I run a research organization. Research organizations, like all organizations, want to grow. I'm not talking growth for the sake of growth, but growth to be able to further your mission. However, there is always going to be a limiting factor constraining the pace of this growth.

Over time, I've distilled these into what I consider to be eight fundamental constraints.

You may have heard of talent gaps and funding gaps, but I actually think there are eight such gaps. Which constraint it is may change over time, but it is always one of these eight.


(1) - There needs to be a sufficient amount of important+neglected+tractable work to support an additional researcher at the research organization. If this constraint is in place, there isn't enough for an additional person to productively do. (People basically never report this as an actual constraint.)


(2) - The research organization needs sufficient skill at prioritization, strategy, and vision to ensure they are correctly doing (1) and doing it well. If this constraint is in place, the research organization would not do (1) correctly. (This is commonly referred to as "being bottlenecked on strategic clarity" or "needing more disentanglement".)


(3) - The research organization needs a sufficient number of talented researchers available to be hired that could accomplish (1) and (2) if hired. (This is commonly referred to as a "talent gap".)


(4) - There needs to be sufficient people and project management capacity at the research organization to align those hired in (3) with regard to (1) and (2). If this constraint is in place, the research organization cannot direct talented researchers to work on the correct things.


(5) - There needs to be sufficient operations capacity to ensure that (1), (2), (3), and (4) all can happen. If this constraint is in place, the research organization may not actually be able to implement hiring rounds or onboard staff, or may risk not being legally compliant.


(6) - The research organization needs sufficient funding to pay for all of the above. _(This is commonly referred to as a "funding gap".)


(7) - The research organization needs sufficient throughput. That is, even if you have people you want to hire and have the management + operations capacity to have them do good work, it will still take time for people to actually join, get onboarded, become productive, etc. This is an inescapable constraint, but time will keep marching on.


(8) - The research organization needs sufficient maintenance of good culture and org happiness so that existing staff feel comfortable with the growth.




Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

A donor-pays philanthropy-advice-first model solves several of these problems.

  • If your model focuses primarily on providing advice to donors, your scope is "anything which is relevant to donating", which is broad enough that you're bound to have lots of high-impact research to do, which helps with constraint 1.
  • Strategising and prioritisation are much easier when you're knee-deep in supporting donors with their donations -- this highlights the pain points in making good giving decisions, which helps with constraint 2.
  • If donors perceive that the research is worth funding, and have potentially had input into the ideation of the research project, they are likely to be willing to fund it, which helps with constraint 6.

This explains why SoGive adopted this model.

Largely agree with these only one I would add to/ expand on is 2. There is both the vision/disentanglement type aspect of this but also having sufficient evidence that a particular type of research is worth doing. Maybe I'm just bad at 2 but I suspect the reason 1 is never reported as a constraint is it's much easier to think of plausible exciting research projects and hard to confidently prove/disprove a project's theory of change. Researchers in lots of disciplines come up with seemly good research questions (to them) all the time but very little research is actually high impact. So I suspect in practise most research organizations should be constrained by this more than they are.

I'm interested what you think is both the constraight most organizations would report and if you think this lines up with what their actual constraints are 

I agree completely.

I'd guess most people report funding, talent, or management constraints. Personally, I think I've found myself constrained by all of these except (1) at one point or another.

The problem with the strategy constraint is that you often don't know if you're faced with that constraint because you may not know your strategy is bad. As you say and I agree -- empirically, a lot of people engage on bad strategies. Maybe I'm one of them? Would be hard to tell.

I also think organizations frequently underrate the extent to which they might be constrained on ops.

Thansk for writing this! This is a very useful framework to think about growth in an org. I'd say it's also relevant for meta-EA regional orgs (MEAROs)?

Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities