Maximizing impact during consulting: building career capital, direct work and more.

post by Vaidehi Agarwalla (vaidehi_agarwalla), Jakob, Jona, Peter4444 (FlagrantBeaver) · 2021-08-13T13:59:32.077Z · EA · GW · 2 comments

Contents

  2.0 Key Ideas
  2.1 Get Staffed on Impactful Projects
    What kinds of impactful projects are available?
      EA-relevant socially impactful projects
    Reasons to prioritize this
    Reasons to not prioritize this idea
    Practical advice on staffing
      Take 1-2 years to build your platform. 
      Always be on the hunt and ready for opportunities. 
      Staffing in some areas can be competitive
  2.2 Positively influencing the work consulting firms do
      Examples of EA-adjacent work by consulting firms
    Reasons to prioritize this
    Reasons not to prioritize this
    Practical advice on reaching out
  2.3 Volunteering to build an EA community 
    What kinds of impact can you have through community building?
      Influencing Individual Donations
      Influencing CSR Initiatives and Donation Matching
      Help other community members
      Contributing to the EACN
    Reasons to prioritize this
    Reasons not to prioritize this
    Practical advice on community building 
  2. Earning-to-give
    Reasons to prioritize this
    Reasons not to prioritize this
  2.5 Earning-to-save
    Reasons to prioritize this
    Reasons not to prioritize this
  2.6 Other kinds of volunteering
    Skilled volunteering 
    Non-EA Related Interest groups
    Traditional volunteering
  2.7 Mitigating the risk of accidental harm
None
2 comments

Authors: Vaidehi Agarwalla, Jakob Grabaak & Jona Glade. This post was last edited by the EACN on 19th June 2022.

In this article we describe several ways in which you can optimize your consulting career both for immediate impact and for building career capital to have more impact in the future. We are comparing possible options within consulting once you are already in the field, rather than arguing that any of these are the most impactful things you could be doing out of all possible options. If you are still considering consulting, we recommend reading our previous post on beginning your consulting career [EA · GW] and also explore other career paths. 

The following suggestions are not mutually exclusive, but, to prevent burnout [EA · GW], we would suggest starting with just one and only taking on more over time, especially if you are new to consulting or effective altruism. 

This article is based on interviews, inputs and feedback from over 15 consultants currently pursuing high impact careers. While we primarily interviewed consultants from top strategy consulting firms, some of the advice may also apply to the Big 4 accounting firms or local boutique consulting firms. We recommend readers do some independent research as well. 

This article is part of a sequence [? · GW] of posts providing career advice on how to maximize your social impact as a consultant. We have also written about how to begin your consulting career [EA · GW] and what kinds of exit opportunities are available for consultants [EA · GW]. This sequence is a project of the Effective Altruism and Consulting Network (EACN). It does not represent the views of any firms mentioned nor that of all of the contributors. 

2.0 Key Ideas

  1. During your time in consulting, we think what matters most is the kinds of projects you do. In particular, we think:
    1. Getting staffed on certain kinds of projects can be directly impactful, help you build career capital or both (Read more [EA · GW])
    2. Being able to influence which projects are chosen or the trajectory of those projects offers even larger opportunities for impact but is often harder to do (Read more [EA · GW])
  2. We believe that EA volunteering by community building at your firm is a promising complement to your longer-term career plans (read more [EA · GW]), and is one of the most promising kinds of volunteering you could do (read more [EA · GW])
  3. We think that consulting offers a fairly promising path which you can optimize for high earnings:
    1. To give now to effective causes (Read more [EA · GW])
    2. Save and invest to donate later and gain flexibility with your career (Read more [EA · GW])
  4. When communicating about effective altruism and sensitive cause areas to colleagues and clients, take care to mitigate accidental harm (Read more [EA · GW])

For those who may be unfamiliar with consulting the following is a quick summary of how consulting projects are structured. Projects can range from several weeks to months at the junior level, and increase to multiple years as you gain seniority. Each project will have a designated manager both from the consulting company and on the client side, and often a team of people from both companies, so you will be working with many different people in your first few years. Projects are often broken up into multiple “workstreams” which will often have a prime consultant, or the workstream owner. 

2.1 Get Staffed on Impactful Projects

You will spend most of your time working on projects, so it may be worthwhile trying to get staffed on projects in cause areas you think are important and want to work on in the future. This is a good option for people with at least 1-2 years into their consulting career, as most junior consultants are still learning the basics, and typically have less control over where they are staffed.

The time spent on impactful projects varies significantly by your seniority in the firm. As a junior consultant, you won’t have a lot of influence over where you are staffed, so your time on direct work projects will likely correspond to the overall averages of the firm. However, of consultants, we surveyed at the manager level (typically with 4-6 years experience) spent at least 50% of the past 6-12 months on direct work projects they considered impactful over the last year, and expect this share to increase going forward.

What kinds of impactful projects are available?

The consultants we interviewed had varying definitions of high impact projects, so we categorized three main kinds of relevant projects - EA relevant socially impactful projects; other socially impactful projects with lower EA relevance; and projects with unusually good learning opportunities. 

Socially impactful projects create a social impact that significantly benefits society in some way. Some of these projects are pro bono efforts, but many are standard client engagements in the private, public or social sector. Others can be general knowledge efforts with outputs such as published reports, or internal tools that will be applied across a range of client engagements. The availability of different projects varies between seasons - such as a surge in COVID-19 projects in 2020 and a general increase in climate change and ESG related projects over the past few years. 

EA relevant socially impactful projects are those which are uniquely good opportunities to have an impact at scale. They could focus directly on EA-relevant cause areas and effective methodologies, or those where an EA perspective can add a lot of counterfactual impact. Other socially impactful projects with lower EA relevance are those which might be in more adjacent areas (such as working on less neglected interventions in health, environment, philanthropy etc.) where you could have some counterfactual impact, but are more likely to gain career capital or motivation from working on a socially aligned project. Projects with unusually good learning opportunities could be any projects which allow you to gain industry experience or learn new skills that are relevant to cause areas you care about. 

In total, we estimate that at strategy consulting firms, between 10 and 50% of all available consulting projects can be relevant for some people to have EA-relevant direct impact and/or build career capital. For any one person, the share of relevant projects will likely be lower, perhaps around the 1-10% range, since they will depend on your learning goals and existing career platform. 

Below we provide a more detailed account of the different kinds of projects, their estimated prevalence and examples of each. Since we primarily interviewed consultants from strategy consulting and a few from the Big 4 Accounting firms, the prevalence estimates are most relevant to those types of firms. Further, these estimates are extremely rough and we encourage you not to anchor on the precise numbers. We are moderately confident that the order of magnitude is correct. We think these different kinds of projects are available to most consulting firms, but the prevalence will range a lot between firms and encourage you to do your own research on other firms, especially boutique consulting firms. 

Project TypeTotal PrevalenceExamples

EA-relevant socially impactful projects


 

 

~1-3% 
  • Public sector work specifically targeted at EA cause areas (e.g. helping clients improve their prioritization of research grants or development aid budgets)
  • Scalable, breakthrough work on helping clients decarbonize (e.g. developing tools like the McKinsey Marginal Carbon Abatement Cost Curve)
  • Some major topics in global health (e.g. antibiotic resistance and partnerships with LMICs)
  • Emergency responses (e.g. helping analyze supply chain & procurement of PPE and vaccines during COVID-19, scaling vaccination efforts, etc.)
  • Accelerating the development of societally useful technologies like alternative proteins (e.g. through innovation strategy projects for relevant companies)
  • Some forms of effective philanthropic consulting (e.g. setting up foundations or making organisational improvements)
  • Think-tank style research (e.g. studying societal implications and governance of emerging technologies)
Other socially impactful projects  with lower EA relevance~5-20%
  • Sustainability projects (e.g. decarbonization strategy for major industrial players)
  • Projects focused on developing economies (e.g. supporting jobs creation, economic growth or improving infrastructure)
  • Socially impactful work for national governments (e.g. advising on how to make public welfare initiatives more efficient/effective) or healthcare projects (e.g. helping healthcare providers adopt new technologies or allocate resources more efficiently)
  • Other forms of philanthropic consulting
Projects with unusually good learning opportunities (not directly impactful)

~5-30%


 

 

Prevalence will differ depending on which skills you're looking to build

  • Performing due diligence can prepare you for an earning-to-give career in finance
  • Technology or analytics projects for opportunities at leading tech firms
  • Client projects in many industries which give you project management experience can prepare you for operations roles

 

 

I worked on an internal pro bono study to determine what the globe had to do to decarbonize agriculture. The project was a great learning opportunity and was extremely rewarding and eye-opening with regards to the scale and pace of change required to limit warming to 1.5C or less (…) This project led to a string of work in decarbonization and really built the basis for my knowledge of abatement curves and how to offset carbon emissions” - McKinsey Project Manager

Reasons to prioritize this

An MBB consultant assigned to a cost reduction project designed the initial proposal in such a way that the sustainability budget remained relatively untouched while helping the client identify savings in back office areas such as HR or finance.

 

 

“I introduced several project leaders, who worked on COVID responses and pandemic preparedness, to EA content on the topics, which resulted in the proposal of EA aligned measures to various clients. The teams were grateful for the additional input even though I wasn’t staffed on the project” - MBB consultant

During my first two years in McKinsey I was able to do three research projects with the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), our research branch, covering physical climate risk, climate transitions and public sector asset management, which created new opportunities in the climate risk space and a 1-year research fellowship with MGI. I’m currently doing research to help companies focused on ESG get better at prioritizing which issues to tackle” - McKinsey Consultant

Reasons to not prioritize this idea

We believe the case is quite strong to try pursuing socially impactful projects since it is part of your regular work. However, some reasons you may not want to pursue this are:

Practical advice on staffing

Take 1-2 years to build your platform. 

By now public sector partners perceive me as the impact guy and pull me proactively [into projects]” - BCG Consultant

[I got staffed on the impactful study through a] combination of asking around and luck! Beyond the project though – I made a short list of 3 potential impact areas, and actually did a rotation in one of them (healthcare) before I decided to move to a different area (sustainability). So, I guess, [I ended up where I am today through] a good amount of actual experimentation” - McKinsey Project Manager

“Being proactive about social impact/effective altruism topics and challenging the status quo helped me to land a competitive spot in a social impact program, where I am staffed on social impact projects only for one year” - BCG consultant

Always be on the hunt and ready for opportunities. 

Staffing in some areas can be competitive

In general, it’s harder to get staffed on projects with high demand or those which require a base background or expertise. Breaking into areas like this may require you to start with a less impactful or popular project in an adjacent field (e.g. to build a relationship with partners/managers focusing on topics you want to work on). You could also take on side work, for example, by reaching out to partners working on topics you want to get into, and offer to help them with smaller tasks like client development work.

2.2 Positively influencing the work consulting firms do

Consulting firms invest a lot of resources into different focus areas and partners often have autonomy over the kinds of projects they choose. From a societal point of view, it may not matter much if you get staffed on a client project if a colleague does as you will likely bring very similar skill sets, although you may be able to influence projects in a more positive direction by bringing EA considerations or frameworks.

However, influencing which projects are chosen can have a bigger impact - causing a trajectory change, although it is more difficult. You could help shift focus to important cause areas. Since many areas of popular research are EA-adjacent, such as AI, biotechnology, public interest technology and climate change. Some consulting projects in these areas already cover societal risks of these technologies, and there may be opportunities to focus even more on the tail risks of these areas and communicate them with a wider audience. Even at a more junior level, you may be able to have some influence on these decisions. 

At large firms, it is possible to start influencing once you have a platform within a space - a network of partners who trust you - which is typically as a senior consultant. Your influence increases significantly once you become a partner because this is when you start controlling a portfolio of client projects. 

For boutique consulting firms, this could be more challenging as the firm often is more specialized and may not have the opportunity to expand in new fields, but if you can make a good business case for the focus then they may be receptive. It may make more sense, for certain kinds of consulting work, to consider starting your own organization (See Section3.3). 

Three consultants of one MBB-firm reached out to the senior leadership of an industry to discuss topics which are urgent from an EA perspective. They narrowed down 3 topics to raise during client discussions, which are still ongoing. Other consultants from the EACN reused the prepared insights in their regions and thus leveraged synergies. The topics/cause areas got a lot of attention within the firm and relevant clients with relatively little effort.

Examples of EA-adjacent work by consulting firms

What kinds of projects would we expect EA-aligned partners to do? Management consulting firms already do some EA-adjacent work, and here are some examples of projects that we’d expect to see from EA-aligned partners:

Note that these are only the publicly available examples taken from MBB firms and are meant ot be illustrative, not comprehensive. Most of the work that these firms do is confidential, so it is hard to say how much work each firm does in any of the areas above. If you know of other relevant and publicly available projects, let us know in the comments so we can make this list more complete!

Reasons to prioritize this

Stronger counterfactual impact. As discussed above, working on projects that already exist often has limited counterfactual societal impact unless your EA toolkit, network and values significantly influences the outcome of the project. Influencing the trajectory and helping to initiate new projects that are influenced or guided by EA thinking could have a high impact. 

Learn more about topics you are excited about. Pitching a topic or project internally and to clients may require you to learn more about the topic. 

Learn about the consulting sales process early on. It is also a great way to understand early in your career how partners position topics with a prospective client and how projects are initiated.

Become staffed on projects you want to work on. If you develop the topic within a firm it is likely that you get perceived as an expert and hence are also asked to work on projects, which interest you.

Reasons not to prioritize this

Risk of accidental harm. It is important to communicate about EA and new or sensitive EA cause areas in a high fidelity manner to avoid misrepresenting the movement. (Read more [EA · GW]) 

This is a somewhat speculative path to impact. Although we have some early signs of success from a few case studies, the track record for this path is quite limited. We think it’s good to adopt an experimental mindset if you are trying this approach, and believe it is worth experimenting as it could have a huge upside and help us build networks in relevant areas.

You may burn out if you end up investing too much of your free time. While you certainly can have a lot of impact with this kind of work, there is also the risk that the side projects you are doing becomes unsustainable. It is important to communicate clearly to what extent you can support and make it a more official role so your hours can be billed if you have to do more work to follow up after initial discussions. 

Practical advice on reaching out

In the BCG example above, one of the consultants first identified relevant partners and offered impact coaching on EA topics. He would test the waters by asking the partner about their interest in an EA topic in an informal setting and observe their reactions. If they were positive, the consultant would then discuss those points further. 

2.3 Volunteering to build an EA community 

There is a lot of space to make projects and internal groups at consulting companies, as well as many talented and skilled people who could bring their expertise to pressing global problems. Within this, we think that building the effective altruism movement is particularly promising and neglected.

“EA can lead to many interesting discussions and open new doors in many unexpected ways so it is really worth it to just throw yourself out there.” - BCG Consultant

What kinds of impact can you have through community building?

Influencing Individual Donations

Consulting is one of the highest-earning career paths out there, making consulting firms a promising place for promoting effective giving. 

You could run a Giving Game at your firm, or invite One for the World or Giving What We Can to give a talk at your firm. For more ideas and resources, check out One For the World’s Corporate Giving site, and this post [EA · GW] on how they helped grow EA in Microsoft. 

"Giving presentations about EA with the social impact team and pitching effective giving at office conferences was one of the most rewarding experiences during my consulting career. It both boosted my career by building a strong network quickly as well as having influenced some major donation decisions" - BCG consultant

 

Influencing CSR Initiatives and Donation Matching

Influencing donations could be difficult at many organisations, especially those with a strong focus on local charities. However, even small improvements in CSR or donor matching programs could redirect millions of dollars to effective charities. 

To find out how much different firms offer in matching, you can check Double the Donation. If you’re interested in learning more about donor matching, Match for More is an EA project centred around effective giving and donation matching.

Help other community members

When starting out, you can focus on building a small core group of members who are interested in how to bring EA to their consulting work. If you don’t have the capacity to run events or if it’s not a good fit for you, you could also help others in the community in smaller ways, especially those earlier in their career. You could:

Contributing to the EACN

The EACN is a volunteer network and relies on engagement from volunteers. There are several activities that would take 1-2 hours per week such as writing our newsletter and social media updates, working on larger pieces of content (such as presentations, forum posts and articles). Our members also regularly organize events, either giving introductory EA talks themselves or inviting EA community members such as One For the World to their firm. Please email info@eac-network.com to get involved. 

Reasons to prioritize this

Reasons not to prioritize this

Practical advice on community building 

2. Earning-to-give

Earning-to-give is optimizing your career for high earnings to donate money to highly effective charities. It is a great and easy way to have a tremendous impact. As a consultant, you will likely be on a good earning trajectory and be able to donate a significant percentage of your income to effective causes. To optimize your career for earning-to-give, you would focus your career on reaching leadership positions in an area where you will be able to build a large and stable base of client relationships, rather than becoming a social impact partner.

This option is more feasible for those working at the consulting firms where compensation is more competitive, though the gap in compensation between firms is relatively smaller until mid-senior levels. If you currently don't have the time to research where your donation would be most impactful, you can Invest To Give [EA · GW] now and donate later (read more [EA · GW]). 

Reasons to prioritize this

“Just having started my first full-time job, I decided to regularly donate a part of my income to charity. … What started as a simple resolution back then turned into a total of slightly above 10k in donations at the end of 2020 and counting. … Personally, I knew back in 2017 that I will be lucky enough to have a regular and good salary which however comes with a significant time commitment. Assuming that I will not be able to donate my time, I rather opted for donating money.” - Andreas Fazekas, Consultant at Inter-American Development Bank. Read more about Andreas’ giving here.

Reasons not to prioritize this

“The job gives me the opportunity to donate a significant portion of my salary to charitable organizations - last year, for example, more than 20,000 U.S. dollars (17,000 euros). This allows other people to work with full dedication to make the world a better place for all of us...many non-profit organizations also or especially lack the financial resources to expand their activities and achieve even more.” - Felix Werdermann, Consultant at d-fine. Read about Felix’s giving here.

You can learn more about employer matching programs by connecting with Match For More. There are also several general resources you can check out. 

2.5 Earning-to-save

Earning-to-save is when you optimize your savings and invest them, to use at a later date. This could be to donate your savings later, or gain financial independence and do low-paying or pro bono jobs earlier than you otherwise could. 

However, EA salaries are increasing and quite high already, especially in the more longtermist areas in which there are many talent bottlenecks.

Reasons to prioritize this

A late-career job switch can be difficult: it could involve a major reduction in pay and other aspects of status, recognition, appreciation, and comfort. I think anyone who has set themselves up to be truly open to a late-career job switch has (just by that fact) accomplished something impressive and important. I'd guess that your odds of being able to do this are higher if you have significant "reserves" in terms of physical and mental (and financial) health.- Holden Karnofsky, My current impressions on career choice for longtermists [EA · GW]

Reasons not to prioritize this

Read this article [EA · GW] for more details on this idea. You can also read this introduction (US Specific) for general saving and investing advice.

2.6 Other kinds of volunteering

There are a few different kinds of volunteering opportunities available within firms. Overall, we are most excited about building EA communities [EA · GW]and skilled volunteering. We are least excited about traditional volunteering. This 80,000 Hours article covers some of the main ideas around volunteering. Below, we outline some of the main other kinds of volunteering for consultants and the case for and against them.

Skilled volunteering 

You could likely help more by being a skilled volunteer for effective organisations. Skilled volunteers bring industry expertise to help organisations do work at a higher experience level than they could afford, or even work that they may not be able to hire for at all. The main challenge here is that as a consultant, you will likely be time poor and may not be able to dedicate as much time to such efforts. You could try to investigate whether your firm could count the work you do as pro bono or volunteer work since some consulting firms do volunteer work with social impact teams and charities.

Many firms have interest groups or social impact teams around topics like the environment, LGBT rights, unemployment and education. These groups can help you connect with like-minded colleagues and some can serve as a platform to create an impact depending on the cause area and your ability to steer the group’s strategy and focus

In the short term, you can work on joint projects or try nudging people towards more effective solutions. Over time, engagement can help position yourself as an expert in a certain topic, which might result in leadership proactively consulting you for high-impact decisions, asking you to contribute to the firm’s thought leadership or staffing on related projects.

On average we think this is a less exciting option for direct impact, and that you will probably have a higher counterfactual impact by founding or supporting EA communities at your workplace or offering your skills to best-in-class NGOs. We think this could be a fairly good way of building your platform within specific interest areas but recommend trying to directly build relationships with relevant partners through staffing if possible. 

“By launching and scaling a regional Green Team, I have been able to position myself as a climate & environment expert within our geographical region. This has led to leadership asking me to develop our regional long-term emissions reduction strategy - a great opportunity to identify and push for impactful measures relating to the future of our working models.” - BCG consultant

Traditional volunteering

Many firms will offer the opportunity to participate or organise what we would call traditional volunteering activities like gardening at the local mental health centre, litter picking on a beach or conducting skills workshops for disadvantaged youth. Some consultants have organised their own events such as organise food waste reduction initiatives or blood donation drives. 

We think that traditional volunteering as a consultant is less promising as a way to maximize your impact than the other options we’ve explored in this article because it could be an opportunity cost in terms of time spent. At some firms, you can be a skilled volunteer for local social impact teams and support/mentor local NGOs (e.g. by conducting market research). The impact of these kinds of volunteering roles would be limited by the causes those organisations focus on. 

However, you can have more than one goal. Traditional volunteering can help you feel connected to your local community, and there are activities within it that are more effective on average.

“I think taking part in [traditional] volunteering is great for mental health and for your sense of connection to community. It’s definitely a nice counterbalance to the corporate culture. And I actually have slightly missed that kind of thing in other non-consulting EA roles since. I do think there’s a danger of this seeming more impactful than it actually is though." - Habiba Islam, 80,000 Hours

2.7 Mitigating the risk of accidental harm

It is important to communicate about EA and new or sensitive EA cause areas in a high fidelity way to avoid misrepresenting the movement. For example, while it often makes sense to start a discussion about EA by talking about the cost-effectiveness of charities because it’s an easily understandable topic, it’s important to also draw out the deeper-level values that lead us to those kinds of object-level ideas. We provide more details about how to talk to consultants about EA above [EA · GW].

If you don’t feel confident in communicating EA ideas to others yet, you can check out this article on Communicating About EA. This is especially important if you are considering discussing problems that may have significant information hazards [? · GW], such as biosecurity. This EA Global talk covers some other type of accidental harm [EA · GW]. If you’re not sure about whether or how to discuss topics, reach out to the EACN and we can connect you to relevant experts. 


Considering how to have an impact with your consulting career? Reach out to members of the EACN if you are unsure if staying in consulting is still the most impactful career path. We offer networking opportunities with a broad network of EA aligned consultants. 

2 comments

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comment by Bob Jacobs (bmjacobs@telenet.be) · 2021-08-13T16:34:39.837Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Nice post and nice sequence, although I think you forgot to put this post in the sequence itself? I don't see it in there: forum.effectivealtruism.org/s/LTT73ENYmZRfjMq25 [? · GW]

Replies from: vaidehi_agarwalla
comment by Vaidehi Agarwalla (vaidehi_agarwalla) · 2021-08-14T00:13:09.144Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks Bob, linked!