Charity Entrepreneurship (CE) has run our first foundation training program. This program looked less like traditional philanthropic advising, and more like our classic charity incubation program. Instead of recommending specific charities, we aimed to teach skills that would allow foundation leaders to work as informed, independent, full-time grantmakers, equipped with a suite of decision-making tools. Despite seeing many areas where we could improve the program, we consider the pilot to have been very successful. We are excited to run this program again and believe it could provide impact comparable to that of our charity incubation program.
At the beginning of 2022 we announced that CE would be running a pilot training program for grantmaking foundations. The pilot program finished several months ago, and so we wanted to follow up on how it went and what we learned.
- Starting an impactful foundation and being a strong grantmaker is hard. Few high-quality resources exist (at least in a publicly available form) that teach how to run an evidence-based and highly effective foundation.
- Over the past four years, CE has helped launch 23 new nonprofits, several of which are on track to becoming field leaders in their respective areas (e.g., recommended by GiveWell). An unpredicted learning from this work is that our content, approach, and handbook have been useful to a number of foundations and grantmakers. They have improved their prioritization, decision-making, their clarity of mission and, ultimately, their impact (particularly in the early stages of setting up a foundation or granting department).
- With this in mind, we incubated one grantmaking foundation in 2021, which proved successful. This, combined with the number of interested foundations, led us to pilot a program focused on grantmaking foundations in 2022.
- The pilot program ran for four weeks (three remote and one in person in London) and required participants’ full-time commitment. It was high intensity relative to other programs typically aimed at philanthropists.
- During the remote weeks there were readings from a 300+ page handbook written for the purpose, ~3x daily video lectures, 2x daily projects and 1x daily group discussion.
- During the in-person week, in addition to group discussions, we ran mock grantmaking and donor coordination exercises. We supported participants to work towards a concrete final deliverable that they could use to better their grantmaking going forward.
- The content of the program was focused on (a) equipping the foundations with decision-making tools, e.g., cost-effectiveness analyses, (b) making key decisions regarding their scope, structure and strategy, and (c) sharing best practices on vetting processes in the contexts of hiring and grantmaking.
Five foundations (represented by six people) participated in the pilot. Once these foundations have launched and scaled, their combined annual donations are expected to be approximately $60M/yr. Participants had a wide range of grantmaking experience (from none to many years), foundation maturity (from yet-to-exist to fairly established), EA knowledge (from novice to expert) and expected annual dollars granted (from $100k to >$10M).
How it went
What went well
The program was a pilot, and as a result it was quite rough around the edges. Despite this, we think the program was very successful! From our perspective, the aspects of the program that went particularly well were the group discussions, the mock grantmaking exercises and the final project at the end.
- Feedback has suggested that the group discussion sessions were extremely valuable. These sessions gave participants the chance to delve deep into the content and get to grips with the theory and practice of grantmaking and running a foundation. Participants were thoughtful and enthusiastic in their discourse, and appreciated the chance to share experience and ask questions. Such an environment was particularly conducive to meaningful discussion as, uniquely, the participants were among peers who were not trying to solicit funding, and the only objective was their own development and understanding.
- The participants gained confidence in their decision-making skills through mock grantmaking exercises. One exercise focused just on systematically vetting grant decisions, with the group collectively deciding whether and how much to fund a set of grant proposals. Another involved thinking about counterfactuals and donor coordination as well; participants made decisions as individuals whilst keeping in mind what others were likely to do, and trying to avoid collectively over or under-funding certain projects. By practicing their theoretical knowledge, their understanding was solidified and they became more optimistic that being a good grantmaker is an attainable goal, mitigating the risk of under-confidence. It also gave them some foresight into the many potential challenges they may face, mitigating the risk of over-confidence.
- Participants reported really appreciating how concrete and actionable the program was, with almost every activity tied directly back to the key decisions they need to make as leaders of grantmaking organizations.
- Lastly, the final project had the participants articulate exactly how they would put what they learned into practice after the program . We believe this was a vital step towards turning theory into reality, and therefore into impact. Participants committed to various actions to move their foundation forward, whether that be a five-year plan, an assessment of past grants, or launching an open grant application round.
We circulated an anonymous feedback form after the program to better understand how it went from the participants’ perspectives:
- They were very positive, unanimously giving the highest score available to “Would you recommend the program to other people in a similar situation to you?”.
- In addition to the aspects we highlighted above, participants cited the draft handbook as being particularly high value for them.
- When asked whether the program changed their grantmaking trajectory, all participants said that it did. Specifically, participants mentioned:
- Becoming more systematic in their grant vetting
- Looking more consciously for their comparative advantage as funders
- Thinking through cause prioritization more broadly and systematically
- Seeking additional advisors on specific topics
- Finding ways to create leverage and move more money to effective organizations
- Investing more effort in donor coordination (e.g., through funding circles)
What the participants said
- “Many thanks to the CE team for putting this program together! You have truly been excellent mentors and taught me a lot. I've also been super inspired by your dedication and drive to maximize your impact”
- “What a super valuable experience this has been! Thanks for all your hard work”
- “Deep gratitude to the whole team who took a chance on me. I for one am definitely in a much better place now than before. I know I'll be a better steward of the org thanks to the work you did, I'm guessing a 30% improvement at least.”
What we learned
- The program needs to be structured quite differently: We modeled the structure of the pilot program on our charity incubation program, which has been refined over four iterations. This was a mistake. Funders are generally time-poor and can’t easily set aside all other commitments for an entire month. As such, a full-time program with several hours of content and many hours of project work per day is not realistic.
- Connecting foundations with one another is of high value: We expected that the content of the program would be where the bulk of the value comes from, and that new relationships between participants would be an added bonus. As it turns out, our role in forming a peer group of funders is in itself very valuable, enabling better funder coordination, individual grantmaking decisions, and helping funders stay motivated through the challenges they face on their grantmaking journeys.
It’s too early to estimate the impact of the program pilot with much confidence, however our early attempts suggest that this program generates impact that is in the same order of magnitude as our Incubation Program, if not significantly higher. These estimates were generated by comparing scenarios; we compared how much and how impactfully the participants plan to donate after having undertaken the program with how they would have donated had they not participated.
Our next steps
We have decided to continue the foundation program in 2023, developing the pilot into something more polished. We plan to run the program over a longer period of time (~10 weeks) to make the workload less intensive. The new format will be closer in form to a book club, with weekly readings and one weekly project, which will be discussed together as a group. The majority of the program will be remote, with ~one week in person. Our new handbook, How to Launch a High-Impact Foundation, will be improved and published as both the program’s primary resource and for the general public’s consumption.
Our vision is for a thriving community to be built off the back of the foundation program. As the alumni support one another and share their experiences, we hope the network will grow into a valuable ecosystem. The graduates from our charity incubation program not only benefit from our ongoing support, but from relationships formed with a much wider group of impact-minded people; we hope for something similar for the foundations. For example many of our alumni became part of the recently launched mental health funding circle and we can imagine many more circles like this in the future.
Your next steps, if you are excited about this program
Whether you are just starting out, or have many years experience, the 2023 Foundation Program can likely add value to your grantmaking. It is suitable for those who want to maximize the impact of their foundation in the future but could use a community and the structures to do so. It is a particularly good fit for those who want to be highly involved in grantmaking or in setting the direction for the foundation and hiring program officers to execute on it. To express your interest and discuss further you can email email@example.com
Apply to join our team
We are hiring a Programs Officer to join the department that creates program content, project manages and implements our programs and leads their continuous improvement (for both our Charity Incubation Program and our Foundation Program). An excellent first Programs Officer hire will allow us to scale from one to three programs each year and to continue to improve our program quality, which will (in expectation) more than double the impact that Charity Entrepreneurship can have in the world.
Full job description here.
Apply here before 1st February (it only takes ~30 minutes).
One question I have is about the extent to which this is counterfactually better than just advising foundations to dump money into GiveWell charities; or, if one thinks GiveWell is too risk adverse or too short-termist, there are other cause/intervention/charity evaluation organizations out there like CE or Open Phil or 80k etc.
I would be fairly sceptical that smaller grantmaking organizations will be as accurate at identifying cost-effective or promising opportunities relative to the established organizations like GiveWell (who have big teams and a process that has been refined and improved over the years), or even compared to smaller organizations like CE/HLI/CEARCH doing cause prioritization (whose research teams are presumably by people whose interests/abilities meant they self-selected into cause prioritization work, rather than people who by good/bad luck are put into a position where they have to disburse e.g. one's inheritance, or the family office funds).
Having spoken to some EA-sympathetic family offices, this is basically what they've said (i.e. they largely prefer to outsource the decision-making, subject to non-philanthropic/political considerations like giving locally etc).
In any case, keep up the great work, as always.
Thanks for the thoughtful question Joel!
I'll take this question in three parts:
(1) Why not just give the money to strong existing foundations whose values match your own?
It contributes to worldview diversification within EA, and reduces the chance that important cause areas go unfunded (more on this below).
The world is big - there are a lot of problems to solve, a lot of potential solutions to consider funding, and a lot that needs to be learned to do this well. As a result, most foundations make the wise decision of limiting their scope by some combination of cause area, geography and recipient organization size/maturity (e.g. GiveWell focuses on mature global health organizations that can absorb many millions in funding). In aggregate, the scopes of these foundations do not sufficiently cover all of the most important areas (see Joey's post on specific funding gaps for example). So we need more organizations and more grantmakers working on figuring out what to fund!
I'd love to see new foundations started that address some subject matter gaps, e.g. "GiveWell, but for policy interventions" or "GiveWell, but for family planning". I'd also love to see some foundations started that fill functional niches within the funding landscape, e.g. a foundation that specialises in regranting (i.e. where their comparative advantage is in vetting people, rather than projects).
(2) Shouldn't we be skeptical of smaller/newer grantmaking organizations because it's hard to compete with the likes of GiveWell on accuracy?
(3) Shouldn't people who have ended up in the position of disbursing funds by random chance (e.g. through inheritance) just defer to others to make the grantmaking decisions?
Thanks Joel, I think your arguments are good, but on balance I think more EA aligned foundations can be a good thing.
As another kind of side note in general I think EA might need to be careful in the long term about the (almost) monopoly or at least high market share Givewell has on development focused cause prioritisation at the moment. You're right that their processes and institutional knowledge makes it hard to imagine anyone else could do it better (although organisations like HLI are trying which is great). It's interesting that something like 70% of the money given by CEA members went to a Givewell fund. I think there is inherent value in managing risk and potential error through foundation diversification but that is obviously arguable (this has been discussed before in forum posts). Imagine (hypothetically) that there was a corruption or sex scandal within Givewell and the overwhelming damage that might do the EA movement. That might be mitigated if there were a bunch more big orgs. I think it's healthy to have more diversity than we do at the moment.
That strategy is contingent on the foundation's donor being open to spending money on the types of programs GiveWell (or another elite evaluator) recommends. Many are not. If they are not, then the expected value of that approach is zero. Rather, we need to meet those donors closer to where they are and help them more effectively achieve their own goals (with some nudges toward highly effective organizations, to be sure). They have lots of other people who are happy to give them free advice on how to spend their millions, and "you should jettison all your goals/thoughts and adopt ours 100% instead" is unlikely to help win market share in the market of already-funded foundations.
For those donors, say that these foundations will be handing out $60MM per year as per the report, and that the training increased the mean cost-effectiveness of their donations from 0.1 GiveWells to 0.2 GiveWells (i.e., it only brought them 11% of the distance from where they were to full GiveWell). I think there's a decent chance that the mentored foundations will devote at least a few percent to GiveWell-level charities on average, and that the rest of their portfolio will move in a somewhat more cost-effective direction. That produces an amount of good equivalent to $6MM in new funds that would have blown on something totally useless going to GiveWell instead. And that's in a single year. So even if you think the effect size is much more modest, 0.1 GiveWells to 0.12 GiveWells would still be $1.2MM GiveWell-equivalents every year.
Compared to the marginal cost of re-running this program, that seems like a great investment.
One suggestion: For participants currently in grantmaking roles, I wonder if there would be value in having them fill out a quick survey at the outset about their practices, then readminister the same survey two and then five years post-participation in an attempt to measure the extent to which participation affected actual grantmaking behavior (or at least the participant's perception thereof).
This sounds like a fantastic concept! I can't wait to see how this gets refined and scaled up to improve how more major foundations go about making grants (maybe even $100M/Year+ Foundations).
I had a quick question about the types of foundations involved in your pilot. What kind of limits, if any, did they have on where they can disburse funds or what kind of people (or animals) they can aid?
A lot of foundations I've seen are only able to make grants in a particular state or city, usually in a developed country where $1 fundamentally goes less far than giving to an international charity. Did you end up having conflicts between the participants' desire to maximize impact, and any limitations they might have been subject to?