…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…
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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.