In this chapter, we’ll talk about how to decide which cause area to work on. In many circumstances, thinking about the different cause areas and where you could contribute is a good place to start. Not only is it a useful way to focus on options that can be impactful, but it’s also exciting and motivating. Thinking, reading, and analyzing the different ways in which you could make a difference will help you remember why you’re doing this work. In the next chapter, we’ll talk more specifically about some of the common and promising cause areas.
What is a cause area?
Cause: When we use the term cause, we usually refer to a specific altruistic goal that you can contribute to (with money, work, etc.) For example, this can be helping build an orphanage in a particular location or eradicating a disease.
Cause Area: Cause areas are relatively informal and wide classifications of causes. It can be useful to talk about cause areas because the large amount of specific causes within a cause area can have some similarities. Common examples of cause areas are: Climate change, global health and development, animal suffering, prevention of catastrophic risk, etc.
Thinking about cause areas
Usually, when people think about their career, they start by thinking about very specific jobs or roles: “Should I be a doctor? Or a lawyer? Or maybe work in an NGO in Africa?” Effectively, this means thinking first about the tools or skills in your career and only later figuring out where they can be applied to a potential impact. This approach is so ubiquitous we sometimes don’t even notice that it’s only one specific way of thinking. It’s definitely a valid approach and can be useful in some cases, but there are many times when we suggest looking at things from a different perspective.
Since we’re looking for the career path that could have the largest positive impact, it often makes sense to find out where such enormous impact can be found and then work backwards to which tools or skills can most meaningfully help the cause we care about. Once we identify causes that we believe are incredibly important, we can ask specific questions that will lead us to find specific jobs or roles: Are the organizations working on this funding-constrained? Do they lack good advocacy? Or maybe there just aren’t enough organizations in this space to begin with, and the cause needs more entrepreneurs.
Moreover, when starting to think about career options, many people find that there are too many possibilities. The breadth, complexity and importance of the decision can make it difficult to think about, and can cause some people to have trouble coming to any decision – and that doesn’t help anyone.
In these cases, it helps to have some way of ruling out many options, or being able to clearly say that some options are (probably) worse than others. Cause areas are great way to start this process. Examples of cause areas can include alleviating global poverty, improving pandemic preparedness, mitigating climate change, fighting factory farming, and many more. They’re general enough and few enough that they’re manageable and they’re an important aspect of career decision-making.
The most important decision (sometimes)
Depending on your morals and values (as we discussed in the last chapter) it’s very possible that deciding which cause area to work on is the single most important decision affecting the impact your career will have. For example, if you believe that the well-being of those in the future is equally important to the well-being of those living today, and that we can meaningfully influence the long-term future, then it is unlikely that any work helping reduce suffering today will come close (in its impact, according to your values) to work that strives to improve the long-term future.
While we generally don’t have a precise way of measuring the exact impact of our careers, it’s still clear that the differences between cause areas can be enormous. In these cases, looking into cause areas that you don’t believe in may be a waste of your time.
It may also be relevant to think about the effects it would have on your life: How do you feel about dedicating the next few (or many) years of your life to alleviating poverty? Or to helping prepare for global catastrophic risks? Or to democratizing access to mental health? Is this something you would be proud and motivated to work on, even when it becomes hard? Reading more about this cause area, are there opportunities for you to use your skills to make a difference? As we discussed previously, our initial reaction and intuition can be misleading so we need to be cautious. But meaningful impact usually requires hard work over a long period of time, which is very difficult to do without being excited about the goals and the overall cause.
As you’re thinking about the different cause areas, keep in mind that we’re looking to eventually decide on a specific path or opportunity within a cause area. It may be the case that with your specific skills, preferences, location, etc. the best specific opportunity doesn’t lie within the overall most promising cause area.
Let’s say, for example, that you’re looking to buy a house. It makes sense to start by thinking about your preferred neighborhoods. Some neighborhoods may be a bad enough fit (out of your price range, incompatible with your lifestyle) that it would be a waste of time to look further into the specific houses there. But it would also usually be a mistake to decide on your favorite neighborhood and completely ignore any other neighborhood. There’s a very real chance that the single best house for you would be in another, slightly less desirable, neighborhood. This is even more pronounced if you’re not completely sure about the relative attractiveness of the different neighborhoods, and checking out what options are on the market can help you identify which neighborhood you like best.
To come back to the matter at hand, when thinking about cause areas the question is whether or not this cause area is:
- Incredibly promising! I should look thoroughly into opportunities here.
- Potentially promising: Other cause areas might be more impactful, but it’s definitely possible that the best overall opportunity will be here.
- Unlikely to be relevant: I don’t think there’s a realistic chance I’ll find something here that I believe to be as impactful as in other cause areas. I can stop looking into this cause area.
As an example, let’s take a look at the prevention of global catastrophic risks as a cause area. This cause area includes a wide variety risks we can help prevent, such as nuclear, biological, artificial intelligence, and others. It has many different roles and skill sets that are needed (research, advocacy, grantmaking, etc) and an impressive number of organizations, each with their own methodology and outlook on how to best prevent these risks. It’s quite obvious that even after thinking about the cause area in general, you’ll be able to find opportunities that are both surprisingly promising and surprisingly uninspiring within that vast range covered by a whole cause area.
There’s no ‘correct’ number of cause areas that go into each category. It may be that one cause area seems incredibly promising to you and all the rest look irrelevant in comparison (leading you to look specifically, and deeply, into that one cause area). It may be that many cause areas seem to be promising, making it hard to choose.
Cause neutral careers
Some careers can benefit many cause areas. If you’re a lawyer, fundraiser, or journalist, you can use your skill to help most cause areas. Other careers or roles, for example many quantitative roles, consulting roles, or roles in research, can provide you with career capital that is then useful for getting impactful roles in a wide range of industries. If you end up on this sort of path, thinking about the different cause areas will be most relevant when you do start to specialize in some area.
This is also an important point to consider when thinking about the different opportunities to make an impact within each cause area. In many cases, they’re more diverse than you would immediately think about. Often people will automatically equate a cause area with one profession that is relevant to it, for example: “If I want to help lift people out of poverty I should become a development economist” or “If I want to fight climate change I should become a climate scientist”. Though these intuitive roles are often good candidates to look into, they’re far from the only way to help, and depending on the field and your strengths, may be far less promising than other roles. When thinking through specific cause areas, we recommend looking at our career profiles page for more ideas about what career paths might be relevant for this cause. There will be more on this in the next chapter as well.
The ITN Framework: importance, tractability, neglectedness
The ITN framework is a way to think about cause areas. It was developed by Open Philanthropy and 80,000 Hours, and has become a common way of comparing cause areas’ impact. It’s a simple yet very useful framework and we endorse it. However, it requires some care in it’s application.
We’ll go over the three factors it considers (importance, tractability, and neglectedness), but we need to remember a few things as we do:
- This is a general framework for making imprecise observations. This isn’t a fully quantitative method and isn’t a formula that will spit out a specific and an infallible answer.
- We are currently comparing cause areas to determine their impact. Don’t forget that your own personal fit is also incredibly important! We’ll talk about it later, but it’s important to mention that your skills, experience and even your excitement about specific causes can be a deciding factor for you in the cause area you’ll eventually choose.
- There are other methodologies out there and many can be incredibly useful in some circumstances. Another useful concept to know in this context is limiting factors.
How much would significant progress in this cause area improve the world? How much does it reduce suffering, increase happiness or bring about other values you believe in? When assessing importance, you should usually think about the scale of the problem and its importance to those it affects. Cause areas like dealing with climate change are likely to be more important than, say, painting the world’s fences (which is still beneficial to people, but far less important).
Cause areas that are important tend to have more opportunities for doing important work within them. But that doesn’t mean every opportunity within an important cause area is equally important. Most organizations and roles only address specific parts of their chosen cause area (which is a good thing!), and you should consider whether the importance of that sub-area is also comparatively high.
How effective are the methods we have to help in this cause area? How good is the evidence for those methods working? When assessing tractability, you should consider both the current organizations and interventions that exist, and current thinking about methods that haven’t been tried yet. Cause areas where organizations are making a measurable (and large) difference are generally more tractable than cause areas that require additional research or deal with issues that are harder to measure.
Are there many people working in this area? Did people already try (or are already working on) the most promising projects within this cause area? When assessing neglectedness, you should keep in mind that people tend to gravitate toward the most promising paths. This means that if many people are working on a specific cause area, then the ‘low hanging fruit’ are likely to have already been picked. As a result, the more “crowded” a cause area, the less impactful we’d expect the remaining opportunities to be
As an example, dealing with climate change is a cause area that’s very important with many tractable options for making meaningful change. On the other hand, it’s also a well-known cause area with a lot of attention, and therefore is less neglected – at least relative to many other important cause areas— even if it still deserves more attention than most governments give it. When considering pursuing a career tackling climate change, we shouldn’t only ask ourselves how important climate change is – but also how likely we are to make a meaningful difference given the existing ecosystem.
Generally, we recommend going for neglected causes over crowded ones. One important caveat is that, depending on your skillset, some areas can be too neglected. Areas that are virtually unknown may require research/campaigning/entrepreneurship/other specific skills before other roles can be helpful.
As you consider different cause areas (as we’ll do in the next chapter), you’ll see that the three factors often trade off against each other. For example, areas that are important and tractable tend to be less neglected. That’s alright. It’s okay to work on an area (or specific opportunity) that isn’t ‘perfect’ along all three metrics— decision-making is all about making trade-offs. We can also (though not always) find specifically interesting opportunities by looking at options that buck the trend of the greater cause area – for example, a neglected issue within an important and tractable but crowded cause area.
Let’s move on to the next chapter and look at the commonly considered cause areas.