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Talent or Money?

May 20th, 2013
giving, earning_to_give

A few months ago I was wondering whether there are other strategies out there that beat earning to give as a way of making the world better. Of course it definitely depends on your situation and inclinations: if you could be earning $500K then earning to give probably makes more sense than if your most lucrative options are closer to $50K. But another important question is whether effective charities and metacharities are limited more by funding or by hiring. If they don't have enough money then you care about replaceability (how much better are you than the person they'd hire instead?) but if they have enough money that your willingness to work for them means they get an extra person, that's very different.

On the effective altruism facebook discussion group Lila Rieber asked:

I have a question for people working in EA organizations, preferably those in high positions. If you had to pick one, would you say there's more a shortage of money or talent?
Nick Beckstead's response was very good:
My background is that I'm on CEA's board of trustees, I was leading GWWC's research before Rob Wiblin was in that role, I worked for a couple months as an intern at GiveWell last year. I'm starting a new job at FHI in a couple of months. I'm familiar with CEA's finances and I've participated in their hiring process in the past.

To elaborate on my comment, I'd say that a key thing that's missing is very good people who are self-directed enough to make progress on important problems without lots of managerial overhead. It's hard to have enough people like this, and I get more excited when I find more of them than when I find out that we have more money, at least for the time being. If you're talking about a smart person who is reliable but can't chart their own course and work on important problems that way, I feel more excited about getting money. I don't speak on behalf of GiveWell in any way, but my sense is that GiveWell has fairly limited room for more funding at this point, but could really additional employees, including some employees who would be less self-directed. [1]

Some people make arguments like "well, just spend extra money to find extra great people." But the trouble is that we are short on scalable methods of turning money into great people. That requires innovative strategies, and I think we need more great self-directed people to find and execute those.

It sounds like if you're considering working for an organization like GiveWell or Giving What We Can and you can get things done without substantial external motivation, that's probably better than earning to give.

Update 2013-05-28: Jonah Sinick weighs in.


[1] This goes along with what GiveWell posted in their self-evaluation.

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