CAREER PATH

Grantmaking

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21 MINUTE READ

Grantmakers help foundations allocate their funding to other organizations and initiatives. When given responsibility over large sums of money in impactful cause areas, these roles can be incredibly impactful. However, landing such a role can be challenging and may only be relevant for those with significant experience in their field (and a bit of luck). As a result, we primarily recommend these roles as a potential opportunity branching out of other careers, rather than an early career trajectory in and of itself.

Our confidence in the content of this article is moderate.

 

Path overview

 

What do we mean by grantmaking?

Grantmakers work at foundations and help allocate philanthropic funds to grant recipients - usually nonprofits (but not always). They will often allocate large amounts of money, with varying levels of discretion depending on their seniority and the foundation they’re in. In this article we discuss only direct grantmaking roles (as opposed to the many other roles in foundations). Also, the majority of the article focuses on moderately senior roles (Program Officer or above), with our views on junior roles condensed in this section.

How promising is grantmaking as a career?

We believe that grantmaking is a potentially promising career path, though it often doesn’t make sense to pursue it in early stages of your career.

Grantmaking can be an incredibly impactful career path, in the right circumstances. If you have significant discretion in influencing where large amounts of funding go, can choose between options that differ substantially in impact, and are likely to make better decisions than other grantmakers in your field - you could have enormous impact, potentially far beyond what you could achieve through Earning to Give. However, fulfilling these criteria can be non-trivial, and many grantmakers can find themselves having relatively little counterfactual impact, even if they allocate very large amounts of funding.

 

Grantmakers can achieve impact in several ways. They can improve the allocation of funding to more promising organizations. They can use their funding and grant process to influence nonprofits in their field to do more impactful work (or work on it more effectively). They can also focus on active grantmaking, connecting people, ideas and opportunities to bring about new promising projects that would not have been conceived otherwise. The impact you can have in all of these paths most critically depends on how promising the opportunities you are able to fund are. You can find promising opportunities if the foundation or role you’re in already share your priority cause area and approach to achieving impact - in which case simply increasing their overall capacity can be important. Alternatively, you could aim to shift priorities in a foundation you’re not fully aligned with, though roles with the autonomy to do so may be rarer opportunity. Your impact also depends on the extent to which the domain you’re specializing in is vetting-constrained where money doesn’t seem to be consistently going to the most promising initiatives, or funding-constrained, with grantmakers being most impactful in domains that have significant funding but still not enough to support the majority of promising candidate projects / entrepreneurs in the space.

It is unclear that grantmaking is a good early choice as a career focus. Foundations will often only hire people who are extremely experienced in the foundation’s focus area for any position with significant influence, and as a result it may be better to specialize in the specific cause area you most believe in if your long term goal is to become a grantmaker eventually (rather than focusing on grantmaking as a profession). 

Advantages

  • Many opportunities for influencing enormous amounts of money, which can lead to enormous impact when handled well.

  • At sufficiently senior positions (e.g. program officer and above, but depends on the specific foundation), have significant freedom and ability to make strategic decisions.

  • Truly exceptional opportunities for career capital through connections, and exposure to many different organizations and methodologies. 

  • Skills and experience can be relevant to an extremely wide range of efforts and cause areas, even beyond grantmaking (e.g. fundraising, management, entrepreneurship).

  • Spend most of your time focusing on things that matter. Grantmakers will spend less of their time on gruntwork and other distractions than most others in the nonprofit space.

 

Disadvantages

  • Grantmaker roles are rare, and often require years of specialization before you know if there’ll be a role opening up for you. As a result, it’s hard to make a reliable plan to become a grantmaker.

  • Some roles in this space may seemingly influence large amounts of money, but in reality do not have much influence on actual results or only decide between similarly-promising options. 

  • It can be difficult to receive honest, reliable constructive feedback, as most people you interact with professionally have an incentive to give you positive feedback regardless of how well you’re performing.

  • Many organizations in this space can be slow, bureaucratic, hierarchical and not intellectually rigorous. Joining the wrong organization can stunt personal development and even teach harmful habits.

Is it a good fit for you?

What is needed to be successful

Good grantmakers are often generalists, crossing the divide between the intellectual skills required to evaluate ideas, projects and plans, and the interpersonal skills required for such a relationship-focused role. 

 

There are a few skills that are particularly important for grantmakers, and to be a good grantmaker you’d need to be excellent at at least some of them. First is the ability to quickly identify promising opportunities even under significant uncertainty and partial information. Grantmakers need good analytical thinking skills to understand and evaluate complex ideas (even in fields they are not specialized in), with limited time and resources. Alternatively, they can be especially good at identifying which experts are reliable on which topics, and outsource some of the required analysis to them. Regardless, the quality of their decisions relies critically on having good judgement - making intelligent and nuanced decisions that takes into account existing evidence, while significant subjective decision-making is also involved. (relative to experts in your field)

 

At the same time, there are several interpersonal skills that play a large role in grantmaking. The first is having a good intuition for identifying promising projects and funding partners that are likely to achieve their goals (even if they end up pivoting from their current plans). The ability to work well with partners and persuade others is also critical, as grantmakers often need to support the grantees they fund, or convince their managers in the foundation in their view. Finally, networking is an important part of this role - you should be interested in socializing, going to conferences, getting to know many people and organizations.

 

Though grantmakers are often generalists in terms of abilities, most organizations will prefer grantmakers that are specialized in terms of experience in the relevant cause area the foundation focuses on. A deep understanding of the domain you want to work in is a major advantage, including working in or even founding multiple organizations in the space.

 

Like many roles in the nonprofit space, grantmakers often don’t have strong feedback loops that can help inform them (or their superiors) on whether they’re doing a good job or not. As a result, it is incredibly important to remain self-critical, intellectually rigorous, and open to new ideas to continuously make intelligent decisions as a grantmaker. People who actively seek out constructive feedback will have a more positive impact than those who don’t.

 

Finally, if you want to focus on active grantmaking, then creativity and entrepreneurial capabilities are very useful (though you don’t need these skills to the same extent as if you would as a full-blown entrepreneur).

Who would be satisfied in this role

While a wide range of backgrounds and interests can lead you to grantmaking, there are a few traits that make it more likely you’d find grantmaking enjoyable:

  • You’re curious and enjoy thinking of many different things in parallel. Many grantmakers derive satisfaction from their interest in constantly hunting down new information, being exposed to a wide range of organizations, and having to make strategic decisions with limited time and data.

  • You’re passionate about the cause area (more so than any specific solution). If you’re passionate about your field in general, this role will allow you to freely investigate, identify and support the top opportunities to advance your goals. 

  • You enjoy frequent socializing with many different people. Networking is very important for grantmakers, so this can significantly affect how much you enjoy your work.

  • You’re looking for a less intense or more flexible career. While many roles we recommend are stressful, demanding or require significant personal sacrifices - a role as a grantmaker (if you can get into one) bucks this trend and is consistent with a wide range of personal preferences and priorities.

 

There are also a few characteristics that will likely make you enjoy grantmaking less:

  • You need to feel your direct impact in personal or measurable ways. While grantmakers can have significant impact, it’s almost always as the “enabler” rather than the one who is directly involved.

  • Repetitive tasks are a major downside for you. While grantmaking work is both engaging and important, you do find yourself doing similar things repeatedly - receiving grant applications, deep-diving into them, prioritizing grants and getting them approved.

  • You want to work closely with an integrated team. While grantmakers interact with many people, they usually don’t work closely with others in their foundation. 

  • You have a strong aversion towards large organizations, bureaucracy or hierarchy. You may still be able to find specific foundations that manage to avoid this, but they are rare.

 

Finally, it’s worth noting that grantmaking can work well with a large range of personal circumstances and constraints. As opposed to many other high-impact careers which require significant sacrifices in flexibility and personal life, grantmaking roles can often be very flexible in terms of geographic location, working hours, availability and other personal preferences.

 

How to test personal fit

Personal fit is really hard to estimate in advance, but gaining practical experience can help. In this section we recommend several cost-effective steps for testing your personal fit for grantmaking:

 

Think deeply and share your giving decisions

A good and simple way to see if you’re a good fit to decide how to spend millions of other people’s dollars is to start by thinking deeply about your own giving. Regardless of the amount you donate, treat the decision as if you’re donating vast amounts that can make major differences in many people’s lives. Consider different critical considerations you should take into account, identify which information you need to prioritize different organizations or programs, and try to reach conclusions you believe in. Then, share your conclusions and decisions with others to receive feedback on your process and opinions. As an example, here are donation write ups GiveWell employees, Open Philanthropy employees, and donor lottery winners. If you want feedback from others throughout the decision process, you can join or start an impact-focused Giving Circle. This can be especially useful if the giving circle has a structured process of exploring options and discussing who to support and why.

 

This will allow you to discover whether you enjoy this kind of analysis and decision making, and also whether you manage to produce novel and useful insights through this process. If you’re excited about the “thinking deeply” aspect of this project, but are averse to the “sharing and receiving feedback” aspect - this may be a red flag, as good grantmaking requires doing both.

 

Help launch impactful project

Try to think of new ideas for projects, persuade promising people (or friends) with relevant experience to get involved, and try to connect to funders or donors. Depending on where you are in your career this could be a small college project with a couple of friends, or the founding of a major organization backed by major funders. 

 

This is most similar to active grantmaking, and also tests a lot of entrepreneurial skills that are not required for grantmaking. Since most foundations won’t accept you as a grantmaker unless you have hands-on experience in the relevant domain anyway, it may well be worth your time.

 

Provide value to nonprofits in other ways

Another aspect of grantmaking is building relationships with organizations, and providing strategic guidance and connections to them. To test your ability to do so effectively, identify an organization (or several) that you want to support (optionally one that you have some connection to), think about what you can offer them, and try to provide real value. Joining an organization’s board is one of the most straightforward ways to try out strategically helping an organization, if that’s an option for you.

 

Priorities within grantmaking

 

Grantmaking roles are relevant to a wide range of cause areas, and how promising the cause area you’re providing funds for has a significant impact on how much impact you can have. As a result, a major component of prioritizing roles in grantmaking is simply prioritizing cause areas. There are several considerations when prioritizing cause areas that are unique to grantmaking roles, that should be taken into consideration alongside the more general considerations linked above. These include:

  • How much funding is available for this cause area. If the amount of funding is extremely small, it might be difficult to make an impact as a grantmaker (or even get a job). However, if the amount of funding is so large that nearly all promising initiatives get funded (a rarer but existing circumstance) - this also means that grantmakers are less critical in the process.

  • How well is funding allocated in this field currently. Cause areas that have a tradition and history of great grantmaking prioritization might leave less room for improvement, and therefore counterfactual impact. It’s also worth noting that fields that put a high emphasis on long, complex, and deliberative processes aren’t always better, and may leave less room for making an individual difference in grantmaking decisions.

  • There is also high value in cross-cause area grantmaking, though such roles are extremely rare, especially outside of the Effective Altruism8 community. Open Philanthropy is a notable exception to this trend (and many other general broad statements in this article).

 

Within a specific cause area, one of the most important choices you will make is which foundation you’ll join. There are several important considerations when deciding where to join, including the following:

 

  • How much money does the foundation have, and how much will be under your control. Double the money, double the impact (all else being equal). This is particularly important if you aim to shift priorities, and may not be as important if you already strongly believe in the foundation’s priorities and simply want to help it achieve its goals more effectively.

  • How the foundation evaluates grantees. Whether the foundation supports impactful approaches according to your worldview, and what criteria they use to assess grantees can significantly impact how effective the foundation’s grants will be. For example, some would argue that foundations that don’t take “risks” and only fund grantees with a proven track record end up having a low counterfactual impact, though others would disagree. Find a foundation that at least broadly aligns with your view of what’s promising.

  • How much autonomy you have. This is heavily influenced both by organizational culture and policies, and by your role. Different foundations also differ wildly in the definitions and titles of different roles, but broadly Program Officers and above are likely to have significant budgets and autonomy. Ask potential employers what the approval process for a grant looks like, how long does it take, who needs to sign off. If you have good reasons to believe you’d be more competent than other senior people in the organization, more autonomy is better. If you trust others more, or are less experienced and want to support and increase the capacity of excellent decision makers that already exist in the foundation - you might actually prefer a role implementing others’ vision.

  • Who sets higher-level strategy for your program area. Setting strategy often requires being in a Program Director role - but titles in this space are inconsistent. Ask about who would have such authority. 

  • What the foundation’s relationship with grantees looks like. Some foundations require more ongoing investment from grantees keeping the foundation in the loop, or expect to have influence on daily operations. Others have a more hands-off approach, trusting the grantees to enact their own vision. This meaningfully changes what your role as a grantmaker can look like.

  • Whether you can source new projects (as opposed to merely prioritizing existing grant applicants). If you have a knack for finding and identifying opportunities, this can be an even bigger source of impact than the decision-making process, so might be worth prioritizing.

  • Despite all of the above, given how difficult it is to break into grantmaking, some would recommend accepting a first (non-junior) role in a foundation for its career capital, regardless of how promising the foundation is according to the above criteria. However, even in these circumstances, these are more-than-legitimate questions to ask, and we recommend asking them.

 

Strategies and next steps

 

Getting into the field

As mentioned above, grantmaking is a hard field to get into. There are relatively few jobs in this space, and due to very slow turnover job openings are even rarer. Foundations often look for people who are very experienced, and will often prioritize people who already have grantmaking experience. 

 

That being said, there are several things you can do to increase your chances of getting a grantmaking role:

  • Gain deep, significant experience in the relevant cause area / field. This may include experience working in nonprofits, relevant academic degrees, and if possible relevant board positions. It also helps to serve in a role where you need to write grant proposals yourself. Broadly, due to the uncertainty of getting a grantmaking role and the requirement for significant experience, we’d recommend thinking of grantmaking as one option among many along a career path you’re happy with, and would be wary of gaining many years of experience with the exclusive hope of landing a grantmaking role.

  • Invest in your credentials. For senior roles, many foundations care not only about the impact of the decisions you make, but also the effects of having your name announced. Making sure your resume and reputation reflect professionalism and the relevant values can make a big difference in foundations’ interest.

  • Management consulting. Many foundations (though not all) appreciate experience in prestigious management consulting companies, which provides a strong complement to experience in the specific field you want to be involved in. This experience can provide a strategic bird’s eye view that foundations value. Examples of such firms include BCG, McKinsey, Bain, Deloitte, Bridgespan, Arabella, FSG and others.

  • Find a creative “foot in the door” according to your background. There are several ways one can break the catch-22 of needing experience to get a job.

    • Sometimes foundations will outsource preliminary research work (e.g. 30 hours of reviewing the landscape of a sector) to academics. As a Masters or PhD candidate in a relevant field, you can help make that happen by connecting your advisor to relevant organizations.

    • Family offices have huge variance in the way they hire, and may give opportunities to people who won’t get into an institutional foundation. This approach can be most useful if you have some other connection to the family office.

  • Junior roles are only promising in specific circumstances.

    • Junior grantmaking roles (such as Programme Associate in the US or Grants Officer in the UK) can be promising if they increase the capacity of an exceptionally impactful foundation whose approach you agree with, or if you are given some responsibilities usually reserved for more senior roles. We believe this isn't the case for most junior grantmaking roles, but there are some important exceptions. When the role isn’t directly impactful, we’d be wary of taking junior roles as a step up towards more senior roles. Some experts we’ve spoken to said that foundations are not a great environment for advancing your career, due to slow turnover and senior roles being thought of as meaningfully different from junior roles. As a result, taking a junior role in a foundation (e.g. Program Associate) with the hope of being promoted to a senior role may not be promising.

    • If you are interested in junior roles, internships in prestigious foundations might be helpful in improving your resume and connections. You can find such internships in the Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Commonwealth Foundation, the Azim Premji Foundation and others. Internships in this space are often paid positions, but applying to them can also be extremely competitive in and of itself.

  • Concretely looking for job openings. Good ways to search for concrete job opportunities include using social sector oriented job boards like Idealist and Impact Opportunity, and following large foundations (such as the Gates, Rockefeller, Wellcome, Ford, etc.) on Twitter. Those looking for more senior roles will also benefit from using social sector-focused recruiting firms like Koya Partners and on-ramps (these specific firms are very US-focused). 

Excelling in the field

There are several policies that can make you a significantly better grantmaker:

 

  • Aggressively seeking out feedback and ways to improve. Feedback mechanisms are deeply flawed in grantmaking roles, as most people you interact with have strong incentives to give you positive feedback, and the field doesn’t have a strong culture of honest and constructive feedback. Actively seeking out feedback, critically reviewing your own work and past grant outcomes, and avoiding the temptation of thinking you’re just doing an awesome job and don’t need to improve can be critical to whether you have a significant positive impact in the long run. 

  • Providing additional value beyond funding, when useful. Many of the best grantmakers provide significant value beyond the funding itself - providing strategic guidance, connecting their grantees to other funders and other organizations, and providing meaningful feedback to help potential grantees improve. However, many foundations aim to do so but end up preventing grantees from realizing their own vision and acting on their own expertise. Great grantmakers have a lot to offer, but provide it without unnecessarily harming the grantees’ autonomy.

  • Focusing on active grantmaking, and doing so well. Many of the experts we talked to believe their biggest sources of counterfactual impact is when they identify opportunities, push ideas, connect people, and encourage organizations to take on challenges and apply. This requires slightly different skills than the classic grantmaker role, but can utilize your deep expertise and familiarity with the sector to develop promising initiatives.

Notable exceptions

When describing advantages, disadvantages and priorities throughout this article we’ve had to generalize - but the grantmaking field is diverse, and many of our descriptions and recommendations don’t apply universally. One notable exception that we expect may be relevant to a sizable portion of readers who identify with our worldview is foundations within the Effective Altruism movement, including Open Philanthropy, GiveWell, EA Funds, Founders Pledge, and others. They look for different traits in candidates, have substantially more cross-cause-area roles, give junior roles responsibilities often reserved to senior roles, and tend to grow and promote faster than most of the field. As a result, many of our concrete recommendations don’t apply to these organizations. We’d broadly recommend roles in such organizations, especially ones recommended by 80,000 Hours - though as part of the Effective Altruism community we may be biased. 

 

Career alternatives

If you’re not sure you want to become a grantmaker, other potentially high-impact paths you might want to consider include:​

  • Direct work in nonprofits (including Nonprofit Entrepreneurship). Depending on the field and your own skills, this can be no less impactful, and you’ll likely need to do this work for experience to get into grantmaking anyway.

  • Joining a think tank. Many similarities, but with a focus on influencing policy rather than funding.

  • Government roles which involve grantmaking or resource allocation. Though the process looks extremely different, these roles require many of the same skills to make good resource allocation decisions.

Additional content

 

Some recommended books focusing on what makes foundations succeed or fail include:

The following books focus more on the complexities of philanthropy as a sector:

 

Note however that many people we spoke to emphasized that having a deep understanding of the relevant field you’re giving in is more important than having a deep understanding of philanthropy and grantmaking.

Related topics

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Acknowledgements

 

To produce this career path profile, we have interviewed and collaborated with some of the leading experts in the field. For their help, we would like to give special thanks to:

Claire Zabel

Program Officer at the Open Philanthropy Project

Lewis Bollard

Program Officer at the Open Philanthropy Project

Jonas Vollmer

Executive Director at Effective Altruism Funds

Brigitte Hoyer Gosselik

Director at Google.org

Zachary 
Robinson

Chief of Staff at the Open Philanthropy Project

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