Jun 05, 2018
How do we get more EA charities started? There’s a good case that charity entrepreneurship is high impact for EAs, but it seems not many are starting them. Part of the reason is that it’s intimidatingly hard. Not only do you have to have multiple rare and difficult skills, but you also have to choose a good idea to begin with. And if people are put off by the uncertainty of career selection, that’s nothing compared to the sheer ambiguity of all the potential interventions one could run. That is why we are starting a new program called Charity Entrepreneurship. We will make yearly charity startup recommendations, much like what GiveWell does for donations and 80,000 Hours does for careers. This research will be accompanied by an incubation program, similar to Y Combinator, that will teach people the prerequisite skills to start a nonprofit. In this post I’ll explain more about the rationale, details, history, and plans moving forward.
The first project undertaken by Charity Entrepreneurship (CE) was 6 months of research in 2016 by 4 full time staff (~24 staff months). This resulted in Charity Science Health being founded, which has since received two GiveWell incubation grants and assisted over 200,000 families in India. This was the primary goal of this project and we feel CE succeeded. However, in a another way, CE was much more successful than we anticipated. Another project, Fortify Health, was founded, helped by our intervention recommendation, mentorship, and seed grants. Not only that, but several other EAs and non-EA charity founders showed a large interest in founding high impact ideas, such as the ones we had researched, although we did not have the ability to support more than two groups at the time.
The organization’s time will be broken down into three sections. The first section will be systematic empirical research into an intervention area focused on finding the highest impact gaps to found a charity in. This will result in a list of “top charities to found in X area”, much like our published list from our last round. The second part will be a two month summer incubation program equivalent to about a summer term university course load, focused on building the practical skills need to found a charity. The third section will be a seed grant and weekly mentoring sessions for the organizations that are founded out of the program, similar to the support we were able to give Fortify Health. We believe this program has potential to found 1-3 GiveWell incubation/ACE recommended equivalent charities a year.
Each year a different area will be chosen to focus on, with research being aimed at prioritizing specific possible charities within that area, as opposed to actively comparing across them. This is for multiple reasons. Firstly, in the time it would take to feel very confident in prioritizing one cause area over another, we could have incubated a good charity in each of the top cause areas. Secondly, there is a limited pool of people interested in starting organizations in each area, so focusing on putting out marginal recommendations in one field will lead to less output than switching between them periodically. Thirdly, given the extremely uncertain nature of doing good, rotating between cause areas makes the impact more robust in case one of our assumptions or beliefs are very wrong. This perspective also aligns well with the recent writing on epistemic humility which we found persuasive. The area we are running the first year on is animal rights, and for the next year we are considering far future and mental health, among others. We already have recommendations listed for global poverty and count CSH and Fortify Health as a somewhat informal first year of running this project.
The case for why charity entrepreneurship is effective has already been made here, here, here and here. I’ll make the case for how Charity Entrepreneurship as an organization has impact in this section.
CE’s impact hinges on two factors - the counterfactuals of the staff running the organization and the counterfactuals of the participants. My personal counterfactuals would be starting another direct nonprofit myself. The benefits of CE compared to this is that, while I think I could start another good charity, it takes about 3-8 years to take a charity from starting to being able to run without the founders. On the other hand, with CE we would be able to launch an expected 2-3 charities through our program every year. While I may be an above average charity founder, I do not predict that I am 6 to 24 times better than the incubatees.
Which brings us to their counterfactuals. Some people would undoubtedly start charities without our aid, but many wouldn’t. Fortify Health for instance, has said that they think they wouldn’t have started their organization without my mentorship and initial funding. Making the leap from structured jobs to the uncertainty of entrepreneurship without a guide and some initial money is intimidating enough to turn off a lot of people. Providing a structure, education, guidance, and seed funding can help a lot of people gain the confidence to make the switch. Additionally, the support makes it more likely that they’ll run a higher quality organization, making better decisions and having a broader skill set than simply jumping in. The assistance will also help them stick with it at the beginning when things are particularly challenging. It’s easier to keep going when there’s a setback if you have a coach encouraging you to keep going. Part of the inspiration for this is to be what we wish we had when we had started.
Aside from the direct effects of causing more people to join, there’s the benefit of choosing a better idea. Most startups are started based on jumping on the first opportunity the founder sees rather than systematically comparing their options. This can sometimes lead to good ideas but is dominated by comparing between alternatives, which I go into more deeply here. Furthermore, far more time and expertise will be put into prioritizing the interventions. Even if the founder might have put some effort into comparing their best options, it’s hard for an individual to put in the multiple person-years that will go into our research. Lastly, the intervention prioritization will be done by people who have specialized in and have a track record in choosing good ones. All of this combined will lead to higher impact charities getting started than otherwise would have.
If you want to help this project you can: