In a nutshell: There are many philanthropists interested in donating millions or even billions of dollars to tackle pressing world problems — but there currently aren’t enough grantmakers able to vet funding proposals. Because a randomly chosen proposal has little expected impact, grantmakers can have a large impact by helping philanthropists distinguish promising projects from less promising ones.
If you are well suited to this career, it may be the best way for you to have a social impact.
Effective organisations are not easy for donors to find.
Open Philanthropy takes an effective altruism approach to advising philanthropists on where to give. It likely has over $10 billion of committed funds from Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna, and also advises other philanthropists. There are other ‘angel donors’ in the effective altruism community who could give around $1–10 million per year, but aren’t at their maximum level of giving because they haven’t been able to find and vet additional great donation opportunities. We also know a number of other billionaires are excited about effective altruism, and potentially interested in starting new foundations.
One reason these donors don’t give more is a lack of concrete ‘shovel-ready’ opportunities. This is partly due to a lack of qualified leaders able to run projects in the top problem areas (especially to found nonprofits working on research, policy, and community building). But another reason is a lack of grantmakers able to vet these opportunities or generate new projects themselves. A randomly chosen new project in this area likely has little expected impact — there’s some chance it helps and some chance it makes the situation worse — so it’s vital to have grantmakers to distinguish the good projects from the bad.
What does this path involve?
The skill of grantmaking involves surveying the opportunities available in an area and coming to reasonable judgements about their likelihood of success — and probable impact if they do succeed.
Grantmakers also need to:
Build a good network — both so they can identify opportunities early, and identify groups with good judgement and the right intentions.
Get into a position where they’re trusted by the major funders (which requires having some kind of relevant track record).
Have detailed knowledge of the area where they’re making grants.
Because grantmakers need detailed knowledge of the area they’re working in, becoming a grantmaker often involves first becoming an excellent generalist in a specific field. For example, if you wanted to end up making grants in AI safety, you could work in technical AI safety, work your way to management at an AI lab, and then perhaps move into grantmaking if that seems like the highest-impact way to go. This isn’t always necessary, but it’s often the best way to get the breadth and depth of knowledge that you need.
All of this makes it incredibly difficult to become a grantmaker, especially early in your career. Open Philanthropy’s last hiring round for research analysts had hundreds of applicants — only 12 of whom got in-person trials, and five of these received job offers.
However, if you are able to get into one of these positions, then you can have a huge impact. A small-scale grantmaker might advise on where several million dollars of donations are given each year. Meanwhile, a grantmaker at a large foundation — typically called a “programme officer” or “programme director” — might oversee $5–40 million in grants per year.
In some situations, effective grantmakers may get good projects started sooner than they otherwise would be. This may increase the total amount of giving by creating capacity before potential donors lose interest.
What’s more, by having more talented grantmakers, the money can be donated more effectively. If you can improve the effectiveness of $10 million per year to a top problem area by 10%, that’s equivalent to donating about $1 million yourself. This is often achievable: grantmakers have significant influence over where the funds go, and there’s a lot of potential in this role:
The very best grantmakers don’t just evaluate ideas — their broad and deep knowledge of the area they’re making grants in means that they are also excellent at coming up with new ideas.
They then are able to use their networks to find the people with the skills to make those ideas happen — and are in a position to allocate the funding needed to do that.
Overall, we think top grantmakers working in effective altruism can create value equal to millions or even tens of millions of dollars per year in donations to top problem areas, making it one of the highest-impact positions right now.
These positions also offer good career capital, because you’ll make lots of important connections within the top problem areas. This creates opportunities to exit into direct work, government, or policy. You could also switch into operations or management, and have an impact by enabling other grantmakers to be more effective.
Closely related paths
One related path is to work as a grantmaker in a foundation that doesn’t explicitly identify with effective altruism, in order to help bring in an effective altruism perspective. The advantage of this path is that it might be easier to add value. However, the downside is that most foundations are not willing to change their focus areas, and we think choice of focus area is the most important decision. Existing foundations also often require significant experience in the area, and sometimes it’s not possible to work from junior positions up to programme officer.
Another related path is philanthropic advising. One advantage of this path is that you can pursue it part-time to build a track record. This also means you could combine it with earning to give and donating your own money, or with advocacy positions that might let you meet potential philanthropists. We’ve seen several people give informal advice to philanthropists, or be given regranting funds to donate on their behalf.
A third related path is to work at a government agency that funds relevant research, such as IARPA, DARPA, or NIH. Grantmakers in these agencies often oversee larger pools of funding than those at foundations, but they also face more restrictions on where it can go. They also often require a PhD.
Finally, since grantmaking often comes after working in a field for several years, continuing to shape your field through research, management, entrepreneurship, and mentorship are all viable related ways to use your skills.
Examples of people pursuing this path
How to assess your fit
This position requires a well-rounded skillset. You need to be analytical, but also able to meet and build relationships with lots of people in your problem area of focus.
You’ll also need excellent generalist knowledge in the field in which you want to make grants. This list from Ollie Base (lightly edited for clarity) captures the most important elements:
A “bird’s eye view” of a field — Which projects already exist? What is the track record of work in the space? Who’s working on what?
A theory of change — What needs to happen in your field to solve an important problem? Why hasn’t that happened already? What’s the best path to the solution?
A strong network — You often need to be able to talk to someone already working in the field to understand whether a new project might work. Who do you know who could pick up the phone to explain something to you?
Technical know-how — Can you quickly understand and vet proposals for projects in your field? Can you spot errors?
You will also need to have a track record with the following (or at least be interested in learning these skills):
Judging people accurately (e.g. for hiring).
Making quick judgement calls in the face of large uncertainty, including when they can have major consequences for specific people.
Communicating clearly, including in situations that can be adversarial or ‘transactional.’
Anticipating and managing conflicts.
To assess your potential fit for this position, ask yourself:
Are you generally very proactive?
Do you sometimes have ideas for grants that others haven’t thought of, or only came to support later?
Do you think you could persuade a major funder of a new donation opportunity?
Can you clearly explain the reasons you hold particular views, and their biggest weaknesses?
Could you develop expertise and strong relationships with the most important actors in a top problem area?
Could you go to graduate school in a relevant area at a top 20 school? (This isn’t needed, but is an indication of analytical ability.)
Another useful exercise is to look at grant writeups and payout reports (like those written by the Effective Altruism Infrastructure Fund and the Long-Term Future Fund), and ask yourself how you’d feel about evaluating some of the grants that were made. Try to come up with specific questions you’d ask the grantees if you were to evaluate them for a followup grant, or if you wanted to evaluate the impact of the grant.
How to enter this field
A common entry route is to first pursue work in the problem area where you want to make grants — perhaps in nonprofits, policy, or research — in order to build up expertise and connections in the area. For instance, Open Philanthropy hired Lewis Bollard to work on factory farming grants after he was Policy Advisor & International Liaison to the CEO at The Humane Society of the United States, one of the leading organisations in the area.
Another more difficult entry route is to take a junior position (such as a research analyst) at one of these foundations, then work your way up to being a grantmaker. There aren’t many of these roles, and foundations often have a very high bar for who they hire.
We think a top place to work if you’re taking this path is Open Philanthropy (disclaimer: we’ve received grants from them).
Founders Pledge also has a philanthropic advising team, though it has less of a track record and is less focused on longtermist problem areas.
You could also consider research positions at other effective altruism organisations (e.g. the Future of Humanity Institute) — wherever will let you build a track record of this kind of research.
A third option is to build up a track record of grantmaking. You could start by writing up your thoughts about where to give your own money on the Effective Altruism Forum. From there, you might be able to start providing part-time philanthropic advice, and then work up to joining a foundation or having a regranting pool (funds given to you by another donor to allocate). However, we expect that it will be very difficult to end up as a grantmaker through this sort of experience alone — if you follow this route, you should also try to build up extensive knowledge of and experience in your focus area.
Working as support or research staff for an effective grantmaker is also high impact, so that’s a good backup option if you pursue the routes above but don’t end up getting a grantmaker position.
The Center on Long-term Risk addresses worst-case risks from the development and deployment of advanced AI systems. It is currently focused on conflict scenarios as well as technical and philosophical aspects of cooperation. Their work includes conducting interdisciplinary research, making and recommending grants, and building a community of professionals and other researchers around these priorities. See current vacancies.
Effective Altruism Funds is a platform where you can donate to expert-led philanthropic ‘funds’ to maximise the effectiveness of your charitable donations.
Generation Pledge is a community of inheritors who have committed to donate at least 10% of their inheritance to effective causes within five years of inheriting.
Giving What We Can is a community of effective givers. It provides the support, community, and information that donors need to do the most good with their charitable giving. See current vacancies.
Longview Philanthropy designs and executes custom giving strategies for major donors, with a focus on using evidence and reason to find the highest-impact opportunities to protect future generations.
Open Philanthropy uses an approach inspired by effective altruism to identify high-impact giving opportunities across a wide range of problem areas, shares this research freely online, and uses it to advise top philanthropists on where to give. See current vacancies. Disclaimer of conflict of interest: we have received a grant from Open Philanthropy.
Rethink Priorities is a research organisation that conducts critical research to inform policymakers and major foundations about how to best help people and nonhuman animals in both the present and the long-term future — spanning everything from animal welfare to the threat of nuclear war. See current vacancies.
Because this is one of our priority paths, if you think this path might be a great option for you, we’d be especially excited to advise you on next steps, one-on-one. We can help you consider your options, make connections with others working in the same field, and possibly even help you find jobs or funding opportunities.