Should I Start a Charity Now Or Later?



Is now the right time? Am I experienced enough? These are two major questions for many potential charity entrepreneurs. Here’s our take.


WHEN IS THE BEST TIME FOR ME TO START A CHARITY?


We think that, for most people, the highest impact time to start a charity is right now. As a general rule, the earlier an intervention is implemented, the more good it does. One of the most important benchmarks of impact is counterfactual speed-up, which refers to the degree to which you’ve caused something good to happen sooner than it otherwise would have, thereby positively impacting a greater number of lives. By starting a charity earlier, you help more people more quickly. Additionally, some of the interventions we have researched are more time sensitive than others – they represent a chance to influence key decisions and steer specific events in a more positive direction. If we don’t find the right people to implement these interventions, these windows of opportunity may expire. It’s also a uniquely good time to start charities in the context of working in the effective altruism community. The community has funding available, our incubation program is currently running strong, and there’s a network of skilled alumni and mentors who are eager to help. These circumstances are all fairly recent developments and could change in the future. The low number of people who passed the bar for being accepted into our program was the key bottleneck to our progress last year. Being able to accept one additional person would likely have done a lot of good for the world.


I’M NOT SURE IF I SHOULD START A CHARITY BECAUSE I FEEL INEXPERIENCED. SHOULD I GET MORE FORMAL TRAINING, OR PICK UP EXPERIENCE IN OTHER JOBS?


Experience is helpful but not necessary. GiveWell, the Against Malaria Foundation, and many other high-impact organizations were started by people who had no formal background in the field. Work experience often does not prepare you to start a charity – dealing with operations for a large existing charity in the UK is very different from registering an organization and setting up a structure from scratch in India. ​ Our program includes people at all levels of education and experience. We train people with doctorates and people with over a decade of experience alongside those with little to no work experience or formal education. We don’t think that a co-founder’s education and experience are strongly associated with success as an organization. When the need for specific skills arises, you can generally hire staff or consult experts who have training and experience in the necessary area. If you agree with the fundamental principles of effective altruism, the most important element of starting a high-impact charity is choosing the right intervention. For example, an extremely competent organization that trains guide dogs to help the blind will likely not achieve as much impact per dollar as a moderately well-run organization that provides trachoma surgeries that prevent blindness (as the latter costs much less money). Finding the highest impact interventions requires systematically evaluating and comparing a very broad range of ideas. Subsequently implementing a high-impact intervention requires accurately updating your model of its effectiveness as new evidence comes in. This means that the most important factor in starting a charity is not necessarily domain-specific training or experience, but rather the willingness to be flexible and follow the evidence where it leads – even if you have no personal incentive to do so. Not everybody has this quality. When you are running an organization, it is very easy to get caught up in other factors and lose focus on doing the most good, or to trick yourself into thinking that you are having a greater impact than you really are.


I’M NOT SURE IF IT’S THE RIGHT TIME TO START A CHARITY BECAUSE I HAVE CAREER PLANS, DEPENDENTS, ETC. RIGHT NOW. CAN I STILL START A CHARITY?


Probably! Many of the charity founders we know, including some who have succeeded within our program, have career plans, children, and so on. One of the founders we mentored founded Fortify Health a year before going to medical school, and the organization is still going strong. While starting a charity does involve a time commitment, it is possible to fit it in alongside other career and personal goals. In general, we would suggest budgeting at least two years of full-time work to focus exclusively on starting your charity. If you think you are likely to leave the organization within two years of starting it, we advise having at least one co-founder who is able to commit to staying.