Lewis Bollard
Lewis Bollard

The Case for Developing Specialized Expertise

‘The consultants’ curse can sometimes be that they always want to leave their options open. That’s fine right out of university, but I encourage you to start developing more issue-specific expertise as soon as you can.’

Lewis Bollard, ex-Bain & Company, brings a wealth of expertise and wisdom, cultivated over 8 years of direct work experience at Open Philanthropy. In this interview, Lewis shares his thoughts with us on how consultants can make the most meaningful contributions, his professional journey, and much more!

Thanks for speaking with us, Lewis! Given that Open Philanthropy is the largest granter in the Effective Altruism (EA) space, we’d love to start by hearing about your how you first found the ideas of Effective Altruism (EA).

As a teenager, I learned first of the plight of the global poor and then of the suffering of animals on factory farms. The two issues intuitively struck me as moral horrors that I had an obligation to help solve. I read Peter Singer, and his utilitarian approach to these issues resonated with me.

I only actually learned of EA when Open Philanthropy reached out to me in 2015. I was immediately struck by the similarity between EA’s approach and my own intuitions, especially around focusing on the most important, tractable, and neglected issues.

Since then, I’ve gotten much more involved with EA. I’ve come to appreciate EA not just as a powerful set of ideas but also as a community of smart, passionate people seeking to use their talents and money to make the world a better place as efficiently as possible.

Let's rewind to your stint as a consultant. When you first joined Bain, what were you hoping to get out of your time there?

I was honestly pretty unsure. I was graduating at the peak of the 2009 financial crisis, so I was mostly happy to just have a job. I guess I thought I would develop a better sense of how well-run organizations operate, what good management looks like, and in general, how the business sector works.

In what ways did your experience meet and differ from your expectations of working in consulting?

I was underwhelmed with the entry-level consulting experience. I learned a lot of Excel shortcuts and how to format a nice PowerPoint slide, but I didn’t feel like I got great insights into management, operations, or the business sectors we worked in. (I don’t mean this as a condemnation of all consulting — my brother and many friends have happily done it for years.)

Now you’ve been at Open Philanthropy (OP) for the better part of a decade. Could you tell us about OP’s mission and theory of change?

Open Philanthropy is trying to do the most good possible with our scarce resources. In practice, this means identifying issues that are important (primarily in terms of their impact on individuals, whether humans or animals) and neglected by other funders. We then use research and analysis to identify the most tractable interventions within those areas, fund that work, and track how it goes. If it goes well, we will fund it more.

What are your own goals as the Farm Animal Welfare Senior Program Officer at OP?

My goal is to improve animal well-being as much as we can with the resources we have. To do that, I try to identify the groups and initiatives we can fund that are most likely to reduce the most animal suffering per dollar spent. Given the scale of animals impacted by factory farming, we mostly focus on reforms to reduce farm animals’ suffering.

What does your day-to-day look like?

I split my time between:

  • Managing our farm animal welfare team
  • Identifying promising new grant opportunities
  • Tracking and assessing the impact of our existing grants
  • Deciding whether to renew existing grants and if so, at what funding level
  • Constantly trying to improve our strategy and focus
  • Staying up to speed on the latest developments and research in the field.

Thinking back, did you have any misconceptions about transitioning from consulting into the high-impact direct work you’re now doing?

I think I used to underrate the cross-applicability of general skills (management, operations, etc.) from for-profit to non-profit work because I assumed the organizational context was so different. I now think that those skills transfer pretty well — good management is good management in any context.

But I also underrated the value of issue-specific knowledge within direct work. I used to think that a smart generalist could quickly learn the necessary knowledge and context. That’s probably true for some roles, but I’m not sure it’s true of the most impactful ones, so I encourage generalists to try to develop more issue-specific knowledge, for instance by reading extensively on the issue they want to work on.

We don’t often hear that, so thank you for sharing your perspective on that! What do you think is most valuable about having a global network of altruistically ambitious current and former consultants?

I think consultants are well-positioned to have an impact through their talent and future earning capacity. I hope a lot of consultants seek direct work within value-aligned organizations — I think we need your management skills, analytical chops, and ability to deal with novel challenges. And for those who don’t seek direct work, I hope you consider pledging to donate a significant share of your future earnings since you’re well-positioned to contribute a lot financially.

How do you think the consultant skill set can best be leveraged for solving the world's most pressing problems?

I think a lot of nonprofit organizations doing high-impact work need expertise in management, operations, and analysis — all areas that consultants often excel at. In farm animal welfare – the impact space I know best – I hope consultants will consider joining advocacy groups. However well-run those groups are currently, effective management and operations can always help them to operate even more effectively, enabling them to benefit more animals.

Advice for Consultants

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

The consultants’ curse can sometimes be that they always want to leave their options open. That’s fine right out of university, but I encourage you to start developing more issue-specific expertise as soon as you can. Your consulting experience will already give you a toolset of valuable skills. But to most effectively apply those skills in direct impact work, it will be helpful to know more about the issues you want to help address (whether AI, biosecurity, farm animal welfare, global poverty, etc.). I’d encourage you to read up on the topics, attend issue-area conferences, and, if you can, start to get involved directly, for instance, by volunteering, donating, or writing pieces on the topic.

If you don’t want to do direct impact work, then start focusing on how to maximize your contribution to high-impact causes, for instance, by pre-committing yourself to significant donations. Whatever you choose, thanks for your commitment to helping make the world a better place!

I strongly echo the gratitude- thank you all! Finally, what advice would you give to consultants who may be thinking of exiting to a value-aligned organization or role?

Go for it! I think you can probably have more impact at a value-aligned organization than in your current job. And don’t be too picky about getting exactly the right role to start out with — I think the important thing is to get fully immersed in the direct work; if you’re good at it, it will be much easier to later seek a better role from the inside than from the outside.

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