Brief Notes on Careers in Foundations

I’ve recently been looking at some potential careers that may be of interests to effective altruists. While I’m certainly pretty happy to look into web development, I think another strong career option that is not very frequently mentioned is working in a foundation. I’d love to look into this more deeply, but I thought it would be good to first offer some preliminary thoughts on the subject.

So far, I’ve only spent four hours on this, including the time it took to write this post. As such, it’s very likely I’ve missed important considerations. If there is enough interest, I – or someone else – could look into this more deeply.

Summary

  • Foundation work seems potentially high impact for EAs because salaries are high and matching programs are generous. For exmaple, a senior program officer for the Gates Foundation can potentially donate $209K a year while still keeping $30K/year for themselves.

  • Foundation work also offers major influencing opportunities that many other EA careers lack.

  • However, jobs at foundations appear very competitive and hard to get. A survey of the top ten foundations by asset size shows that program associates require around 5+ years of prior relevant experience, and program officers require around 8+ years of prior relevant experience plus a Masters degree or Ph.D. Though there may be other routes in, such as non-program positions (e.g., accountant) or internships.

  • Overall, working for a foundation is potentially a high-impact career, though not as high impact as I may have first guessed. Because of the high amount of prep work needed, it seems like a foundation job would not be as potentially high impact as working in computer programming or finance – which offer similarly high salaries with less prep time – or law – which requires similar prep time, but offers higher salaries.

  • It seems like foundation work would be a good option for people who already have the relevant qualifications (Masters degree, multiple years of experience) to try for, or for someone to try and get in via an alternate route, like an internship.

Why Might a Foundation Career Be Promising?

Salaries are good for earning to give. A program officer seems to make around $122K a year, though can be as high as $197K being a Senior Program Officer in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. More “entry level” positions, such as program assistants, make around $49K a year. (Source: Glassdoor, averaged for the top ten foundations.)

Donation matching programs are very generous. As Joey Savoie wrote for 80K, this sweetens the deal even more – a matching program is like an instant raise for being an EA! The best programs are offered by the Ford Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Rockerfeller Foundation which both offer a 3:1 match up to $30K. This means that if you earn $179K as a Gates Foundation Senior Program Officer and donate everything you earn above $30K, you can donate $209K a year to any 501(c)3 organization! And the Ford and Gates Foundations are not alone – the Moore Foundation offers a 2:1 match up to $30K, the RWJF matches 1:1 up to $50K, and the Hewlett Foundation matches 1:1 up to $20K. Though, of course, make sure your foundation has a matching program and confirm what it does before assuming it as a part of your plan! (Source: Double the Donation.)

A chance to influence foundation money. The top ten foundations each work with billions of dollars. By being a program officer, you essentially have a full time job influencing the foundation to donate to what you think is more effective. Though, of course, you tend to be very limited in precisely what you want to donate to (can’t move everything to CEA or MIRI, for example) and are not the sole decider on this. But could be an important path to even more impact! For example, the Gates Foundation has an annual budget of $3.4B – with 1194 staff members, naïve division gives $2.8M to each staff member. Though, of course, not all staff have equal influence. Moreover, it would be good to take care to select a foundation based on how receptive they would be to EA principles before joining. For example, global poverty focused Gates Foundation would be a better choice than the developed-world-library-and-art-preservation focused Getty Trust. (The Laura and John Arnold Foundation is rumored to be particularly EA-friendly.)

A chance to influence other foundation workers. People working at the foundation are usually doing so because they’re altruisticly inclined. You also know they have good salaries and generous donation matching programs to boot! Maybe you could influence not just your own donations, but those of several other people in the foundation. Again, foundation match is an important aspect here.

Good way to potentially learn relevant things to inform EA. Your foundation work may happen upon a charity not currently known to EAs that ends up being really effective, or may shine light on important research. Also, the regular operations and management of foundations might be good examples to be applied at EA orgs.

Good way to keep up altruistic motivation. Donation matching makes donating even more salient and you’re potentially surrounded by other altruistic people. Certainly makes it easier to be altruistic yourself!

Why Might a Foundation Career Not Be Promising?

Restrictions on donation matching. If most of your impact is from donation matching, you run the risk of the org you want to donate to being not a registered 501(c)3 US charity. Additionally, you run the risk of the foundation you’re working for modifying their donation matching program unfavorably.

The jobs are really hard to get. See the next section.

How Would One Work for a Foundation?

So if one was interested in working in a foundation, how would one break in? To answer this, I decided to look at the careers page of the top ten foundations by asset size:

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: The Gates Foundation has 52 current positions open – more than any other foundation. Entry level jobs require 5+ years of relevant experience in the domain, and look very favorably on a Masters degree, with more education and experience required for higher positions. Careers here appear to be highly competitive. It seems nearly impossible for one to work here as a first job. It seems best to instead come from another foundation, non-profit, government agency, or consulting job first – after getting a Masters degree. Another potential route in is an internship, but access is restricted only students in certain (top) business schools.

Ford Foundation: Positions at the Ford Foundation are very limited in quantity and require a high amount of domain-specific knowledge for the job. Like the Gates Foundation, though maybe even more so, one be thinking of this as a second, third, or fourth job rather than a first one. One potential route in is to take a non-Program Officer position, like an Auditor or Technician, though these roles also seem competitive and require certifications and prior experience. The Ford Foundation also offers internships, though only for students in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

The Getty Trust: The Getty Trust has 34 open positions. Senior program officer positions seem just as hard as other foundations, but junior program officers seem easier to get, only requiring three years of prior experience and a Masters degree. However, a lot of Getty Trust positions are limited to people with knowledge of art history and library science, which may not be studied frequently by EAs. Additionally, some non-Program Officer positions seem easier as well – for example, the Software Engineer position only requires three years of prior experience. Moreover, The Getty Trust has numerous assistant positions open, such as data entry, which can be had without even a college degree (though salaries are much lower here – around $25K/year). The Getty Trust also has internships available for graduate students studying something relevant to Getty Trust activities.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: RWJF only has four positions open, and program officer positions are in line with other foundations (7+ years experience, Masters degree required, PhD preferred). However, RWJF is also advertising for a Research Asisstant position, which only requires 1-2 years of experience in Health outside of a Bachelors Degree, which seems promising. No internships publicly available.

W. K. Kellog Foundation: Only advertising for a handful of positions. Requirements on experience seem lower, but not by much. No internships.

William and Flora Hewlett Foundation: They’re looking for a Program Associate for something they call an “Effective Philanthropy” group! And it doesn’t have any onerous stated requirements beyond a college degree. Cool! Overall, the Hewlett Foundation has at least less stated requirements than the other foundations, but it still seems competitive.

Lilly Endowment: They do not appear to be advertising for any open positions.

David and Lucille Packard Foundation: Program officer positions are looking for 5+ years of prior experience and a Masters degree; program assistant positions looking for 3+ years of prior experience and a Bachelor’s degree.

Macarthur Foundation: Appear to be only hiring for internships right now, though they appear to be available to any American college student who will not be graduating this year.

Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation: Program Officer requires a Ph.D. with 5 more years of experience. Program Associate requires a Masters and 2 more years of experience.

Conclusion

It seems like working for a foundation is potentially a high-impact career, though not as high impact as I may have first guessed. Most notably, the high need for qualifiications and high competition for the job make it an unreliable choice for someone to “aim” for. For example, it seems way to risky to get a masters degree and acquire 5+ years of relevant experience in a field, all for the hope of landing a Program Officer position, and then not get the position.

Additionally, because of the high amount of prep work needed, it seems like a foundation job would not be as potentially high impact as working in computer programming or finance – which offer similarly high salaries with less prep time – or law – which offers a similar risk, but higher salaries.

Instead, it seems like a good option for people who already have the relevant qualifications (Masters degree, multiple years of experience) to try for, or for someone to try and get in via an alternate route, like an internship.

I imagine the best next step is to find a few people currently working in foundations and ask them more about career opportunities there.