Recently we interviewed Holden Karnofsky, co-founder of the independent, nonprofit charity evaluator GiveWell. We recommend GiveWell as a leading source of information on where to have the largest impact with your charitable donations.
Our conversation suggested that GiveWell might be one of the highest impact career opportunities in the world. There’s reason to think that GiveWell has the potential to be an extremely impactful organisation, but they are short of some key types of staff. If you fit their criteria, then this is a position really worth considering. Read on for excerpts from our conversation to find out (i) what GiveWell does and why it’s important (ii) what kind of people will do well there and (iii) how you can get a job there.
Summary of who GiveWell is looking for
‘The kind of person who should work at GiveWell is probably super excited and enthusiastic about working at GiveWell, is intelligent, talented, is particularly good at synthesising research efficiently (cutting through issues quickly, thinking critically about things and taking apart studies, these are things that should feel natural), is an intense direct person who is comfortable in an intense direct environment where there’s a lot of discussion, debate, going back and forth, and someone who’s very self-directed, who can come up with their own plan that is efficient and productive. I think that for someone who would be a good fit for GiveWell, this kind of profile would sound extremely exciting to them and they would apply.’
Why is this a high impact opportunity?
Is GiveWell high impact?
GiveWell is driving forward evidence-based, impact focused charity evaluation, and has already caused million of dollars to be spent more effectively.
‘There is a lot of generosity in the world but there’s a huge shortage of resources to help direct that generosity effectively. There’s a lot of people having conversations, that might be behind closed doors about how to have the most impact with their giving, but when you look at the state of public discussion around these issues today, it tends to be very low quality, very scattered, it doesn’t tend to be data driven or data informed. It’s conventional wisdom that all giving is kind of equally good, that people should follow their personal passions when giving and there’s very little in the way of hard headed public analysis informing the debate. I don’t think that there is no hard headed analysis at all, but a lot of the discussions about how to do good are taking place at foundations or in private conversations.’
‘What GiveWell is trying to do is we’re trying to make it more public, more open, more transparent and create a public place where people can go, that starts a debate about how do I do as much good as possible with my giving. We want to take the world from what it is today to a place where there’s a lot of discussion, there’s a lot of debate, there’s a lot of analysis. We don’t necessarily want to be the only ones doing that, but we’re starting the discussion by making the best arguments we can, and that leads to more important giving.’
‘And now we have individual donors giving anywhere between a dollar and a quarter million dollars, coming to our website, giving to our top charities. It’s been roughly doubling every year and so I think that’s gonna be a lot of impact in the future. And that doesn’t count the larger donors such as Good Ventures.’
Since we spoke to Holden Karnofsky, GiveWell published its annual review for 2012. GiveWell tracked $9.57 million in donations to its recommended charities which it can confidently attribute to its research. Moreover, as you can see in the chart below, GiveWell’s money moved is many times larger than its operating expenses.
How much impact can you have by working at GiveWell?
GiveWell is finding it hard to fill positions with suitable people, and so it seems that if you get a job at GiveWell, you will be highly irreplaceable.
‘We have had trouble expanding our team at the rate that we’d like. That’s the big challenge we’re facing; we really want to grow our team, we really want to grow our capacity, but the fact of the matter is that anyone you hire is a big upfront investment of managerial time. They need to be trained, they need to be evaluated to assess their strengths and weaknesses, they need to be managed. And so if we hire someone, unless they’re really good, then it could even be a net negative investment of our time.’
‘In general I think the work we’re doing at GiveWell, it’s really hard and it takes a long time horizon, and it doesn’t really bear the kind of financial returns that people traditionally look for from that kind of work. Maybe this also reduces the number of people who are excited to work on something like this.’
‘The best thing that could happen for us is that someone shows up with some combination of an impressive resume and impressive engagement with our research and thoughts on our research, and they’re available for a trial hire, for three months, ideally in San Francisco. If that person worked out, we would hire them.’
What kind of marginal projects would a new hire work on?
‘There’s a lot we need done. There’s two sides to GiveWell right now. There’s the part of GiveWell that focuses on proven cost-effective interventions. So that’s things like bed nets, cash transfers and deworming, and those are the things that we already promote. We need to research more of those. There are certain things that might be in the category of proven cost-effective but we’re not sure, for example various nutrition interventions. There are things that might not be quite as proven as the things we have but still pretty good and could expand our list of top charities, for example things like clean water provision. So we need those things researched. We need a constant search for charities that work on these things, and then we need those charities evaluated, and then we need our existing charities evaluated. And that’s all a matter of having as many options as possible, having as many top charities as possible, to absorb the dollars that we’re eventually gonna need to absorb.’
‘That’s one side of GiveWell. The other side of GiveWell is broadening, and going into what one might call a no holds barred approach to giving, where you’re acting a bit like a foundation and saying I can do anything, what’s the best way to spend money? That can involve all sorts of other causes. We’ve thought about political advocacy, we’ve thought about what we call meta-research, which is trying to improve the incentives for academic researchers to produce more value.’
‘That takes very open ended investigations. There are like 50 causes that could plausibly be really good causes. But we need to prioritise them intelligently. So how can you efficiently spend a little time on a cause, get a better sense of whether it’s a good one, then spend more time, then eventually go deep enough on it to find good giving opportunities and evaluate those? That’s very difficult work.’
This second type of work is done at GiveWell Labs.
‘One way to think about it is that people who do the first kind of work well, are freeing up our capacity for the second type of work, and people who do the second type of work well, are freeing up our capacity to do the first type of work.’
‘The point is, there’s a huge amount that GiveWell wants to do, and that its customers want it to do, and we will not have the capacity to do it well, unless we hire more people. So basically this vision of a group that both offers the best you can find in terms of proven cost-effective charities, but also has a really deep, really intelligently thought through strategy for a no holds barred impact, that is not going to happen unless we can hire more people.’
‘That’s all on the research front. Eventually we will also need to improve our outreach efforts and improve our website and improve the way we sell and the way we market and the way we package. Those are all things that we basically don’t prioritise at all right now. Our growth is pretty strong and so it’s not a huge priority right now, but eventually we will need to do a better job with that. This vision of an organisation that’s having all the impact it can have on the marketing front, on the research front, on the packaging front, in terms of being thorough and in terms of being well supported and up to date in all the things that it thinks about, that could take a really huge team. The people who join now will have a crucial role in the development of that vision. We’re looking for people now who will play leadership roles as the team grows’
Is it for you?
What is the work like?
‘GiveWell is a type of work that isn’t clearly the same as any other type of work. There are certainly things that are similar; there’s academic work, especially in econometrics; maybe what people do when they are evaluating companies is similar to parts of what we do; there are parts of what we do that resemble journalistic investigation, but there’s nothing I can say, okay you did this, so you will do our job well.’
‘We definitely put a lot more work into synthesising research than into coming up with new research – obviously we don’t really do original research, we only synthesise. We put a lot of attention into synthesising things critically and assessing whether they’re persuasive above all else.’
What kind of people do well?
‘The number one predictor of success at GiveWell would be, has someone, or can someone engage with our recommendations and our research and make critical feedback on it and productive contributions to the discussion.’
‘A good quality for GiveWell is being comfortable in a very intense direct environment. We tend to be direct with each other, we tell each other what we’re doing well, what we’re not doing well. If someone does something wrong, we all say this went wrong, how can we stop this from happening again. There’s not a lot of time to beat around the bush.’
What opportunities does it provide for long-term career development?
You will also get heavy training in highly useful information skills like surveying and synthesising large bodies of research, and applying it to practical situations, as well as getting leading training in cost-effectiveness analysis, which is a growth area in non-profits and foundations.
If you want to keep your options open and you are considering doing a PhD or going to work at GiveWell, then doing a PhD will probably keep your future options more open. If you are considering working at the World Bank or GiveWell, then working at the World Bank is probably more of a passport to future careers, as it is more famous.
Who is GiveWell looking for?
‘One thing that I would say that makes someone a good fit would be someone who is comfortable evaluating research, especially econometric research. That’s a skillset that we’re particularly interested in right now. Someone who can take a bunch of studies, understand the strengths and weaknesses and pull it all together and tell us what they say. There are people who we train in that, but ideally our next new hires would have that ability and be able to hit the ground running. Also asking critical questions in general, coming up with ways something might not work when people assume it works is a good quality.’
‘So far we’ve taken people from undergrad. I’m not actually sure whether that’s been the best thing to do or not. We’ve certainly gotten some good people from undergrad who are with us now. Previously we knew little enough about what we were looking for, that we didn’t want to go more senior, when we weren’t sure whether those extra credentials would have a pay off. Right now we’re thinking about looking a little more senior – at least master’s level in economics and public health, for someone who will definitely have the skills to evaluate studies. I’m not sure that a PhD is necessary. In general we are looking for people with a strong understanding of economics, econometrics, public health methodologies and study methodologies. That’s a good skill for GiveWell. But that’s certainly not the only thing; being independent, self-directed, those are also important qualities.’
Would GiveWell ever consider hiring a non-US citizen?
‘In most cases it is too difficult, but I wouldn’t rule it out. We’ve done it in the past. It’s hard, we want people to be in person. It’s not an absolute requirement; if someone is outstanding and they want to try telecommuting, that’s a possibility, but we generally want people to be in person. It is a big investment to try and get someone a visa and it’s hard but if someone did a trial and they were outstanding we would consider it.’
If you want to work at GiveWell, what should you do next?
‘First, read our blog, engage with it, and post comments, not just for the sake of posting comments, but when you have critical questions, critical feedback. You can also read our website, and come up with things that you see and that you’re thinking about and send them to us. That’s one way to demonstrate qualification for GiveWell. Second, pick up some of the ability to assess studies in the area of economics and public health. In general anything that’s on your resume that’s just generally impressive or just shows that someone is accomplished, that they’ve done well, that stuff always helps.’
For details of how to apply to work at GiveWell, see here.
To get experience working on the sorts of questions GiveWell are tackling, you may want to consider applying to our sister organisation Giving What We Can’s summer internship programme to do charities evaluation research.
You might also enjoy