Interview with David, originally posted on our blog:
Tell us about your background
I did my undergraduate work at UCLA in Political Science and Public Policy and then continued with postgraduate study at the University of Cambridge focusing on International Relations. My plan was to get a PhD and then stay in academics and shape International Security policy. However a year in, I realised that the practical impact of my work would be marginal at best, so I finished with a Master’s degree and began to look for opportunities that would actually have a discernible effect on the world. I got involved with Founders Forum For Good — the precursor to what I do now with the Founders Pledge — where I focused on helping social entrepreneurs build and scale businesses. Before all that, I spent a couple years in finance in the US, started and sold a business in Europe, and ran a chain of Segway dealerships in California. All in, a pretty bizarre career trajectory if I’m honest, which was largely the result of having no clear idea of what I wanted to do with my life until recently.
What is the Founders Pledge?
Through the Founders Pledge, entrepreneurs make a commitment to donate at least 2% of their personal proceeds to charity when they sell their business. Keeping this simple idea in mind, I’ve been able to provide tech founders and investors with a tax efficient way to do good in the world without taking time and effort away from the projects and businesses they’re working on. We’re a small team now and will be expanding soon. More on that later.
What led you to set up the Founders Pledge?
I had been working with social entrepreneurs for a while through Founders Forum For Good, giving away grants to help this community start and scale socially positive businesses. Unfortunately, this didn’t produce the level of impact I was hoping for, so I had to shift gears. There is a lot of nuance to starting a business, and having enough funds right at the beginning isn’t the only hurdle — it certainly wasn’t for the community we were supporting. So rather than continuing down this path, I flipped the model around and focused on a sector that makes some of the best businesses: technology. The idea is simple — make it exceedingly easy for tech start-ups/founders to do good in the world with their success.
How did you find out about effective altruism, and how does effective altruism affect your plans?
My first exposure to the ideas of effective altruism was Peter Singer’s TED talk on the subject. His ideas struck a chord with me, but I didn’t dive into EA substantively until 2015 as the Founders Pledge was taking shape. At that time, I was organising an event for tech founders in the UK (Founders Forum) and the EA stuff, and more specifically 80,000 Hours, seemed like a great fit for one of the sessions. I invited Will to participate and we ended up discussing it well into the night while everyone else went off to the after-parties. This discussion, and my involvement with EA since, has been crucial and has helped shape how the Founders Pledge deploys its donations worldwide.
The good thing about the tech sector is that, as the name implies, many people within it are both technical and prefer to do things that maximise their return on investment. One of our selling points with the pledge is that our members have complete control over their respective donations. In some cases, they have a specific organisation they would like to give to. Most often, however, there is a cause area they “like” or they just haven’t thought about it at all and merely want to “do some good at some point.” Starting to sound like a good fit for effective altruism, no? After a founder makes their pledge, they can use our resources at their leisure and either decide where they’d like their money to go, or let us handle it entirely. We want people to donate, and we want to educate them on how to deploy their money most effectively (and do the most amount of good).
Only 5 of our members had heard about effective altruism (or the associated charities) before getting involved with the Founders Pledge. As of today, nearly all of our members have been introduced to effective altruism. This is happened through face-to-face interactions at our dinners and events, reading Doing Good Better (which we give away to many of our new members, and aim to give to all of our new members), or post-exit as we begin to explore high-impact giving opportunities. Of our 5 members who have realised exits to date, 2 are now planning to give to effective altruism charities. Of the $64mm raised to date, I would expect at least 33% to go to EA-aligned charities. Absent their involvement with Founders Pledge, I expect a very small percentage (less than 10%) would have gone to these charities. Beyond that, a number of other HNW and UHNW supporters of ours are now exploring x-risk as a viable cause area to support.
Overall, 80,000 Hours has been instrumental. It will increase my lifetime impact many times over.
What have you achieved so far?
Since March (2015), we’ve received 230 pledges from founders and investors worth $64 million as of today. A few of our members have actually met success already and we’re in the process of donating roughly $1.3 million to charitable causes globally.
How much are you looking to raise in donations, and by when?
Billions. Given how well received the Founders Pledge has been in the tech community, this isn’t actually that far in the future, either. Our current growth shows us hitting our first billion in pledged donations by mid 2017. Naturally, the full extent of a business’ success and when it will happen are hard to nail down, so we primarily focus on supporting our founders along the way. We want them to do good with their money effectively, but we also want that giving to help their business succeed, right from the start.
Who are you looking to hire, and when? What skillsets are you looking for?
We have a couple major hires coming up in early 2016. Official postings aren’t quite ready, but here’s the general idea:
First, our Director of Deployment position is an exciting opportunity to put many aspects of effective altruism to use. Overall, this means that you’ll be in charge of giving away the money we raise. On the front end, you’ll advise our “undecided” founders and develop online resources to help educate them on how to do the most good with their money. On the back end, you’ll be finding, vetting, and interacting with the charities to which the donations will ultimately go. You should be aligned with the EA research methodologies and how to present them to others well. The job will require a nuanced understanding of international tax regulations with regards to charitable giving and nonprofit status.
Second, we’re looking for a Community Coordinator. You’ll be in charge of making sure that we are best supporting our community of pledgers. This is very open ended, but will include running our hosted events and being the members’ point of contact with the Founders Pledge. You’ll have freedom to design programmes around the needs and wants of our members and must be able to recognise when they are effective and when they are failing. We’re here to support our community and their projects, not just give away money. You should have experience planning, booking, and executing events from a dozen people all the way up to a couple hundred. Strong organisational skills are required and you should have interest in and familiarity with modern collaboration tools, resources, and philosophy.
Each position needs an inventive doer. We don’t like the phrase “self-motivated” as much as “selfless-motivated.” Knowing that you’re helping other people keeps you going and you get antsy when you lose track of making an impact with your life.