In a nutshell: Founding a new organisation to tackle a pressing global problem can be extremely high impact. Doing so involves identifying an idea, testing it, and then helping to build an organisation by investing in strategy, hiring, management, culture, and so on — with the aim that the organisation can continue to function well without you in the long term.

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If you are well suited to this career, it may be the best way for you to have a social impact.

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Based on a medium-depth investigation 

Why might founding a new project be high impact?

Creating an organisation that persists without you is a route to having a lot of impact.

The need for founders is unusually pressing right now. Many of the problems we recommend prioritising currently have a funding overhang — i.e. there are large donors (such as the Open Philanthropy Project) that would like to donate more, but they aren’t — in part due to lack of projects that can absorb funding.

There are also some ideas for new projects where the key thing holding back progress is people able to run them, especially on a large scale.

Someone with the right profile could plausibly be given several hundred thousand dollars fairly quickly to test out their idea, with the potential to scale that to tens of millions of dollars per year within 5–10 years if it’s promising after testing. There is even some interest in founding ‘megaprojects’ that could effectively deploy $100 million per year.

What does it take to succeed?

Despite the funding overhang, founding a successful social impact organisation is not easy. Here are some traits that seem important.

A good enough idea

You’ll need to design an organisation that eventually has a higher return on donor dollars than the current ‘bar’ for funding. Some relevant bars include:

  • Within neartermist work, new organisations must have the potential to be significantly more cost effective than GiveWell’s top charities (excluding GiveDirectly), such as the Against Malaria Foundation. This requires being on track to be about 15 times more cost effective than cash transfer to the world’s poorest people, and ideally the potential to reach significant scale (e.g. $10 million per year budget or higher).
  • Within ‘meta’ charities, new organisations must be able to add more than one unit of resources to other top opportunities in the ecosystem per unit of resources used (e.g. a fundraising charity might aim to produce over $1 in donations to the EA Infrastructure Fund or equivalent per $1 of resources spent).
  • It’s hardest to say where the bar is within longtermist charities, though generally you should aim to build something that’s similarly compelling to donors as those currently funded by the Long-Term Future Fund — either by being significantly more cost effective or scalable.
  • Another relevant bar is the return donors would get if they invested their money, allowing them to donate even more in the future (when more opportunities might be available).

It’s harder to meet these bars than it first seems, because estimates of cost effectiveness need to be adjusted for:

  • Overoptimism — estimates typically regress to the mean when done more carefully. Pilot programmes are also typically significantly more cost effective than the scaled-up version of a programme.
  • Counterfactuals — if a fundraising charity appears to raise $100, typically some of that money would have been donated anyway, and that needs to be removed from the estimate.
  • The opportunity cost of labour invested in the project — if you hire people who could have had impact otherwise, like by earning to give, then their effective ‘cost’ to the community could be much higher than their salaries.
  • Indirect ways the project could have a negative impact or affect the community.
  • Time discounting of benefits that take a long time to pay off.

While it’s often well worth trying to test out an organisation to see if it can pass the bar, we should expect many projects will end up not crossing it.

An idea that really motivates you

Successful founders are typically obsessed with their idea, and find it hard to imagine working on anything else. This level of motivation is often necessary to see an idea through, and stick with it for the 5–10 years required to get something off the ground.

That said, great startup ideas often emerge out of fun projects that weren’t expected to turn into organisations, but become obsessions over time. If you tend to have serious side projects, that’s a good sign for your fit.

Leadership potential

Running a social impact organisation requires significant skill, and in particular, some degree of leadership potential — i.e. to be able develop a vision and inspire people to back it.

Many founders who seem formidable today did not seem impressive when they first started. So you shouldn’t give up if you don’t feel like a CEO today. But you can look for small-scale signs of potential, such as whether you can convince one or two people to support the idea, and whether you often have lots of ideas for ways to make things better.

Generalist skills

Founders also tend to be generalists — running a startup requires juggling more duties than one can really learn how to do ‘the right way.’ It crucially relies on the ability and willingness to handle many things ‘just well enough’ (usually with very little training or guidance), and focus one’s energy on the few things that are worth doing ‘reasonably well.’

Enough knowledge of the area

We encourage people to work on issues like biosecurity and AI safety, which require specialist knowledge and connections. You can often gain these within around a year if you make meeting people in the area your top priority, though it’s useful to have more experience than that.

In the for-profit world, industry experience and age are both correlated with probability of success, and we expect the same applies here.

The ability to convince funders

There aren’t many grantmakers involved in effective altruism. We think there’s also a grantmaker bottleneck — i.e. current grantmakers are not able to thoroughly consider every potential project, especially those that are small or in lower-priority areas.

There are pathways by which new organisations can be funded — we list some below — but these may not be sufficient to cover every organisation that’s above the bar for funding. You’ll also be at the mercy of a relatively small number of decision-makers.

You’ll have an easier time raising funds if you build up some profile and trust within the effective altruism community, or with some other significant group of donors, before you aim to raise a lot of money.

You can also test how interested funders are by speaking to a couple of them early on.

The existence of the funding overhang means that fundraising will be easier but it won’t necessarily be easy. You’ll still likely need to speak to tens of donors and face many rejections.

All this said, if you are able to convince funders in effective altruism, then they will typically be willing to give you more money if you’re able to have more impact. This is pretty different from much of the rest of the nonprofit sector, where donors tend to give more based on passion, and won’t necessarily scale up funding in proportion to your results.

Good judgement

Nonprofit ideas lack good feedback mechanisms (such as revenue), which means that the leader’s judgement about what the biggest priorities are is much more important. It’s easy to focus on the wrong thing and lose most of what matters.

The willingness to work on something that might not work out

Not everyone has the flexibility to try a project for a while that is likely to not go anywhere. You can try to reduce the risks by testing it as a side project first.

That said, it’s also easy to overstate the downsides of starting a new project. You can likely return to regular employment without much inconvenience (especially if you plan a specific backup plan and/or have some savings), and you’ll likely gain good career capital that will serve you in your next role.

Examples of people pursuing this path

Next steps if you already have an idea

If you already have an idea you feel really motivated by, we’d encourage you to pursue it.

Even if it doesn’t work out, you’ll probably learn a lot about entrepreneurship and the problem area in question. Most people in effective altruism respect someone who’s tried to do something ambitious and difficult, even if it didn’t work out. You’ll probably end up with at least similarly good career capital to what you would have otherwise.

The next steps typically involve further testing out your idea. This could mean trying to pursue it on the side while you stay in your current job, or if you have the flexibility, you could aim to work on it exclusively for a number of months.

By just getting started, you’ll more quickly learn whether people and funders are interested, how quickly you can make progress, and how you should refine your strategy.

Pick one very small and simple version of your idea as the test. A common mistake among founders is to try to do way too much at once. Most great startups have an idea that can be simply explained even at scale, and when you’re just getting started, it’s even more important to start small. One reason is that people underestimate how hard it is just to do one thing well — but doing something well on a small scale is the best way to build trust with funders, and unlock more resources to expand your idea to the next stage.

It’s hard to give much more general purpose advice, so if the idea is for a project within one of our priority problem areas or problem areas that seem promising, then we’d be interested to speak to you.

If you’re further along, you could:

Note that there are bigger funding overhangs within AI safety, biosecurity, and the more long-term focused meta charities. There is not obviously a funding overhang within global health, though if you have an idea for a charity that could be as or more cost effective than GiveWell’s top charities, there are pathways to being scaled up.

There are also many other organisations that can help you outside of the effective altruism ecosystem. For example:

In the first couple of years, you’re probably doing reasonably well if your organisation is in a reasonable financial position, hasn’t had any clear disasters, and has done pretty well at attracting talent. Beyond that, how long to stick with your project is a difficult judgement call.

Next steps if you don’t have an idea yet

Normally we’d recommend working within problem areas you might want to found something within. You could seek almost any relevant job — including working at a nonprofit, working in policy if you want to start a think tank, working in academia if you want to start a research institute, working at a tech startup, and so on. If you’re already more senior, you could start by advising organisations in the area in which you want to found the nonprofit.

Working within the problem area will help you gain the relevant knowledge and connections, and give yourself the chance of stumbling across gaps you might help fill — especially if you explore ideas on the side at the same time.

There’s a difficult question about how ‘directed’ to be about finding an idea. In the for-profit world, people often say that the best ideas are stumbled across rather than the result of a systematic search. There’s also a lot of scepticism about whether someone can be ‘handed’ an idea from someone else — the thought is that if you don’t come up with the idea yourself, you’re unlikely to be obsessed with it enough to make it work. This, however, seems to be somewhat less true of the nonprofit world. We think it can be worth entertaining other people’s ideas, and seeing if they catch your motivation. If you have the flexibility, you could consider taking 3–12 months off work to learn about and test ideas.

While looking for an idea to pursue in the longer term, it’s ideal to work in a generalist role where you can practise different skills needed in running an organisation (e.g. recruiting, strategy, management, finances) — positions at small but rapidly growing organisations are often good. This could either be a nonprofit (which is good because it helps you learn about founding nonprofits), or a for-profit (which is good because they’re often closer to applying best practices and you can learn faster with better feedback).

You could also seek a position that lets you explore project ideas on the side — many startups began in graduate school for this reason.

Might founding a for-profit company be good training? You’ll probably learn a lot, though this often involves being locked in for 5–10 years, so isn’t generally the most efficient route to founding a project with direct impact (though could give you money and other good career capital).

Lists of ideas

Lists of ideas exist for our recommended problems but they’re mostly not yet public. Some public lists that do exist:

Want one-on-one advice on pursuing this path?

If you think this path might be a great option for you, but you haven’t found the right idea for a new organisation to found, our team might be able to advise you about ideas that aren’t public yet. We can also help you consider your broader career options, make connections with others working in the same field, and possibly even find jobs or funding opportunities.

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Read next: Learn about other high-impact careers

Want to consider more paths? See our list of the highest-impact career paths according to our research.

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