the magnitude of the impact? Would you expect someone to be able to do more good doing these things than as a software engineer? Is the effect on the same order?

Replies from: John_Maxwell_IV, Gunnar_Zarncke, luminosity
comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2014-03-30T09:24:51.798Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It really depends on the project. Some projects like Linux and jQuery are core societal infrastructure. But there are loads of hobby open source projects languishing on Github.

  • If you spot a need for something that doesn't exist yet and build it, that can potentially be a huge contribution (Linux is an example, but there are smaller examples of cool clever things getting attention on the Hacker News homepage all the time).

  • If you create another solution where other solutions already exist, I'm not sure if you're adding value. There used to be lots of JavaScript frameworks like jQuery. In the past few years, jQuery has emerged as the clear winner. It's arguable that all the non-jQuery solutions actually subtracted value. For example, the company I work for rewrote its old Prototype-based frontend code to use jQuery. If Prototype hadn't existed, maybe we would have used jQuery to begin with. Some say competition and fanboyism in open source can be better for users as it leads to developers adding features to their tool in order to make it the best one. I'm not sure how true this is.

  • If you fix bugs, improve documentation, or add features to an open source project that's the best in its class that seems pretty clearly positive-impact. But in my experience, best-in-class open source software is generally best-in-class for a reason--it's already fairly bug-free and featureful. (Improving documentation probably has more low-hanging fruit.) Apache Hive stands out to me as an unusually crappy piece of open-source software, but it may not be best in its class. (If you became a core Hive contributor that would be a very good thing to have on your resume since it makes use of a lot of difficult and sexy Big Data concepts, but this is probably out of range for all but the most brilliant teenage programmers.) There may be a sweet spot of project obscurity where it's not so obscure that no one uses it, but it's obscure enough that the project has not gotten the care it needs.

One way to think about finding high-impact opportunities is seeing it like hunting for opportunities in the economy. If open source project X is widely used and really needs feature Y, someone will probably add feature Y soon for their own satisfaction. To have an outsized impact, predict which projects could potentially see heavy use and help them get there by fixing bugs and adding features, or create some clever solution to a problem people didn't know they had.

Note: I don't consider myself an expert.

Replies from: JonahSinick
comment by JonahS (JonahSinick) · 2014-03-30T15:25:01.857Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the long and thoughtful comment! We'll be referring to it repeatedly as we learn more about contributing to open source software as an extracurricular activity.

Replies from: John_Maxwell_IV
comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2014-03-30T18:43:01.935Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're welcome. Please don't read in to it too much... although I am a professional software developer and have made use of open-source software lots, I haven't contributed to it much. So there might be things I don't know. (Would appreciate it if someone who has contributed to open source could weigh in and say what I got right/wrong!)

Replies from: fezziwig
comment by fezziwig · 2014-03-30T19:50:44.805Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would add only that the early proliferation of Javascript frameworks was not a bad thing. Not at all! Sure, libraries like Prototype turned out to be evolutionary dead ends, but:

  1. We didn't know that at the time. All we knew back then was that web programming was a tragic mess, and that we wanted to get away from the status quo as quickly as possible.

  2. jQuery won in large part by adopting and refining the best ideas of the other frameworks. For example, you've probably never heard of Behavior.js, but here's John Resig in late 2005, discovering from it how awesome pseudo selectors are and then thinking through ways to better present them to a general audience.

Without Prototype and frameworks like it, jQuery would never have existed. It still sucks that you had to port it, though; my sympathies for that.

Replies from: John_Maxwell_IV
comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2014-03-30T22:21:26.688Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Makes sense. But from a utility maximization standpoint, if I have some cool idea like pseudo selectors that I want to introduce to more people, I'd argue that I'd often be better off trying to improve the best-in-class tool (even if it's initially just a fork/branch/etc.) than creating another competing tool.

Replies from: fezziwig
comment by fezziwig · 2014-03-30T23:21:29.876Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In a sense, they did: everybody wrote Javascript frameworks, instead of writing new languages which compiled to Javascript.

But all kidding aside, it's hard to predict in advance which cool-sounding ideas are actually cool, and it's very hard to maintain a best-in-class tool if you're willing to merge concepts that haven't been battle-tested elsewhere. This is another reason jQuery won: its plugin system gave it a way to cultivate ideas that could be awesome but that weren't yet ready for the big show.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-03-30T08:45:35.649Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Economic impact of FOSS in general (the article actually mentions java script libraries): http://radar.oreilly.com/2012/07/open-source-small-business-report.html

EU study about the economic impact of FOSS (somewhat dated - 2006, but interesting to read in comparison): http://ec.europa.eu/enterprise/sectors/ict/files/2006-11-20-flossimpact_en.pdf

  • FLOSS market penetration is also high – a large share of private and public organisations report some use of FLOSS in most application domains.

  • Almost two-thirds of FLOSS software is still written by individuals

A presentation about FOSS effects (recent but a jumble of information): http://de.slideshare.net/SFScon/04-carlo-daffarasfscon

A published FOSS case study about economic impact: http://www.openhealthnews.com/blogs/groenpj/2012-07-29/latest-report-about-economic-impact-open-source-small-mid-size-businesses

Replies from: JonahSinick
comment by JonahS (JonahSinick) · 2014-03-30T15:26:48.799Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks! These are helpful links.

comment by luminosity · 2014-03-30T21:03:36.536Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As John_Maxwell_IV says, it really depends on the project. A good recent example is the knockout javascript library. My last job was focused on building javascript/REST-API driven dynamic admin interfaces. Without knockout, having to use just jquery & native JS I don't think it's an exaggeration to say I may have been an order of magnitude less productive. Some of the more advanced features I was able to deliver would probably have been too complex to manage.

Of course, not everybody working away at their own new great idea should expect to be able to have anywhere near that level of impact, but I think it gives a good estimate of the sort of impact that is within grasp for the most successful experiments / projects.

comment by Metus · 2014-03-30T00:54:13.942Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A rough rule of thumb is that if the task at hand is low-skill, better to donate so that people can be paid to do the job. When the task at hand is high-skill, better to volunteer.

Examples for the former are soup kitchen or picking up trash. Examples for the latter are mentoring or open source projects.

Oh if you do open source projects, please have the decency to write a proper documentation in case you die or otherwise abandon the project.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2014-03-30T12:01:59.213Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think picking up trash is quite often something that's useful, if you see some laying around and it would be easy to get rid of it. The transaction costs to hire someone to do 1 minute worth of picking up trash are pretty high.

Replies from: Metus
comment by Metus · 2014-03-30T12:58:49.593Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is not about picking up after one self - which I advocate - but about systematic efforts like cleaning up a neighbourhood.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2014-03-30T14:05:36.231Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For systematic effort I think you are right. At the same time I think it makes sense to feel responsible for the world around you in a way that goes beyond "picking up after one self".

Just because you didn't cause a problem doesn't mean that you are not responsible for fixing it.

Replies from: Metus
comment by Metus · 2014-03-30T14:34:09.868Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It does not seem like we are really disagreeing here in principle, only in degree. I fix trivial things like paper cups in some shared space, reprimanding people I witness littering, but I won't go out of my way to pick up every cigarette butt on the street nor do I devote my life to ending poverty.

Basically I live according to the principle to fix my own yard for a somewhat arbitrarily extended definition of "yard".

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2014-03-30T14:44:53.498Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Basically I live according to the principle to fix my own yard for a somewhat arbitrarily extended definition of "yard".

I would agree with that.

comment by jsu · 2014-03-30T09:12:18.849Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

it's generally better to donate $X than it is to volunteer $X worth of your time

In what sense is this better?

Consider a diehard Democrat volunteering for the Obama campaign. He's perfectly willing to spend six hours knocking on doors (for free), because he enjoys spreading awareness and bonding with his fellow Democrats. But to hire someone to do it (for minimum wage), he'd have to donate ~$50, which he might not be willing to part with. So in this case it's much better for the individual to volunteer than donate. It's also better for the Obama campaign, because they'll get more mileage out of someone who did the work for fun than someone who was primarily motivated by the cash.

The only person who is worse off is the hypothetical paid person who Obama would have hired instead. But the volunteer only cares about himself and Obama, not some random person who needs a job.

Replies from: JonahSinick
comment by JonahS (JonahSinick) · 2014-03-30T15:44:15.811Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Consider a diehard Democrat volunteering for the Obama campaign. He's perfectly willing to spend six hours knocking on doors (for free), because he enjoys spreading awareness and bonding with his fellow Democrats. But to hire someone to do it (for minimum wage), he'd have to donate ~$50, which he might not be willing to part with. So in this case it's much better for the individual to volunteer than donate.

Yes, I was restricting consideration to social value contributed to others; it's true that if you factor in both social value to the volunteer and to those helped, it can be better to volunteer than donate, even if the same wouldn't be true if one didn't factor in one's own well-being.

It's also better for the Obama campaign, because they'll get more mileage out of someone who did the work for fun than someone who was primarily motivated by the cash.

This falls into the category "the volunteer can do a better job than an employee hired with $X, where $X is the earning power of the volunteer."

comment by Anatoly_Vorobey · 2014-04-01T13:41:30.840Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This article is disappointing: it gives a very strong impression that you wrote the bottom line first. As a result, this looks not so much as an article about "How valuable is volunteering?", but rather a collection of arguments designed to steer a reader from volunteering towards effective altruism.

Since that is essentially what you're doing, you should be more open about that, and then the article would be more effective as well. The way it looks now, I imagine reading it as a high school student and immediately thinking: "this guy isn't really interested in finding out the value of volunteering. He has his own agenda to sell."

The logical structure of the article makes it clear that you're eliminating options one by one:

  • Want to volunteer to help people who can pay? Bad idea.
  • Still want to do that? Another reason it's a bad idea.
  • What's left, helping people in need? No, cash is better
  • Still want to help? Don't, you'll be hurting others!
  • Want to spend your time volunteering? Don't, your time is too valuable, donate cash instead.
  • Want to volunteer? It's costly for the nonprofit to train you, don't be so selfish.

  • Bummer, what should I do then? Glad you asked! There's this thing called effective altruism...

You never try to see why volunteering may be more valuable than donating. There's no attempt to understand, much less steelman, the opposing side. Here, off the top of my head:

  1. When volunteering, a person sees the fruits of their labor immediately; when donating money, there's uncertainty about whether it really goes to the stated goal, or is squandered due to incompetence, inefficiency, fraud. Organizations that track and rank charities solve this only partially, since you need to trust them, too, and their ability to understand the charities may be limited. Depending on how people estimate the degree of uncertainty, they may rationally prefer volunteering.

  2. Volunteering may be a way to train oneself effectively to help others, by using social pleasure and cohesiveness. Some people are just not motivated enough by sending a check and imagining the rest; you can tell them to "separate utilons and hedons" all you want, but if the actual result is that they'll stop donating, it may be better to volunteer.

  3. Visible volunteering work is much more effective at drawing others to charitable causes than hired workforce performing the same work.

Finally, your particular arguments are sometimes poor, as is typical for arguments chosen for a precommitted bottom line. For example:

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.

An unconvincing zero-sum assumption (who said we're anywhere near close the "certain point"?). Also, hello, by urging people to consider e.g. GiveWell's recommendations, this is exactly what you're doing!

training and supervising volunteers often costs a nonprofit a lot of money,

If it's not net helpful to the nonprofit, they will not accept the volunteers.

Replies from: JonahSinick
comment by JonahS (JonahSinick) · 2014-04-01T15:37:02.294Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the thoughtful comment. As with all articles that I've posted from Cognito Mentoring, part of my purpose in posting is to solicit feedback, both on the content and on the presentation.

This article is disappointing: it gives a very strong impression that you wrote the bottom line first.

The article was written with an assumption that the reader would have been exposed to the basic arguments in favor of volunteering ahead of time, which accounts for the imbalance.

Since that is essentially what you're doing, you should be more open about that, and then the article would be more effective as well. The way it looks now, I imagine reading it as a high school student and immediately thinking: "this guy isn't really interested in finding out the value of volunteering. He has his own agenda to sell."

Thanks, this is good information, I'll think about rewriting it along the lines that you suggest.

You never try to see why volunteering may be more valuable than donating. There's no attempt to understand, much less steelman, the opposing side. Here, off the top of my head:

To be clear, I don't necessarily think that donating is more valuable than volunteering in a given instance, or maybe even generically. I expect volunteering to be more valuable than donating for many of our readers. Note that in the "what to do?" section I don't suggest that the reader donate. I'll try to make the article more clear.

Your points are strong, and I'll add them.

An unconvincing zero-sum assumption (who said we're anywhere near close the "certain point"?).

Charitable giving in the US has allegedly been fixed at 2% for the past 40 years despite an increase in fundraising. It could be that the rate would decrease if marginal fundraisers stopped fundraising, but there's a genuine possibility that people's willingness to give has been saturated in general.

Also, hello, by urging people to consider e.g. GiveWell's recommendations, this is exactly what you're doing!

There's no contradiction here; if philanthropic opportunity A is better than philanthropic opportunity B, then convincing people to take opportunity A rather than B is net positive, even though there's a negative effect.

If it's not net helpful to the nonprofit, they will not accept the volunteers.

It's helpful to the nonprofit on net, but the value that the volunteers add is less than the value of their labor – it can be arbitrarily close to zero as long as it's positive.

Replies from: Anatoly_Vorobey
comment by Anatoly_Vorobey · 2014-04-01T17:14:12.296Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The article was written with an assumption that the reader would have been exposed to the basic arguments in favor of volunteering ahead of time, which accounts for the imbalance.

Then you should definitely mention that, so the reader knows to expect the one-sidedness upfront.

There's no contradiction here; if philanthropic opportunity A is better than philanthropic opportunity B, then convincing people to take opportunity A rather than B is net positive, even though there's a negative effect.

Yes, but you advising people to donate to a nonprofit and someone "fundraising for a nonprofit" is essentially the same activity. You do it because it can be net positive, but then you criticize someone else doing it because "it can hurt other nonprofits", without mentioning the net positive thing in that case.

P.S. Since I probably came off as curmudgeony, just wanted to mention that I think Cogito Mentoring is a promising endeavor and some of your articles have been great; don't take my brisk criticism of this one as hostile or peeved.

Replies from: JonahSinick
comment by JonahS (JonahSinick) · 2014-04-01T21:20:02.193Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Then you should definitely mention that, so the reader knows to expect the one-sidedness upfront.

Will do

Yes, but you advising people to donate to a nonprofit and someone "fundraising for a nonprofit" is essentially the same activity. You do it because it can be net positive, but then you criticize someone else doing it because "it can hurt other nonprofits", without mentioning the net positive thing in that case.

I was mentioning it as an offsetting effect. Whether or not it's net positive is highly contingent on the relative quality of the charity that's fundraised for. If there were a fixed supply of charitable funds available then fundraising for the charities with below average marginal cost-effectiveness would be net negative.

P.S. Since I probably came off as curmudgeony, just wanted to mention that I think Cogito Mentoring is a promising endeavor and some of your articles have been great; don't take my brisk criticism of this one as hostile or peeved.

Thanks :-)

comment by Peter Wildeford (peter_hurford) · 2014-03-31T03:21:16.763Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Jeff Kaufman has previously noted some potentially superior free-time options to volunteering from an EA perspective: paid overtime to earn to give, unpaid overtime to build skills / earn promotion, skills building, spending time thinking of potential start-up ideas, convincing others to give, or doing an EA project.

comment by ThisSpaceAvailable · 2014-03-30T23:42:55.673Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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

That strikes me as broken window fallacy/"they're taking our jerbs!" type reasoning. Jobs should not be a terminal value.

Replies from: VipulNaik
comment by VipulNaik · 2014-03-31T01:20:06.920Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Jobs should not be a terminal value. That's right. If an activity could be done for free and the activity eliminated the need for a job, that would (most likely) be a net benefit for society.

But, the fact that some people don't get jobs because of the activity does weigh into the overall cost-benefit calculation, particularly when you're trying to do something with explicit altruistic motivation.

Suppose Alice can do a job for Bob at the market rate of $20. The opportunity cost of Alice's time is $15, and the value of the job to Bob is $25 (so they split the social surplus of $10 equally).

Let's say that the opportunity cost of Carl's time is $18, but he thinks something like "hey, if I do this job for Bob for free, I can generate a social surplus of $7, whereas if he hired Alice, he'd only get $5 in value." What Carl is doing is essentially donating $18 of his time to Bob and adding $7 in social surplus, and all of that $25 is captured by Bob. But Carl's choice reduces social surplus from $10 to $7.

Now, if Carl were not being altruistic, he would charge for at least the $18 that's his opportunity cost, which is more than Alice's opportunity cost. Since Alice has lower opportunity cost, she'd bid down her price to below the $18, and Bob would still hire Alice. So, in the absence of altruism, the market mechanism works to maximize social surplus.

But, since Carl is being altruistic, Alice has no way of undercutting him on wages, and Bob, even though he knows that Alice's time is valued less, is gaining so much more ($25 instead of a measly $5, or even the maximum possible $10 he could get if he bid Alice's wages down) that he has no incentive to hire Alice.

Anyway, the above illustrative example is just to illustrate why job losses can matter when we introduce altruistic calculation into the market mechanism.

Replies from: HungryHobo
comment by HungryHobo · 2014-04-02T17:49:44.607Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That works for digging a ditch, not for writing a computer program or really anything covered by copyright or patents .

Lets say, for example, that there is some piece of software wanted by 1000 companies who would be willing to pay 50 cents each.

It's also wanted by 10000 other entities without the resources to pay a notable amount.

It would cost our programmer $400 worth of time to make it so he could make it and sell it or make it and give it away.

The companies willing to pay would get angry if he took their money then also gave it away for free to everyone who had not paid so they make their offer of 50 cents each conditional on access being restricted to those who have paid.

After all, they don't want their competitors getting it without having to pay and thus getting an advantage over them.

He could make it for free and give it away to everyone generating utility not just for the companies with 50 cents to spare but also for all the ones which don't.

This also eliminates many of the transaction costs for the parties involved. the 1000 companies now don't even have to pay for the bureaucracy needed to decide how much they're willing to pay and to track the payments while the 10000 other entities without resources can get it easily.

comment by kalium · 2014-04-02T01:22:22.181Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The discussion of a donation/volunteering tradeoff makes no sense for the intended audience, as high school students (and college students in fields that, unlike CS, lack high-paying internships) mostly have no income regardless of their skill level.

Replies from: JonahSinick
comment by JonahS (JonahSinick) · 2014-04-02T01:58:13.470Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If it's true that GiveDirectly doubles the income of a family of 4 for one year for ~$1000, then a high school student can achieve that by working 100 hours in a job that pays $10/hr. It's unclear that most high school students could do better than this through volunteering 100 hours in a year. I don't think that GiveDirectly is actually that cost-effective (despite the fact that it's an informed estimate), but I would not be surprised if it's sufficiently cost-effective anyway.

Still, I would guess that high-skilled high school students can do better than earning and donating.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-03-31T16:31:24.502Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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

I find this argument to be utterly unconvincing. Notably its heyday was during the times when open source started to become popular and there was a LOT of hand-wringing about how free and open source software is a BETRAYAL of fellow programers who otherwise might have been paid for writing it.

Replies from: JonahSinick, Nornagest
comment by JonahS (JonahSinick) · 2014-03-31T17:34:34.057Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's an a priori economic reason to believe the argument.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2014-03-31T17:54:08.658Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's a rather contrived example because Carl's opportunity cost of time is higher that Alice's cost of time and yet it's Carl who ends up spending his time and not Alice. I also don't understand in which sense there is a "social surplus" when Bob hires Alice. Alice creates value, that value is shared between her and Bob, both get $5 profit which is usually understood to mean something different from "social surplus".

In particular, note that "Carl's choice reduces social surplus from $10 to $7" solely because Carl's time is more expensive than Alice's.

Typically people volunteer when their opportunity cost of time is low. People whose jobs they "replace" typically have higher opportunity cost of time -- in other words, volunteering frees up other people to go do other useful things.

And again, jobs are not benefits. Jobs are costs.

Replies from: VipulNaik
comment by VipulNaik · 2014-04-01T03:23:24.300Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In economic jargon, social surplus includes the private surplus (aka economic profit) for all individuals. Though I just looked up the jargon and it seems that "economic surplus" is more common jargon, so I should probably have used that to avoid confusion.

In particular, note that "Carl's choice reduces social surplus from $10 to $7" solely because Carl's time is more expensive than Alice's.

Yes, the details of my example relied specifically on Carl's opportunity cost of time being in between Alice's and the rate Alice is currently paid. This doesn't always happen. But it can happen, and we wouldn't detect it if we didn't think of the portion of the surplus captured by Alice.

It is true that if Carl had a lower opportunity cost of time, then his volunteering for the job would increase social surplus. But he'd still be inclined to overestimate the social surplus generated if he didn't account for Alice. For instance, let's say Carl's time had an opportunity cost of $13. Then, by volunteering for the job, he would increase the social surplus from $10 to $12. But if he didn't account for Alice's part of the surplus ($5) then he'd mistakenly think that he's increasing the surplus from $5 to $12.

Also note that even though volunteers often have lower opportunity cost of time per hour, they're also often less efficient. For instance, a high school student may have lower opportunity cost of time than I do per hour of doing Internet research, but he may also be a lot more inefficient at it. When we account for this inefficiency, volunteers may have opportunity costs higher than those of paid workers. Again, this may or may not happen in a specific situation. My point was simply that one needs to consider the interests of the people taking the job as well, particularly given that one is second-guessing the market mechanism that would generally push in the direction of optimal allocation.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2014-04-01T14:48:29.886Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But he'd still be inclined to overestimate the social surplus generated if he didn't account for Alice.

Not necessarily. You are assuming that if Bob doesn't employ Alice, Alice stays unemployed and sits there twiddling her thumbs. In the context of the whole economy that is not true. Alice is likely to go out and get hired by Eve, leading to her producing similar economic surplus. In that case, Carl does not need to account for Alice and estimates his contribution correctly.

It's simple on a basic level. Carl and Bob together can produce some value. Whether Carl volunteers or is getting paid affects only how the economic surplus is divided between Carl and Bob. From the society's point of view it doesn't matter, the same economic surplus is produced.

And if you are arguing that Carl will crowd out Alice, well, so will Alice crowd out Deborah, another person who would like to work for Bob but cannot because the job is taken by Alice.

volunteers may have opportunity costs higher than those of paid workers.

A lot of things may happen. Are you arguing that this case happens often enough in real life so that people should prefer not to volunteer?

given that one is second-guessing the market mechanism

Volunteering does not second-guess the market mechanism. It's point, often, is precisely to compensate for shortcomings of the market allocation judging these shortcomings from the point of view of the one who is volunteering.

Note that you gave a fully general argument against any allocation of resources other than by the market. Are you sure you want to go there? :-D

Replies from: VipulNaik
comment by VipulNaik · 2014-04-02T01:03:43.105Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for responding.

Not necessarily. You are assuming that if Bob doesn't employ Alice, Alice stays unemployed and sits there twiddling her thumbs. In the context of the whole economy that is not true. Alice is likely to go out and get hired by Eve, leading to her producing similar economic surplus. In that case, Carl does not need to account for Alice and estimates his contribution correctly.

The concept of opportunity cost already takes into account Alice's next best opportunity. The $15 figure I gave takes into account the other options she'd have if Bob didn't hire her.

Now, you may believe that for most people, the wage for a job is very close to the opportunity cost, i.e., there is little surplus to workers (this would be true if a lot of workers were competing for a job). In that case, my consideration doesn't apply, i.e., we don't have to worry much about displacing a worker because the worker wasn't getting a huge surplus from doing the job. The question of whether a particular job fits this scenario is empirical.

It's simple on a basic level. Carl and Bob together can produce some value. Whether Carl volunteers or is getting paid affects only how the economic surplus is divided between Carl and Bob. From the society's point of view it doesn't matter, the same economic surplus is produced.

That is correct, but the choice here isn't between Carl volunteering and getting paid, it's between Carl volunteering and not doing the job. See also my next paragraph.

And if you are arguing that Carl will crowd out Alice, well, so will Alice crowd out Deborah, another person who would like to work for Bob but cannot because the job is taken by Alice.

Yes, of course. But the market takes care of that by allowing people to bid on price. But when a person volunteers for free, they are in essence subsidizing themselves as workers, "picking winners" as it were, and therefore interfering with the market mechanism.

A lot of things may happen. Are you arguing that this case happens often enough in real life so that people should prefer not to volunteer?

In my comment, I noted that due to lower efficiency, the opportunity cost to volunteers for a given amount of production may be worse, even if they have lower opportunity cost per hour.

Volunteering does not second-guess the market mechanism. It's point, often, is precisely to compensate for shortcomings of the market allocation judging these shortcomings from the point of view of the one who is volunteering.

That's what I meant by second-guessing the market mechanism.

Note that you gave a fully general argument against any allocation of resources other than by the market. Are you sure you want to go there? :-D

Yes, I think there is a strong prior against interfering with the market mechanism. The prior can be overcome in many cases, but the first step to making a strong case for overcoming the prior is to first understand how the mechanism is operating. If you don't account for the welfare of particular members of the population when you do your analysis, you're likely to be led astray.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2014-04-02T16:38:05.891Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

the wage for a job is very close to the opportunity cost, i.e., there is little surplus to workers

I think there is some confusion here between opportunity cost of time and costs of producing value. They are not the same thing.

Consider someone whose skills are in demand, for example a statistician with skills and experience to deal with the Big Data. He can pick from a number of jobs and the top tier of jobs available to him all pay around $200K/year. He selects one of these jobs and is paid $200K/year.

What's his opportunity cost of time? $200K/year. What's his wage? $200K/year. You are saying that he does not get any economic surplus and this does not seem to be true at all.

Yes, I think there is a strong prior against interfering with the market mechanism.

While I am sympathetic to this view, it strikes me that it is not very compatible with supporting charities (including EA) or, say, government social safety net programs.

Replies from: VipulNaik
comment by VipulNaik · 2014-04-02T22:42:02.379Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I deliberately chose a simple example to keep it simple. The full macroeconomic analysis is trickier. I can write a more detailed explanation that does an analysis with more people (each replacing another). I'll do so later when I have the time.

comment by Nornagest · 2014-03-31T17:01:59.599Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most of the really successful open-source projects have been tools and platforms, not end-user applications; infrastructure, in other words. They haven't damaged the job prospects of programmers in general because having that infrastructure enables more programming jobs than it displaces.

I can certainly imagine physical analogues to this, but I don't think you can depend on a given volunteering situation being analogous. If you're building roads in some third-world nation, then whether or not you're displacing a job in your host nation depends on its government's behavior: if the host government is limited by money and the budget that would be used to build roads there instead goes to building other roads elsewhere, or malaria clinics, or something, then they're probably going to be hiring about the same number of local workers (and local infrastructure will be that much better). If your host government's okay with the bare minimum of infrastructure, though, and the road-building budget you displace gets diverted to build a giant golden statue of the local dictator that rotates to face the sun...

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2014-03-31T17:13:22.607Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most of the really successful open-source projects have been tools and platforms, not end-user applications; infrastructure, in other words.

Fifteen years ago, yes, but not any more. As an example, an Ubuntu distribution comes with a pretty complete set of end-user applications. They are not necessarily the best in their class, but they are sufficient for the needs of a LOT of people.

having that infrastructure enables more programming jobs than it prevents.

This is not self-evident to me. I can see arguments on both sides and don't know which way the balance tilts.

Note that if we are looking at this purely from the selfish guild/union interests of programmers, the proliferation of open source is a bad thing as it demolishes the barriers to entry and increases the supply of labor.

Generally speaking, I see "displacing jobs" as a good thing. People have been trained by the media to think of jobs as benefits. They are not -- they are costs. Costs of producing what we really want: value. If we can produce the same value with less jobs that's excellent -- that's what's known as increasing the productivity of labor and it's a very good thing.

Replies from: Nornagest
comment by Nornagest · 2014-03-31T17:15:01.198Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I acknowledge that it exists, but I would not describe Ubuntu's out-of-box application suite as "really successful"; I'm talking more about the likes of Apache, gcc, OpenSSL, Linux as a server operating system. Firefox is about the only open-source end-user app that I can think of with that kind of success, and the Mozilla Foundation isn't exactly running on a traditional OSS contribution model.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2014-03-31T17:28:27.108Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Leaving the definition of success aside, on Windows I can think of three things where free software is noticeably inferior: MS Office, Photoshop, games. But otherwise the market for small programs, utilities, etc. that existed fifteen years ago is essentially dead now. Partially it's because so much moved into the browser, but partially it's because good free alternatives exist (e.g. look at media players, for example).

comment by maia · 2014-03-31T03:31:28.025Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Typo:

Factors that cut against volunteering have social value

should be "having"

Replies from: JonahSinick
comment by JonahS (JonahSinick) · 2014-03-31T15:40:17.072Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks!