Funder-Initiated Startups

Throughout the post, “we” refers to GiveWell and Good Ventures, who work as partners on the Open Philanthropy Project.

We've come across many cases where a funder took a leading role in creating a now-major nonprofit. This has been surprising to us: it intuitively seems that the people best suited to initiate new organizations are the people who can work full-time on conceiving an organization, fundraising for it, and doing the legwork to create it. Most successful companies seem to have been created by entrepreneurs rather than investors, and the idea that a philanthropist can "create" a successful organization (largely through concept development, recruiting and funding, without full-time operational involvement) seems strange. Yet we've seen many strong examples:

This is not anything approaching a comprehensive list. It's a set of organizations we've come across in our work, many of which we perceive as prominent and important. I would struggle to think of many analogous cases of for-profit companies for which the original concept, recruitment, etc. came from investors rather than full-time founding employees. Assuming this difference is real, what might explain it? While I'm not sure, I'll list a few speculative possibilities:

  • A nonprofit startup must raise funds from a relatively thin and fragmented market. Investors ultimately all want the same thing (returns); philanthropists want very different things, and a nonprofit won't be able to get off the ground if it can't find a match. One symptom of "philanthropists want different things" is that nonprofit proposals are generally highly tailored to the values of funders. Thus, people with ideas may choose not to write up and shop proposals until they've identified a highly interested funder.
  • A nonprofit startup also doesn't have an analogous option to bootstrapping to prove its value and raise its negotiating power. It can hope eventually to reach the point where its donor base is highly diversified, but early on nonprofits will very often live or die by major funders' preferences.
  • Starting a new company is generally associated with high (financial) risk and high potential reward. But without a solid source of funding, starting a nonprofit means taking high financial risk without high potential reward. Furthermore, some nonprofits (like some for-profits) are best suited to be started by people relatively late in their careers; the difference is that late-career people in the for-profit sector seem more likely to have built up significant savings that they can use as a cushion. This is another reason that funder interest can be the key factor in what nonprofits get started.
  • The dynamics of competition may be different. If someone sees a for-profit with a good concept and poor execution, s/he might start a competitor. Someone who sees a nonprofit with a good concept and poor execution (and a solid funding situation) might be more likely to try to improve the nonprofit, e.g. by working for it. If true, this might make funder-initiated organizations – which, it seems, would be hard to find the right leadership match for – more viable on the nonprofit side than the for-profit side.

Our tentative view is that funders should think of "creating an organization" as a viable possibility, though as something of a last resort, since it is likely to be a much more intensive project than supporting an existing organization.