Summary

Foundation grantmakers help foundations decide where to make donations. They influence large amounts of money ($10M/year at large foundations), though they are often highly constrained in where they can allocate grants. They can also influence the direction of non-profits, build expertise and connections in a cause and make use of generous donation matching schemes for their personal giving. If you’re able to get a position at a foundation working on a promising cause, especially at program-officer level, it’s a promising option.

Pros

  • Potential to improve allocation of grants made by foundations.
  • Potential to influence direction of existing non-profits, and assist them by providing connections and basic oversight.
  • Build expertise and a strong network in a cause, with potential to create new organisations, collaborations and projects.
  • Decent salaries and donation matching enable earning to give.
  • Satisfying work with a socially motivated culture.

Cons

  • Usually constrained on cause where you can make grants, which reduces potential impact.
  • Narrow experience in a single cause may be bad for keeping options open.
  • Entry often requires advanced degrees and many years of narrow experience.

Ratings

Career capital: 

Direct impact: 

Earnings: 

Advocacy potential: 

Ease of competition: 

Job satisfaction:

Our reasoning for these ratings is explained below. You might also like to read about our approach to rating careers.

Key facts on fit  

Expertise in a cause area (3+ years experience), well-rounded skill-profile, though interpersonal and communication skills especially important.

Next steps

You usually need experience in non-profits or think tanks that work in the cause area you want to join. You also often need a Master’s in a relevant degree to your cause. Read this advice on how to get a job at a foundation.

Research process

This profile is based on Kerry Vaughan’s experience as a member of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) for 3 years; four interviews with foundation grantmakers, a number of GiveWell posts about the state of philanthropy and reading a number of publicly-available job descriptions posted by foundations and advice on working at foundations. See the rest of our research notes in our wiki.

What is this career path?

Foundations make grants to organisations and individuals with a social purpose. They are usually founded by a wealthy person or family, who put aside a sum of money, some of which is given out each year. One famous example is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has $43 billion in assets, and gives out about $4bn each year.1 Foundation grantmakers are in charge of deciding which organisations receive the money and monitor the performance of organisations that have received money. Foundations also have support staff, but we don’t cover them here.

What are the major stages of this career?

There are roughly four stages of progression in foundation grantmaking:

  • Program Associates — do research, write grant agreements and do other administrative or logistical tasks.2
  • Program Officers — find non-profits to give money to and provide support and guidance to non-profits that have received grants.3
  • Program Directors — manage program officers and give support and guidance to them. They also make strategy to help decide what specific interventions the foundation should pursue.4
  • President — the president runs the foundation, is heavily involved in cause selection and setting the strategy of the foundation.

More detail on the different stages of progression and other roles in foundations.

In this profile we focus on the option of joining a foundation at a lower-level role (e.g. associate or program officer) and then progressing through the ranks to gain additional influence.

Who controls where money is donated?

Usually the president and board choose several causes to focus on (e.g. global health); then the program directors and officers identify the non-profits that receive funds within each cause. The program director will usually focus on which interventions are chosen (e.g. malaria nets), while the program officers will choose specific nonprofits within an intervention. They usually have to bring the chosen non-profits forward for approval by the board of the foundation. Program associates are not directly involved in choosing charities, but support the work of other grantmakers, enabling them to work more efficiently.5

What is it like day to day?

Program associates

A typical day might include:

  • Using Google and contacting people to find non-profits working in a particular part of the world or on a particular issue.
  • Finding evidence on the efficacy of a particular intervention to see if the foundation should make an investment in that area.
  • Coordinating with non-profits to write grant agreements, including setting reasonable metrics for success for the non-profit,
  • Coordinating with non-profits to schedule meetings and compiling reports for others to consider.
  • Building relationships with grantees and potential grantees to make the grantmaking process smoother.6

Program officers

A typical day might include:

  • Lots of meetings and calls with various non-profits and experts in the foundation’s particular fields of interest.
  • Talking to and assisting current grantees.
  • Having meetings and attending conferences to get to know the various key players and issues in the relevant industry and to learn about new trends in the sector.

For more, see GiveWell’s What does a program staffer do on a day-to-day basis? and Vault’s “A Day in the Life of a Foundation Officer”.

Why should you become a foundations grantmaker?

Influence grant allocations

Program officers oversee large donations. At a major foundation each program officer oversees a budget of about $10 million. Program officers can influence where this money is spent and if you have a very good fit for the role, or a more evidence-based approach than other people, you may be able to allocate grants to better projects than would have otherwise received the money.

One drawback is that the lower down you are in the hierarchy of grantmakers in a foundation, the more constrained you are in where you can allocate grants.7 Program officers are constrained by their superiors on both which cause area and which interventions within that cause they can allocate grants to. Their influence is mostly restricted to which non-profits are chosen within a given intervention for a given cause. Even fairly high-level people are still usually constrained by cause, and this is where some of the biggest opportunities for improvement may lie. These constraints limit the degree to which you can allocate grants to places where they will do significantly more good than they would if allocated elsewhere.

However, because of the large amount of money you influence, even a small improvement in cost-effectiveness of grant allocations can have a large impact. For more, read our model for estimating the impact from grant allocations and comparing this with earning to give.

Influence the direction of existing non-profits

Foundation grantmakers can also influence the direction of existing non-profits. One way in which this can happen is through foundations encouraging non-profits to come up with ideas for what they would do with a larger budget, which can lead to new ideas for projects. A notable example of this is Good Ventures influencing GiveWell to start the Open Philanthropy Project.8

Assist non-profits so they run more effectively

Grantmakers can also help non-profits by providing connections to other useful people in their network, for example to help with fundraising. They can also identify opportunities to improve the organisational structure of non-profits. One example of this is the Sandler Foundation hiring a communications consultant for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and helping them build out their communications department. However, there is danger of micro-managing grantees on issues that they are better placed to handle themselves. The better you are than other grantmakers at judging when you should step in and when you should let grantees make their own decisions, the more impact you can have.

Create new organisations, collaborations or projects

Because of their wide knowledge of a cause, foundation grantmakers are well positioned to spot opportunities for new types of organisations, collaborations and projects in a cause area. GiveWell has written about examples of new organisations set up by foundations. However, only senior foundation grantmakers are likely to have the opportunity to do this.

Influence other grantmakers

Grantmakers at foundations also have a good platform to spread their ideas to others. Grantmakers are likely to be able to meet other grantmakers and influence their grantmaking strategy and command a platform to discuss their ideas.

Decent salaries and donation matching for earning to give

Program associates generally make around $50,000 per year.9 The median salary for program officers in the US is $80,00010 but salaries vary greatly depending on the area the program officer works in and the specifics of the foundation. At the top ten foundations by asset size, program officers make around $122,000.11 At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation mid-level program officers make around $150,00012 and senior program officers who work in Global Health make $213,000.13

In addition to a decent salary, foundations often have generous donation matching programs. The Gates, Ford and MacArthur foundations offer 3:1 donation matching, and other foundations offer 2:1 or 1:1 matching on donations. This greatly increases the amount that you can donate, though it comes out of funds that would have been granted anyway.14

Strong career capital in the cause you work on

  • Make valuable connections – non-profits are usually interested in meeting with people from foundations even if the foundation representative is quite junior and the non-profit representative is quite senior. As a result grantmakers have opportunities to improve their networking skills and build a large network quickly, which is valuable for exploring other opportunities later.
  • Working at a foundation is seen as high-prestige in the non-profit sector, and even more so if you work at a large well-known foundation.
  • Learn a lot about a cause – grantmakers get a high-level view of the cause area they work on by developing research skills, and by getting to see how the different actors in a cause area fit together to work towards a common goal. One application of this knowledge is recognising the need for new organisations in a cause area. GiveWell has recently written about examples of non-profits started by funders. This puts you in a better a position to start effective non-profits in the future. Another potential benefit is learning about promising causes that are currently poorly understood in the effective altruism community.
  • Option to exit into roles in government, think thanks or non-profits in your cause. Many program officers stay in the foundation world, but some exit into roles at a different institution in the same cause area. For example, someone working on US K-12 education might move to a nonprofit working on this topic (e.g. Teach for America), to a governmental position in education (e.g. at the US Department of Education), or to Think Tanks working on the topic (e.g. the Brookings Institution).

Socially motivated culture

Most people that work in foundations are committed to the cause the foundation works on, and being surrounded by people who care about social impact helps maintain or raise your levels of altruistic motivation.

Good job satisfaction

Grantmakers seem to be satisfied with their jobs on the whole. Grantmakers generally work around 40 hours per week, although some travel may be required. Because jobs at foundations are highly desirable and competitive, colleagues tend to be intelligent and excited about their work. This creates a pleasant, collaborative work environment both within the foundations and with external partners. Program officers also get a good deal of autonomy over their work and are able to choose how they want to go about the process of choosing we potential grantees. Program associates are generally assigned tasks from the program officers and directors and have less autonomy as a result. The work can be extremely engaging for those who are passionate about the cause and appreciate the responsibility involved in donating millions of dollars to deserving nonprofits.

Reasons not to become a foundations grantmaker

Narrow experience in a single cause may lead to inflexible career capital

Although you gain strong career capital, it’s often constrained to one cause, making this option less good for keeping your options open. Grantmakers tend to stay in their cause area over their careers, which could be because they don’t have good opportunities to transfer to working on other causes. However there are more generalist grantmakers at smaller foundations, and some larger foundations, like the Sandler Foundation, mostly hire generalists.

Entry requirements

Although the stated requirements in job adverts are often highly demanding, we’ve seen many of cases of people getting jobs without meeting them. The top ten foundations by asset size say that they require 5+ years of relevant experience for program associates, and 8+ years of relevant experience plus a Master’s or PhD degree for program officers.15 The stated requirements for foundations outside the top ten by asset size are slightly less demanding: 2-3 years of experience for program associates and around 5 years of experience for program officers, and a preference for advanced degrees in a field directly related to the position.16

However, as with all jobs, the stated requirements are often different from what actually gets people jobs. Internships are one way to skirt around the stated requirements of positions. Peter Hurford writes about a friend who got a job at the MacArthur Foundation, the 10th largest private foundation in the US, straight out of university after completing a highly competitive internship. Kerry Vaughan got his job at the Arnold Foundation straight out of an undergraduate degree as well.

Blue Avocado magazine interviewed foundation staff asking (a) what advice they’d give to people wanting foundation jobs and (b) how they got their job. They found that most gave similar advice on how to get jobs, but almost none of them got their own jobs in that way. One example was a program officer who joined a foundation as a human resources manager, and then transferred to grantmaking in a cause she had no experience in. A common way that people got grantmaking jobs was through entry-level jobs as grant administrators, administrative assistants, program assistants, and interns and then moving up from there. Another reported route in was through networking and becoming a trusted friend or advisor of the founding donor or family.

Who should consider this option?

You can read GiveWell’s take on what types of people make good foundation grantmakers.

If you’re able to get a position, especially at the program-officer level, and you can join a foundation working on a promising cause, then this is a promising option.

If you can get a position working on the Open Philanthropy Project (a collaboration between Good Ventures and GiveWell), then this is a very promising option. The Open Philanthropy Project stands out as especially good because:

  • It is open to working on many different causes, so the worry about being constrained by cause doesn’t apply, and there is more potential for keeping your options open across causes.
  • It puts great emphasis on transparency in sharing its research, reasoning and results so that the entire field of philanthropy can benefit and become more effective.
  • It works on cause areas that we regard as unusually effective.

Check out the job openings and descriptions of roles at the Open Philanthropy Project.

Some foundations working on promising cause areas are:

Global Health

Global Catastrophic Risks

A number of foundations fund work on climate change, including:

There is also:

Meta-research

Meta-research refers to “improving the incentives in the academic world, to bring them more in line with producing work of maximal benefit to society.”17 It appears that the Laura and John Arnold Foundation is the only large foundation working on this issue directly.

U.S. policy

A number of foundations work to effectuate change through policy work, but it’s important to note that foundations are legally prohibited from attempting to influence legislation18, though they can provide information or expertise on topics of interest to legislators. GiveWell has identified current funders in criminal justice reform and macroeconomic policy.

You can see GiveWell’s analysis of which foundations work on which causes for more.

Further reading

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Notes and references

  1. “Foundation Trust Endowment: $42.9 billion” “Total 2014 Direct Grantee Support: $3.9 billion” Gates Foundation Fact Sheet
  2. Some example job descriptions demonstrate this:
  3. Some example job descriptions demonstrate this:
  4. An example job description: Program Director - DS Foundation
  5. This model is based on reading the formal job descriptions of various positions offered at foundations, conversations with some people working in the field, and the personal experience one of Kerry Vaughan of working in a foundation for 3 years.
  6. This was mentioned in both of our interviews with associate-level grantmakers.
  7. This is based on reading the formal job descriptions of various positions offered at foundations, conversations with some people working in the field, and the personal experience of Kerry Vaughan working in a foundation for 3 years.
  8. “GiveWell also has experienced this dynamic as a grantee. We did not have the idea for the Open Philanthropy Project (previously GiveWell Labs) until Good Ventures expressed a high degree of interest in our work. Having a major funder encourage us to think about how we would allocate large amounts of money caused us to think more deeply about the matter than we would have otherwise.” Key questions about philanthropy, part 1: What is the role of a funder? - GiveWell blog
  9. “More “entry level” positions, such as program assistants, make around $49K a year.” Brief Notes on Careers in Foundations - Peter Hurford
  10. “Among the 34 staff positions tracked in the 2010 survey, program offi cers accounted for the largest share of reported staff (11 percent). Their median salary was $80,000.“ Council on Foundations “2010 Grantmakers Salary and Benefits Report”
  11. “A program officer seems to make around $122K a year. (Source: Glassdoor, averaged for the top ten foundations.)” Brief Notes on Careers in Foundations - Peter Hurford
  12. "...relatively high-paying posts like program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (mid-level program officers make $150,000)" Forbes - Get Paid To Be A Do-Gooder
  13. “Senior Program Officer, Global Health: 15 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Salaries - $212,589” Glassdoor
  14. “The best programs are offered by the Ford Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which both offer a 3:1 match up to $30K. This means that if you earn $179K as a Gates Foundation Senior Program Officer and donate everything you earn above $30K, you can donate $209K a year to any 501(c)3 organization! And the Ford and Gates Foundations are not alone – the Moore Foundation offers a 2:1 match up to $30K, the RWJF matches 1:1 up to $50K, and the Hewlett Foundation matches 1:1 up to $20K.” Brief Notes on Careers in Foundations - Peter Hurford
  15. “A survey of the top ten foundations by asset size shows that program associates require around 5+ years of prior relevant experience, and program officers require around 8+ years of prior relevant experience plus a Masters degree or Ph.D.” Brief Notes on Careers in Foundations - Peter Hurford
  16. Of the first 10 foundation program officer positions found on indeed.com, all required at least 5 years of experience. Seven of the ten either preferred or required an advanced degree, usually in a field directly related to the position. All required previous experience in the cause area served by the position.
  17. Holden Karnofsky, GiveWell Blog - Meta-research
  18. “A foundation will be regarded as attempting to influence legislation if it contacts, or urges members of the public to contact, members or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting or opposing legislation, or if the foundation advocates the adoption of rejection of legislation” IRS “Lobbying Activity of Section 501(c)(3) Private Foundations