Interview with the founder of Giving Games

Like both Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld of GiveWell, Jon Behar left a lucrative job at a hedge fund to create a startup called “A Path That’s Clear”. Here, he runs “Giving Games” which engage people around the world in discussions about effective giving.

Rob Wiblin and I sat down to interview Jon Behar and learn more about his career choices and what it’s like to leave your job to pursue dreams of running effective altruist projects. Jon’s main points were:

  • It can be worthwhile to take some time off to think about things if you no longer are enjoying your job.

  • Working on something that you think is important can make you more motivated and more productive.

  • When starting an effective altruist project, it could be important to consider how you could partner with an existing organization rather than proliferate the large amount of EA orgs that exist.

  • The best way to get into a career in any field is to find people who are already in that field and ask them for advice, even if you don’t know them. You’ll be surprised by the number of people who agree to speak with you.

How did you get involved with “A Path That’s Clear”? What lead you to decide to put a lot of time into it?

I got interested in effective giving through GiveWell. I used to work at a hedge fund with GiveWell’s co-founders and that’s how I learned about the organization and got interested in effective giving.

At the end of 2010, I left the hedge fund to take time off, try something new, and find a new direction in life, because I had been getting burned out and running out of passion for the work in finance. I moved to San Francisco and had a lot of free time to think about things.

One of the questions I kept thinking about was why people don’t give to more effective charities. People respond to GiveWell by saying “Oh, that sounds great, but I give to Charity ABC for XYZ reason” and presumably impact isn’t one of the criteria that matter to them. GiveWell can close an information gap, but we need to know how to address people’s beliefs that lead them to actually use that information to give more effectively.

I saw Giving Games as a way to learn more about why people don’t yet give effectively and how to get them to do so. Once I realized how flexible and powerful the model was, I saw it as something I wanted to pursue and invest my time and effort. This was made easier by the fact that I wasn’t working at the time and was basically just sitting around between jobs.

Do you intend to make a living out of this?

Yes, I’d like to. I think that’s feasible by running a Giving Games program for a larger organization. There’s also speaking opportunities which I haven’t done yet, but are starting to line up now — go to a school, run a Giving Game, do a Q&A, and engage with the students that way.

I’d like to make a package where anyone could run their own Giving Game, but I want to make it freely available so as to not create barriers for encouraging effective giving. However, I’d be open to charging a fee for my appearances and make a living that way.

Did you compare this opportunity with other opportunities that might be high impact, or did you just pick this option and run with it?

I did some thinking about other options. I had considered going back into the finance world and “earn to give”, but the more I thought about the future of A Path That’s Clear, the more confident I became that this was really the highest leverage thing I could do and something I thought I would enjoy more.

Has that turned out to be the case? Has your passion made this job a lot more easier and successful?

I think so. It feels good to be working on something that I feel is important and I think it’s really helped me connect with a lot of other people who are passionate about good giving. I think I am a lot happier and more productive than I would be in a more traditional job.

Have you thought about starting a company and hiring employees to run these Giving Games?

Where I’ve basically landed I was going to, if possible, avoid building an organization from the ground up. I think a better model is to find existing organizations who like the idea and have the desire and resources to scale it and basically get one or several of them to absorb the idea so I don’t have to go through the trouble of building the organization and team from scratch which could be incredibly time consuming. Instead, we hope to develop our relationship further with The Life You Can Save and partner with them to run the programs using their resources and brand.

You wouldn’t mind having your idea taken over, so to speak?

Not at all. I think there already is an issue of a proliferation of brands in non-profits in general and in EA space, so I don’t want to clutter it any further. Giving Games are basically just an idea that is hopefully clever and anyone can do it and run with it once they hear the idea. There’s no sense of intellectual property and I want people to take the idea and implement it and experiment with it. I don’t by any means think I’ve found the perfect model — it still needs to be refined. The more people try new things and share information, the faster we’ll all be implementing better processes.

Can other people get involved in “A Path That’s Clear”? If so, how?

They can email [email protected] or or use the contact us form on our website. We love to get inquiries and really want to facilitate and get people involved as much as involved. We’re eager to talk to folks and get people as involved as we can.

To wrap up, what advice would you give to someone who is in the early stages of their career passionate about fighting global poverty?

I guess the general advice would be to do a lot of networking and a lot of cold calling. If you have an inkling of a direction you want to go in, find the people who are operating in that field and reach out to them. I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by how well that’s worked out for me and how people have been willing to share their time and thoughts with me (and like-minded people). If you hear “no” a few times, it’s not a big deal.

We’ve decided to do more of that in CEA. We think we’re too reluctant to contact people. The worst you can get is “no”.

Exactly. I’ve been kind of shocked at the people who have said yes.