Constraints on effective altruism

The effective altruism community requires various resources that exist in limited supply, such as talent, funding, entrepreneurship, vetting, risk tolerance, and the ability to coordinate. These resources may be seen as constraints on effective altruism,  insofar as they limit the community's capacity to attain its goals.

Consider two organizations, both of which have ten staff and would like to increase capacity:

  1. Organization A: Has annual funding of $5m, so can fund more staff, and has been actively hiring for a year, but has been unable to find anyone suitable.
  2. Organization B: Has annual funding under $1m, so can only just cover current costs. Several suitably talented individuals have made speculative applications to the organization, but the organization could not afford to hire them.

Organization A is more talent constrained than funding constrained, and vice versa for Organization B. One might also say that Organization A faces more of a talent gap and organization B faces more of a funding gap.[1] We can generalize these concepts:

  • An organization is more talent constrained if the main factor limiting their work is access to skilled labour.
  • An organization is more funding constrained if the main factor limiting their work is a lack of money.

These concepts are not precisely defined: rather, there tends to be a spectrum between the extremes that Organization A and Organization B occupy.

One of the key decisions people face when they want to support a cause is whether to work directly on that cause, or whether to earn to give in order to fund that cause. A key consideration relevant to this decision is whether the cause is talent constrained or funding constrained, since that will influence what kind of resource is most needed.

However, this consideration is also simplistic in some ways, and has at times been misinterpreted or misused. Todd lists nine common misconceptions related to the idea of "talent gaps".[2] More recently, he has argued that the main bottlenecks for the effective altruism community now are neither general "talent" constraints nor funding constraints, but rather "specific skills and capacity", such as "organizational capacity, infrastructure, and management to help train people up, as well as specialist skills that people can put to work now"[3] (see scalably using labour). It has also been suggested that the next major bottleneck might be "coordination — the ability to make sure people keep working efficiently and effectively together as the community grows"[3] (see also altruistic coordination).

Further reading

Agarwalla, Vaidehi (2020) Collection of constraints in EA, Effective Altruism Forum, July 15.

Naik, Vipul (2014) On the concept of “talent-constrained” organizations, LessWrong, March 14.
Suggests that organizations might simply not be paying enough for talent, causing talent constraints, although there are countervailing considerations.

career choice | direct work | earning to give | effective giving | get involved | hiring | scalably using labour | working at EA vs non-EA orgs

  1. ^

    Todd, Benjamin (2015) Why you should focus more on talent gaps, not funding gaps, 80,000 Hours, November 27.

  2. ^
  3. ^

    Koehler, Arden & Keiran Harris (2020) Benjamin Todd on what the effective altruism community most needs, 80,000 Hours, November 12.