80,000 Hours thinks that only a small proportion of people should earn to give long term

Norman Borlaug didn’t make millions, his research just saved millions of lives.

One of the most common misconceptions that we’ve encountered about 80,000 Hours is that we’re exclusively or predominantly focused on earning to give. This blog post is to say definitively that this is not the case. Moreover, the proportion of people for whom we think earning to give is the best option has gone down over time.

To get a sense of this, I surveyed the 80,000 Hours team on the following question: “At this point in time, and on the margin, what portion of altruistically motivated graduates from a good university, who are open to pursuing any career path, should aim to earn to give in the long term?” (Please note that this is just a straw poll used as a way of addressing the misconception stated; it doesn’t represent a definitive answer to this question).

Will: 15%
Ben: 20%
Rob: 10%
Roman: 15%

Instead, we think that most people should be doing things like politics, policy, high-value research, for-profit and non-profit entrepreneurship, and direct work for highly socially valuable organizations.

The misconception persists for a few reasons: when 80,000 Hours first launched, we led with the idea of earning to give very heavily as a marketing strategy; it was true that we used to believe that at least a large proportion of people should aim to earn to give long-term; earning to give is much simpler and more memorable than our other recommendations; and earning to give is controversial, so the media love to focus on it. Giving too much prominence to earning to give may nevertheless have been a mistake.

Moreover, something that complicates the message is that we believe that jobs that involve earning to give are very often excellent prospects in the short-term, because jobs that build career capital are often high-paying. For example, we often recommend trying consulting after graduation. If you don’t have a clue what you want to do long-term, consulting is a good option: you get a wide network, a good general-purpose business education, a good credential on your CV, and it’s a stepping-stone into many other career paths such as policy and non-profits. It’s also well-paid, so you can earn to give while doing it, having a good social impact right away.

Here are the reasons why we think fewer people should earn to give than we did in the past (Ben Kuhn has an excellent discussion of some of this on the effective altruism forum):

  • Effective Altruism organizations are generally reporting that they are more talent-constrained than money-constrained.
  • Some effective altruists who are earning to give are doing so very successfully, and indeed can each already pay the salaries of a number of other people doing directly valuable work; this will only increase as they progress in their careers.
  • GoodVentures is looking to spend most of its multi-billion dollar resources over the next 30-40 years. I wouldn’t be surprised if other multi-billion dollar foundations also got explicitly on board with effective altruism. This would create a pressing need for talented people to spend this money well, rather than raise more money.
  • In general, important ideas seem to get funding: GiveDirectly has scaled up to moving $7 million/yr in cash transfers in just a few years; research into the responsible development of artificial intelligence now has major donors, including Elon Musk and the Open Philanthropy Project, putting millions of dollars behind it, despite being an extremely niche area just a couple of years ago.
  • Many people (i) want to make an impact, but only in a way that they also find personally enjoyable or which doesn’t disrupt their other life plans; (ii) don’t find many careers with direct impact enjoyable or practical; (iii) do find a particular high-earning career enjoyable and compatible with their other plans. For those people, earning to give can be a great option. But it potentially means that people who are open to pursuing any career path should pursue a different and more neglected option than earning to give.

It seems unlikely to me that earning to give would ever be the best choice for the majority of people, just for the boring mathematical reason that there are many more non-earning-to-give paths than there are earning-to-give paths. Moreover, one successful person earning to give can support several people doing direct work, and there are lots of potential donations from people who aren’t earning to give that we can bring in by doing a good job of direct work.

However, do bear in mind that:

  • The strength of the argument for earning to give long-term depends heavily on the cause we’re talking about. If you think global poverty is the most important cause, and you think that direct cash transfers are among the very most effective paths for helping the extreme poor, then you’ll probably think that the number of people who should earn to give should be higher than 10%.
  • It’s possible that some organizations are able to massively scale up. Being more talent-constrained than funding constrained might only be temporary; some fields popular among the effective altruism community (such as movement-building and research into responsible development of artificial intelligence) are currently very small, so could potentially start new activities that could absorb much more in funding.

Clarification (added July 12th as a result of discussion on Facebook): When I wrote “focused on earning to give as a marketing strategy” I meant that, when doing marketing, we would (i) often illustrate 80,000 Hours’ advice by talking about how we thought earning to give was a good option for graduates to consider, often comparing it with charity work; (ii) wouldn’t push back against journalists if they wanted to focus on earning to give. An article I wrote for Oxford Philosophy in 2012 is pretty representative: I lead with the general idea of taking influential positions, then compare earning to give with charity work, then mention politics and research only more briefly. We didn’t ever pretend for the purposes of marketing that we were exclusively interested in earning to give.

I do regret the way I presented earning to give in relation to 80,000 Hours in the early days. I hadn’t appreciated how sticky an idea it would be relative to 80,000 Hours’ other ideas, nor how often people would conflate 80,000 Hours with ‘earning to give promotion’. I certainly hadn’t appreciated that we’d have to actively push journalists (etc) away from leading with earning to give in order to give the public an accurate representation of our views. But – to be clear – we weren’t deliberately setting out to mislead people; my regret is that I wish I’d understood better the way in which ideas spread and stick.

An additional point of clarification concerns whether ‘earning to give’ is too heavily weighted within the effective altruism community vs whether it’s too heavily weighted by the general public. Even though we think that earning to give might on average currently be rated too highly as an option within the effective altruism community (for people who’d be happy doing other things), we still believe that, in general, outside of the effective altruism community, far too few altruistic people think about earning to give as a serious career option.