One of the most exciting new effective altruist organisations: An interview with David Goldberg of the Founders Pledge

It’s my pleasure to introduce David Goldberg to those who in the effective altruism community who don’t yet know him. He’s behind the Founders Pledge, which in just 8 months has raised $64 million in legally binding pledges of equity, is growing fast, and has got some very exciting (but currently confidential) plans in the works. I met him when I was representing 80,000 Hours at the Founders Forum conference earlier this year and introduced him in more depth to the idea of effective altruism, which he’s now built into the core of the Founders Pledge’s mission.

Tell us about your background

I did my undergraduate work at UCLA in Political Science and Public Policy and then continued with postgraduate study at the University of Cambridge focusing on International Relations. My plan was to get a PhD and then stay in academics and shape International Security policy. However a year in, I realised that the practical impact of my work would be marginal at best, so I finished with a Master’s degree and began to look for opportunities that would actually have a discernible effect on the world. I got involved with Founders Forum For Good — the precursor to what I do now with the Founders Pledge — where I focused on helping social entrepreneurs build and scale businesses. Before all that, I spent a couple years in finance in the US, started and sold a business in Europe, and ran a chain of Segway dealerships in California.

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What do leaders of effective non-profits say about working in non-profits?

Rob Mather – founder and CEO of GiveWell’s top rated charity, Against Malaria Foundation. Photo credit:
Andrew Testa.

I reached out to leaders at GiveDirectly, Against Malaria Foundation, Deworm the World Initiative (part of Evidence Action), Schistosomiasis Control Initiative and Development Media International to ask for their views. Here are their responses.

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Defining ‘Earning to Give’

We’ve found there’s sometimes been confusion about what ‘earning to give’ means. Here’s our working definition.

You’re earning to give if and only if:

  1. You deliberately pursue a career that is high-earning (given your options) in order to do good through your donations AND
  2. You donate a very significant proportion of your earnings, where for someone earning more than the average in rich countries, ‘very significant’ means at least 20% of income.

As with all the technical terms the effective altruism community has introduced, we should worry about how the meaning of that term might change over time as it gets more widely used. For ‘earning to give’ I think the biggest concern is that the qualifying bar for % donations goes down: I think someone who’s in a high-earning career but only giving 2% shouldn’t count as ‘earning to give,’ but I can foresee scenarios in which people start using the term that way. Of course, for someone who is not able to take a very high-earning career, the bar for % donations should be lower.

Sometimes I hear ‘earning to give’ to be used almost synonymously with ‘donating’: I think, though, that it’s more useful to keep the concept of ‘earning to give’ focused on a specific career strategy, rather than simply donating in whatever career you’re already in.

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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;

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I want to make a difference. Should I become a philosopher?

To most people, this question sounds like a joke. I think that’s the wrong reaction. (Full career profile on philosophy PhDs here)

I think research into philosophy (certainly, at least, moral philosophy, and some other areas in political philosophy, epistemology and decision theory), is potentially extremely valuable. The impact of philosophy on the world seems to me to have been vast. Aristotle, Aquinas and Augustine shaped much of Christian ethics. Locke heavily influenced the American constitution. Peter Singer helped give rise to both the animal welfare movement and to the effective altruism community, and Nick Bostrom has catalyzed concern for existential risks, in particular risks from artificial intelligence. If you include aspects of the Bible (such as the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule), the writings of Budda and the writings of Confucius as philosophy, as I think you should, then most people for most of civilization have had large chunks of their lives shaped by the philosophical views of the time…

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How to influence policy? An interview with Owen Barder of the Center for Global Development



We recently interviewed Owen Barder to find out about making a difference through careers in policy.

The interview was conducted in person. Below we summarize the key messages of the conversation, followed by some key excerpts which have been edited and reorganized for clarity.

In summary, Owen told us:

  • How influence over policies works in the UK political system. In his experience the partnership between ministers, back-bench MPs and civil servants is one in which they all have an important role to play and they all depend on each other to achieve success. In addition, there is a complex ecosystem of outsiders that influence policies, which requires a combination of proper research, smart political ideas, effective communication and political leadership to influence policy change.

  • That the most important types of international policies can be divided into three groups: zero-sum policies in which there is a short-run trade-off between the interests of rich countries and poor countries (eg aid transfers); win-win policies which would benefit rich countries and poor countries (eg trade liberalisation); and fostering global public goods (eg R&D and global institutions).

  • Students interested in any career field dealing with the developing world should strongly consider traveling to and living in the developing world for some period of time. For those particularly interested in getting involved in politics, becoming a special advisor is one clear pathway, but transitions to the civil service or politics later in life are possible.

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Giving this Christmas: A Message from Will MacAskill

I’ve recorded a Christmas message that you can watch below.

80,000 Hours is entirely funded by donations from individuals like you.

Donating to 80,000 Hours is a highly effective giving opportunity because we have the potential to help thousands of young people pick careers in which they have far more social impact.

We are already supported by Jaan Tallinn (co-founder of Skype), Fred Mulder (founder of The Funding Network) and Allan Gray (founder of Orbis Mutual Funds). Since starting full-time eighteen months ago, we’ve come a long way – tripling web traffic, being covered on TED, writing hundreds of blog posts, creating a professional coaching service, and learning a huge amount as an organisation.

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The best career advice you never heard in a graduation speech

“Follow your passion” is the stupidest career advice I’ve ever heard. Why? Because my passion in life is for singing bad karaoke. My friend Dodgy Dave’s passion is for dealing crack cocaine. Some of my friends have many passions. Most of my friends have none.

“Do what you’re good at” is better, but still stupid. It gets things the wrong way around. For almost all activities, being “good at” something is the result of thousands of hours of practice and learning (pdf). In choosing a career, you’re almost always making the decision about what to become good at, not the other way around.

How, then, should you find a job you’ll love?


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The most important unsolved problems in ethics

In 1900 the mathematician David Hilbert published a list of 23 of the most important unsolved problems in mathematics. This list heavily influenced mathematical research over the 20th century: if you worked on one of Hilbert’s problems, then you were doing respectable mathematics.

There is no such list within moral philosophy. That’s a shame. Not all problems that are discussed in ethics are equally important. And often early graduate students have no idea what to write their thesis on – and so just pick something they’ve written on for coursework previously, or pick something that’s ‘hot’ at the time. I don’t know for sure, but I imagine the same is true of many other academic disciplines.


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Following in Schindler’s footsteps

Can it be ethical to take a job working for an immoral corporation if one does so with the aim of making the world a better place?

Suppose, for example, that you could work for an arms company, supplying munitions to soldiers fighting an unjust war, in order that you could earn enough money to save thousands of lives? You know that, if you don’t take that job, someone else more ruthless than you will take it, hurting more people than you would.

Is that sufficient? Intuitively, it seems that it just can’t be ethical to do this. But a historical case suggests otherwise…

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How to be a high impact philosopher

Philosophy is often impractical. That’s an understatement. It might therefore be surprising to think of a career as a philosopher as a potentially high impact ethical career – the sort of career that enables one to do a huge amount of good in the world. But I don’t think that philosophy’s impracticality is in the nature of the subject-matter. In fact, I think that research within certain areas of philosophy is among some of the most important and practical research that one can do. This shouldn’t be surprising when one considers that philosophy is the only subject that addresses directly the fundamental practical question: what ought I to do?

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Practical ethics given moral uncertainty

Practical ethics aims to offer advice to decision-makers embedded in the real world. In order to make the advice practical, it typically takes empirical uncertainty into account…

But if practical ethics should take empirical uncertainty into account, surely it should take moral uncertainty into account as well. In many situations, we don’t know all the moral facts…

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