Joel Tan
Joel Tan

Exploring the Impact of Cause Prioritization

'Our vision for CEARCH is to identify a new, extremely cost-effective cause area (“Cause X”) every three years, and significantly increase support for it. Identifying even one new “Cause X” and directing resources toward it permanently would more than offset the money and time we’ve put into CEARCH’

Joel Tan’s commitment to maximizing impact is inspiring. He signed the Giving What We Can pledge in 2014 and has donated to effective charities ever since. After university, Joel worked in Singapore’s civil service and then policy consulting, before joining Ambitious Impact’s Charity Entrepreneurship Incubation Program, where he founded the Centre for Exploratory Altruism Research (CEARCH), a cause prioritization research and grantmaking organization.

In this interview, Joel shares his thoughts on CEARCH’s work to date, his own experience transitioning from consulting into high-impact work, and considerations for other consultants interested in maximizing their impact.

Joel, thanks for joining us today! To kick things off, could you tell us about your organization, the Centre for Exploratory Altruism Research’s (CEARCH) mission and theory of change?

Of course; CEARCH is a philanthropic research and grantmaking organization that identifies highly impactful philanthropic causes and then supports them with additional funding and talent.

In more practical terms, our theory of change is:

  • Conduct a broad search for potential causes
  • Dive deeply into research to identify highly cost-effective initiatives within these areas, aiming for ideas that are 10x as cost-effective as GiveWell's Top Charities
  • Work to bring these ideas to life, either through our own grantmaking and donor advisory or by partnering with other EA organizations. For example, we might share our research so that Charity Entrepreneurship can incubate new organizations or suggest new high-impact organization ideas to Probably Good so they can seed these to their career advisees. 
  • Contribute to increased global welfare (e.g. fewer healthy years of life lost to hypertension, or fewer expected deaths from nuclear war). 

If you’re curious, check out how CEARCH evaluates causes and interventions here.

This work sounds immensely impactful! What are your goals as the founder of CEARCH, and what does your day-to-day look like?

I view the goal of my work as to try to improve the world as much as I can. I strive to achieve this goal by conducting strategic analysis, research, and grantmaking in the fields of global health & development and Effective Altruism (EA) community building. 

On a day-to-day basis, my work regularly involves a mix of desk research and outreach meetings with partner organizations and ambitious donors. To get concrete, recently I’ve spent a lot of my time evaluating NGOs that focus on health policy advocacy. This is crucial work as we look to fund nutrition policy projects such as implementing salt and soda taxes to combat hypertension and diabetes. 

These evaluations involve some heavy quantitative work, like developing cost-effectiveness analyses, but sometimes people are surprised to learn that a lot of the work is very qualitative. For example, recently we have been interviewing government officials on various charities’ advocacy track records, and trying to determine the situation “on the ground” in our target developing countries. 

Fantastic! So your engagement started with donating effectively and then how did your career come into the picture?

I used to work in policy, first in government, then as a consultant working primarily with governmental clients. My experience in the public sector was mixed and left me feeling that my work was not making the positive impact I had hoped. I eventually transitioned into direct work to increase my impact by participating in the Charity Entrepreneurship Incubation Program and founding CEARCH. I still work long hours, which will be familiar to this audience, but the work itself is much more fulfilling compared to my previous roles.

I bet! How did you decide to work on global priorities research specifically?

I was initially inspired to pursue global priorities research by Charity Entrepreneurship’s recommendation that it would be especially high-impact for someone to found an organization focused on exploratory altruism. Exploratory Altruism is the work of identifying highly impactful but overlooked cause areas and interventions. CEARCH's internal cost-effective analysis confirmed that doing this type of research and advocacy can be highly cost-effective. 

I also tend to think that I have a strong personal fit for doing research and the alternative career options I considered, such as remaining in consulting or returning to government, would have been less impactful in expectation.  

What specific element of your work do you think has the highest potential for impact?

Our vision for CEARCH is to identify a new, extremely cost-effective cause area (“Cause X”) every three years, and significantly increase support for it. Identifying even one new “Cause X” and directing resources toward it permanently would more than offset the money and time we’ve put into CEARCH.

An entirely new cause area is a super energizing goal to be working towards! Speaking of goals, what are some goals you’d be excited to see more consultants striving for?

Similar to professionals in the finance and tech sectors, current consultants are in an excellent position to donate ambitiously to effective causes. I also think former consultants make excellent charity entrepreneurs. The experience of working on a wide range of projects and learning how to do new things well quickly is really helpful when founding and running a charity.

Advice for Consultants

What advice would you give to those with a passion for impact who are about to begin working in consulting?

Taking the Giving What We Can pledge is a great way to both have an immediate impact and serve as an accountability mechanism to your altruistic values while you’re working in a field where the work might not always be values-aligned. 

If you’re earning to give, consider joining a funding circle that provides donors access to exclusive high-impact giving opportunities and is a more interactive and engaging way to give. Here at CEARCH, we have our own funding circle and we're always happy to admit new members.

Love that advice! Lastly, what would you want to share with consultants who are thinking about leaving consulting to do’ more directly impactful work?

I’d start by developing your personal theory of change, which could look like a series of cause-and-effect steps for how you can turn your working hours into your desired impact on the world. This exercise will help you clarify your end goal and can illuminate the potential career paths or career steps you might take to get there.

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