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TLDR: This post is part of a sequence we’ve prepared for the Career Conversations Week on the EA Forum. This article provides a concise overview of the traits that Charity Entrepreneurship deems most valuable for a career in nonprofit entrepreneurship. We intend to provide you with a deeper understanding of our criteria when evaluating applications for our Incubation Program. Additionally, we hope this post assists you in self-assessing whether this career path aligns with your aspirations and abilities.


It’s been five years since we started our Incubation Program. We’ve since incubated 27 charities, some of which are now GiveWell incubated or ACE recommended, with many others on a path to becoming leaders in their fields. This would be impossible without dedicated, smart, resilient, and ambitiously altruistic individuals like you. Of course, not everyone is suited to be a successful nonprofit entrepreneur, and so we’ve spent the last few years refining our vetting process to identify people for whom this career would be an especially good fit.

There is no single blueprint for successful founders. Many of our alumni hadn't even considered this career path until someone encouraged them to explore it! What surprises many people is the incredible diversity among our successful charity founders in terms of age, educational background, and experience.

So far, people from 28 different countries joined our program. We've had many participants come directly from bachelor's or master's programs, as well as welcomed individuals with PhDs from recognized institutions like Cambridge, Oxford, and Harvard. They’ve specialized in fields as diverse as philosophy, geology, machine learning, and engineering. Some have chosen entrepreneurship over formal education, like our youngest participant, who, at the age of 19, left university to join our program!

Our program has also attracted individuals who boldly chose to transition from lucrative, secure, or high-status careers such as consulting, real estate, engineering at NASA or medicine. We've seen passionate street activists and seasoned nonprofit professionals alike join the program, each bringing their unique perspectives and skills to the table.

More than specific experience or expertise, they have each brought in an open mind and focused desire to launch a high-impact nonprofit. 

If it’s not credentials, age, or specialized experience that make you a great fit for nonprofit entrepreneurship, what is it? Here is what we’ve learned in the last five years and who we are looking for to join our Incubation Programs.

Competence: 

  • Previous Project Experience: People who have initiated their own projects or taken the lead in previous initiatives. Examples might be organizing impactful events or conferences, managing and expanding student groups, cultivating a newsletter or blog following, developing a mobile app with peers, serving as an editor for a university newspaper, or mobilizing an activist group. These instances serve as evidence of an entrepreneurial mindset and a proactive approach.
  • Academic or Personal Achievement: People who have excelled academically or demonstrated exceptional accomplishments in their career, hobbies, or interests. A wide range of things fit into this category, from academic distinction to playing an instrument really well, taking part in debate competitions, or winning local RPG contests. High achievement indicates a strong work ethic and a drive for excellence.
  • Scientific/Analytical/Empirical Mindset: Individuals with experience in empirical methods who value scientific evidence and are eager to test assumptions and change their minds. The skeptical, evidence-based mindset and humbleness around one's views are critical for sound decision-making.

Personality Traits: 

  • Ambitiously Altruistic: People who are exceptionally “hungry” for counterfactual impact. Deeply care about the world's problems and are willing to be highly analytical in figuring out (and acting on!) the best ways to do as much good as possible. They value reason, evidence, and effort.
    • Impartiality: They are impartial about who they help. This often means they prioritize people outside of their own country or community (because it’s unlikely their own people are those who can be most helped).
    • Scale Sensitive: They aim to help the greatest number of the most in need, to the greatest extent. They are not content with merely doing some good; instead, they aim to utilize their careers to do the maximum amount of good (as they define it).  
  • Conscientious: Individuals with a strong sense of duty who proactively plan, take action, and keep track of tasks without constant follow-up. They are capable of working fast and hard without oversight. Self-motivated, natural planners.
  • Results-Oriented: People who prioritize tangible outcomes and ask critical questions about the impact of their actions. They put authentic results over other values or metrics like mastery, vanity, and notoriety. Will turn down funding if it comes with restrictions that will reduce overall impact. 
  • Resilient, Energetic, and Self-Driven: Candidates who display unwavering determination and enthusiasm, even in the face of setbacks. They demonstrate resilience to pressure and are comfortable taking calculated risks, all while driven by internal goals and aspirations.
  • Productive Learners with a Growth Mindset: Individuals who continuously seek ways to improve themselves and their work. They demonstrate effective personal productivity systems, are decently well-organized, and actively seek feedback and learning opportunities. 
     

Upskilling as You Go:

It's crucial to keep in mind that not all of the traits mentioned above need to be fully developed from the outset. There are two key reasons for this:

1) First, you'll often launch your nonprofit alongside a co-founder with complementary traits or skills. For instance, one of you may excel in quantitative skills while the other excels in communication. One may be a proficient operations manager, while the other is a passionate researcher. One person might exhibit more extroverted and enthusiastic qualities, whereas the other leans towards conscientiousness and attention to detail. This is one reason we firmly believe that having a co-founder is paramount. A strong co-founder foundation facilitates better decision-making, accelerates project progress, and boosts overall motivation and morale. The first half of our Incubation Program is dedicated to this aim, enabling you to collaborate with various ambitious individuals and discover the best fit for launching your charity.

2) Second, you will upskill as you progress in your entrepreneurship journey. At CE, we leverage our Incubation Program to provide valuable knowledge and a practical training ground through applied projects and feedback, all designed to help you launch a successful nonprofit. Our mentorship and support extend beyond the initial program. We help you secure funding, establish your operational foundations, and provide continuous, tailored guidance as your organization grows. We foster a supportive community that readily shares knowledge, templates, solutions, and productivity tools. Our community illustrates why an unwavering willingness to learn, collaborate, and explore is invaluable for a startup founder. Skills and tools can be acquired, but you must bring a flexible attitude and commitment to impact. 

Potential Obstacles in this Career Path

  • Arrogance/overconfidence: We firmly believe that a scientific mindset requires humility. Maintaining a healthy level of skepticism and being open to the possibility of being wrong are essential traits for sound decision-making.
  • Resistance to learning new concepts: Candidates joining our Incubation Program must embrace new concepts, e.g., counterfactual thinking, power lawed distributions, and cost-effectiveness analyses. If someone confines themselves to a single domain, they may be better suited for a focused role within a nonprofit organization rather than to be a founder. As a founder, you'll be responsible for making critical decisions across various domains, so a generalist, growth mindset approach is necessary.
  • Limited communication skills: Founders must work closely with their co-founder, eventual team, and various high-importance external stakeholders (from funders to field partners). The ability to manage these relationships well is crucial. This skill is less about extroversion and more about the importance of empathy and a willingness to improve relational skills.
  • Perfectionism: Adapting from an academic environment, where solving a single problem might span months or even years, can pose a challenge in this career. Highly impactful nonprofit organizations need to operate swiftly and efficiently. This often entails the 80/20 principle, making decisions amidst uncertainty and not having ample time to explore every available option. 
  • Lack of motivation: Nonprofit entrepreneurship demands hard work. A proactive attitude is necessary, and there is little time for procrastination. A founder must be receptive to refining their productivity to get more done and occasionally put in extra hours when necessary. While certain sacrifices may be required, the rewards can be immensely gratifying, especially when witnessing the direct impact of your efforts.
  • Not putting impact first: Nonprofit founders can encounter numerous pitfalls if their primary focus isn't on impact. Examples include scaling too rapidly with an unsuitable model, accepting funding that diverts activities away from more impactful paths, and prioritizing reputation building over helping beneficiaries. Errors may stem from overarching strategic decisions or intricate choices in intervention implementation. Being prepared and willing to make uncomfortable decisions, undergoing rigorous evaluation processes, making personnel changes, and significantly altering interventions are essential aspects of this journey. Understanding when to discontinue a project is equally important. Counterfactual thinking is pivotal to making these determinations and can lead to profoundly positive outcomes.


We Encourage You to Apply to Our Incubation Program!

Applications are still open for our 2024 Incubation Programs. If you think you have some of the skills or traits mentioned above and are looking for a highly impactful career, we really encourage you to apply. We have designed the process to help you learn more about what is important for founding a high-impact charity and weigh it against other career options and pathways to impact. To protect your valuable time, we will only invite you to the next stage if we think you have a good chance of success. The entire application process will take no more than 10 hours of your time from start to finish.

Learn more about our Incubation Program and apply here.

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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:43 PM

Interesting read, thanks for sharing!

Out of interest, have CE looked into more specific testing of which of those traits best predict success? For instance, by reviewing which of the CE incubated charities have been most successful and if there were personality traits (I assume recorded at the time of co-founder recruitment) that were disproportiately present?

I respect 27 charities is still too small of a sample size to be reliable as a data set, but it could be analysis which could be built upon as the numbers of charities that were incubated grew and matured.

Hello James! We are testing a few of our intuitions here but it's tricky to compare across charities because their environments and interventions are so different. That said, the personality characteristics listed above were found through a series of interviews and case studies. That evidence has it's limitations, and we have plans to test these relationships more empirically in the future. 

Always great to hear more about the Incubation Program - and would highly recommend people apply if they're interested! 

A quick plug: at Probably Good, we've written a career profile on nonprofit entrepreneurship (heavily inspired by CE's approach) that covers other considerations around personal fit - it might be of interest to people who found this post useful.

I'm excited to curate this Career Conversations Week post. It's an easy read and seems helpful in evaluating a very high upside career path.

I am reading to tag-team. My -> Linkedin 

Thank you for posting!