Why you should focus more on talent gaps, not funding gaps


Many members of the effective altruism community see making a difference primarily in terms of moving money to fill funding gaps rather than moving talent to fill talent gaps. This seems to me to be one of the community’s more serious mistakes, which causes us to:

  • Put too much weight on earning to give and fundraising.
  • Put too little weight on gaining expertise and developing the skills needed for direct work.
  • Overlook pressing causes that aren’t funding constrained.

In the rest of the post, I’ll:

  1. Outline what I mean by talent gaps.
  2. Suggest why the community might be biased towards focusing on funding gaps.
  3. Argue there are whole cause areas we’ve completely overlooked due to this focus.
  4. Argue that many of the causes the community does support are also more talent constrained than funding constrained.
  5. Argue that the importance of talent constraints compared to funding constraints is likely to increase over the next 2-5 years.
  6. Argue further that this imbalance is likely to persist in the long-term.
  7. Consider some of the arguments against focusing on talent gaps.
  8. Give ideas for what the community should do differently in order to focus more on talent gaps. In particular, I’ll outline who should earn to give and who shouldn’t, and list the greatest talent needs within the community.

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Interview: Holden Karnofsky on cause selection

Holden Karnofsky

In August 2014, we interviewed Holden Karnofsky, the co-founder of GiveWell, to discuss how the results of the Open Philanthropy Project (formerly GiveWell Labs) might extend to career choice. In particular, we regard the Open Philanthropy Project as the best available single source of information about which causes are most high priority (for more, see our cause page, and we want to explore how much the results transfer from philanthropists to people picking careers. See our previous interview with Holden.

The interview was carried out in person in GiveWell’s offices and recorded. Below, we list some of the key points and excerpts from the interview edited for clarity, which were reviewed by Holden before publishing.

Key points made by Holden

  • If a cause is on the Open Philanthropy Project’s list, that’s an extra reason to seek a job in that area.
  • However, if a cause isn’t on the list, it may still be promising, especially if you have good personal fit with the area. Personal fit may often overwhelm considerations about the general effectiveness of a cause.
  • There can be other differences between the causes that are most promising for philanthropists and those that are most promising for job seekers. For instance, since OPP’s causes are often constrained by a lack of money, it may be difficult to get a job within them.
  • Some ideas for causes OPP isn’t investigating, but at first glance still look promising for job seekers include: environment and climate change, scientific research, for-profit work (especially in innovative areas), and foreign relations.
  • OPP aren’t highly likely to drastically change their list of causes (especially within global catastrophic risks and political advocacy) for at least two to three years.
  • If you want to make a difference in the for-profit world, avoid activities that make money through (i) zero-sum games (ii) addiction (iii) a marketing-first approach. If you’ve cleared those filters, then ask (i) is this scalable? (ii) does it make people’s lives better in a significant way? (iii) are you good at this activity?

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