Over the years, we’ve had many exchanges along these lines:
Q: Why can’t you [research more charities / research more causes / put more effort into marketing and outreach?]
A: We don’t have enough people; we’re already stretched thin with our current priorities.
Q: What if you had enough money to hire more people?
A: We have enough money to hire more people.
Q: Then why aren’t you hiring them?
A: We’re trying.
Q: But if you have the money, what’s the downside of hiring more people? Best case, you get more done. Worst case, you get the same amount done.
It seems many people imagine that hiring, and thus capacity building, is mostly a matter of trading money for staff-hours: if we don’t have enough people to move through our to-do list, but we do have enough money to hire more, we can quickly and smoothly expand the number of staff-hours available via hiring. We think this picture of the world has important shortcomings, especially when it comes to projects like GiveWell. In our view, hiring people – whether as employees or as third-party contractors – generally means sacrificing today’s staff capacity for future staff capacity, and is always a risky (though essential) long-term investment with a difficult-to-forecast payoff. (That doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile – quite the opposite, as we view GiveWell’s staff as absolutely central to what it has accomplished and will accomplish.) The less well-defined and easy-to-evaluate the role one is hiring for, the more this is true, and thus the less true it is that money is the only bottleneck to expansion.
This post lays out the thinking behind our view. It focuses on Elie’s and my experiences with recruiting and managing staff (though some of the staff we’ve hired have also participated, more recently, in recruiting and managing as well). We provide relatively little in the way of empirical support for the claims in this post because we can’t go into the details of individual staff performance, and when we’ve had conversations with outsiders about these issues we generally haven’t done conversation notes for them. For readers who wish to vet our claims, one possibility is to speak to people in your own network who have experience with startup organizations (as opposed to organizations with long-established and well-defined processes and outputs), and asking whether the claims in this post ring true to them.
In a nutshell:
- In order to reach the point where employees are producing work that we can rely on and integrate into our output, senior staff need to invest significant time in training, evaluation and management.
- Investing time in making better decisions in early stages of the selection process can save time in later stages. This can include investing time directly in evaluation as well as investing time in better understanding the nature of the work we’re assigning (so as to better understand how to evaluate it).
- Hiring requires long-term predictions. There is often a substantial lag between hiring someone and having them start, and when an employee isn’t a good fit this can take time to determine. At the same time, the nature of GiveWell’s work is constantly changing. Thus, doing good evaluations of employees is both difficult and very important; the cost of an overly optimistic hire or evaluation can be significant.
- These points are less true for work that is well-defined, straightforward to evaluate, and/or similar to other work people might have on their resumes. But most of the work we need done doesn’t fit this description.
- Having adequate funds available is crucial, though not sufficient, for hiring. Cash on hand is less important than visibility into our long-term financial situation.
Growing our capacity has been a core priority of GiveWell for years. We believe it is extremely challenging and time-consuming for senior staff and often lowers rather than raises capacity in the short term, and we haven’t found a way around this fact. That said, it is also one of the most important and worthwhile things we do, and when done well can pay off massively over the long run. We feel that GiveWell’s success is ultimately mostly a function of how good a team we can build, and that GiveWell would be in a far worse position today if not for the outstanding people that have become integrated into the organization.
In the past, we’ve had significant problems come up when we gave an employee work and proceeded to rely on that work in some way, without first taking the time to vet the work, offer feedback, and form a thorough picture of the work’s alignment with our standards. We’ve learned to invest significantly – early in an employee’s tenure – in both training and evaluation, so that we have a clear picture of what to expect from any assignment we give, and so that we know what we can and can’t rely on the employee for given their level of ability and experience. We’ve also learned to do periodic in-depth evaluations of employees, as well as regular check-ins to discuss all aspects of their performance and assess how their responsibilities might change to find a better fit. There are some tasks that employees can do with fairly straightforward training, but there are other tasks that require deep and intuitive knowledge of GiveWell; so employees’ abilities often grow gradually and somewhat unpredictably, and constantly reassessing them pays off.
With these measures, we feel that we’re able to have a fairly good picture, at any given time, of each staff member’s strengths, weaknesses, and experience level, and this makes it possible to assign work that we’re able to rely on. Even so, as our needs and our employees’ abilities change, it can be a serious challenge to keep our picture accurate, and when our picture degrades, we often pay for it in the form of senior staff-hours (assessing the work and determining what went wrong and what adjustments can be made).
Traditional evaluation techniques – reading resumes, 1-2 hour interviews – have had extremely poor predictive value for us, as some of our outstanding hires have been “borderline” by such metrics while some “stars” by such metrics have turned out to be a poor fit. This has made it difficult to follow the traditional procedure of making a job posting and screening many resumes; instead, we have been trying to:
- Improve the quality of the people we consider in the first place. We have dialed up our emphasis on referrals from trusted sources as opposed to job postings; we have also constructed our jobs page to discourage casual applications and select for people who are unusually passionate about the work we do. (We believe, though with only moderate confidence, that genuine passion for GiveWell’s work is correlated with strong job performance, as much of what we look for is the ability to ask the sorts of questions we would ask in an investigation.)
- Assess people via trial hire periods whenever possible.
Exploring our network and assessing trial hires can cost significant staff time.
Even assessing an employee on the job can be very difficult. Because the nature of our work is constantly changing, we rarely have assignments that both (a) are relevant to our ongoing work; (b) can be performed without a great deal of experience on the job; (c) come with clear expectations and benchmarks in terms of what we can expect a strong new employee to produce. Without such assignments, we can’t form accurate assessments of employees and thus can’t make the most of the capacity we have. So it is sometimes the case that “lack of appropriate work to assign” is a bottleneck to hiring.
Sometimes, we believe the most productive way to make progress on hiring is to thoroughly – and personally – execute, explore and discuss the sort of work we hope to eventually outsource to employees. (This can involve multiple iterations as we find that a particular type of work turns out to be less relevant to our goals than we had anticipated.) When we thoroughly understand a type of work, we can be confident of its relevance to GiveWell, we can effectively train people on it, and we can accurately assess the quality of an employee’s work on it. We rarely try to assign work that we haven’t already done a fair amount of ourselves, and found to be relevant. Thus, hiring people to do work generally comes after – rather than instead of – doing it ourselves.
In addition, we feel that hiring someone – especially when they forego other opportunities, quit their job, and/or move in order to join us – involves an implicit commitment to them, and if the relationship turns out to be a poor fit, we generally feel responsible for (a) clearly communicating that, and why, the relationship isn’t a fit; (b) doing what we can to explore whether there might be a way to improve the fit; (c) giving the employee sufficient advance notice to find another job.
Thus, the decision to hire someone often constitutes a risky “bet” that by the time they join GiveWell, their talents will still be a match for the work we need done; when we’re wrong, the process of determining this and ending the relationship can be difficult and costly. Making this sort of prediction is particularly difficult because of how quickly the nature of GiveWell’s work evolves. Starting research analysts do very different tasks today from what they did last year or the year before that.
In addition, we find all aspects of training, evaluation and management to be easier when we’re working in one office. This means that every employee affects the culture, environment, and morale of other employees. An employee who is dissatisfied or otherwise a poor fit can be a major problem.
- Lay out an assignment that we need done.
- Post a job opportunity, collect resumes, and use a low-intensity process to evaluate candidates.
- Hire the best candidate to do the assignment.
- If it doesn’t go well, little is lost.
By contrast, the picture we have of hiring looks more like:
- Execute the work we need done ourselves, and form as deep an understanding of the work as we can, so that we can later train people in parts of it and evaluate their output. When exploring a new area of research, it can often take many false starts before we can generate assignments that are stably enough defined to assign to new employees.
- Create assignments that are both relevant to our work and relatively straightforward to evaluate.
- Use our network to find a promising candidate and do our best to assess their long-term fit with GiveWell based on the very limited information that we have.
- Work with the person on a trial basis, primarily aiming to train them and further assess their long-term fit with GiveWell. After each assignment, discuss what we’ve learned about the employee and how we can learn more, and communicate with the employee about future expectations.
- If all goes well, extend a full-time offer and continue to invest heavily in training, evaluation, and management.
- If there are problems, invest significant time in discussing and diagnosing the problems and determining whether the problems can be solved via communication with the employee or alteration of the employee’s role. If the nature of our work changes substantially (as happens regularly), make sure to revisit the employee’s fit with the work and ask what adjustments can be made.
- If the employee does well on early, easier-to-assess work, gradually expand the scope and challenge of the employee’s responsibilities while continuing to assess the employee’s work and train the employee.
- Ideally, the employee’s responsibilities and abilities gradually expand to the point where they become a major asset to the organization, capable of being relied on for crucial work, and in some cases capable of executing some or all of the above steps themselves (and thus increasing our “capacity for capacity building”).
The latter picture is one of risky, intensive long-time-horizon investments. There are cases in which hires or trial hires we’ve made have cost us more in training/evaluation/management time than they’ve gained us in work done, and we believe that there would be many more cases if we didn’t invest as much in early training and evaluation. However, the hires that have worked out well have eventually repaid the investment many times over, and GiveWell could not be what it is today without the strong staff we’ve built.
One of the most positive developments that can happen for GiveWell’s mission is that a hire develops to the point where we can trust them with highly challenging and important work (and that the employee stays with GiveWell for a substantial amount of time). Getting to that point requires major investment on our part in training, evaluation and management, so we pick the candidates for this carefully and invest in them heavily.
We haven’t found any shortcuts through this process (including, as discussed below, “outsourcing recruiting/management”). Building our capacity has been an extremely challenging and long-term project that has taken a great deal of co-Executive Director time and involved a great deal of learning.
Generally, we’d say that it’s easier to “trade money for capacity” when:
- The work we need done – and the expectations around what constitutes good work – is clearly and explicitly defined.
- The work we need done is similar enough to work that is done elsewhere that we can, relatively easily, look at someone’s resume and credentials and assess their likelihood of being able to do it.
Bookkeeping services and back-end web development (of the relatively simple variety relevant to our website) are good examples of cases where we know what we need done and how to assess the output, and we know how to find people with relevant experience.
However, most of the work we need done is far to the other end of the spectrum: it is not well-defined, it’s hard for us to say what we’re looking for in terms of output, and it’s hard to predict from someone’s resume whether they will be a good fit for it. This work includes:
- Research work including updates on top charities, investigations of potential top charities, intervention reports on things like cash transfers, conversations with experts, and shallow investigations for GiveWell Labs. While we’ve developed criteria and guidelines for this sort of work, it’s extremely far from being reduced to a formula, and anyone working on it will have to make substantial judgment calls in terms of which avenues of inquiry to pursue, which pieces of information to consider important, etc. We need to be sufficiently aligned with their judgment calls so that their work produces output that fits in with the rest of our work and our brand. We’ve experimented with recruiting people of multiple different backgrounds, and at this point we remain unaware of any particular resume item that would convince us that a person is a good fit for this role.
- Communications/outreach/marketing. Communicating effectively about GiveWell requires a deep understanding of GiveWell as well as strong communications abilities. We have worked with communications/marketing professionals in the past and have always found that getting good output requires a significant amount of our own staff time. (They can be extremely helpful, but they can’t simply take on all of the work.)
- Recruiting and management, including management of contractors (managing our bookkeeper, our web developer, etc.) We’ve toyed with the idea of trying to outsource management and recruiting, but the people we’ve spoken to about it – and our own intuitions – suggest that this would not go well. Management requires knowing our work and our needs well enough to be able to evaluate the quality of employees’ or contractors’ output; the bulk of recruiting work is evaluation (as opposed to sourcing) of candidates as well. Some of our Research Analysts have taken on management and recruiting work (including management of contractors), and in general we intend to develop Research Analysts into managers and recruiters.
Hiring requires long-term visibility into our future financial situation, not just (and not even primarily) cash on hand. The effort we put into recruiting at a given time is a function of how much funding we think we’ll have available for the next several years, since the full process from “starting to look for potential hires” to “having a new hire start” can be 6-12 months or more, and since full-time hires are made with the hope that someone will be with us for several years at least. Observing this has helped us to recognize the value of consistent and predictable funding, and the complexity of assessing room for more funding for certain types of organizations.
We do our best to predict our ongoing revenue on the basis of what we know about our existing donors. A donation that we are confident will be repeating for the next several years is far more valuable to us than a donation whose likelihood of repeating we can’t predict.
While money is necessary for hiring, it is not sufficient. Simply being able to fundraise does not guarantee that we will be able to expand.
We’ve tried many things, and talked to many people, over the years. We believe the best approach involves intensive up-front investment by senior staff, rather than low-touch management. Intensive up-front investment allows us to quickly form pictures of strengths and weaknesses and invest accordingly in training and development.
We don’t believe that money, alone, can solve this problem for us, though it is an essential piece of the picture.