We have written previously about the expected value of founding an impactful charity, considering only the largest and most direct impacts. However, these are far from the only benefits. By founding a new charity, you can positively affect your and your team’s future ability to do good, as well as influence the charitable movement you support. We consider this collection of benefits to be the non-direct impact of charity entrepreneurship as a career. This post is about the impact of charity entrepreneurship on your future ability to do good.
Impacts on your future ability to do good
Doing good year to year is important, but many are concerned about making sure they can continue to have a significant impact throughout their entire lives. When considering this factor in a career context, take into account not just the direct impact of a job but also its impact on your future ability to do good. Charity entrepreneurship as a career path has a few different ways it builds skills, credentials, background, knowledge, and ability to make a positive impact in the future.
Building up credentials, particularly if you are young, can be a highly impactful use of time. Credentials can be seen as tools that get you a job. Many employers like to see entrepreneurship on a resume as it suggests the ability to work without a high level of management. Founders often take CEO or manager roles, and the greater responsibilities that come with them, much earlier in their careers than they would have had they joined a larger organization. Being in a senior position at a young organization often leads to a strong resume for more senior positions in larger organizations, allowing you to move from one management role to another. In such roles, you are able to steer established NGOs and donors on an evidence-based development path, thereby touching many lives. People who have founded organizations tend to have impressive answers to common interview questions, such as “How many direct reports have you managed?”
Skill building refers to the abilities you acquire from a particular job that could be applicable to other careers, particularly those that are also impactful. If credentials are the tools that get you the job, skills are the tools that will help you succeed in that job. Building skills is even more important than building credentials because becoming highly skilled enables you to work your way into a job through hard work and ability (e.g., being hired from an internship, being headhunted). A strong resume alone cannot keep you in a job you are bad at for long. While building skills very often increases your resume career capital (e.g., starting a charity develops a ton of skills, which gets recognized on a CV), it does not always work the other way around. You could get a great looking education that is useless in most jobs and helps you acquire very few skills. Although charity entrepreneurship does build both skills and credentials, it builds skills quicker than credentials. Due to the wide range of challenging tasks, entrepreneurs learn a lot every day. By the time you have mastered a skill, you often end up hiring an employee to do that aspect of the job while you go on to learn about a different area. Picking up and mastering new skills quickly is a highly valued ability, one you can learn through charity entrepreneurship.
It is easy to imagine that you might miss out on a highly impactful job due to a credentials or skills gap. However, one of the biggest ways people fail to have an impact long term is by working on something that is not impactful without knowing it. This is far more common than missing an impactful job. The non-profit world is hard to quantify since knowing how much good you have done is much more difficult than measuring how much profit you have made. Evaluating a charitable organization is a major challenge, often requiring a large external team, such as GiveWell, to consider all the details and calculations. Determining personal impact is often even more challenging. It requires both having a sense of your organizational impact, as well as your personal impact on the organization. Counterfactuals also affect personal job calculations strongly: becoming a doctor seems like a great way to improve lives until you consider that had you not become a doctor, someone else would have taken your spot in medical school and become a doctor instead. When calculating the impact of charity entrepreneurship, you can simply calculate the impact of the organization as a whole, avoiding some of these counterfactual replaceability concerns. In 2019, we were bottlenecked by the number of sufficiently talented applicants—had we found one more person who cleared our bar for admission, it is likely that one additional charity would have been founded, indicating that charity founders going through our program have low replaceability. Primarily needing to take into account organizational impact alone, instead of both organizational impact and personal impact within that organization, is rare in the charity world. By starting a charity, you may get a more accurate sense of your impact than most people are able to. Organizations are also far more likely to be externally evaluated than an individual position within an organization, giving unbiased data on the founders’ impact.
When considering lasting impact, one of the unique factors to take into account when starting a long-term project (charitable or otherwise) is the importance of setting up the project to continue after you have moved on. Most impact evaluations are generally done year to year and do not include ongoing long-term costs. But much of the benefit of starting an organization compared to, say, earning to give, is that you can step back and the organization can keep creating impact. Some founders stay on a successful project for the rest of their lives, but many move on to other high-impact projects. If a founder starts a successful charity and then moves on after five years, by finding a replacement director who runs the charity equally well, the organization can continue to have an impact in addition to the founder’s next career. In the for-profit world, this would be called a passive income. A company could continue to generate revenue with relatively little input from its founder. In the non-profit world, the same concept can apply, and a founder can have passive impact from previously started and still running charitable projects. Serial charity founding can lead to multiple high-impact projects running simultaneously, all due to a persistent co-founder. This could allow future impact to be doubled or more.
Personal value drift
Another common way people fail to do good in the long term is to have a change in values or life circumstances, such that impact is no longer as important as it once was. A person might collect a lot of career capital when they are young, with intentions of doing something altruistic and high impact later in life, but find that as they grow older, priorities, responsibilities, and interests beyond doing good begin to take precedence. The end result is often that fewer good things get done. Value drift describes how over time, people become less motivated to do altruistic things. This is not to be confused with changing cause areas or switching to a different method of doing good. Value drift has a strong precedent in other related areas of human action, both ethical commitments (such as being vegetarian) and those that generally take willpower (such as exercising). Having an impact with your career is no exception to this rule. There is convincing data that value drift can be a major source of lost impact across your life. Thankfully, there are a lot of things you can do to mitigate the risk of value drift and increase your chances of having an impact long term. Many of these strategies involve surrounding yourself with impact-focused individuals. Having a job in the charity sector keeps you engaged with doing good, and charity entrepreneurship is no exception. Maintaining a good workplace culture with a supportive impact-focused peer group can be a way to greatly increase your chance of being impact focused in the future.
The decision to take the leap and start a charity could have a massive effect on your ability to do good throughout your life. It will teach you many skills, build strong credentials, allow you to make a large, clear, and measurable positive difference in the lives of others, and keep you engaged with a community of extremely talented people who are dedicated to doing good. At our organization, we will do everything we can to make this process as successful as possible.
If you enjoyed reading this, check out our other post on the various personal benefits of charity entrepreneurship.