Working at EA organizations series: Why work at an EA organization?

by SoerenMind18th Oct 201513 comments

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Working at EA vs. non-EA orgsCareer choice
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This is the first post in a series about working at organizations in the effective altruism community. I’m interviewing members of many organizations in the community about their talent needs, ways to get involved, and how they hire. This seemed useful to me given that we increasingly hear about the community being talent constrained. The question of if and how to find a job at an EA organization is also bugging me personally. The interviews have given me a clearer view of how EA organizations think about hiring.

Since the posts and interviews are in the making, I appreciate ideas on how to make them as useful as possible.

Throughout these posts I'll assume that you already have an idea of what the organizations are working on. This information is easy to get elsewhere.

I’ll start the series off with some quick thoughts about why one might want to work at an EA organization.

 

Why work at an EA organization?

Over the course of the summer and especially around EA Global I’ve heard some people present arguments for why they think EAs are sometimes biased against working at EA organizations. Here are some points I encountered:


  • People tend to underestimate how much career capital work at EA organizations brings you. The organization can be prestigious (think of 80000 Hours - one of the only non-profits funded by Y Combinator) or become very successful later on. Given the current growth of the EA movement, it may be quite impressive to have worked at an EA organization when they were still small. The work itself can be impressive as well: You’ll often have high levels of autonomy and perhaps even exceptional achievements. Lastly, EA organizations can give you access to a network of amazing people - talented EAs, high-net-worth individuals, policy makers, researchers etc.

  • High in exploration value and skill-building: Oftentimes you’ll be working on a diverse set of challenging tasks with high autonomy. Essentially, this is similar to working at a startup. Many EA organizations also have a strong focus on self-improvement and mentorship.

  • The replaceability argument may be overstated: The best candidate often turns out to be a significantly better fit than the next best. This also applies to the network and career capital you get, since these too depend on your skill at the job. Additionally, the positions can usually only be filled with EAs to make sure there’s a fit with the team, which makes you less replaceable. The replaceability argument also cuts both ways: If you earning to give for an organization instead of working for them, they will employ some EA who could otherwise do other useful things with their time. This favors working where your comparative advantage is, rather than trying to estimate how replaceable you are without considering all the complex knock on effects.

 

Work at an EA organization is also a great way to learn about EA and your future career. In terms of role impact, EA organizations can often make a particularly strong case, such as multiplying your impact by going meta. This question has to be answered for each organization separately.

Discuss!

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One reason why I've avoided applying is that I think having people in careers outside of EA organisations adds more weight to arguments and adds to the diversity of people supporting EA.

It's definitely true diversity of backgrounds is important and am glad there's people taking it into consideration in their career choices, but I don't think in this case it's likely to be a strong enough reason to not apply to an EA org.

There's ~100 people working at EA orgs; whereas there's thousands of dedicated EAs, and tens of thousands of people very interested in it. So the vast majority of EAs are not working at EA organisations, so the impact in terms of reduced diversity of one extra person going to work at an EA org is small. (Whereas if you're a good fit for an EA org, that could be very high impact job).

The exception is if you're doing something very few other EAs are doing that would be valuable for the community to learn more about.

there's thousands of dedicated EAs, and tens of thousands of people very interested in it.

What are you basing these estimates on? I'd be interested to find out what the best estimates of them that we have are.

There's 1000 GWWC members, and around 5000 people making large donations to GiveWell recommended charities. TLYCS has more members too. Total attendees of EA Global was about 1000, and more than that applied.

In terms of interested people, GWWC, 80k and GiveWell all have well over 100k unique web views per year.

I wouldn't assume that the people making large donations to GiveWell charities or TLYCS' members are EAs are dedicated EAs. Equally I wouldn't say there are tens of thousands of people very interested in EA on the basis of unique website views (do the figures you gave refer to visits or visitors?)

Are there any avenues to work part-time, casually or even just volunteer for EA organisations? These might be good ways to get the benefits mentioned above, whilst continuing with existing commitments.

One way to get involved would be to volunteer with .impact. We're a group of EAs who like to volunteer on projects.

Good ways to join:

1.) Join us on the FB group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/dotimpact/events/

2.) Join us on Slack, which is our inter-team IM. You can get added by putting your email address in this form: https://docs.google.com/a/peterhurford.com/forms/d/16hnyRW15YqGjemthQNkXsASgSU275q9P1Ajq39PFpxs/viewform

3.) Join us at the next online workathon which will probably be this or next Sunday. You can follow the FB group and I can also reach out to you when I know more.

Sound good?

The replaceability argument may be overstated: The best candidate often turns out to be a significantly better fit than the next best.

Could you elaborate on why you believe this?

This 80,000 Hours post touches on the question. It concludes: “So, among charity managers and fundraisers, it would be normal for a good one to be about twice as good as an average one, and many, many times better than a bad one. Being 10% better than your replacement at the top of a charity, therefore, could be quite achievable. And very high impact.”

Good question, just from talking to staff of orgs in the EA community who've actually been involved in hiring. It might have been mentioned in a talk by 80k at EA Global as well. Can someone confirm?

Again, from talking to people at EA orgs my impression is that it's also pretty common that someone gets hired because they turn out to be a good fit, but the counterfactual is that no-one would've been hired at all. E.g. when volunteers get hired full-time without there being an official job posting.

It depends what exactly is meant by "the replaceability argument". If you mean the argument that because someone else would take the job otherwise, working in a nonprofit typically has very little impact, I think that's really not obvious. There's some elaboration here: https://80000hours.org/2015/07/replaceability-isnt-as-important-as-you-might-think-or-weve-suggested/

If you mean "you should consider the counterfactual when deciding whether to work at an organisation" then that's definitely true.

The evidence for the best candidates being much better than the next best is anecdotal, but many people hiring at EA orgs feel like this. Indeed, it doesn't seem uncommon for positions to go unfilled because they didn't find anyone who's a good enough fit.