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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Practical Case Against Most Volunteer Work

Specialisation provides much more value to society than unskilled volunteers

Why is it that so many volunteer opportunities put volunteers into positions for which they’re not well-trained?

Think about the volunteer work you’ve done in the past. Maybe you’ve helped to build a home for someone alongside a group of volunteers. That group could have included people who were software engineers, chefs, gas station owners, and artists. Very few of them had home building experience.

Isn’t this generally the story with most volunteer work? The soup kitchen which the kind-hearted doctors, fashion designers and writers helped to staff. The language classes taught by auto mechanics, dancers, and marketers. The free car rides and transportation assistance offered by civil engineers, plastics manufacturers, and chemists.

There’s a problem here, and it strikes me as odd that few people mention it.

Specialisation and Volunteer Work

If the goal of volunteer work is generally to create the largest valuable impact for a given goal, then we have to think like economists about our solutions. We have to think about how to use as few people and resources as possible to eliminate hunger, involuntary poverty, disease, or whatever other social ills our organization is working against.

One of the first lessons of economics – and one of Adam Smith’s best legacies – is the importance of specialization for creating value.

If you were to try to make a modern pencil all by yourself, you’d have to mine the metal, grow and chop and process the wood, process and mold the graphite, provide the paints and chemicals for the final product, and grow and harvest the rubber, among a thousand other processes and resource commitments. You would have to own millions of dollars in capital – the lands, tools, and resources you would need to create that one pencil.

Fortunately for you, no one tries to make pencils from scratch all by themselves. People specialize. Some people grow the rubber trees, some people process the graphite, some people run the machines which make the pencils. No one tries to do everything.

More importantly, for understanding the value of specialization is the expertise effect. When people can specialize and trade with each other, they get really good at the things they specialize in.Specialization unleashes productivity in powerful ways when it reaches a certain scale. Someone who spends 8 hours a day on graphic design is going to make much better designs than someone who spends an hour on graphic design, an hour on web design, an hour on web development, and several hours on milking the cows.

Specialization is part of why we’re so relatively wealthy in the modern world: we have more people doing more specialized tasks than ever before. Specialization unleashes productivity in powerful ways when it reaches a certain scale. Its principles apply as much in for-profit as in not-for-profit organizations.

Fish Out Of Water and Opportunity Cost

Remember the volunteer home construction example? The language classes or the soup kitchens staffed by doctors, dancers and woodworkers? If these examples of staffing generally hold true in most volunteer work experiences, then I think we can say that volunteer work has a de-specialization problem. 

In their legitimate need for more hands and more help, many nonprofits end up removing people from contexts where they’re actually masters. Instead, nonprofits often put volunteers into areas where they’re complete novices.

What’s the result?

If volunteers only spend a few hours every month doing the volunteer work, it’s doubtful that they’ll ever master the skills the volunteer work requires.

Imagine a volunteer home construction project. If you have a country singer and a soccer star trying to build a home, you may eventually get the job done. But how much better and how much faster and how much more cheaply could a home be completed if it was built by a team of skilled construction workers? You guessed it. The construction workers will complete the job days faster, thousands of dollars more cheaply, and with greater quality.

The soccer star and country singer who tried to build the home may feel good about building a home, and that’s great. If they succeeded in building a home, even better. But we can’t just focus on the obvious positives and forget about the lost opportunity for specialization to have done the job much better. This lost opportunity is another key economic concept at the heart of this problem – what we call opportunity cost. It’s invisible yet important.

We’re Wasting People’s Talents

One part of the opportunity cost we’ve already observed is the days, dollars and quality we could have gained if we had used experts to build the home. There’s another side. How might we have used the specialization of the country singer and the soccer star more effectively?

Both of them could have raised, donated, or earned hundreds of thousands for the home construction organization in a week’s worth of time, instead of spending a week working on the construction project themselves. But there’s more than money at stake.

Maybe neither the country singer nor the soccer player should be spending time on home construction at all. Maybe the country singer would make a bigger positive impact on the world by mentoring other young singers, archiving country music history, or reviving the careers of older musicians. Maybe the soccer player could make a bigger impact on the world by training the next generation of soccer greats, providing soccer education to underprivileged kids, or challenging corrupt soccer organizations.Specialisation and trade ultimately create value for everyone

What’s more, we should not immediately assume that people’s “day jobs” – the ones that they benefit from financially – aren’t making the world significantly better for other humans. Specialization and trade ultimately create value for everyone – they inject surplus value into the web of human interactions by making more of the things people value, while costing less of the resources people value.

If you asked the fans of the country singer or the soccer player, you could find out pretty quickly that their music or sports expertise creates tremendous value for millions of people. The same is true for every job. The doctor who shows up reliably to treat patients, the entrepreneur who builds an app which saves people time, the clerk who does an expert job at helping people shop and check out, and the custodian who keeps a hotel clean and orderly – all of these touch the lives of thousands of people directly, and millions of people indirectly, in the course of a year of work.

Touching the lives of all of those people in a positive way is tremendously powerful – even if it is “just your job.” If that’s the case, how much more valuable is a job well done than a volunteer project done halfway?

What I’m Not Trying To Say

I’m not making the case in this post that the volunteer work you do isn’t valuable for helping people out. I’m making a relative economic argument. Unspecialized volunteer work isn’t absolutely valueless. It’s just less valuable than specialized work, if your goal is to help the most people with the smallest cost.

I’m also not making the case that volunteer work as a category is bad because it doesn’t have a salary attached to it. If you are a cook and spend time doing free chef work for a homeless shelter, your contribution is as valuable as your contribution at your chef station at work. I wouldn’t distinguish between the value of the two. All work can create value where there was no value before if you follow the rules.

I don’t think improving other people’s welfare is the only reason to do acts of service. Volunteer work is powerful for individual experience, wisdom and self-improvement. And even seemingly “wasteful” uses of peoples’ time can sometimes have value. So the country singer and soccer star may find it valuable to volunteer to build that house anyway.The psychological benefits of that mutual act are intangible but quite real

Finally, there are intangible benefits to others from volunteer work which this argument doesn’t take into account. While most of its volunteers are probably inexperienced in home building, there’s something transformative about a community working together with the future homeowners to build a house. The psychological benefits of that mutual act are intangible but quite real for the person who ends up living in that house. The house has become a symbol reminding them that people care about them.

Thinking Differently About Volunteer Work

There is a way forward from how volunteer work works today. The trick is finding a way to funnel talent to where it’s most useful.

If you are a cook, volunteer where you can use your knowledge of a kitchen. If you are a doctor, volunteer where you can help solve medical problems. If you are a software engineer, help a nonprofit build an app. If you are a marketer, help a local charity raise money. If you are a truck driver, volunteer to haul resources. If you are a videographer, make a video to highlight a problem.

You get my drift. Do what you’re good at. Whatever you do, don’t spend your time on work which you just don’t care about or don’t know how to do well. And just do your day job really, really well – like the world depends on it. The world does depend on it.

Nonprofits in particular and charitable causes in general are leaving so much value on the table. If they can find a way via marketplaces to connect to valuable volunteers – in the same way that Uber connects drivers and riders – then they’ll be able to do things they’ve never done before. They’ll be able to move with new speed because their people will know and care about what they’re doing.

If specialization is a part of what unleashes the wealth of nations, it will also be what unleashes the power of charity.

  • James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, intellectual explorer, and perpetual apprentice. He is an alumnus of Praxis and a FEE Eugene S. Thorpe Fellow. He writes regularly at