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.

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.impact is a group of people who want to volunteer on really useful projects. This means, however, we need some idea of whether or not our projects are actually useful. Thus, the purpose of this essay is to analyze whether or not our projects have been useful, whether putting more time and money into .impact is worth the cost, where .impact has stumbled, and what our plans for the future are.

Summary

  • .impact has worked on a total of 25 projects, 8 of which have been launched (Skillshare, Improving EA Presence on Wikipedia, EA Interview Series, Utilitarian Essays Redesign, CEA Homepage Redesign, Giving What We Can Redesign, and the EA Reddit).

  • Right now, we think the core benefits of .impact can be categorized as working on (a) building the EA community, (b) building EA infrastructure, (c) learning about volunteering, (d) giving people skills and credibility, and (e) encouraging an ethos of trying things.

  • Our case is not very rigorous. A lot of our evidence is anecdotal, and most of our impact lies in our yet-to-be-realized potential as an organization.

  • .impact has encountered setbacks. We’ve found the supply of volunteering to be more limited than expected. We’ve also found volunteer software projects to be more difficult than originally assumed, with it taking much more time than expected to make much progress on projects.

  • We’ve also found it difficult to predict how useful our projects would be. So far .impact has not progressed as much as we would like in systematic needs analysis, metric measurement, or project prioritization.

  • The original goal of some of our members to learn programming through doing programming projects has been more difficult to realize. Aligning high-impact development with education has proven challenging.

  • Our costs to date have been ~$50 and ~860 person hours (valued at $34.4K). However, much of .impact work is in the free time, and opportunity costs seem to be lower than one would initially expect.

  • Overall, we’re quite confidant that we justify our costs and we look forward to seeing what happens in the next few months.

See the rest of the review…

…on the .impact blog

Over at Felicifia, Alonzo Fyfe, blogger at Atheist Ethicist and The Secularite, and I had a debate on “Which is a better theory of utilitarianism – Alonzo Fyfe’s desirism or Peter Hurford’s two-level utilitarianism?”. I wanted to reprint that debate here. Here’s the second entry (of eight). This entry was written by me. This is a continuiation of the previous entry written by Alonzo.

Introduction

I want to first spend some of my precious word count mentioning how much of an honor it is to be engaging with Alonzo Fyfe on this important issue. In many ways I owe Alonzo a lot for where I am today. In 2011, I was a huge fan of desirism. I learned many aspects of moral philosophy from reading Fyfe and became interested in ethics due to following Alonzo’s journey to figure out the right thing. Perhaps ironically the first place I learned about the “two level utilitarianism” was from Fyfe himself.

In this debate, I offer “two-level utilitarianism” as a better view of utilitarianism. However, I agree with Alonzo that this is more of a friendly discussion than a debate. I must admit it might be hard for Alonzo to give up desirism after spending so much of his life defending it, just as it would be hard for me to give up utilitarianism after having a blog called “The Everyday Utilitarian”. But I rest assured that we are both beholden to the truth more than our particular brands of utilitarianism and believe we can be trusted to update our beliefs in the face of new arguments.

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Follow up to “Six Month Review II: June-November 2013”.

Previously, I’ve publicly published monthly reviews where I’ve reviewed progress on habits and published six-month reviews where I’ve gone in-depth on personal life strategy. While I still aim to review myself on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis, I am no longer going to publish these. Instead, I’ve recently found that the monthly review is too quick to have meaningful things to say, while the six-month review is too slow. Therefore, I’ve consolidated into a three-month review. Here’s my personal review for the months of December, January, and February. I’ve been delayed in getting this out due to the site redesign.

What Is My Path to Impact?

I find it useful to start this review by stating my plans, and then seeing how well I did against these plans. Broadly, I still self-identify as an effective altruist, which means I want to do my best to make the world a better place. But easier said than done! How do I aim to do that?

My Plan, Broadly

In “Where I’m Giving and Why”, I write that there is “a huge priority to learn more about opportunities for doing good” and therefore “I’ve decided to spend my money and time trying to figure out how to learn more in reliable ways” (see also me on unproven causes, my follow-up to that post, and Paul Christiano on cause prioritization).

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Some people have committed a great deal of their lives to trying to best make the world a better place. I’m trying to sit down with some of these people and learn more about their thoughts and motivations.

Today, I sit down with Ryan Carey, who has spent a lot of time working on various projects to make the world a better place, from setting up the utilitarian forum, Felicifia, to co-creating an “effective altruist” meetup group in Melbourne, Australia. He is now currently collaborating with Leverage Research and the Centre for Effective Altruism on research into the far future and associated risks. Ryan has recently been blogging about his thoughts and experiences on his personal blog.

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I think it’s important to keep things fresh. It seems like at least once a year or so, I change what the site looks like. This year, server problems, financial costs, and other bloat inspired me to move away from Wordpress and paid hosting on Dreamhost to the wonderful land of a Jekyll static blog hosted by GitHub pages. Back five years ago when I first signed on with Dreamhost, none of these tools existed. Now, it’s time that I finally adopt them.

I’ll still have to get used to writing in Markdown. But hopefully you find this site faster and easier to use than before. It sure looks better on mobile phones. Let me know if you have any comments.

So I still do these… Yeah.

“The Virtue of Silence”: “Leah Libresco writes a couple of essays on an ethical dilemma reported in the New York Times. In the course of a confidential medical history, a doctor hears her patient is suffering from stress-related complaints after having sent an innocent man to prison. The doctor wants to know whether it is ethical to report the matter to the police. The Times’ columnist says yes – it would save the poor prisoner. Leah says no – violating medical confidentiality creates an expectation that medical confidentiality will be violated in the future, thus dooming patients who are too afraid to talk about drug use or gay sex or other potentially embarrassing but important medical risk factors. But both sides are ignoring the much bigger dilemma lurking one meta-level up: is it ethical to debate this dilemma in the New York Times?”

Charity Cost-Effectiveness in an Uncertain World: “Evaluating the effectiveness of our actions, or even just whether they’re positive or negative by our values, is very difficult. One approach is to focus on clear, quantifiable metrics and assume that the larger, indirect considerations just kind of work out. Another way to deal with uncertainty is to focus on actions that seem likely to have generally positive effects across many scenarios, and often this approach amounts to meta-level activities like encouraging positive-sum institutions, philosophical inquiry, and effective altruism in general. When we consider flow-through effects of our actions, the seemingly vast gaps in cost-effectiveness among charities are humbled to more modest differences, and we begin to find more worth in the diversity of activities that different people are pursuing. Those who have abnormal values may be more wary of a general “promote wisdom” approach to shaping the future, but it seems plausible that all value systems will ultimately benefit in expectation from a more cooperative and reflective future populace.”

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In the past, some people have suggested that we “gamify” effective altruism some more, and create points for doing altruistic-y things, like donating our money or volunteering our time. I think this could be a good idea, but rather than seeing individual scores, I’d much rather see a collective team score for EA. We’d compete as a group to beat our past group selves (make March better than February, for example) rather than compete amongst ourselves as individuals.

There are several problems with the individual competition model, but the biggest problem is the most fundamental – effective altruism is not (and shouldn’t be) a competition. Rather, we are a team. A community. We all have one common goal.

I know some effective altruists who see EAs like Holden Karnofsky or what not do incredible things, and feel a little bit of resentment at themselves and others; feeling inadequate that they can’t make such a large difference. This is an important feeling for generating a desire to improve, and keeping a growth mindset in the face of this could lead to great things for you. However, it’s even more important not to let this get you into depression, simply because Holden’s success is also your success.

All effective altruists care about is making sure that the world is a better place. It doesn’t matter who is doing the better-ing. If Holden, Bill Gates, and Dustin Moskovitz each have 1 billion EA points and you only have five, you should be celebrating the fact that the EA community is collectively at 3 billion and five EA points and that you’re helping. You shouldn’t feel bad that you’re not doing as well.

We all have different skills and abilities. Growth mindset does say that we each have an ability to be incredibly effective and altruistic, but we still all start with different places. It’s simply not the case that all of us, right this year, could be making seven figure donations to GiveWell or be putting in 80 hours a week at a top non-profit. But we all can do our best and try a little harder.

Let’s start seeing ourselves more as a community where everyone has something to offer and celebrate our collective success, not despair over who is or is not the most effective. Effective altruism shouldn’t be a competition (at least, among individuals).

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Idea adapted from Brian Tomasik’s “Teamwork over Envy”.

Jacy is an effective altruist trying to decide what career to go into after college. He’s currently choosing between a Ph.D. in neuroscience or a Ph.D. in economics. He wrote to me asking for advice. This was my reply. We both agreed it would be good to publish it so that others thinking about Ph.D. programs can benefit as well.

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I made you wait a long time for not too much, because I don’t know a lot about PhD programs. So I’ll be saying more general things that are less helpful.

Generally speaking, I’m skeptical of PhD programs because they tend to really restrict your options (committing you to a path for several years), which seems bad early on when you’re just learning about what you can do.

My intuition is that a PhD is a pretty poor path toward earning a lot of money, because the earnings are not a guarantee and they are in the more distant future, requiring discounting for both time and probability. An economics PhD might be an exception for opening up superior finance careers, but I suspect that if you have the talent to do well in finance, you’d have that talent immediately and could go in straight away. That’s just a guess though.

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Over at Felicifia, Alonzo Fyfe, blogger at Atheist Ethicist and The Secularite, and I had a debate on “Which is a better theory of utilitarianism – Alonzo Fyfe’s desirism or Peter Hurford’s two-level utilitarianism?”. I wanted to reprint that debate here. Here’s the first entry (of eight). This entry was written by Alonzo Fyfe.

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I want to defend the claim that desirism (desire utilitarianism) is the best form of utilitarianism - better even than Peter Hurford’s version of RM Hare’s two-level theory.

I wish to start by explaining its differences from other utilitarian theories and suggesting how these make desirism stronger than those other theories.

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