The world’s most intellectual foundation is hiring. Holden Karnofsky, founder of GiveWell, on how philanthropy can have maximum impact by taking big risks.

…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

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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 the Open Philanthropy Project, 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 the Open Philanthropy Project, 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 the Open Philanthropy Project 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.

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Can you have more impact working in a foundation than earning to give?

Photo credit: Flickr – Refracted Moments

Key points

  • Working to improve grants at a foundation could well be more effective in terms of the impact of the money moved than earning to give. Which is better will usually come down to how good your personal opportunities are to make money, or get a job at a large foundation working on an important cause.
  • If you know of a cause area or organisation that is many times more effective than what any foundations you could work at would make grants to, then earning to give is likely to be better.
  • There are other issues, like the impact on your long-term career trajectory, that you have to consider as well as the direct impact of the money you move.

As soon as we thought of the idea of earning to give, we started thinking of ways to beat it. One idea that was floated in the very early days of 80,000 Hours was working in a foundation to allocate grants to more effective causes and organisations. Since a foundations grantmaker might allocate tens of millions of funding, far more than they could earn, maybe they could have a greater impact this way?

In this post, we provide a model for comparing the impact of foundations grantmaking and earning to give, which some people may find useful for specific scenarios where they have more info on the inputs. We also provide some very tentative estimates using the model to demonstrate how it works.

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Foundation influence interview with Kerry Vaughan



Kerry Vaughan was a member of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) – a major strategic foundation with over $1.5B in assets – for 3 years and served as the manager of the technology and innovation group. Kerry is also a PhD candidate in philosophy with a specialization in ethics. We spoke with Kerry as part of some compensated research he was doing for 80,000 Hours about the impact one can have working at a foundation.


  1. The typical annual budget per employee at major foundations is $2 million. Each program officer oversees a budget of about $10 million.
  2. The typical program officer is intelligent and well-educated, and many have graduate degrees.
  3. The board of the foundation typically picks the cause areas and must approve each project. It seems difficult for program officers to influence which causes are supported. However, program officers can influence which projects are funded by selecting which non-profits get presented.

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In which career can you make the most difference?



Previously, we introduced a way to assess career opportunities in terms of their potential for positive impact, but which careers actually do best on these criteria? In this post, we’ll apply an adapted version of this framework to some career paths that seem particularly promising for recent graduates. Using what we’ve learned over the past two years of research and coaching over 100 people, we’ll provide a ranked list of options.


  • If you’re looking to build career capital, consider entrepreneurship, consulting or an economics PhD.
  • If you’re looking to pursue earning to give, consider high-end finance, tech entrepreneurship, law, consulting and medicine. These careers are all high-earning in part due to being highly demanding. Our impression is that software engineering, being an actuary and dentistry are somewhat less demanding but also highly paid.
  • If you’d like to make an impact more directly, consider party politics, founding effective non-profits, working inside international organisations, government or foundations to improve them, and doing valuable academic research.
  • If you’d like to advocate for effective causes, consider party politics, journalism, and working in international organisations, policy-oriented civil service or foundations.
  • Some career paths that look promising overall are: tech entrepreneurship, consulting, party politics, founding effective non-profits and working in international organisations.
  • Some paths we think are promising but are largely neglected by our members and would like to learn more about are: party politics, working in international organisations, being a program manager at a foundation, journalism, policy-oriented civil service and marketing.

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Reasoning about influence in politics

Understanding a politician’s influence at first appears to be hopelessly tangled. A politicians’ influence is very tenuously related to the vote they can cast in parliament, and is mediated by a complicated process involving respect for precedent, social consensus, explicit and implicit negotiation, explicit and implicit appeals to popular opinion, and so on. Fortunately, on closer inspection many of these challenges can be ameliorated.

In the following research notes, we introduce an argument that the naive answer is about right: if there are 100 politicians with one vote each, then each politician has about 1% of the total impact of the politicians.

The result is highly useful in making estimates of the influence you might expect to have by becoming a politician, or indeed in any situation when a group of people negotiate over an outcome e.g a company board setting strategy, or a committee of grant makers allocating funding.

Note that the following are only preliminary research notes that were made while doing a case study, and not the results of in-depth analysis, so we’re cautious about the conclusion. Nevertheless, we’re keen to share the ideas and seek feedback.

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What should you do with a very large amount of money?

A philanthropist who will remain anonymous recently asked Nick Beckstead, a trustee of 80,000 Hours, what he would do with a very large amount of money.

Nick, with support from Carl Shulman (a research advisor to 80,000 Hours), wrote a detailed answer: A long-run perspective on strategic cause selection and philanthropy.

If you’re looking to spend or influence large budgets with the aim of improving the world (or happen to be extremely wealthy!) we recommend taking a look. It also contains brief arguments in favor of five causes.

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Interview with the World Health Organisation

Jeremy Lauer is a researcher at WHO-CHOICE, a project of the World Health Organization to encourage cost-effectiveness via both research and communication with policy-makers Rob Wiblin and I sat down to interview Jeremy and learn about WHO-CHOICE, a potentially promising career path for 80,000 Hours members interested in promoting cost-effectiveness research – one of our high priority causes to investigate.


Jeremy’s main points were:

  • WHO-CHOICE is about giving countries the tools needed to establish priorities in the health sector and make good, high-impact-for-money policy.

  • The landscape of global public health is starting to shift to a time where, more and more, “best buys” and “magic-bullet solutions” such as vaccines are fully funded. This is exciting because it means people are getting important treatments, but it is also daunting because the next generation of interventions will involve more complex technical work and clearer communication with the public.

  • If you have a strong economics background, are quantitatively minded, and also have interests in epidemiology, biostatistics, or computer programming, a career at WHO-CHOICE or a similar organization could be rewarding and impactful.

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Intelligence matters more than you think for career success

When you’re trying to have an impact, it’s useful to know how successful you’ll be in different careers so you can pick the right one. But how can you do this? There are a few predictors of success that have been studied by psychologists, but the results aren’t widely known. The scientific consensus is that the best way to predict someone’s career success is to assess their general mental ability (GMA), which is similar to what most people mean by “intelligence”. You might find this surprising, so I’m going to summarise the evidence backing it up. Then I’ll talk about:

  • Why GMA is so important in work – mainly because people with higher GMA learn faster.
  • Which other factors affect success – job complexity, personality, and experience.
  • What this all means for your career – choose jobs that fit your GMA and find the best ways to increase your chances of success.


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