Status update

Just over a year has passed since I hung out my consulting shingle. I have so enjoyed myself: the freedom of being my own boss, the diversity of clients (from Oxfam to the Boston Consulting Group), the variety of work.

But as 2014 drew to a close, I realized that the work I had done for most of the clients was not the stuff of long-term fulfillment; that for me, I came to see, requires being given latitude to delve into a substantial research question that matters, charting my course as I go. One client stood apart in offering the most assignments like that: the Open Philanthropy Project. “Open Phil” is a partnership of the charity evaluator GiveWell, started by Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld, and the foundation Good Ventures, co-founded by Cari Tuna and her husband Dustin Moskovitz, himself one of the creators of Facebook. It was for Open Phil that I wrote about whether saving lives causes population growth, whether immigration lowers employment or pay for workers in receiving countries, and how much we should worry about geomagnetic storms (foretaste).

So I decided I’d like to work for them.

At present, Open Phil is staffed mostly by GiveWell employees; Good Ventures is a funder and close collaborator in the person of Cari. As the Washington Post described in December, Open Phil is embarked upon an analytical, evidence-based search for causes to fund. The causes need to be important for the welfare of humanity; they need to offer some hope of susceptibility to external influence; and they need to be underfunded, as it were, since not every cause needs more money. Those criteria are easier stated than applied, which is what makes the work as ambitious as it is important. Inevitably, the search for causes will iterate, which is why Good Ventures and Open Phil have not waited to begin grantmaking.

Personally, in working for them on contract, I was gratified by their support for my going deep into the evidence, to the point of rerunning published studies and tinkering with their methods. I felt that I had found kindred spirits. Of course, one shouldn’t dig too long at those subterranean depths; and one should return to the surface with practical implications and clear explanations. I have long tried to do this sort of work, being a consumer of research–sometimes an annoyingly demanding one–rather than a producer of it.

And I like the “open” in “Open Phil.” I believe in the value of transparency in research. I think Open Phil’s philosophy is that the more it shares its deliberations publicly, the more it can benefit from criticism, and the more it can influence the philanthropy of others. “We see transparency as a way to multiply our impact,” Cari told the Chronicle of Philanthropy. One can go too far with transparency too, so the ongoing challenge is to find a balance. “There are good reasons to keep information confidential. But, directionally speaking, we want to challenge ourselves to be more open.”

So, as of about now, I am a 75%-time employee of GiveWell. I’m gratified to be included, and will do my best to contribute to Open Phil’s mission. Mainly, I’ll continue with the kind of work I have already done. I hope I’ll find new ways to contribute too.

Though GiveWell and Good Ventures are in San Francisco, I’ll still work from home. In the remaining 25% of my time, I’ll serve other clients and pursue unpaid hobbies. I’ll still blog, lightly, on this channel, and I do expect to share most of my work publicly. Stay tuned and wish me luck.