We often get asked for advice about a charity idea somebody has had. Every charity and entrepreneur will need different advice, but in this post we will cover the most cross-applicable advice that virtually everybody could benefit from:
Compare at least ten options
If there were one piece of advice I could give to practically anybody making any decision whatsoever, it would be to compare more than two options. Most people drift along in life, have an idea, then compare that single idea to the status quo. There are untold numbers of ideas out there; the odds are vanishingly low that any one idea is the optimal one. Furthermore, your choice can only be as good as the best option you have on the table. If there are only two, that puts hard limits on your potential upside.
To come up with a truly good idea, come up with at least ten different options. The “at least” is important. Ideally, you should try to think of dozens, then whittle them down. The more ideas you generate, the more likely it is you’ll come across something truly outstanding.
Starting a charity is a really big commitment, and the idea is the largest driver of impact. You could execute flawlessly, but if you’re running a charity distributing homeopathic medicine, you won’t be helping anybody. You want to make sure you’re committing to something worth the effort. Changing your direction later on is difficult, both logistically and psychologically.
When you brainstorm options, don’t limit yourself to charity ideas. You should also include alternatives such as working for a direct charity, earning to give, starting a for-profit, and any other thing you think might plausibly have an impact.
If you’re feeling a bit apprehensive about such a complex decision, here’s a resource on what to do with all of your options once you’ve generated them so as to make the decision more manageable. This is the process we follow, and you can learn more about it here.
Really research your idea -- then try to destroy it
This may seem obvious, but most people I have spoken to have not really done this. Most people stumble into an idea, then ask a few people what they think. Those people don’t want to be critical and “crush your dreams”, so the person dives straight in.
If you want to really know if it’s a good idea, research it. This is what EAs specialize in; play to your strengths! You can learn a lot about your idea before proceeding.
In fact, you can learn enough beforehand to know that you shouldn’t actually do it in the first place. You should approach this with the attitude of trying to destroy your idea before you end up investing in and wasting time on something that you could have ruled out far faster.
Even more importantly, you want to rule it out before you become emotionally invested, or it’s far less likely you’ll ever be able to see that it’s not a good idea. This is one of the greatest dangers lurking in the waters of charity entrepreneurship. If you are running a for-profit and it isn’t making money, you’ll eventually find out, no matter how much it hurts to admit. With a charity, the results are very rarely obvious. You could run something that has no impact, indefinitely, and fool both yourself and your donors. You could use your life on something that doesn’t actually fulfill your values and never realize. While you can set up systems to check and make sure you are indeed helping, it’s easy to ignore them, move the goalposts, rationalize the results away, or set up systems that don’t actually falsify your program’s impact, all in subtle ways that are hard for you to notice.
Of course, don’t just try to destroy your program idea. Next, try to rebuild or strengthen the weaknesses you uncover. Play steelman solitaire on it. Steelman counterarguments then steelman countercounterarguments, and so forth. Maybe your idea won’t work because you don’t have experience in the area. How could you get around that? Maybe you could find a co-founder who does? Maybe you could do a few months of intensive study in a very small area? That there is a problem with an idea does not necessarily mean that the problem is unsolvable.
There are many potential weaknesses that your plan could have. One of the most common is finding out if it’s been done in the past. Odds are somebody else has already had this idea and tried it. See if you can find them. Google it and ask people in area. If it’s been done, learn as much as you can about what happened. If it didn’t work, why not? Is it something you could plausibly solve, or should you abandon the idea? Is it already being run well, such that it might be better to simply support the existing program with money or time? Alternatively, if it’s being run well but it’s only running in a small section of its potential scope, you could use its success as a reason to scale it up, or run a similar program in another location.
For the research process in general, don’t reinvent the wheel. We will be publishing material in the future which will provide a more in-depth account of how to choose an effective intervention, so subscribe to our RSS feed to learn more about this process. In the meantime, you can use our research process as a launching pad for your own process.
Another alternative is to start a charity based on one of our recommended ideas. We have put in thousands of expert person-hours into the above process. Choosing them will give you a huge head start, alleviate analysis paralysis, and greatly increase the odds that your charity will be incredibly successful at making the world a better place.
In summary, if you’re considering starting a charity, start with the fundamentals before thinking about how to fundraise and register as a not-for-profit. Figure out if your idea is a good one in the first place. Make sure to consider at least ten options and then research those, looking for disconfirming evidence before making the leap. Following these steps will greatly aid you in the challenging and exciting endeavour of starting a new, high-impact charity.