When most people think of careers that “do good,” the first thing they think of is working at a charity.
The thing is, lots of jobs at charities just aren’t that impactful.
Some charities focus on programmes that don’t work, like Scared Straight, which actually caused kids to commit more crimes. Others focus on ways of helping that, while thoughtful and helpful, don’t have much leverage, like knitting individual sweaters for penguins affected by oil spills (this actually happened!) instead of funding large-scale ocean cleanup projects.
But there are also many organisations out there — both for-profit and nonprofit — focused on pressing problems, implementing effective and scalable solutions, run by great teams, and in need of people.
If you can build a skill set that’s useful for helping an organisation like this, it could well be one of the highest-impact things you can do.
In particular, organisations often need generalists able to do the bread and butter of building an organisation — hiring people, management, administration, communications, running software systems, crafting strategy, fundraising, and so on.
We call these ‘organisation-building’ skills. They can be high-impact because you can increase the scale and effectiveness of the organisation you’re working at, while also gaining skills that can be applied to a wide range of global problems in the future (and make you generally employable too).
In a nutshell: An organisation-building skill set — basically, skills that let you effectively and efficiently build, run, and generally boost an organisation you work for — can be extremely high-impact if you use them to support an organisation working on an effective solution to a pressing problem. There are a wide variety of organisation-building skills, including operations, management, accounting, recruiting, communications, law, and so on. You could choose to become a generalist across several or specialise in just one.
Key facts on fit
In general, signs you’ll be a great fit include: you often find ways to do things better, really dislike errors, see issues that keep happening and think deeply about fixes, manage your time and plan complex projects, pick up new things fast, and really pay attention to details. Each specific organisation-building role will have its own specific requirements.
Why is an organisation-building skill set valuable?
A well-run organisation can take tens, hundreds, or even thousands of people working on solving the world’s most pressing problems and help them work together far more effectively.
An employee with the right skill set can often be a significant boost to an organisation, either by directly helping them deliver an impactful programme or by building the capacity of the organisation so that it can operate at a greater scale in the future. You could, for example, set up organisational infrastructure to enable the hiring of many more people in the future.
What’s more, an organisation-building skill set can be applied at most organisations, which means you’ll have opportunities to help tackle many different global problems in the future. You’ll also be flexibly able to work on many different solutions to any given problem if you find better solutions later in your career.
As an added bonus, the fact that pretty much all organisations need this skill set means you’ll be employable if you decide to earn to give or step back from doing good all together. In fact, organisational management skills seem like some of the most useful and highest-paid in the economy in general.
People management and coaching (Some manager jobs require specialised skills, but some just require general management-associated skills like leadership, interpersonal communication, and conflict resolution.)
Executive leadership (setting and achieving organisation-wide goals, making top-level decisions about budgeting, etc.)
Communications and public relations (which also benefits from a communications skill set)
Assistant and administrative work
Finance and accounting
Corporate & nonprofit law
Many organisations have a significant need for generalists who span several of these areas. If your aim is to take a leadership position, it’s useful to have a shallow knowledge of several.
You can also pick just one skill to specialise in — especially for areas like law and accounting that tend to be their own track.
Generally, larger organisations have a greater need for specialists, while those with under 50 employees hire more generalists.
What’s the day-to-day life like?
How to evaluate your fit
How to predict your fit in advance
There’s no need to focus on the specific job or sector you work in now – it’s possible to enter organisation building from a very wide variety of areas. We’ve even known academic philosophers who have transitioned to organisation-building!
Some common initial indicators of fit might include:
You have an optimisation mindset. You frequently notice how things could be done more efficiently and have a strong internal drive to prevent avoidable errors and make things run more smoothly.
You intuitively engage in systems thinking and enjoy going meta. This is a bit difficult to summarise, but involves things like: you’d notice when people ask you similar questions multiple times and then think about how to prevent the issue from coming up again. For example: “Can you share me on this doc” turns into “What went wrong such that this person didn’t already have access to everything they need; how can we improve naming conventions or sharing conventions in the future?”
You’re reliable, self-directed, able to manage your time well, and you can create efficient and productive plans and keep track of complex projects.
You might also be good at learning quickly and have high attention to detail.
Of course, different types of organisation building will require different skills. For example, being a COO or events manager requires greater social and system building skills, whereas working in finance requires fewer social skills, but does require basic quantitative skills and perhaps more conscientiousness and attention to detail.
All of these — individually or together — seem like good signs of being on track to build a really useful skill set:
You get job offers (as a contractor or staff) at organisations you’d like to work for.
You’re promoted within your first two years.
You receive excellent performance reviews.
You’re asked to take on progressively more responsibility over time.
Your manager / colleagues suggest you might take on more senior roles in the future.
You ask your superiors for their honest assessment of your fit and they are positive (e.g. they tell you you’re in the top 10% of people they can imagine doing your role).
You’re able to multiply a superior’s time by over 2–20X, depending on the role type.
If you’re aiming to build a new organisation, write out a list of ideas for new organisations you’d like to exist and get feedback from grantmakers and experts.
If founding a new organisation, you get seed funding from a major grantmaker, like Open Philanthropy, Longview Philanthropy, EA Funds, or a private donor.
This said, if you don’t hit these milestones, you might still be a good fit for organisation building — the issue might be that you’re at the wrong organisation or have the wrong boss.
How to get started building an organisation-building skill set
You can get started by finding any role that will let you start learning one of the skills listed above. Work in one specialisation will often give you exposure to the others, and it’s often possible to move between them.
If you can do this at a high-performing organisation that’s also having a big impact right away, that’s great. If you’re aware of any organisations like these, it’s worth applying just in case.
But, unfortunately, this is often not possible, especially if you’re fresh out of college, for a number of reasons:
The organisations have limited mentorship capacity, so they most often hire people with a couple of years of experience rather than those fresh out of college (though there are exceptions) and often aren’t in a good position to help you become excellent at these skills.
These organisations usually hire people who already have some expertise in the problem area they’re working on (e.g. AI safety, biosecurity), as these issues involve specialised knowledge.
We chose our recommended problems in large part because they’re unusually neglected. But the fact that they’re neglected also means there aren’t many open positions or training programmes.
As a result, early in your career it can easily be worth pursuing roles at organisations that don’t have much impact in order to build your skills.
The way to do this is to work at any organisation that’s generally high-performing, especially if you can work under someone who’s a good manager and will mentor you – the best way to learn how to run an organisation is to learn from people who are already excellent at this skill.
Then, try to advance as quickly as you can within that organisation or move to higher-responsibility roles in other organisations after 1–3 years of high-performance.
It can also help if the organisation is small but rapidly growing, since that usually makes it much easier to get promoted — and if the organisation succeeds in a big way, that will give you a lot of options in the future.
In a small organisation you can also try out a wider range of roles, helping you figure out which aspects of organisation building are the best fit for you and giving you the broad background that’s useful for leadership roles in the future. Moreover, many of the organisations we think are doing the best work on the most pressing problems are startups, so being used to this kind of environment can be an advantage.
If you pick well, working at a tech startup gives you many of the advantages of working at a small, growing, high-performing organisation mentioned above, while also offering high salaries and an introduction to the technology sector. (This is even better if you can find an organisation that will let you learn about artificial intelligence or synthetic biology.)
We’ve advised many people who have developed organisation-building skills in startups and then switched to non-profit work (or earned to give), while having good backup options.
That said, smaller organisations have downsides such as being more likely to fail and less mentorship capacity. Many are also poorly run. So it’s important to pick carefully.
Another option to consider in this category is working at a leading AI lab, because they can often offer good training, look impressive on your CV, and let you learn about AI. That said, you’ll need to think carefully about whether your work could be accelerating the risks from AI as well.
One of the most common ways to build this skill set is to work in large tech companies, consulting or professional services (or more indirectly, to train as a lawyer or in finance). These are most useful for learning how to apply these skills in very large corporate and government organisations, or to build a speciality like accounting. We think there are often more direct ways to do useful work on the problems we think are most pressing, but these prestigious corporate jobs can still be the best option for some.
However, it’s important to remember you can build an organisation-building skill set in any kind of organisation: from nonprofits to academic research institutes to government agencies to giant corporations. What most matters is that you’re working with people who have this skill, who are able to train you.
Should you found your own organisation early in your career?
For a few people, founding an organisation fairly early in your career could be a fantastic career step. Whether or not the organisation you start succeeds, along the way you could gain strong organisation-building (and other) skills and a lot of career capital.
Have an idea that you’ve seriously thought about, stress tested, and got positive feedback on from relevant experts
Have real energy and excitement for your idea (not for the idea of being an entrepreneur)
Understand that you’re likely to fail, and have good back-up plans in place for that
It can be hard to figure out if your idea is any good, or if you’ll be any good at this, in advance. One rule of thumb is that if, after six months to a year of work, you can be accepted to a top incubator (like Y Combinator), you’re probably on track. But if you can’t get into a top incubator, you should consider trying to build an organisation-building skill set in a different way (or try building a completely different skill set).
Find jobs that use an organisation-building skill set
See our curatedlist of job opportunities for this path, which you can filter by ‘management’ and ‘operations’ to find opportunities in this category (though there will also be jobs outside those filters where you can apply organisation-building skills).
Finally, see if you can get a job at one of these organisations that effectively uses your specific skills. If you can’t, that’s also fine — you can apply your skills elsewhere, for example through earning to give, and be ready to switch into working for a high-impact organisation in the future.
Career paths we’ve reviewed that use this skill set
These are some reviews of career paths we’ve written that use the ‘organisation-building’ skill set:
Whether to focus on nonprofits or for-profits is a difficult question.
Nonprofits lack a good feedback mechanism from success to greater funding, which means they’re normally less scalable.
However, a major advantage of nonprofits is that they can tackle the issues that get most neglected by other actors, such as addressing market failures, carrying out research that doesn’t earn academic prestige, or doing political advocacy on behalf of disempowered groups such as animals or future generations.
Within our recommended problems, we think there’s probably a greater need for more people willing to work at or found top nonprofits. But for-profits can also be very impactful.↩