The True Impact of Volunteer Work

We’ve all done it.


Be it as part of a high school requirement, societal pressure to be ‘doing the right thing’, or simply a genuine desire to play your part in helping the less fortunate, we’ve all, at one point or another, volunteered a certain amount of our time and energy to philanthropy.

Well, perhaps ‘philanthropy’ is too strong of a word – in most cases, at least. Either way, aside from it looking great on your CV, your moral compass gets a little pat on the back for being able to lend a helping hand to whatever charity or project it was you volunteered for. You can then go back to reality and continue living your life as an individual that is more open-minded, more caring, and more appreciative for what you have, after having experienced first-hand some of the many awful problems that exist in today’s world.

The question is, how much did you actually help these people?


Never thought of it that way, have you?

It can indeed be challenging to delve past the surface and sieve out the real pros and cons of volunteer work, especially when it is a subject that is not only idealistic, but so widely done. Effective Altruism Geneva thus decided at one of its weekly meet-ups to explore the topic of volunteering for humanitarian projects, through an EA lens.


‘I had the impression that I was going to go there and save the world,’

a 21-year-old International Relations student, opened the discussion by saying, referring to their time in South America at age 15.

Unfortunately however, many volunteer projects that students take part in have very little, to no impact on the local communities they are aiming to help.

First of all, students are rarely ever qualified to properly teach other people. Furthermore, the sustainability of the work is often questionable – how long is said student or person able to stay? A couple of weeks, months? Maybe a year? More often than not, it’s unlikely they are able to remain long enough to have a fruitful impact on the situation.

Year after year, high school students in particular, are sent abroad on trips, with organisations closely connected to their schools, where they spend a week building a house for, say, earthquake victims – which then have to be taken down and reassembled by the villagers themselves because 16-year-olds have no idea how to properly construct a house!


‘Having local people – local groups – already makes it all the more sustainable,’ mentions Maxime Stauffer (pictured right).

‘I knew the founder.’

Another particular detail that arises when exploring the field of volunteer work is that it’s driven primarily by emotion, which is to say, people tend to volunteer for projects that they are personally drawn to, or “feel are important”.

Spending a huge part of my life abroad in various schools, I’ve noticed one (of many) flaws in education systems today is that schools encourage volunteer work, thinking they are crafting the student body into more compassionate and mindful people, by making volunteer work a perquisite to graduate. As a result, they often neglect the value behind the actions and fail to teach the true nature behind what it takes to make a difference.

Students consequently do not even think about how worthwhile these projects are; they volunteer for whatever they can find, so that they can sign off their hours and get their diplomas without hassle. Otherwise, they are applauded for starting initiatives for problems which they believe in, despite the fact that there may be a multitude of other societies, even in the school itself, already devoted to the problem.

Don’t get me wrong, feeling passionately about an issue isn’t always a bad thing, but a little research or reflection into the amount of energy and resources that are already being donated to the cause could already make a huge difference on where you are choosing to invest your time.

‘We’re not professionals, but we can see whether or not a project has had a good, positive impact.’

On one hand, this is true. Many huge international organisations have a myriad of projects underway that help those who need it. But it is important to be aware that no matter how good, how positive a project may seem, does not necessarily make it either effective, or efficient.

Though you may not be a professional, it’s worth doing some evaluation yourself. If you’re looking at numbers, the reality of it is that some issues are just more urgent than others. Then, by considering how much of an impact you can really have as an unskilled individual, you’re already taking a step into the right direction – for as discomforting as it may sound, even with the best intentions, volunteering can often do more harm than good (the Guardian has a good article on this).

As a university student especially, you’re stuck in a limbo where you are almost, but not quite, a qualified volunteer. The latter would mean that you would be able to offer charities a specific skill set and thus help in a more targeted way. So what can we do, other than just being more informed ourselves?



Effective Altruism being the pragmatic and evidence-based movement it is, the first suggestion that was voiced by a member of the circle was to have a fundraiser and donate the proceeds to the most effective charity or organisation (check out for some background and the exact calculations, but basically, your dollar can go a lot further by donating to certain charities over others).

Of course there is the fact that people don’t always “just want to donate” and want to feel like they’re actively making a difference. The thing is, organisations need money right now more than anything. Investing in education for example, in fields where a talent gap exists within the organisation in question, would help immeasurably in the long term. This is also highly more beneficial than one single, untrained individual flying out to third-world country X, whom at the end of the day, is gaining more from the experience than those they are seeking to help.

What’s more, donating effectively allows you to open yourself up to being able to focus on other tasks. For example, simply making people more aware of the outcomes of the decisions they are making has a bigger impact than you may think. Even by means of simple discussion, knowledge is diffused, and gets the message out there.

Adversely, you could convince others to organise a fundraiser. Person A, instead of having one fundraiser, could convince persons B, C and D to organise fundraisers. You end up with three fundraisers, reaching more people, and potentially raising more money, than one single fundraiser would. (Have I said ‘fundraiser’ enough yet?)

Think of it like crossing two T’s with one stroke of a pen, or better yet, filming five Rocky’s with one Stallone: you’ve got an increased outcome with minimal resources. The more the merrier, that sort of thing.

‘Maybe I shouldn’t even bother at all.’

I suppose what it boils down to is knowing your strengths and weaknesses – what the most impact that you as an individual can really have, and through which actions. There will always be a need for people out in the field when it comes to volunteer work, that’s a given, but this may not be the best way in which you yourself can contribute.

There is also absolutely no doubt that such volunteering experiences are extremely enriching, and really open your eyes to the multitude of global issues that exist in the world today through interactions that you may never be able to have otherwise. But how many of these encounters really lead to more action in the long term? And more importantly, though they may be worthwhile, do we really need these first-hand experiences in order to truly understand the problem enough to understand how exactly we can lend a hand? Is there a way to reach the same level of compassion and empathy through other – perhaps less counterproductive – means?

Maybe all it really comes down to is sensitising society to such matters at much earlier ages, teaching certain branches of philosophy or ethics at school in order to foster care and understanding without perhaps ever needing the ever-encouraged ‘volunteering experience’. Or maybe us humans just really do need the whole physical, visible, sensory process in order to truly get the full picture after all.