How To Be a Good Unpaid Volunteer for a Humanitarian Engineering Project

Robert L. Read
3 min readMay 22


A human pyramid, drawn simply, with 11 figures.

Humanitarian engineering has arrived. There are many organizations (Public Invention, Engineers Without Borders, Helpful Engineering, Engineering 4 Change, JOGL, just to name a few) that use engineering, science and technology for the direct benefit of humanity. An engineering project of course requires engineers; but I know from personal engagement that all of these organizations need writers, graphic artists, videographers, video editors, and industrial designers. In short there is a tremendous need for what we now call “creatives” — as if mathematicians and programmers are not creative!

Volunteering for one of these projects advances your career, teaches you new skills, gives you new friends and colleagues, and, above all, helps the poorest of our brother and sisters around the world. Here are some Dos and Don’ts to help you get the most out of volunteering.

Do expect to spend at least six hours a week volunteering. It is unlikely that you can keep up with a project if you spend less than that level of effort.

Don’t expect to have clear work assignments handed to you on a platter. Part of your job will be figuring what you specifically can do. Even in the age of GitHub issues and modern Agile management techniques, you won’t be able to just show up, work a few hours, and then disappear until it is convenient for you to show up again. If you want that kind of work, I suggest picking up trash in a park.

Do be humble. The benefit you personally receive will be greatest when the project succeeds. That is most likely to happen when everyone focuses on making the project a success.

Do push to have your name, and the names of all your colleagues, on the git repos, documents, art assets, designs, websites and academic publications that you create. Being recognized for your work is what you get in exchange for working without pay.

Do be aware that you may not yet have the skills you need to play at the level the team is playing. This is both a shameful horror and a wonderful opportunity — that means this is the best possible learning opportunity you could have. Try to hang on, be humble, contribute where you can, and learn a lot.

Don’t think documentation is beneath you.

Do be aware that most leaders need and welcome project management help. Projects don’t manage themselves. The greatest contribution that you can make is to be a leader or a lieutenant by helping to organize and drive work to completion. That takes a thorough understanding of the project. Sometimes a project needs clerical assistance, true leadership is even more valuable.

Don’t think your pet project management methodologies are a silver bullet. You may know better tools and techniques than the project is using, but unless you gently, actively, and laboriously guide the whole team to using them, your suggestions are worthless.

Do promote the social connections of the team. Whether you can meet physically or only virtually, try to make sure that everyone is having a good time and fully included. Try to get the team to attend conferences together, if appropriate.

Don’t take a disagreement personally. You make suggestions; they may not be accepted. You may be right, and the other party may be wrong, and it probably doesn’t matter.

Do have faith that your project is changing the world. Volunteer projects often take a long time to produce any visible fruit. In fact, so do commercial projects, government projects, and paid humanitarian projects in general. Your project is probably part of ever-branching stream of ongoing work. Your project will spawn others and was spawned from others. Even if it was conceived by one person, I assure it had a thousand parents. You will stand on the shoulders not of giants but of the everypersons who came before you, and others will stand a little higher on your small shoulders.



Robert L. Read

Public Inventor. Founder of Public Invention. Co-founder of @18F. Presidential Innovation Fellow. Agilist. PhD Comp. Sci. Amateur mathematician.