When I first encountered the concept of Effective Altruism, the whole thing was very abstract. We all want to do the most good, but to someone from the outside, the specifics of what exactly is being done within the movement can be a little opaque.
Now, a few months into working at Charity Entrepreneurship, I still wouldn’t claim to fully understand effective altruism as a movement -- but I’ve decided to write up some things I have seen, to help others get a glimpse of the particular people and the culture of the organization that I work with. Other effective altruist organizations have also written documents describing their work culture, contributing to transparency in the movement. I think that this perspective is especially helpful for people who are applying to work at effective altruist organizations. My hope is that readers of this article could get a sense of whether working at Charity Entrepreneurship could be a good fit for them.
Author's note: This was written in November 2019. Since then, of course, a few things have changed. We are now all working remotely due to social distancing guidelines resulting from COVID-19, and are keeping in touch with regular social video chats as well as weekly team skypes where we share what we have done, what we've learned, and what we are grateful for. What has not changed, of course, is the close-knit and focused office culture and commitment to impact that I have described below. Our team camaraderie is as strong as ever as we work to move the 2020 Incubation Program remotely, keeping next year's incubatees safe as they found the next generation of high impact charities.
What I knew going in
I first encountered Charity Entrepreneurship through their training program. I was motivated to apply to the training program because I was impressed that they had founded one GiveWell-funded organization and had mentored another. I also appreciated that they were flexibly experimental, had started multiple projects, and were gracefully scaling down projects that they thought weren’t sufficiently impactful. They conducted things in a manner that was transparent and easy for others to learn from. Prior to attending the training program, I had followed the effective altruism movement with interest online since 2011 but had fairly limited in-person interaction with people and organizations.
What do people work on
Charity Entrepreneurship runs in one-year cycles. For most of the year, the organization can be roughly divided into five main activities: 1) research on which high-impact interventions should be started, 2) designing the curriculum and training program, 3) reaching out to the EA community, 4) providing candidates continued support after the program, and 5) operations work that goes into figuring out legal registration and payment issues, visas, reimbursements, office logistics, and so on. It is common for people to work in more than one of these areas.
All of this work culminates in a two-month incubation program, which aims to give a cohort of talented people all the skills and resources they need to implement pre-researched impactful interventions.
Let’s talk about spreadsheets
Charity Entrepreneurship is run by Karolina Sarek and Joey Savoie. Both of them are a tireless and unstoppable force for good, united by an extreme love of spreadsheets. Oh my goodness, there are so many spreadsheets. The spreadsheet love is contagious, and I love spreadsheets too now. These aren’t boring spreadsheets: they represent real decisions that influence lives. There are even moral philosophy spreadsheets. (That link is, in fact, a GiveWell spreadsheet. I think many effectiveness minded organizations use systematic tools to augment their thinking.)
Spreadsheets are front and center in the interview process. They are the very first thing you will notice upon joining the organization, and learning how to navigate them is essential. There are, I am not joking, meta spreadsheets about which criteria should be on other spreadsheets (in fact this is pretty common within the organization). The process is basically that you list all your choices, list every factor that plays into your decision, and attempt to give each a numerical rating.
I did not appreciate the power of the spreadsheet when I first joined. I now understand -- the process of running an organization involves an overwhelming number of choices. The human mind cannot juggle so many decisions without a systematic framework, and there are many, many decisions to be made. Without a spreadsheet or another formal numeric system, your decisions often take more time and will be worse. Spreadsheets force you to consider things from a more quantitative angle. They are devastatingly effective.
Prioritization and decision making
It’s a rare sunny day in London, and the team and I are having a picnic. One of the team members is telling me about some of her frustrations about human cognition.
"A problem is that people don't naturally cross-apply the lessons they have learned. We're a community of people who are all about maximizing the effectiveness of their donations and their work hours… but a new hire won't always automatically apply this to research time and to the value of information. You have to stop them from dutifully researching the 56 best ways to implement an intervention before they’ve compared it to alternative interventions. They understand cost-effectiveness when it comes to investing money, but they won't instinctively realize that they need to first check that the best-case scenario for an intervention isn’t 500 times less cost-effective than some other equally cheap way of accomplishing the same goal before investing their research time into investigating it further."
I ask Karolina, who leads the research team, which skills are most important for me to develop in order to do useful research. Would it be useful to get a Ph.D. to acquire more background in a relevant field?
“The weakness of many researchers is not to do with their specific background, so much as weaknesses in process. Without a systematic process, research will take a very long time and will not come to conclusions that actually lead to the world becoming a better place. The thing to work on is how to build an effective research agenda and meta-research process. You need to make sure that the correct amount of time is being spent on each topic. You need to coordinate with the people who are going to actually use your research, to make sure that you’re getting them information that they are actually going to use. When you get a new piece of information, you need to update your process to reflect that.”
Prioritization and decision making is a big deal at Charity Entrepreneurship. I’ve definitely been learning a lot about making sure that I am prioritizing time correctly, and discovering that, if I plan well, I can solve a problem in half the time. Productivity isn’t just about working hard and being thorough; it’s also about knowing what to work on and how long to work on it.
Fast feedback loops
It was a late night in the office, and Joey and I were discussing cause areas. I was going over some of the reasons I favored global poverty as a cause area. I had suggested that empowering the global population might be high impact from a long-term point of view because it would increase the number of capable individuals who could go on to work on important problems.
“Sure it could! Or it could speed up progress on risky technology. Or increase meat consumption. Or it could empower people but have no effect at all on what they work on. You have to be careful when adding flow-through effects to your cost-effectiveness analyses because you can come up with compelling narratives and justifications for almost everything. If you are analyzing flow-through effects, you have to be thoughtful and system-driven, and whenever possible tie them to more measurable metrics. For example, if you’re considering increasing the number of capable individuals who work on important problems via movement-building, you have to think about how that action contributes to the endline good. Do you want people to donate to GiveWell recommended charities? If so, it might be better to work in fundraising or pledge building than in more general movement building. If you want to supply talent, and care about a certain career path, you could directly find talented people, train them, put them in a position to work on important problems, and measure the impact of that work. Thinking about multiple paths to impact with equal rigor and considering if a given angle is the best way to accomplish your goal is a hard but important skill to learn.”
Joey was not having my speculative nonsense. Charity Entrepreneurship tends to be skeptical of difficult-to-verify explanations as to why something might be impactful, preferring falsifiable effects. Many of us use time-tracking software to quantify our productivity: we track how many people signed up to our program as a result of each outreach event, we track performance on various metrics for each person in our incubation program, and we correlate these metrics with the outcomes achieved by each resulting organization. If something is not working, it’s important that there is some way to know that it is not working. It would be all too easy to delude ourselves into believing we were having more impact than we are, and we try to safeguard against that as much as possible.
This general attitude also informs intervention selection -- it’s much easier to know whether or not you’ve created a successful organization implementing a concrete intervention when there are clear measurable endline metrics. Taking on projects with quick feedback loops is important for updating your intuitions and processes. One thing that increased my confidence that this was a good team to join was that I saw that they had trained their intuition on more measurable projects (e.g. number of dollars fundraised, number of vaccination reminders sent, number of mills fortified) -- this increased my trust that their methods and intuitions would apply to some of the less measurable interventions with more complex feedback loops (e.g. lobbying for global health policies, meta-research organizations, animal focused interventions).
Frugality and Running Lean
Another Charity Entrepreneurship student and I were running late to class because our train got canceled. We debated taking a cab but balked at the price. “Too many bednets!” we joked.
As effective altruists, we are all well aware that it is possible to save lives and prevent immense amounts of suffering at a relatively low cost. Many of us are in a sufficiently privileged position to afford that cost without much personal sacrifice. At Charity Entrepreneurship, there is a palpable awareness that every dollar spent might otherwise have gone to a different high-impact charity. The organization makes every effort to run lean, spending money only insofar as it increases efficiency. Even here, there is (of course) a spreadsheet comparing counterfactuals -- spending $25k to improve your efficiency by 10% might seem like a good idea … until you realize you can hire a full-time staff member for that amount.
Each salary situation is different, but most people at the organization ask for less than they could. The highly dedicated co-founders and senior staff are the lowest-paid members of the organization because they believe that there are higher impact uses for the money than paying themselves (even taking into account time-to-money tradeoffs… yes, there is also a spreadsheet on that).
I would describe the office culture as intense, informal, flexible, and friendly. It’s a small organization, and we set our own hours and generally come and go as we please -- but everyone is passionate and chooses to work a lot. You will often find the office full on the weekend, early in the morning, and late at night, yet nobody will mind if you come in at noon as long as you are producing output. In general, I think the organization puts a lot of trust in its employees and gives them the freedom to do what they think is high impact within the organization.
People’s little idiosyncrasies are very much accommodated. For example, I find it unusually difficult to sit still for long hours, so the team found a cheap used treadmill on Gumtree, and we attached a little plank to it to make a treadmill desk. Nobody will be concerned if you come in wearing pajamas and work with your shoes off while curled up in blankets and drinking tea, or take a break in the middle of work to go to the gym. Optimizing your productivity however you like, even if it is weird, is encouraged. There are lots of little social events, such as having dinner together, playing sports, or practicing public speaking and other skills. Some of the team members have even started a band
Last night my parents called and asked if I was having fun. I thought back to simpler times, before effective altruism. Before I instinctively measured the price of my rent in anemic children, developed a phobia of paperclips, and had calculated the precise number of chickens I would give my life for.
Yes, I am having so much fun.
And I’m picking up a lot of skills, new ways to systematically think about impact, and new ways to ensure that I am making progress.
But more importantly, as I see the last year’s work unfolding, as I look at how my current work is contributing to the process, and as I enter my numbers into my counterfactual career impact spreadsheet (I didn’t think to do that before working here!) and compare what I am doing now to the alternatives, I think there is a reasonably high probability that I am successfully doing a large amount of good.