How to increase your odds of starting a career in charity entrepreneurship

by katherinesavoie 11d3rd Dec 20195 min read1 comment

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Cross-posted from the Charity Entrepreneurship blog.

We’re often asked what you can do to increase your odds of starting a career as a charity entrepreneur. While each person’s answer will be different given their background and traits, here are the three most common things people can do:

  1. Do a self-initiated project with no oversight.
  2. Teach yourself and practice good decision-making.
  3. Become an expert in Effective Altruism.

1. Show that you can do things on your own

Most people’s lives neither encourage nor support self-direction. Typical education models always tell you what to do, where to be, and how well you’re doing. Same goes for the usual job, with a manager who will fire you if you don’t do the things they tell you to do, to a certain standard, by a certain date. You may have some flexibility within that framework, but the scope for action is relatively narrow.

Entrepreneurship is entirely different. You are staring at a blank canvas. The only external accountability you have is in the distant future. You might only talk to a donor once a year. And you can’t cram a whole year’s worth of work into a week before you talk to them. It’s not like school where you can get by with cramming if you’re talented enough. You need to do work every day even though nothing bad will happen in the immediate future if you don’t.

What’s more, there’s nobody telling you which things need to be done in the first place. You could work on strategy, hiring, management, M&E, or even moving to Hawaii if you felt it was the best call. You have to pick the direction. Most people have little experience with autonomy. When they’re faced with it, they’re filled with immense discomfort at the uncertainty. That’s why so many people postpone thinking about what to do after their education, often by simply getting another degree.

The good news is that these are all learnable. You just have atrophied initiative muscles due to disuse. All you have to do is practice. Once you do, the discomfort becomes smaller, and can be replaced by an exhilarating feeling of empowerment and freedom.

However, if you’ve never done it before, you may not be good at it. You have to learn how to motivate yourself when nobody else is helping you. You have to learn how to pick a good direction when there’s no existing structure. That’s why we look for people who have experience doing this. It’s more likely that they’ll be able to handle charity entrepreneurship: they’ve done this before and are not jumping into the deep end straight away.

Possible actions

  • Online course. The simplest thing to do is start and finish an online course on something that you want to learn. This is relatively straightforward, but is a good way to dip your toes in the water. In CE we give people a lot of points for listing an online course on their applications. Some courses that might be interesting and useful are:
  • Altruistic project. Pick something that could be accomplished in one to six months that would make the world a better place. Start the project, and finish it. Ideally, use a good decision-making process to decide on what to do -- see this, or the list in the next section, to help you out. Some examples might be running a community fundraiser for an effective charity or starting a campaign to convince your university to buy cage-free eggs.

2. Learn and practice good decision-making

Your success in life is determined by the direction you travel in and how efficiently you get there. However, often people focus on the latter, improving their capacity and productivity, while neglecting the former, thus getting nowhere fast. Making good decisions is a key factor in making sure you’re picking the right way to go. This is crucial for charity entrepreneurship since, as mentioned above, you’ll be facing a blank canvas in terms of what to do.

Many people are not very good at decision making, their lives mostly characterized by bumbling around, stumbling upon things that are good enough. When asked why they chose a particular degree or career, they’ll say, “I don’t know. I guess I was good at it and liked it and I was accepted.” Their process was opportunistic rather than deliberate.

Fortunately, decision making is not a personality trait but a skill that can be developed. The broad two steps to follow for this are to:

  1. Learn about good decision-making practices
  2. Practice them

Learning is relatively straightforward. There are many resources on how to think about decisions. We’ve listed some below. Putting them into practice is harder. The biggest trick is remembering to do them in the first place. Unlike with some habits, usually there’s no obvious trigger, since “make a decision” is hardly a concrete thing. Most of the time, making a decision doesn’t feel like a decision. It just feels like life. However, there are a few situations where you can practise and hone your skills. These include choosing a:

  • Cause area
  • Way to use your spare hours at school or work to further that cause area (see the project above)
  • Career
  • Charity to donate to
  • Personal budget
  • Degree
  • Job
  • Skill to learn
  • Place to live

Possible actions

  1. Read the following:
    1. Using spreadsheets to make decisions.
    2. How long to spend researching/learning compared to doing
      1. Optimal stopping
      2. Time capping
    3. Steelman solitaire
    4. Practice changing thought patterns. The post is about using thoughts to be happier, but can be cross-applied to any other habit of mind.
    5. Cluster approach
    6. Algorithms to Live By
    7. AI to Zombies.
  2. Make friends with and surround yourself with people who are good decision makers. This is often the best way to internalize habits.
  3. Apply these processes to the areas listed above.

3. Get a degree in effective altruism

At CE we look for people who think well about how to maximize their impact using reason and science, which in essence means they are effective altruists. Much of this comes down to good decision-making, but a lot of it is also absorbing the lessons and thoughts that have already been discovered or expressed in the community. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

While there’s no way to get a degree in EA yet, you can still think of your knowledge level in EA as being akin to your level of education. Many people have an elementary knowledge of EA, having read a single book or watched a couple talks. Others have a PhD, where they’ve read practically everything there is on the subject and are on the cutting edge of a particular topic in the area. We’re often looking for people who have at least a metaphorical undergraduate or masters. You can come in with a high school diploma if you have other qualities and skills that are sufficiently strong (and this goes for all criteria), but it will be a lot easier if you’ve got this qualification.

What does this look like? There are three different paths, and you’ll ideally follow all three of them.

  1. Consume knowledge. Read the various sources of knowledge in EA. Books, and forum and blog posts. Listen to podcasts, watch EAG presentations. Don’t neglect to do the same for the particular cause area you’re interested in. There are plenty of resources outside of EA that are important to have for context. There is no hard cut-off for what counts as a degree here, but around 300 hours is a good estimate.
  2. Act. Put this knowledge into action. Book learning without practice is no use, as well as vice versa. Some things you can do are: volunteer, get an internship at an EA organisation, donate and practice thinking about where to donate, write your own material, start an altruistic project, lead projects at your local group, or start one if none exists in your area, or write an EA Forum post.
  3. Community. Become part of the community. You will learn so much about EA from meeting fellow altruists. Being around them will passively increase your knowledge and actions through the topics of conversation and activities they participate in.

Possible actions

In summary, there are many things you can do to increase your odds of starting a career in charity entrepreneurship. Even if you don’t get into dedicated program that we’re running at CE, your life, skills, and impact will in all likelihood be improved by these actions. Hopefully this helps you, and we look forward to seeing your application!


Charity Entrepreneurship invites those of you who are interested in starting new EA organizations to apply to our Incubation Program. It will be held from June 29 to August 28 in London. You can sign up here to be notified when we start accepting applications. The early round is planned for December 2019.

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