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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Is wealth inequality so extreme that it’s OK to be a ruthless trader?

U.S._Distribution_of_Wealth,_2007Wealth inequality globally is incredibly high. Perversely, this can be an argument in favour of working in finance.

Many people are concerned that ‘earning to give’ in the financial industry is overall harmful for the world, even if you give away most of your income to outstanding charities.

To figure out if this is true, we have been researching the size of the harms, and benefits, caused by finance. (Though please note 80,000 Hours is not just about earning to give and in fact we think it’s the best path for only a small share of our readers.)

One of the concerns we’ve investigated is that certain parts of quantitative finance are a socially-useless competition between traders that only changes who gets some amount of income, not that someone gets it. I think this is the case, but the incredible amount of inequality in the world makes this argument against working in finance fairly weak.

If you are working in ‘low-latency arbitrage’, make a random clever trade on a stock exchange and beat some other trader to a profit by 1 millisecond, whose pocket is this money coming from? A poor African farmer? No, they have no wealth to take. A middle class American family? It’s possible, but most of their wealth, if they have any, is probably in their house or bank account.

We don’t have perfect figures here, but looking at reasonable estimates,

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80,000 Hours thinks that only a small proportion of people should earn to give long term

Norman Borlaug didn’t make millions, his research just saved millions of lives.

One of the most common misconceptions that we’ve encountered about 80,000 Hours is that we’re exclusively or predominantly focused on earning to give. This blog post is to say definitively that this is not the case. Moreover, the proportion of people for whom we think earning to give is the best option has gone down over time.

To get a sense of this, I surveyed the 80,000 Hours team on the following question: “At this point in time, and on the margin, what portion of altruistically motivated graduates from a good university, who are open to pursuing any career path, should aim to earn to give in the long term?” (Please note that this is just a straw poll used as a way of addressing the misconception stated; it doesn’t represent a definitive answer to this question).

Will: 15%
Ben: 20%
Rob: 10%
Roman: 15%

Instead, we think that most people should be doing things like politics, policy, high-value research, for-profit and non-profit entrepreneurship, and direct work for highly socially valuable organizations.

The misconception persists for a few reasons: when 80,000 Hours first launched, we led with the idea of earning to give very heavily as a marketing strategy; it was true that we used to believe that at least a large proportion of people should aim to earn to give long-term;

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Why I stopped Earning to Give

I have earned to give for 2.5 years as an Analyst and then Associate in the mergers and acquisitions team of an industrial conglomerate in Sweden. I stopped in mid-2014, and I do not plan to earn to give again. Instead, I am now writing a master’s thesis in philosophy, and I aim for a career in that field. In this post, I will describe my primary reasons for not earning to give with a focus on my main thought—that it seems easier to perform in work that one loves. My aim is not to argue against anyone earning to give; I think it is good that there is more awareness these days that earning to give is an option and others may find that it suits them better than it suits me. My purpose is rather to share my experience in case it might be of interest to people considering earning to give. Also, the recommendation from 80,000 Hours is only earn to give if you have good personal fit with the career, which fits my impression.

My three main reasons for not earning to give are:

  1. I seem to perform much better when I work directly on issues that that I think are most important from an altruistic perspective. I feel that it is difficult to be enthusiastic enough about the work in business.
  2. I see few giving opportunities that I would like to support through earning to give.
  3. It is challenging to have different values from one’s colleagues.

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Earning to give is systemic change

One of the most common criticisms of earning to give (e.g. see this article released yesterday), and advocating for charitable donations generally, is that it just makes thing better at the margin, and doesn’t address the “systemic”, “structural” “root cause” issues that really matter.

One response to this we’ve given before is: yes that’s true, but donating is still a good thing to do.

Another response we’ve given before is that if systemic change is the most important cause, donate to organisations working on systemic change. This works so long as you’re not in a job that does a lot to prevent systemic change (e.g. conservative politician, professional strikebreaker) and you don’t think the act of philanthropy itself prevents systemic change (even if donating to systemic change organisations). If you think this all sounds completely implausible, consider the example of Engles who worked as a factory manager in order to fund Marx’s research.

A response we haven’t often given before, however, is just to argue that no, promoting earning to give is a form of important systemic change: imagine how different the world would be if almost everyone regularly donated 10% or more of their income to whichever causes they thought had the biggest impact.

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Show me the harm

Does Earning to Give do more harm than good?

It is often claimed that philanthropists do more harm earning money than good making donations. We saw this idea raised many times during the recent press coverage of Earning to Give. Our response is that although the objection may be true for typical examples of philanthropy, when donors are giving effectively it’s difficult for the expected harm to outweigh the good done by the donations.

In this post, I make some very rough estimates of how harmful finance would have to be in order for it to outweigh the good done by the donations of someone Earning to Give to effective charities.


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Why Earning to Give is often not the best option

A common misconception is that 80,000 Hours thinks Earning to Give is typically the way to have the most impact with your career. We’ve never said that in any of our materials. All we have said, for instance in the paper we published on Earning to Give, is that there is strong reason to think that Earning to Give is better than taking a typical non-profit job.

When it comes to how to make the most difference with your career, we think there’s huge room for debate. Whether it’s best for someone to pursue Earning to Give normally depends on difficult to estimate empirical considerations unique to the situation, like some of those mentioned here, whether your cause is more talent-constrained or funding-constrained, what other people are doing, and issues like what else you could do with an Earning to Give job (often high earning jobs give you a useful platform to advance high impact causes independent of the money you donate yourself). When people have come to us in the past interested in pursuing Earning to Give, we’ve advised some to do it, and others not to do it. See our recent intro video for some examples.

This is why we welcome a recent article by ex-Givewell employee Jonah Sinick on why Earning to Give might not be optimal…


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Universalisability – Immoral Industries Part 3

When I tell people that they might want to consider professional philanthropy as a career choice, they react in a lot of different ways. Some people raise an eyebrow. “Seb,” they say as if explaining something very obvious, “if everybody quit their jobs and took a high earning career to give money to charities, then there wouldn’t be anybody to give the money to!”

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Collective Action: working in unethical industries part 2

In my last article I looked at how it sometimes the best option is to take a high-earning job, even in an industry one thinks is harmful, in order to donate more to charity. There were a lot of caveats. The job has to earn more than you could have made otherwise to make up for the marginal harm you do by taking it. But, for a competitive job market in a mainstream job, that marginal harm is often much smaller than the total harm caused by the job.

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Following in Schindler’s footsteps

Can it be ethical to take a job working for an immoral corporation if one does so with the aim of making the world a better place?

Suppose, for example, that you could work for an arms company, supplying munitions to soldiers fighting an unjust war, in order that you could earn enough money to save thousands of lives? You know that, if you don’t take that job, someone else more ruthless than you will take it, hurting more people than you would.

Is that sufficient? Intuitively, it seems that it just can’t be ethical to do this. But a historical case suggests otherwise…

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The replaceability effect: working in unethical industries part 1

High earning careers are often perceived as unethical careers. It’s not just that people think earning lots of money is bad, it’s also that a lot of the careers that make you really rich involve things that also seem immoral… This article will look at something called the replaceability effect. It’s the idea that, often, if you don’t take a job, someone else will take it. For some types of jobs, this is a very safe assumption, and it makes the harm you do by taking a job in an unethical industry much smaller than you might first guess.

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