Epistemic status: Moderately strongly held based on anecdotal data, but I could easily imagine learning about broader patterns and withdrawing this claim.


TL;DR: Grantmaking, in my view, is best viewed as a set of skills or a stage in a career path than a career path itself. To be excellent at grantmaking, I think you need to be an excellent generalist in a specific field first.

This post is mostly a critique of the 80,000 Hours career profile 'Grantmaker focused on pressing problems’. I agree with most of the article but object to the framing (grantmaking as a career path). 80,000 Hours staff reviewed this post and might make some changes to their article, but I’ll let them comment on that if they want to.

My perspective

Without intending to, I have spent a good chunk of my career trying to be a good grantmaker. I spent ~1/3rd of ~1.5 years at what is now Longview Philanthropy making grants to support projects focused on protecting future generations[1] and I now make grants as part of my role as Community Events Manager at CEA. 

I don’t claim to be a good or an experienced grantmaker but I have been asked by a few people who are interested in grantmaking what they should do now to become a grantmaker focused on pressing problems.

I find myself explaining to people who ask this question what I wish I knew before I tried grantmaking: to be excellent at grantmaking you need to be an excellent generalist[2] in a specific field first. 

More specifically, I think you need at least the following:

  • A “bird’s eye view” of a field - Which projects already exist? What is the track record of work in the space? Who’s who?
  • A theory of change - What needs to happen in your field to solve an important problem? Why hasn’t that happened already? What’s the best path to the solution?
  • A strong network - You often need to be able to talk to someone working in the field to understand whether a new project might work. Who do you know who could pick up the phone to explain something to you?
  • Technical know-how - Can you quickly understand and vet proposals for projects in your field? Can you spot errors?

I think the best way to attain this set of skills is to pursue a generalist path in a specific field, rather than pursue a “grantmaker path”. Examples of more generalist paths might be researcher, policy analyst or manager.

Much of this is covered in the 80,000 Hours article and I agree with most of that article. But I think that the framing of grantmaking as a “path,” rather than a “skill” or “stage,” is confusing for two reasons:

  • Framing grantmaking as a path encourages people to try to learn generalist skills outside the context of a specific problem.
  • Framing grantmaking as a path encourages people early in their career to apply for an extremely narrow set of jobs (e.g. research analyst at Open Phil).

Framing grantmaking as a path encourages people to try to learn generalist skills outside the context of a specific problem. 

I agree with the contents of the section “How to assess your fit” but I worry that people early in their career will try to work on things like 'judging people accurately' or 'thinking of grant ideas' before they have built a birds-eye view of a field or theory of change for a problem. 

For example, I spoke to a student at EA Global who was interested in becoming a grantmaker in AI safety. I asked them what they thought of various lines of attack on the alignment problem and they said something along the lines of “I’m not sure I want to do that kind of research directly, I’m more of a people person which is why I’m focused on becoming a grantmaker.”[3] This sounds like it could be a big career misstep - it would be very hard to be a good grantmaker in the field of AI safety without a deep understanding of the alignment problem and the current research projects in the field. 

Framing grantmaking as a path encourages people early in their career to apply for an extremely narrow set of jobs (e.g. research analyst at Open Phil)

Open Philanthropy hires only a few people per year to these roles (5 in their latest round)[4] - I expect that’s because there are very few excellent researchers who aren’t already focused on a specific problem. These jobs also aren’t simply a step towards being a grantmaker - I think Open Philanthropy also (mostly?) hires research analysts to conduct research that informs their cause prioritisation and strategy, rather than make grants. 

When Open Philanthropy hires grantmakers, they usually hire grantmakers from the fields they make grants in.[5] In fact, I expect a very small number of people could be strong grantmakers in important and technical fields like AI safety and biosecurity[6] and ~all of those people will be leading researchers in the field already.

I worry that some promising young generalist will read the 80,000 Hours article and, instead of starting a career focused on a specific problem, will try to learn grantmaking skills independently (by e.g. reading the EA Funds reports and generating ideas), apply for one of a very small number of jobs, get rejected because of inexperience and then decide that this path isn’t for them.[7] 

Instead, I think we should encourage people to consider grantmaking as a skill (a set of skills is probably more accurate) or a stage in their career. This framing makes it clear that it is something you’re more likely to be able to do well if you become an excellent generalist in a specific field and usually not something you can start working on as soon as you graduate.[8] I’d then hope to see more paths like:

  • Train in computer science > Become an expert in ML > Work for an AI safety research group > Become a manager > Move to a foundation to make grants in the space (A bit like Paul Christiano, although I think he mostly advises on grants vs. makes them).
  • Train in philosophy or economics > Become an expert on global priorities research > Earn a PhD > Move to a foundation to make grants in the space (A bit like Tyler John).

Closing thought

I find a useful analogy to “grantmaker as a career path” is “academic professor as a career path”. It doesn't really make sense to have “professor” as your goal - instead, it makes more sense to try to become an excellent academic obsessed with a problem. Being a professor is then just a step on that path you might take later in your career.

To be clear, there are reasons to think some people might be good at being a professor (e.g. good at teaching) or being a grantmaker (e.g. good judgement). These skills are real and worth building. My claim is that they will be more useful if they’re developed alongside domain-specific expertise; much like being a great teacher is more useful if you’re also an expert on a particular topic.


My thanks to Arden Koehler, Luisa Rodriguez, Tyler John, Kit Harris, Simran Dhaliwal and Lizka Vaintrob for their feedback. All errors are my own.
 

  1. ^

    Ultimately, I proved not to be a good fit for this work at the time and moved to a more operational role. This is mostly because I was too inexperienced to properly assess proposals in most longtermist cause areas. I think I was okay at other aspects of the role (e.g. communicating with grantees and managing my time).

  2. ^

    "Expert" could also replace this term but I think it's worth emphasising that being good at grantmaking requires more of a "generalist" set of skills (vs. being very knowledgable).

  3. ^

    I want to emphasise that this person seemed very smart and reasonable otherwise and I'm paraphrasing here to highlight a misunderstanding I think they had.

  4. ^

    According to the 80k article. There might have been a more recent round.

  5. ^
  6. ^

    And others, like basic science, global development, nanotechnology, progress studies etc.

  7. ^

    This is just a toy example of the thing I’m worried about, I haven't heard of this actually happening.

  8. ^

    There are exceptions, of course. A recent graduate might be able to support community-builders via grantmaking or run a fellowship programme where the criteria allow for reasonable guesses without a lot of context on the object-level problem.

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Arden here from 80,000 Hours - just an update: Ollie showed me this draft before posting and I thought he was right about a bunch of it, so we adjusted the write-up to put more emphasis on becoming skilled in an area before becoming a grantmaker in it being the ideal, plus added his 4 bullet point list to our section on assessing your fit.

We didn't want to move away from calling it a "path" because we use that term to describe jobs/sets of jobs that one can do for many years, which we think could be among highest impact phases of one's career, which this seems to fit.

Thanks Arden!

I don't have strong views on the specific path label on the website once you add the caveats you describe, I can see why you'd keep this!

Thank you for this Ollie, I strongly agree with your perspective.

FYI, Probably Good has a writeup on grantmaking that makes some of these points very well and points out additional useful nuances about grantmaking as a path.

Thanks! Scanning the first half of that piece, it seems good :)

Thanks for this, Ollie, it has been very helpful for me. If it's ok, I have a tenuously related question about helping with grant making in a way that is perhaps a little different from the norm. 

I have been thinking about exploring grant making as a potential skill area of comparative advantage. A friend suggested I consider it because of my tendency to be well networked and to generate ideas for collaborations, projects and operational improvements etc. 

I don't think I would be a good conventional grant maker who reviews submitted grants and then makes a decision on how much funding they should get. For instance, I don't trust my judgement or attention to detail in assessing complex grant applications or doing due diligence. 

However, I think that I could potentially be a good "grant opportunity scout/lead generator". For instance, I think I could help to solve coordination problems by finding and connecting good people, ideas and grant assessors to create a critical mass that can be funded. 

I see some value in doing such a role. I know a lot of people who would make EA aligned career changes (e.g., founding something) if given commitments, then access, to appropriate connections and advance commitments of funding.  I also believe (very weakly) that most EA funders would like more applications for high value large-scale funding opportunities where coordination/coincidence of wants issues are a particularly major blocker. 

I'd like to know what you think about all this. Specifically, does or should anything like this sort of grant related work exist in EA or elsewhere? If so, how could someone trial doing it? Anyone I should talk to? 

Feel free to direct me to ask 80k or someone/somewhere if you don't feel that you have enough time or motivation to answer - I understand that the question is a bit tangential!  

Both of my recommendations are more people-oriented than you might be thinking (it sounds like you think you might be good at coming up with grant ideas and with connecting people to grants, and I am focusing on the latter), but here's what you reminded me of

  • Holly Morgan, who does a lot of informal connecting-EAs-to-other-EAs. Might be interesting to chat with her?
  • The Nonlinear Recruitment Agency,  which has closed its applications for a founder, but might be worth keeping an eye out for

Thanks, Miranda! These are good suggestions!

You could try:

  • Recommending grants to the organisations like the Future Fund? They did this last week, but it looks like it's closed now.
  • Offering people career advice?
  • Doing all of this without permission? What you're describing isn't necessarily a role, I don't think. I think great leaders, researchers, policy analysts etc. can add value to their field by paying attention to what should get funded and who should start new organisations.
  • All of the above seems like a good way to trial this :) Sorry, I'm not sure who else to talk to.

Edit: I accidentally hit send and then had to edit

Thanks, Ollie, that's helpful. 

Source: My own experience of interning in one of the philanthropy foundations


TL;DR: I would emphasize more regarding culture fit, and group other points of yours in newly classified buckets.

My opening remarks


Indeed, your example of Open Philanthropy was excellent, as the model of operations is based on cost-effective analysis. Therefore, generalist and research skills complement each other as you could find more 'factors' in costs and benefits based on what you've already known. However, this draws one key weakness of your grantmaking skills model. What if cost-effectiveness isn't what the foundation seeks? For example, if they seek global collaboration, will they tend to fund organizations that are closely aligned with a willingness to collaborate globally, even though it may not be the most cost-effective? (My personal experience is that local organizations are less costly than regional organizations, and suppose we can expect the same benefit, cost-effectiveness analysis should lean towards funding the local organizations)

This is based on an already well-known organization, but if you are a newly established foundation then it might be different from my experience.


My proposal would rearrange some of your ideas into the following buckets


1) Culture fit (Do you fit with the organization's view of value)

I still believe this is an important issue to consider if you want to work in grantmaking.  Grantmakers usually have long tenures and those who aren't fit quickly moved out of the organization quickly.

2) Reasoning skills

I would rather combine the "theory of change" and "bird's eye view" into this bucket, as what would you be doing is to argue, based on what you have, if this grant would be beneficial to mankind or the organization.  Consulting, researching, or managerial skills would enhance this bucket as they are trained to argue with reasoning. You may not need to know the details, as the information is available enough for you to dissect. However, which information will you be using to argue your case would far more be necessary than how you obtained it in the first place.

Other kinds of equivalent careers that may create transferable skills may include corporate social responsibility jobs (where you get to fund using corporate money) and successful grant writers (where you know which word would hit up more funding). Beyond that, I would rather ask for more clarification of what is your idea of 'generalist' skills in your own critique.


3)Networking skills

I would put this skillset below the above, as it depends if you already have strong reasoning skills, networking may not play a major role here. This is different than if you were the grant seeker or if you are applying into grantmaking, networking will give you the 'launchpad' to be considered from the grantmaker side. Schools, classes, events, and your degree would also fit in here.

My reasoning for downgrading the networking skill is that if your organization has a track record of funding, your previous pipeline of recipients would gladly provide you the opportunity (sometimes, overwhelming) to talk about their interesting projects.

One of the reasons that networking skills might be useful is if you are funding new ventures. In that case, you might need to scout additional people for your work and thus, networking would play a major role in that.


My Closing Remarks

As I argue, I would rather reclassify your skills model as I illustrated above. Beyond that, I agree that grantmaking is a rather great opportunity in a later stage of your work. The only issue is that grantmaking is a specific skill set and unless you are really passionate about not owning but judging other works and being ready to reject hundreds of proposals, I suggest that a lot of consideration should be taken into account before pursuing this career.

P.S.: This is my first post and I will be extremely grateful if folks could discuss my thoughts in the future.

Thanks for posting your comment :) And welcome!

I'm not proposing a full model of how to assess your fit for grantmaking here (I think 80k do that pretty well) but to some of your points:
 

  • I agree that thinking about where you might be making grants and whether you agree with their strategy matters a lot.
  • I definitely think cultural fit is important! 
  • I agree good reasoning skills can make you better at forming theories of change and a bird's eye view. But I'm not focusing here on skills that might make you good at grantmaking, I'm talking about what you should try and do before trying grantmaking. I think it's worth being specific about these things.
  • Networking skills also seem important, I agree :)
  • I agree that having to turn people down for funding can be hard/upsetting.

Thanks for writing this up Ollie!

I'm designing a grantmaking training programme for Training for Good at the moment and have spoken with ~20 grantmakers across different cause areas over the past few weeks. Just wanted to add that your perspective seemed to be broadly shared by others working in the space - ie that to be excellent at grantmaking you need to be an excellent generalist with a strong object-level understanding of a specific field first.

If anyone reading this fits Ollie's description and is interested in exploring grantmaking, let me know. (We're looking for 5-10 people with experience in a relevant EA problem area to participate in an 8 week scaled down beta test of our programme starting at the end of march. Time commitment would be ~5 hours per week).

Thanks for this, Ollie!  Having read the 80k article but still felt a bit fuzzy about 'how to become a good grantmaker,' this post makes a lot of sense to me. It updates me away from grantmaking being a general skill and more towards it being domain-specific, which seems right considering my prior was that it was just a very general skillset (equivalent to having really good judgment).

Thanks! Yes, that update is actually a very succinct way of summarising the post!

During the calls I've offered to people considering applying to work as a grantmaker, I've sent this post to about 10 people already. Thanks for writing it!

I agree that this is the most common misconception about grantmaking. To be clear, (as we've discussed) I think there are some ways to make a difference in grantmaking which are exceptions to the general rule explained here, but think this approach is the right one for most people.

Thanks Kit, glad to hear :) And yes, I agree!

May I ask about my specific case?

I think I have strong generalist skills as a software developer, including a good understanding of software projects and startups (for example, I used to consult founders professionally, especially on how it's reasonably to build their tech based on their business needs). linkedin.

Do you think this could be useful for grant making?

It's not really a "field" in the way you use that word, I think


Regarding grant making stuff: Just like John Snow, I know nothing

Caveat: I'm not a career advisor but can share some quick thoughts!

I do think consulting for companies will provide you with some relevant skills (e.g. forming overall views about complicated things quickly, communicating well). 

However, as I argue, unless you want to make grants to software companies, I'd recommend trying to work in the field you want to make grants in first and, perhaps more importantly, aiming to solve a problem vs. becoming a grantmaker :)

I hadn't even considered doing grant making for non-software companies.

Regarding solving a problem: Yes that's my prior too

Thanks!