Key Questions About Philanthropy, Part 2: Choosing Focus Areas and Hiring Program Staff

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

This post is second in a series on fundamental questions about philanthropy that we’ve grappled with in starting a grantmaking organization (see link for the series intro). In this post, we discuss the following questions:

  • Should a funder set explicit focus areas, and if so, how should they choose the focus areas? We believe it generally makes sense to declare focus areas (i.e., causes that one plans to focus on). While it’s common for philanthropists to choose focus areas based on preexisting personal passions, we are taking a different approach. This choice is arguably the most important a funder makes, and we are trying to be strategic about it. More
  • How many focus areas should one work in? We're highly undecided about this question. We see most funders working in relatively few focus areas, with a high level of depth and expertise. But we also see some appeal in the idea of pursuing more breadth at the cost of depth. More
  • What does a program staffer do on a day-to-day basis? We use the term "program staff" to refer to the staff who have primary responsibility for finding and evaluating giving opportunities (though not necessarily making the final grant decision). One clear part of their role is checking in on existing grants. But it’s less obvious what the most effective activities are for finding new giving opportunities. Our sense is that the most valuable activities include articulating and refining one's grantmaking priorities, as well as networking. It strikes us that these activities may often lead to higher returns than running an open-ended grant application process. More
  • What sort of person makes a good program staffer? We are still forming our views on this question. Some qualities we think are generally important include strong alignment and communication with the people who will ultimately be responsible for grantmaking decisions (e.g., any executives and funders working with the program staffers); a strong sense of one's strengths and weaknesses; and strong interpersonal skills. More

Should a funder set explicit focus areas, and if so, how?

We believe it generally makes sense to declare focus areas (i.e., causes that one plans to focus on). We laid out our reasoning in two previous posts: Refining the Goals of GiveWell Labs and The Importance of Committing to Causes. In brief, setting focus areas allows one to be deliberate about building networks and expertise around particular topics, which in turn become useful for finding and evaluating many different giving opportunities. Having focus areas also can provide a rule of thumb for "quickly saying no" to many opportunities, proposals and events; this can be a major time-saver. Many seem to believe that philanthropists should choose their focus areas based on their personal passions and interests rather than analysis. The Open Philanthropy Project is taking a different approach. The choice of focus area is arguably the most important decision a philanthropist makes. We believe it’s possible for additional philanthropy to accomplish more in some areas than others, depending on factors such as how much impact an issue has on people’s lives, what can be done about it, and how many funders are already working on it. We also believe that it can be very costly to change one's mind about focus areas, due to the importance of commitment as a funder (see link above). Our process involves investigating many causes at relatively low depth, then some causes at higher depth, before finally choosing focus areas based on the criteria of importance, tractability and uncrowdedness.

How many focus areas should one work in?

We've thought a fair amount about the question of whether we ought to prioritizing deep expertise or breadth in our philanthropy. That is, holding staff and budget constant, should we make deep commitments to a small number of focus areas, or keep tabs on a larger number of areas and make grants opportunistically, i.e. when outstanding opportunities arise? We're quite undecided on this question, and we're currently seeking to experiment with both approaches. As discussed in our recent updates on our work in U.S. policy and global catastrophic risks, we are seeking full-time staff to specialize in some causes, while taking a "broad" approach to covering others. Of course, a funder's budget and staff capacity are also major factors in how many focus areas are appropriate. The answer to "how much funding should we allocate to one focus area?" depends heavily on the area. There are causes we’ve encountered where small amounts of funding could make a big difference, and causes where much larger amounts would be needed to have any hope of much influence.

What does a program staffer do on a day-to-day basis?

We use the term "program staff" to refer to the staff who have primary responsibility for finding and evaluating giving opportunities (though not necessarily making the final grant decision). The most common titles for such staff seem to be "Program Officer" and "Program Director." For simplicity, we use the term "program staffer" below. We use the term "manager" to refer to the person who evaluates the work of a program staffer. Two clear roles of program staffers are evaluating new promising giving opportunities and following the progress of existing grants. These activities seem relatively straightforward to picture: they involve formulating and asking key questions, and working with grantees and other sources to get answers. We've had more trouble picturing how a program staffer finds potential giving opportunities. Our impression is that:

  • There's a lot of value in meeting and keeping in touch with all of the people, organizations, and issues connected to a cause. In our experience, and based on our conversations with other funders, it seems that many giving opportunities come via referral. The better the key players in a field know a program staffer, the more likely they are to refer people and projects who seem like a good match with the staffer’s priorities. Our impression is that many foundations' staff spend a significant part of their time in meetings and at conferences.
  • Related to this, it seems highly valuable to have a clear, up-to-date "strategy." If others in a field have a clear picture of what sorts of giving opportunities we are (and aren’t) looking for, they are more likely to pass along high-potential opportunities that come up. That’s why refining our strategy – and thinking about how to best communicate it – may often be a good use of time.
  • As mentioned in a previous post, it may sometimes be appropriate for a program staffer to pitch ideas to potential grantees, or even to recruit people to create a new organization, rather than simply considering ideas brought in by others.
  • Other proactive activities a program staffer can undertake to find giving opportunities include organizing a convening to generate ideas or issuing an open call for grant proposals. We have participated in both at various times, and we see value in these tools. But because they often require major investments of time, we only plan to use them when we have a very clear sense of the goals and deliverables, and significant staff capacity available to work on them.

What sort of person makes a good program staffer?

At this time, we know very little about what makes a good program staffer. One aspect of the subject was covered in a speech by Gara LaMarche on the relative merits of hiring "someone with deep content knowledge in a particular field" versus "someone versatile enough to handle a number of issues [and] move over time from one field to another." There is some obvious overlap between this topic and that of expert vs. broad philanthropy, but they are distinct questions. For instance, we could choose to have a deep focus on a small number of areas, while hiring generalists who will aim to get up to speed and will switch areas when necessary. So far, as we've selected our current program staff and done some early searching for cause-specific staff, we've prioritized the following qualities:

  • Clear sense of strategy and alignment with managers. It seems important to us that managers and program staffers see eye-to-eye on what they're trying to accomplish in a cause and why; on the basics of what sorts of giving opportunities they're looking for; and, therefore, on how they expect to evaluate giving opportunities. This seems necessary in order for program staff to engage in self-directed exploration and evaluation, while having a high likelihood of making decisions that their manager is comfortable with.
  • Ability to investigate grant opportunities, raise critical questions, and justify one's choices in ways that are convincing to managers. In our case, we tend to place a lot of value on being able to understand why someone thinks what they think. We have a fairly well-defined style for public writeups that involves a significant amount of citation and explanation for our claims; our current program staff are comfortable writing in this style, and we hope that future program staff will be as well (even if they aren't always responsible for personally completing writeups).
  • Strong sense of one's own strengths and weaknesses. As discussed above, we believe that a funder often must make judgment calls about when they should seek to help a grantee address potential weaknesses versus deferring to the grantee. We think there is room for debate on how much expertise program staffers ought to have, but it is important that they recognize when a question falls outside of it.
  • Strong interpersonal and communication skills. We believe that program staff should be well-networked and well-respected in their fields; should give grantees clear guidance about their prospects for receiving funding; must be capable of being persuasive; should be able to pick up information – often "between the lines" of explicit communication – about how different players in the field relate to each other; and should be sensitive to the line between (a) sharing opinions and making suggestions, versus (b) nudging grantees to take actions that may be suboptimal in order to receive funding. For these reasons and more, we think it's important for program staffers to have strong interpersonal and communication skills. The vast majority of program staffers from other foundations with whom we’ve interacted exhibit this quality.

To be sure, the qualities listed above are very general. More detail on the specific qualities we look for in particular roles is available via our job listings for cause-specific staff.