Introducing Charity Entrepreneurship: an Incubation and Research Program for New Charities

How do we get more EA char­i­ties started? There’s a good case that char­ity en­trepreneur­ship is high im­pact for EAs, but it seems not many are start­ing them. Part of the rea­son is that it’s in­timi­dat­ingly hard. Not only do you have to have mul­ti­ple rare and difficult skills, but you also have to choose a good idea to be­gin with. And if peo­ple are put off by the un­cer­tainty of ca­reer se­lec­tion, that’s noth­ing com­pared to the sheer am­bi­guity of all the po­ten­tial in­ter­ven­tions one could run. That is why we are start­ing a new pro­gram called Char­ity En­trepreneur­ship. We will make yearly char­ity startup recom­men­da­tions, much like what GiveWell does for dona­tions and 80,000 Hours does for ca­reers. This re­search will be ac­com­panied by an in­cu­ba­tion pro­gram, similar to Y Com­bi­na­tor, that will teach peo­ple the pre­req­ui­site skills to start a non­profit. In this post I’ll ex­plain more about the ra­tio­nale, de­tails, his­tory, and plans mov­ing for­ward.


The first pro­ject un­der­taken by Char­ity En­trepreneur­ship (CE) was 6 months of re­search in 2016 by 4 full time staff (~24 staff months). This re­sulted in Char­ity Science Health be­ing founded, which has since re­ceived two GiveWell in­cu­ba­tion grants and as­sisted over 200,000 fam­i­lies in In­dia. This was the pri­mary goal of this pro­ject and we feel CE suc­ceeded. How­ever, in a an­other way, CE was much more suc­cess­ful than we an­ti­ci­pated. Another pro­ject, For­tify Health, was founded, helped by our in­ter­ven­tion recom­men­da­tion, men­tor­ship, and seed grants. Not only that, but sev­eral other EAs and non-EA char­ity founders showed a large in­ter­est in found­ing high im­pact ideas, such as the ones we had re­searched, al­though we did not have the abil­ity to sup­port more than two groups at the time.

How it will work

The or­ga­ni­za­tion’s time will be bro­ken down into three sec­tions. The first sec­tion will be sys­tem­atic em­piri­cal re­search into an in­ter­ven­tion area fo­cused on find­ing the high­est im­pact gaps to found a char­ity in. This will re­sult in a list of “top char­i­ties to found in X area”, much like our pub­lished list from our last round. The sec­ond part will be a two month sum­mer in­cu­ba­tion pro­gram equiv­a­lent to about a sum­mer term uni­ver­sity course load, fo­cused on build­ing the prac­ti­cal skills need to found a char­ity. The third sec­tion will be a seed grant and weekly men­tor­ing ses­sions for the or­ga­ni­za­tions that are founded out of the pro­gram, similar to the sup­port we were able to give For­tify Health. We be­lieve this pro­gram has po­ten­tial to found 1-3 GiveWell in­cu­ba­tion/​ACE recom­mended equiv­a­lent char­i­ties a year.

Each year a differ­ent area will be cho­sen to fo­cus on, with re­search be­ing aimed at pri­ori­tiz­ing spe­cific pos­si­ble char­i­ties within that area, as op­posed to ac­tively com­par­ing across them. This is for mul­ti­ple rea­sons. Firstly, in the time it would take to feel very con­fi­dent in pri­ori­tiz­ing one cause area over an­other, we could have in­cu­bated a good char­ity in each of the top cause ar­eas. Se­condly, there is a limited pool of peo­ple in­ter­ested in start­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions in each area, so fo­cus­ing on putting out marginal recom­men­da­tions in one field will lead to less out­put than switch­ing be­tween them pe­ri­od­i­cally. Thirdly, given the ex­tremely un­cer­tain na­ture of do­ing good, ro­tat­ing be­tween cause ar­eas makes the im­pact more ro­bust in case one of our as­sump­tions or be­liefs are very wrong. This per­spec­tive also al­igns well with the re­cent writ­ing on epistemic hu­mil­ity which we found per­sua­sive. The area we are run­ning the first year on is an­i­mal rights, and for the next year we are con­sid­er­ing far fu­ture and men­tal health, among oth­ers. We already have recom­men­da­tions listed for global poverty and count CSH and For­tify Health as a some­what in­for­mal first year of run­ning this pro­ject.

Case for impact

The case for why char­ity en­trepreneur­ship is effec­tive has already been made here, here, here and here. I’ll make the case for how Char­ity En­trepreneur­ship as an or­ga­ni­za­tion has im­pact in this sec­tion.

CE’s im­pact hinges on two fac­tors—the coun­ter­fac­tu­als of the staff run­ning the or­ga­ni­za­tion and the coun­ter­fac­tu­als of the par­ti­ci­pants. My per­sonal coun­ter­fac­tu­als would be start­ing an­other di­rect non­profit my­self. The benefits of CE com­pared to this is that, while I think I could start an­other good char­ity, it takes about 3-8 years to take a char­ity from start­ing to be­ing able to run with­out the founders. On the other hand, with CE we would be able to launch an ex­pected 2-3 char­i­ties through our pro­gram ev­ery year. While I may be an above av­er­age char­ity founder, I do not pre­dict that I am 6 to 24 times bet­ter than the in­cu­ba­tees.

Which brings us to their coun­ter­fac­tu­als. Some peo­ple would un­doubt­edly start char­i­ties with­out our aid, but many wouldn’t. For­tify Health for in­stance, has said that they think they wouldn’t have started their or­ga­ni­za­tion with­out my men­tor­ship and ini­tial fund­ing. Mak­ing the leap from struc­tured jobs to the un­cer­tainty of en­trepreneur­ship with­out a guide and some ini­tial money is in­timi­dat­ing enough to turn off a lot of peo­ple. Pro­vid­ing a struc­ture, ed­u­ca­tion, guidance, and seed fund­ing can help a lot of peo­ple gain the con­fi­dence to make the switch. Ad­di­tion­ally, the sup­port makes it more likely that they’ll run a higher qual­ity or­ga­ni­za­tion, mak­ing bet­ter de­ci­sions and hav­ing a broader skill set than sim­ply jump­ing in. The as­sis­tance will also help them stick with it at the be­gin­ning when things are par­tic­u­larly challeng­ing. It’s eas­ier to keep go­ing when there’s a set­back if you have a coach en­courag­ing you to keep go­ing. Part of the in­spira­tion for this is to be what we wish we had when we had started.

Aside from the di­rect effects of caus­ing more peo­ple to join, there’s the benefit of choos­ing a bet­ter idea. Most star­tups are started based on jump­ing on the first op­por­tu­nity the founder sees rather than sys­tem­at­i­cally com­par­ing their op­tions. This can some­times lead to good ideas but is dom­i­nated by com­par­ing be­tween al­ter­na­tives, which I go into more deeply here. Fur­ther­more, far more time and ex­per­tise will be put into pri­ori­tiz­ing the in­ter­ven­tions. Even if the founder might have put some effort into com­par­ing their best op­tions, it’s hard for an in­di­vi­d­ual to put in the mul­ti­ple per­son-years that will go into our re­search. Lastly, the in­ter­ven­tion pri­ori­ti­za­tion will be done by peo­ple who have spe­cial­ized in and have a track record in choos­ing good ones. All of this com­bined will lead to higher im­pact char­i­ties get­ting started than oth­er­wise would have.

How you can get involved

If you want to help this pro­ject you can:

  • Ap­ply to our in­cu­ba­tion pro­gram. The next ses­sion will be held in the sum­mer of 2019. To find out when ap­pli­ca­tions open, join our mailing list.

  • Ap­ply for a re­search in­tern­ship. The in­tern­ship will work on shal­low in­ter­ven­tion re­search fo­cused on find­ing ar­eas for new char­i­ties to be founded. For more de­tails, go here.

  • Donate to us. You can see our bud­get here. Any ad­di­tional funds past what is listed will go to more and larger seed grants, which will al­low new char­i­ties more breath­ing room and en­courage more peo­ple to join our pro­gram. To donate please con­tact pe­terqc@char­i­ty­

  • Talk to us at EAG San Fran­cisco. Both Kather­ine and my­self will be at­tend­ing, so if you are in­ter­ested in the pro­gram, we’d love to talk to you there.