How a BCG consultant ended up working with charity entrepreneurs, and why you should consider being one of them!
Aidan, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us. Since you’re currently working at Charity Entrepreneurship, could you start by telling us about the organization's mission and theory of change?
Charity Entrepreneurship’s original mission was to enable more high-impact nonprofits to come into existence by removing the barriers that get in the way of the talented and ambitiously altruistic. Our full theory of change is available here, but in short, each year our research team spends hundreds of hours searching and comparing the most promising ideas for new nonprofits. Next, our recruitment team headhunts aspiring entrepreneurs, and our vetting team whittles down the thousands of applicants to the ~20 participants who will go through our training program and apply for a seed grant from the independent members of our Seed Network Funding Circle. Armed with a co-founder, a great idea, training and seed funding, these participants launch new impactful organizations, many of which go on to be recommended by GiveWell and other charity evaluators.
More recently, Charity Entrepreneurship’s mission is broadening to fill more gaps in the effective non-profit landscape. For example we now run an impactful grantmaking program to enhance the effectiveness and diversity of grantmaking organizations. We’re launching a number of funding circles to improve donor coordination in the nonprofit ecosystem. We’re also piloting a researcher training program to expand the pool of individuals who are able to investigate the multitude of potentially impactful intervention ideas that remain unexplored.
Sounds like the organization is quite busy! What are your own goals as the Director of Programs at Charity Entrepreneurship?
My high-level goal as Director of Programs is to equip our program participants with the strongest set of decision-making tools and skills possible as they take off on a new impactful career path as a charity entrepreneur, grantmaker, or researcher.
Some more concrete goals I’ve had over the past year have been:
(a) scale the charity incubation program from once to twice a year (b) design and pilot our impactful grantmaking program (c) scale the impactful grantmaking program from once to twice or more per year.
Achieving these goals has been a team effort, and taken together, we think they have multiplied CE’s impact by roughly ~4x.
What does your day-to-day look like?
Day-to-day, my role involves either preparing for programs or facilitating them. Preparing for programs entails creating and continuously improving the content and structure, e.g. designing new lessons, refining participant projects, finding new ways to support charities after they’ve launched or writing a program handbook (check out ‘How to Launch a High-Impact Foundation’!). Facilitating programs entails tasks like delivering lessons, facilitating group discussions, giving feedback on participant projects, and having 1:1s with participants to (for example) help them refine their sense of which charity ideas they’d most like to found and which other participants they’d most like to co-found with.
What misconceptions do you think people have that prevent them from applying to the Charity Entrepreneurship incubator?
Some common misconceptions I’ve seen include:
(a) “I need to have my own startup idea to join” – You don’t, in fact, we’re generally skeptical of ideas that have not been generated through a rigorous research process.
(b) “I don’t have enough relevant knowledge or experience” – Nobody comes onto the program ready. That’s what the program is for! At least half of our founders are talented generalists who have little to no relevant expertise,
(c) “You get so many applicants that it’s not impactful to apply, and I wouldn’t get in even if I did” –
Despite the high interest in our program, our impact is still significantly constrained by the number of excellent applicants we get. More ‘A+’ applicants will cause more impactful charities to get founded. Meanwhile, a high proportion of our applicants are people who don’t really understand what Charity Entrepreneurship does, so the competition isn’t as stiff as you think, particularly if you’re a consultant or work in tech (we love those!!).
How does working for an Effective Altruism (EA) organization compare to your previous roles in industry?
There were some great things about my previous roles, particularly Uber, where I found work itself was super intellectually interesting and enjoyed a great work-life balance and casual, authentic work culture. But despite all the benefits, I always felt a bit empty doing work that didn’t intrinsically matter, or that only matters, insofar as it allows me to donate money to impactful organizations. I am still a big supporter of ‘earning to give’, but personally, since making the transition to an Effective Altruism organization, I’ve found it so motivating and rewarding to do work that I believe is itself intrinsically important. It also feels great to work with others who share similar values and motivations and to spend all day geeking out about how to improve the world.
How do you think your current role compares to founding a high-impact non-profit?
Starting a high-impact non-profit has these same benefits, but also comes with greater autonomy, supercharged learning and professional development, and higher counterfactual impact. This, of course, comes at the cost of having to work really hard (but if you’re a consultant, I’d guess that’s the only way you know how to work) and having to tackle more tricky problems than you’ll ever need to face as an employee – after all, as the leader of an organization, the buck stops with you.
Aidan’s Effective Altruism Journey
How were you first introduced to Effective Altruism (EA)?
I was first introduced to EA by a BCG colleague (shout out to Louise). She explained the ‘Peter Singer argument’ for giving, and after addressing my stereotypical questions about whether there are charities that we can be confident do a lot of good, I was immediately convinced. After digging into EA myself online, I was pleased to learn that the career path I was already on (management consulting) came top recommended by 80,000 hours (‘that was easy!’).
How has your engagement with the EA community and philosophy evolved over time?
For years after this, I mostly supported EA from the sidelines, believing that earning to give and spreading the word in my network was the best thing I could do. When engaging with the movement at arm’s length it seemed so flawless. (Part of me misses these times!) Later, when I engaged more deeply with the ideas, the charity evaluations, and especially the community, I was able to see EA closely enough to formulate my own critiques of it (e.g. complacency leading to widespread neglect of some best practices; excessive deference to a handful of thinkers; a trend towards spending far too many resources on work that makes EA’s lives better vs. on object-level work that makes beneficiaries’ lives better).
These days, through my work, I’m more deeply embedded in the community and steeped in (CE’s distinct flavor of) the philosophy than ever. I see EA more as a key influence on my worldview than as a core part of my identity.
Which milestones stand out to you when you think about your EA journey?
I would say there were 3 main stages in my journey:
(1) Introduction to the ‘EA’ way of thinking. During this phase, the 80000 hours podcast and newsletter were one way to stay connected to the movement and its mission. My partner, who started an EA society at university, also helped to keep me connected and avoid ‘value drift’.
(2) Attending the EAGx Australia conference in 2019 gave me an opportunity to meet more EAs than the handful at BCG and to engage more broadly and deeply with the ideas. I left feeling more motivated than ever to be ambitious in my altruism.
(3) Joining CE in 2022. Transitioning from doing good indirectly through donations to making effective altruism my job has led to an exponential improvement in my thinking on how to best do good. I found it particularly exciting to join the tight-knit and welcoming CE community, where I finally had people I can go down nerdy discussion rabbit holes with on topics like metaethics and animal advocacy strategy!
The Career Capital Years
Looking back, in what ways did working at BCG meet and differ from your expectations?
BCG met my expectations in terms of poor work-life balance, but what I didn’t appreciate until I started was how far apart my values were from most of my colleagues and how much this would affect my enjoyment of working there.
On a more positive note, BCG exceeded my expectations in terms of learning and development and being surrounded by extremely smart and competent people. I loved the direct feedback culture and focus on professional development.
While at BCG and Uber, you did some ‘EAvangelism’, as in advocating for EA ideas inside the organizations. Can you walk us through what that looked like?
Sure! ‘EAvangelism’ can be very impactful when successful, because you can catalyze people to change their entire careers to be more focused on helping others, just like Louise, who first introduced me to EA.
At BCG, I was a member of the Australian office’s EA committee, which ran presentations and events to introduce EA concepts to colleagues. This committee was ultimately able to move BCG’s payroll giving to a low-friction digital platform and to prompt folks to consider starting/increasing their giving at promotion/bonus time.
At Uber, I put feelers out in a company-wide Slack channel to see if anyone was interested in attending some virtual ‘learning and discussion sessions’ where we discussed EA concepts (check out the decks I used here and here). These sessions, run during lunch time, ended up being more intimate (5-10 people) and the engagement felt a lot more meaningful, personally, than the wider but shallower events I was involved with at BCG.
What advice do you have for others who are trying to have an impact while working at a big company?
The most impactful bit of ‘EAvangelism’ I think I did was running donation matching campaigns during ‘giving season’ and the end of the financial year, in which I offered to match donations to GiveWell or ACE-recommended charities up to a certain total amount. This was valuable because (a) it made me a more credible advocate for EA as I showed that I put my money where my mouth is, (b) it caused a bunch of donations that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
EAvangelism can be really powerful and it requires proper investment on your part. Target the low-hanging fruit at your organization, based on its circumstances. To the extent that you’re going to be donating to effective charities anyway, you may as well leverage this to match colleagues’ donations (a key advantage of this approach is that you don’t need the organization’s buy-in to get started).
Advice for Consultants Considering Career Change
How do you think consultants' skill sets can best be leveraged for solving the world's most pressing problems?
I think consultants are in a pretty fortunate position where they can do a lot of good through donating effectively or taking any role in an effective non-profit (with a heavy emphasis on the word ‘effective’ – it’s hard to achieve much impact as a competent, effectiveness-minded individual in a non-effectiveness-minded organization). But more specifically, because consultants are great at autonomously breaking down abstract problems into manageable chunks and solving them, they make for excellent charity entrepreneurs and excellent early hires at small, scrappy organizations that still have a lot of things to figure out.
Consultants can also bring the best bits of conventional wisdom from non-EA workspaces to save them from the common pitfall of re-inventing the wheel.
How long do you think the average person should work in tech or consulting?
As with most careers, there’s a steep learning curve in both consulting and tech, but then there are quickly diminishing returns. The greater the number/diversity of cases you can work on in consulting, and the greater the number of roles/teams you can work on in tech, the better for maximizing how much you learn per year you’re there. Due to this factor, and the fact that different people learn at different speeds and come in with different baseline skills, there’s no one-size fits all answer. But my sense is that you want at least 1 year and that beyond 2 years, the returns will probably diminish very, very sharply. Many people will find themselves sympathetic to the arguments for staying longer (‘It would be great to show that I was able to be promoted’ etc.), but you should be very skeptical of this inclination – after all, there's a lot of motivated reasoning involved when you’re deciding whether to stay in a safe, well-paid, high-prestige job versus doing something that feels riskier and involves trade-offs in terms of pay and how you might be perceived by more traditionally-minded people.
What advice would you give to consultants who may be thinking of exiting to an EA-aligned organization or role?
You don’t need to play it safe. As a former consultant, you already have so many layers of safety net. You’ll have no problem earning money again if you run into tough times. Now is the time to be bold and get out of your comfort zone. If you’re waiting for the right time to make the move to have a high-impact job or to start giving serious amounts of your salary away, you’ll be waiting forever.