…there’s this popular observation that once you become a philanthropist, you never again tell a bad joke… everyone wants to be on your good side. And I think that can be a very toxic environment…

Holden Karnofsky

The Green Revolution averted mass famine during the 20th century. The contraceptive pill gave women unprecedented freedom in planning their own lives. Both are widely recognised as scientific breakthroughs that transformed the world. But few know that those breakthroughs only happened when they did because of two donors willing to take risky bets on new ideas.

Today’s guest, Holden Karnofsky, has been looking for philanthropy’s biggest success stories because he’s Executive Director of Open Philanthropy, which gives away over $100 million per year – and he’s hungry for big wins.

As he learned, in the 1940s, poverty reduction overseas was not a big priority for many. But the Rockefeller Foundation decided to fund agricultural scientists to breed much better crops for the developing world – thereby massively increasing their food production.

Similarly in the 1950s, society was a long way from demanding effective birth control. Activist Margaret Sanger had the idea for the pill, and endocrinologist Gregory Pincus the research team – but they couldn’t proceed without a $40,000 research check from biologist and women’s rights activist Katherine McCormick.

In both cases, it was philanthropists rather than governments that led the way.

The reason, according to Holden, is that while governments have enormous resources, they’re constrained by only being able to fund reasonably sure bets. Philanthropists can transform the world by filling the gaps government leaves – but to seize that opportunity they have to hire the best researchers, think long-term and be willing to fail most of the time.

Holden knows more about this type of giving than almost anyone. As founder of GiveWell and then Open Philanthropy, he has been working feverishly since 2007 to find outstanding giving opportunities. This practical experience has made him one of the most influential figures in the development of the school of thought that has come to be known as effective altruism.

We’ve recorded this episode now because Open Philanthropy is hiring for a large number of positions, which we think would allow the right person to have a very large positive influence on the world. They’re looking for a large number of entry lever researchers to train up, 3 specialist researchers into potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence, as well as a Director of Operations, Operations Associate and General Counsel.

But the conversation goes well beyond specifics about these jobs. We also discuss:

  • How did they pick the problems they focus on, and how will they change over time?
  • What would Holden do differently if he were starting Open Phil again today?
  • What can we learn from the history of philanthropy?
  • What makes a good Program Officer.
  • The importance of not letting hype get ahead of the science in an emerging field.
  • The importance of honest feedback for philanthropists, and the difficulty getting it.
  • How do they decide what’s above the bar to fund, and when it’s better to hold onto the money?
  • How philanthropic funding can most influence politics.
  • What Holden would say to a new billionaire who wanted to give away most of their wealth.
  • Why Open Phil is building a research field around the safe development of artificial intelligence
  • Why they invested in OpenAI.
  • Academia’s faulty approach to answering practical questions.
  • What kind of people do and don’t thrive in Open Phil’s culture.
  • What potential utopias do people most want, according to opinion polls?

Keiran Harris helped produce today’s episode.


And so there’s this kind of saying, this kind of joke that once you become a philanthropist, you never again tell a bad joke. Because everyone’s gonna laugh at your jokes whether they’re funny or not. Because everyone wants to be on your good side. And I think that can be a very toxic environment. I mean I personally am a person who really prizes openness, honesty, direct feedback. I really value it. I really value people who criticize me. But a lot of people that I interact with don’t initially know that about me, or maybe just never believe it about me.

And so if someone is worried to criticize me, I may unintentionally just be doing the wrong thing, and never learn about it. And so I think one of the worst qualities a Program Officer can have is being someone who people won’t tell the truth to.

Something you can do is you can just fund people to develop ideas, new policy ideas, that may be kind of a new way of thinking about an issue. That is different from, for example, funding elections.

You can also fund grassroots advocacies. You can fund people who are organizing around a common population or a common topic, like formerly incarcerated persons. And you can just support these people to organize and to work on issues they’re passionate about and see where that goes. You can also fund sort of think tanks that try to kind of broker agreements or try to take the new ideas that are out there and try to make them more practical.

So I think there’s a whole bunch of different things philanthropists can do, and a lot of the time, the longer term and higher risk, in some ways, the bigger impact you can have.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of interest today in people spelling out what a really good future would look like, what a really good future would look like in the long run. And, I think it’s just interesting. I don’t know if it’s always been this way, but it seems like not a very lively topic, these days, and it just makes me curious. …

And so, I tried to write different Utopias that would appeal to different political orientations. I had this theory it might break down that way. So, I wrote one that was trying to sound very libertarian, and it was like, all of our freedom, anyone can buy anything, sell anything, do anything. And then, I wrote another about how this very wise and just government tries to take care of everyone, I’m gonna ask people to rate that. And then, I had some things that were supposed to appeal to conservatives, as well. And then, it just turned out that the freedom ones just did the best, and the government one just did the worst, even with this very left-leaning population.

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About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

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