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?

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:

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:

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.