In 2010, a group of founders with experience in business, practical medicine, and biotechnology launched a new project: Moderna, Inc.
After witnessing recent groundbreaking research into RNA, they realised there was an opportunity to use this technology to rapidly create new vaccines for a wide range of diseases. But few existing companies were focused on that application.
They decided to found a company. And 10 years later, they were perfectly situated to develop a highly effective vaccine against COVID-19 — in a matter of weeks. This vaccine played a huge role in curbing the pandemic and has likely saved millions of lives.
This illustrates that if you can find an important gap in a pressing problem area and found an organisation that fills this gap, that can be one of the highest-impact things you can do — especially if that organisation can persist and keep growing without you.
In a nutshell: Founding a new organisation to tackle a pressing global problem can be extremely high impact. Doing so involves identifying a gap in a pressing problem area, formulating a solution, investigating it, and then helping to build an organisation by investing in strategy, hiring, management, culture, and so on — ideally building something that can continue without you.
If you are well suited to this career, it may be the best way for you to have a social impact.
If you can find an important gap in what’s needed to tackle a pressing problem, and create an organisation to fill that gap, that’s a highly promising route to having a huge impact.
But here are some more reasons it seems like an especially attractive path to us, provided you have a compelling idea and the right personal fit — which we cover in the next section.
First, among the problems we think are most pressing, there are many ideas for new organisations that seem impactful. But it seems like there’s comparatively few people able to execute on them.
This is probably because founder skills are rare, which means that if you do have these skills, using them is a very impactful thing to do.
Moreover, the donors to the problems we’re most focused on would often like to donate more money each year if only there were more projects that met their bar for effectiveness.
Again, this means if you can create an organisation that’s sufficiently effective, it’s possible to raise millions of dollars relatively quickly — and we’ve seen this happen.
Second, building an organisation is a route to leverage. By creating a scalable system and team for delivering an impactful programme, through economies of scale, you can achieve much more than you could individually. Moreover, if the organisation can continue to exist without you working there, then that impact can persist into the future.
More broadly, founding new organisations is an example of a high-upside, low-probability way to have an impact, and these are often especially promising due to the reasons we outline in our article on why to be more ambitious.
Even a moderate chance of success with potentially high-impact ventures could rank as one of the most influential paths you might take. (We also argue, though, that you should be careful to limit the downsides).
Finally, founding a project can also — depending on your personality — be among the best options for building your career capital, since it’s impressive (even if you fail), and you’ll need to learn a huge amount. (Though many people learn more in a more structured environment where they can get close mentorship, rather than ‘learning by doing’ or the ‘sink or swim’ approach you get in entrepreneurship.)
You might have noticed that many of the reasons that make founding an impactful organisation impactful also make it hard. So we don’t suggest entering this path lightly.
In the next section, we talk about what’s required.
What does it take to succeed?
Founding a successful social impact organisation is not easy.
We often speak to people who first decide they want to be entrepreneurs and then look around for an idea to execute on. This often results in finding an idea that sounds reasonable but is not actually amazing. It’s also likely not a route to staying motivated for the 5–10 years you probably need to get something off the ground.
Here are some of the things you need to succeed.
A good enough idea
This sounds obvious, but spotting an idea that’s actually good is not easy.
Once you’ve identified a pressing problem area, it’s hard to identify what’s most needed to solve those problems and which remaining gaps are most pressing.
It’s then even harder to figure out how to build an organisation around filling those gaps that can actually raise funding, attract a good enough team, and scale up.
Moreover, while the world of doing good is not especially efficient (especially compared to the world of making money), it is efficient enough that the most obvious ideas are often taken.
Finding a great idea that isn’t yet taken, therefore, usually requires some kind of ‘edge’ compared to other people interested in doing good, such as discovering something new or being much more motivated by the idea than others. And finding something like this often requires significant expertise within a pressing problem or being lucky to stumble over an idea others have neglected.
This is one reason why great startup ideas often emerge out of fun projects that weren’t expected to turn into organisations.
You need to be able to convince donors
On a more practical level, you’ll need to convince funders that your idea is worth their resources (whether you’re raising donations as a nonprofit or investment as a for-profit).
Donors who want to maximise their impact should only be willing to fund projects above a certain ‘bar’ for cost effectiveness based on their estimate of how effectively they’ll be able to deploy funds in the long term.
So, your project will only get off the ground if you can convince donors that it has a reasonable shot of being more cost-effective than this bar (read more). Different funders have different bars, and the bars often aren’t explicit.
Generally, here are some of the features funders we most often work with are looking for in ideas and projects they want to support:
Problem area: Does it address one of the most pressing problems?
Solution: Are you focusing on an intervention that has at least some chance of making a big difference to the problem? Have you found a compelling gap in the field? (See hits-based giving.) Or is it evidence-backed, cost-effective, and scalable?
Do you have a great team?
Does it seem like you have the skills to build a well-functioning and scalable organisation?
Many nonprofit donors aren’t as systematic as this and give more based on which projects they find exciting. Raising money from these kinds of donors can help you get off the ground, but they’re often a less reliable source of funding.
One advantage of funders who have a clear bar is that, provided you clear the bar, they’ll be open to giving you more and more funding as you scale up (until you hit diminishing returns).
It may be harder to impress funders than you think, because of:
Overoptimism — estimates of cost-effectiveness 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 — e.g. 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 a positive impact otherwise, such as by earning to give, then their effective ‘cost’ could be much higher than their salaries.
Time discounting reduces the benefits of a project that takes a long time to pay off.
While it’s often well worth testing out many ideas to see if they can succeed, it’s not an easy thing to do, and we should expect most projects to not work out.
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 despite facing challenges like key team members leaving, missing a fundraising target, or having major projects fail — all of which happen in the lifetime of most startups.
This is another reason why sitting down and trying to think of startup ideas in the abstract often doesn’t work. Developing the level of obsession required often requires working in the area for years until the gap really starts to bother you.
In the case of 80,000 Hours, I was motivated in part to solve a problem I actually had: I had all these questions about how to have an impact with my career, but the existing resources didn’t answer them or had answers that seemed wrong. I couldn’t let people be wrong on the internet, and this compelled me to get started.
That said, we have seen people who are really motivated by a particular issue (like factory farming), or even doing good and effective altruism in general, and this has provided enough motivation to found an organisation, even without being intensely motivated by the particular programme they’re implementing. And in the nonprofit space, taking a ‘top down’ approach to finding an idea can sometimes work.
Having a founding team you love working with is also a huge factor here.
Running a social impact organisation requires significant skill, and in particular, some degree of leadership potential — i.e. the ability to 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 eliminate this path if you don’t feel like a CEO right now. 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.
Founders 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 to projects aiming to do good.1
Nonprofit ideas often 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. (Learn more about how to develop your judgement.)
The ability, willingness, and resilience 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. (It’s also important to have a backup plan, which we discuss in our career planning course.)
That said, it’s also easy to overstate the downsides of starting a new project. You might well find it wouldn’t be hard to return to regular employment (especially if you have 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.
If you already have an idea you feel really motivated by, we’d encourage you to pursue testing it further.
Even if it doesn’t work out, you’ll probably learn a lot about entrepreneurship and the problem area in question. Most people in our community (and many people in general) 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, since getting started is often the quickest way to learn about whether funders and potential hires are interested, how quickly you can make progress, and what the main strategic uncertainties are. 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 few months.
Pick one very small and simple version of your idea as the test. An extremely 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.
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.
Besides starting small, try to design a test that can resolve one of your key uncertainties about the project. Ask yourself, “What’s the minimum amount of validation I need to justify the next level of funding?” Then do that. If it works out, go to the next level of scale.
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 recommend working within the problem areas that you might want to found something within.
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).
If you’re not able to find an impactful organisation that’s high-performing, you could consider working at a tech startup instead in an organisation-building role (or any other kind of organisation-building role).
Alternatively, you could work at a highly-relevant organisation that’s less well-performing (though this is risky), or find a different kind of role that lets you learn about the area. This could even involve working in applied research or policymaking, since this can be a route to understanding a complex global issue and spot gaps related to it.
Working within the problem area will help you gain relevant knowledge and connections while giving you a chance to stumble across gaps you might help fill. This is more likely if you’re excited to explore ideas on the side at the same time.
Another option is to find a position that lets you or encourages you to explore project ideas on the side — many startups began in graduate school for this reason. Alternatively you could find a 9–5 style job at a company with lots of potential cofounders.
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 deliberate 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 in 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 from your normal work to learn about and test ideas.
Might founding a for-profit company just aimed at growth rather than impact be good training for later starting another high-impact organisation? You’ll probably learn a lot, but this often involves being locked in for 5–10 years. So it isn’t generally the most efficient route to founding a project with direct impact (though it could give you money and other good career capital).
Lists of ideas
If you’re interested in hearing the most promising current ideas, we’d encourage you to apply for our one-on-one advice, and we can introduce you to people trying out new projects.
To give you a flavour of what exists, here are some of the best public lists we’re aware of:
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 tell you about ideas that aren’t public yet and introduce you to others pursuing this path.
Our primary finding is that successful entrepreneurs are middle-aged, not young. We find no evidence to suggest that founders in their 20s are especially likely to succeed. Rather, all evidence points to founders being especially successful when starting businesses in middle age or beyond, while young founders appear disadvantaged. Across the 2.7 million founders in the United States between 2007–2014 who started companies that go on to hire at least one employee, the mean age for the entrepreneurs at founding is 41.9. The mean founder age for the 1 in 1,000 highest growth new ventures is 45.0. The most successful entrepreneurs in high-technology sectors are of similar ages. So too are the most successful founders in entrepreneurial regions of the United States. While the prevalence of the highest-growth companies having middle-aged founders is due in part to the prevalence of entry by the middle-aged, we further find that the “batting average” for creating successful firms is rising dramatically with age. Conditional on starting a firm, a 50-year-old founder is 1.8 times more likely to achieve upper-tail growth than a 30-year-old founder. Founders in their early 20s have the lowest likelihood of successful exit or creating a 1 in 1,000 top growth firm.
Azoulay, Pierre, Benjamin F. Jones, J. Daniel Kim, and Javier Miranda. 2020. “Age and High-Growth Entrepreneurship.” American Economic Review: Insights, 2 (1): 65-82.↩
Open Philanthropy is 80,000 Hours’ largest funder.↩