What is it like to work at GiveWell?

post by GiveWell · 2019-03-12T08:51:27.504Z · score: 22 (10 votes) · EA · GW · 1 comments

This is a link post for https://blog.givewell.org/2019/03/07/what-is-it-like-to-work-at-givewell/

Contents

    My career before GiveWell
    Why do I think GiveWell’s a great place to work?
      You can help people a lot by working at GiveWell.
      The work is intellectually stimulating.
      How do I know if this is right for me?
      Will I be working with people who are excellent at what they do, share my values, and are nice to be around?
      Is it hard to work remotely?
  How can I find out more and apply?
      Some notes on the application process
  Notes
1 comment

Written by James Snowden.

We (GiveWell) recently announced that we’re planning to expand the scope of our research and to roughly double the size of our full-time research staff (from approximately 10 to 20) over the next three years. I (James) am writing this post because I think GiveWell is an awesome place to work and I think now is a particularly good time to join.

I’ll start by telling the story of how I started working with GiveWell’s research team. Then I’ll explain why I think it’s a great place to work and how you can decide if you’d like to work here. Finally, I’ll add some notes on what the application process looks like, and how much time it’s likely to take if you reach the later stages.

If there’s anything you want to learn about that I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to get back to you.

I should acknowledge that I was asked to write this post because I like my job a lot. I hope you’re willing to put this publication bias to one side for a few minutes.

My career before GiveWell

I started my career in consulting. It was OK, but I couldn’t shake the feelings that (a) I wasn’t doing anything useful, and (b) the research we did wasn’t always motivated by needing to get to the right answer. So after a few years I took an early career break, and went to do a master’s degree (in philosophy and economics). This was when I got really interested in figuring out where I should give money in order to most effectively help people.

I thought about applying to GiveWell during my master’s degree, but decided not to because my partner and I both lived and worked in London, and GiveWell is based in San Francisco. With hindsight, this was probably a mistake. I’ve done work remotely for GiveWell for the last two years, and—even though remote work does come with its challenges—it’s turned out just fine. Two years later, GiveWell applied for a visa for me, and I will join the staff this spring.

But back then, instead of applying to GiveWell, I joined the research team at the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA). Here, I realized that working out which charities help people the most was a question of incredible importance, depth and difficulty. I decided that I’d like to spend a good chunk of my life trying to answer it better.

As part of CEA’s research into cost-effective giving opportunities, I’d started looking into preventing pesticide suicide as a potential high impact area for philanthropy. However, before I’d completed my investigation, CEA decided to discontinue its philanthropic research activities. Fortunately, my manager sent my preliminary work to GiveWell, who interviewed me, asked me to do a work trial (20 hours, paid) and then offered me a position as a research consultant. Five months later, GiveWell made a grant of $1.3 million to the Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention as a direct result of my research. That felt great.

Why do I think GiveWell’s a great place to work?

When I was considering whether to join GiveWell, my main questions were:

  1. How much does this job help people?
  2. Is the work intellectually stimulating?
  3. Is the work something I’m likely to be good at?
  4. Will I be working with people who are excellent at what they do, share my values, and are nice to be around?
  5. Will I be able to work remotely?

I’ll go through each of these questions in turn.

You can help people a lot by working at GiveWell.

When you’re working as a philanthropic funder, your impact is a function of (i) how much funding you influence, and (ii) how much you can improve the allocation of that funding.

GiveWell influences a lot of funding. In 2017, we influenced between $133 million and $150 million. (1)

We have 25 staff between the research, operations, and outreach teams, meaning that, on average each staff member influences ~$5-6 million each year. That’s more than individual staff influence at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest private foundation in the world. (2) We also have a lot of control over how those funds are granted, subject to being able to clearly explain the rationale for those grants to our colleagues and donors who rely on our research.

Taking the conservative estimate of the portion of that funding that went to our top charities (as opposed to Incubation Grants) we estimate that, in expectation, this $117 million prevented 19,000 deaths, administered 50 million deworming treatments, and gave cash to 8,300 poor households.

So how much have I personally influenced that funding?

I’ve been the lead investigator on three grants: a $1.3 million grant to the Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention, a $1 million grant to J-PAL’s Innovation in Government Initiative, and a $300,000 grant to Fortify Health. The first two of these grants likely would not have happened without my work.

I led the discussion of how to allocate $64 million of funding from Good Ventures in 2018 by developing principles for making this decision.

I’ve contributed to methodological improvements in our cost-effectiveness analysis, completed internal evidence reviews of tens of different programs, reviewed new research relevant to our top charities, and managed other researchers.

Today, I’m leading our research into new types of interventions that fall outside of our traditional top charity criteria, and am exploring opportunities to help aid agencies spend their money more cost-effectively. I think that both of these projects have the potential to massively increase GiveWell’s impact. They’re still at a very early stage, and we want to devote more capacity to them longer term, so I see this as an enormous opportunity for new people at GiveWell to help shape the organization’s future research agenda.

I don’t think this kind of impact is unusual for a GiveWell researcher. If you do well here, you’ll be given the opportunity to take direct ownership over a lot of your work, taking the lead on important decisions (with input from your manager and the rest of the team).

Without a detailed cost-effectiveness analysis, I can’t confidently state that GiveWell is the single most impactful place you could possibly work. But if you think improving the lives of people living in extreme poverty is of the utmost importance, I think it’s near the top.

The work is intellectually stimulating.

GiveWell’s work starts with the question, where should our donors give their money to maximize their impact on people living in the poorest parts of the world? We break this question down into its constituent parts, and answer each part to the best of our abilities.

For example, I’m currently looking into whether the effective regulation of lead paint might be a cost-effective way to improve childhood development outcomes. (3)

This project involves:

  1. Critically reviewing the academic literature on the links between (i) exposure to lead-based paint and high blood lead levels, (ii) high blood lead levels and cognitive function, and (iii) cognitive function and earnings.
  2. Estimating the proportion of houses in low-income countries which are currently painted by using Google Maps random street view, and estimating the proportion of paint that contains lead by using paint studies.
  3. Interviewing academic experts about the impact of lead on childhood development.
  4. Interviewing implementers and doing online research to understand which organizations work on lead paint regulation, how much funding they currently receive, and how much an advocacy campaign costs.
  5. Critically reviewing case studies of past campaigns to understand the factors that lead to successful regulation and enforcement.
  6. Building a rough cost-effectiveness model using all of the above information.
  7. Explaining and justifying my conclusions privately to the GiveWell team, and publicly to donors who rely on our work.

This work isn’t just taking the headline results of some studies and plugging them into a spreadsheet. It requires thinking carefully and critically about how to interpret the entirety of the evidence available to us. What sources of bias or variance exist; how should they affect our best guess of what is actually true? And, ultimately, what should we do?

How do I know if this is right for me?

You won’t know until you try it, and I’d recommend applying to be a GiveWell researcher even if you’re unsure. Our current recruiting process includes a 20-hour paid work trial for candidates in the later stages of the process, which is a great opportunity for both sides to work out if it’s a good fit. But I can offer some pointers about what might indicate you’ll like the work:

  1. You should enjoy and be competent at understanding academic evidence. You don’t have to have a PhD (unless you’re applying for the Senior Fellow position), but you should understand, or be able to quickly learn, what to look for in a study in order to interpret its results and assess its merits.
  2. You should be excited by broad, thorny questions with no obvious answers. Most of the important questions in the world haven’t been answered decisively by rigorous academic studies.
  3. You should enjoy making clear arguments and critically assessing the arguments of others.
  4. You should prefer working quickly (relative to academia) to get the best answer you can to guide your decisions, rather than spending lots of time diving deep on a narrow question that isn’t going to change your decision.
  5. You should be OK with most of the work being desk-based. I’ve attended workshops and built relationships by traveling to meet people when they’ve been important for achieving our objectives, but we’re not interested in publicity or relationships for their own sake. The majority of research work involves reading and writing at your computer.

You don’t have to have all of these interests to succeed at GiveWell. I’m medium on 1 and 5, but close to maximum on 2, 3, and 4.

Another way to work out if you might enjoy the work is to read this post by Rachel Glennerster comparing academic and policy jobs.

If your reaction is these both sound great but policy jobs sound better, that’s a good sign. GiveWell researchers are more academically-minded and technical than typical grantmakers, but the work here is still closer to a policy job than an academic one. It’s this combination of academic rigor and practical recommendations that makes the job quite unique.

Will I be working with people who are excellent at what they do, share my values, and are nice to be around?

The people at GiveWell are among the most competent, kind and thoughtful people I’ve ever worked with. Some specific things I’ve observed about working at GiveWell:

Is it hard to work remotely?

Because I consult remotely from the UK, I don’t see as much of my colleagues as I’d like. A lot of people have asked me what it’s like working remotely and whether I have any tips. I do:

How can I find out more and apply?

If you’re excited about working at GiveWell, you can apply for the researcher positions here.

Some notes on the application process

Hiring is one of the most important decisions GiveWell makes so we want to do everything we can to ensure we hire the right people. While work trials take a lot of time, we think they’re the only reliable way for both GiveWell and applicants to figure out if it’ll be a good fit long term. They also give people the opportunity to demonstrate what they can do, even if they don’t come from a stereotypical academic background.

As such, the application process has six stages, three of which involve doing work trials, and generally takes between 35 and 55 hours for people who reach the latest stages.

  1. Initial application: upload your resume, answer some brief questions, and take an online test. (~90 minutes)
  2. Conversation notes: Listen to a recording of an interview we conducted and take formal conversation notes. (3-8 hours, compensated)
  3. Case study interview: Answering a question GiveWell has previously worked on. (~2 hours)
  4. Work assignment: Critical review of some evidence to reach a considered conclusion in limited time. (~10 hours, compensated)
  5. Remote trial: Working closely with a senior member of our research team. (10-20 hours, compensated)
  6. Interview day: 1-2 days in the San Francisco office meeting the team and attending interviews. (7-14 hours, travel and accommodation reimbursed)

We recognize this is a fairly heavy time commitment for people who reach the later stages. To some extent, we think this is necessary. But to try to mitigate that cost, we:

Notes

1. $133 million includes (i) donations to our top charities through GiveWell, (ii) donations directly to our top charities where donors explicitly indicated their donations were a result of GiveWell’s recommendation, and (iii) Incubation Grants funded by Good Ventures. $150 million includes our best guess of donations which were a result of our recommendations but for which donors did not explicitly indicate their donations were a result of GiveWell’s recommendation.

2. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation made $4.7 billion in grants in 2017, with 1,541 employees = ~$3 million per employee.

3. This project is still in progress and hasn’t yet been published on our website.

1 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2019-03-20T20:25:00.195Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · EA · GW

See also my thoughts on working at GiveWell from 2014-2016: https://80000hours.org/2016/08/reflections-from-a-givewell-employee/