Each year, Charity Entrepreneurship gets several thousand applications for its annual incubation program. Other than the simple logistical fact of not being able to incubate that number of people, we think it's fairly uncommon for someone to be a great fit for the CE program and for founding a charity in general. Overall we are very interested in charities that have the potential to be among the most evidence-based and cost-effective in their field, and encourage founders to set this as their goal.
Unfortunately, giving personal feedback to every candidate is not viable for an organization of our size. So we wanted to write up some of the most common reasons that we have to turn down candidates, at the earlier and in the final stages of the application process.
Please note that our process changes every year based on correlations of different steps of the process and questions with the eventual charities that get founded. However, certain trends have been consistent for at least three years.
The majority of candidates who do not make it further in our process are held back by one of the following factors (roughly in order of what percentage of applicants they rule out):
Among the top 50 or so candidates who do not get in to the program, the most common reasons are (in no specific order):
Majority of candidates
Own idea being weaker than top recommendations
Out of the ~20 people we let into the program yearly, around two come in with their own ideas. This means it's about ten times harder to get into the program when you’re sold on your own idea above our top recommendations. Applying with your own idea, you only have one page to convince our evaluation team that this idea is worth us doing deeper research on. We would expect to see things like an estimated cost-effectiveness, a sense of the evidence, and why this idea is the best way to accomplish your goal.
Our program is not structured the same way as a standard grant program. There are many funders looking to support specific ideas. If your main goal of applying to the program is to get a seed grant for a pre-existing idea, we can almost guarantee there are easier ways to obtain that funding. If you think your idea is strong enough to be a field leader, we recommend following this process.
Limiting experience running independent projects
Starting a charity is hard. You’ll need to build up some skills before being ready to run a bigger project like launching your own organization. Have you led a small-scale project? Can you organize yourself to get personal projects done?
We are typically much more excited about candidates who have done something entrepreneurial in the past. The definition of this is pretty broad – it could be taking an online course, writing up some research for the EA Forum, or running your own blog. Showing you can motivate yourself to get something done without a formal job or education system on your back can really boost even an otherwise unremarkable CV.
Weak test tasks
We weight test tasks highly and find them to pretty consistently predict who does well in the program. Can you do a solid job on a test task given limited time? A large number of test tasks look like they could have been done in 30 minutes; others look like the product of deep thought and consideration.
It’s extremely rare for us to let into the program a candidate whose test tasks are weak. Practicing doing tasks in a limited amount of time can be a great way to get better at this sort of work.
A lot of the candidates who get far in our process have some degree of flexibility about what ideas they are interested in. If you commit to a single area you will have to be one of the strongest few candidates in that space; if you’re open to a wider range there might be a less competitive pool. This also opens up more options for co-founder pairing.
Flexibility about ideas isn’t the only type of flexibility. If you have limited time available for the program, you will need to demonstrate impressively strong traits to trade off. It’s rare that we accept someone who has much less than full time availability during the program, and those who participate part-time often find it hard to keep up with the workload. This is part of why we provide a stipend for the two months of the program.
At a certain point, everyone in the applicant pool is talented, can do a decent test task, and has a good understanding of what charity entrepreneurship might entail. For a number of candidates who get far in our process, the difference between them and a candidate who gets in can simply be a question of competitive advantage. Some competitive advantages could be:
Often we have to choose between candidates at a similar level, but one is limited by complicating factors. Something like a strong preference to work in a certain geography can limit the number of charity ideas a candidate could be a good fit for. Very few factors are dealbreakers for founding a charity, but they can make enough of a difference to weaken an application compared to similar candidates. We have accepted candidates with this kind of limitation in the past but they are a smaller group than those with few complicating factors.
Interpersonal skills are important for basically any job, and this is particularly true of charity entrepreneurship. You will need to build a very deep relationship with your co-founder, and if the range of people you can work with is very small this can limit your ability to find a good match. Signs that a candidate is more difficult to work with or negative references can be enough to eliminate a candidate from the final group.
Charity entrepreneurship as a top choice
The Incubation Program is highly competitive. If you get in, there are likely other jobs you could succeed at that are more stable, prestigious, and better paid. Charity entrepreneurship as a career path has to be among if not your top choice. If you want another job but are settling for founding your own charity you will not have the staying power to make it a success.
Generally we recommend that people err on the side of applying. Many people have said that going through the application process gave them a better sense of what founding a charity would be like and sometimes people have been surprised that they were a good fit. It’s easy for people who do not have a sense of what factors can really strengthen an application (e.g. running an EA chapter, student society, writing a blog and organizing a conference is actual, real-world entrepreneurial experience). For people who are surprised they didn’t get into the program, we hope this writeup will provide some more information as to why that might be the case.
Everyone is welcome to apply to the program in multiple years. And of course, you can also start a charity outside of our incubation program! CE is dedicated to publishing as many resources to help you in this regard as possible, including our handbook, How to Launch a High-Impact Nonprofit, which will be released in a new edition later this year.