Our Approach to Recruiting a Strong Team

Open Philanthropy’s ability to give effectively to the world’s most important and neglected causes hinges on the collective strength and expertise of our team. As such, we’ve thought extensively about how we can identify those who could most meaningfully contribute to Open Philanthropy’s mission, and how we can craft a recruitment process that encourages them to apply.

Recruiting Manager Anya Hunt sat down with Communications Officer Michael Levine to talk about Open Philanthropy’s approach to recruiting, the role of work tests in the application process, and measures we are taking to diversify our pipeline and attract talent from different communities. The questions and answers have been edited lightly for clarity.

Generally speaking, how does Open Philanthropy approach the recruitment process?

There are parallels to the way we approach grantmaking. Each hire is an investment — we’re making a bet that this person will help Open Phil more effectively carry out our mission. In both cases, we’re trying to be evidence-based where we can, but we’re also trying to minimize bureaucracy. We try to hold ourselves to rigorous standards of decision-making, accounting for our biases wherever possible. We can only be as effective as the people we hire. So we’re willing to invest an unusual amount of time and energy into sourcing and vetting candidates.

How does that mindset impact the recruiting process?

Mainly, it causes us to put work tests at the center of the process. After some basic screening, the first thing candidates do, typically, before we interview them, before anything else happens, is to take at least one work test, and we’ll pay them an honorarium to complete it. Then we evaluate it blind and generally admit people to the next round only if they meet a certain preset standard. This results in an unusually long process — that’s both an upside and a downside. It’s a downside for the obvious reasons, but it’s an upside because we think making a hire, and accepting an offer, is a really important decision on both our end and the candidate’s. Because onboarding new staff can be very costly to both us and the new hire, we aim to be highly confident in every offer we make (though of course we do still make mistakes).

Can you elaborate on the role work tests play in the application process?

The work tests are meant to give us a better sense of what an applicant might be like in a particular position than a traditionally impressive resume or strong interview can alone, and they give applicants a fairly realistic sense of the type of work they would be asked to do at Open Phil. They can also be a good two-way evaluation: if a candidate doesn’t enjoy the tasks modeled in the work tests, that’s a good indication that the role may not be right for that person. We’ve even had people pull out of the process for a job they thought they were excited about because they realized they found the work test boring or unpleasant — which seems good, actually. We want people to be able to have that realization before they’re hired.

And work tests help minimize bias in the process. We’ve found impressive resumes do a surprisingly bad job of predicting work test performance. Resumes provide valuable data, but it’s important to us to have a process that mostly rewards being able to do the work. We’ve found small ways of doing that more and more. For example, I don’t typically ask for cover letters anymore because people would format them in ways that make them really hard to look at blinded. So these days we just ask people to write a response into a form when they’re applying, which is also easier to blind.

How do you design work tests?

When creating a new work test, generally we try to think of a small task or project that’s similar to what we might ask a hire to do. We usually have two to three work tests. Earlier in the process we’re looking more to test the baseline level of someone’s abilities or knowledge — like writing skills, for example. Later on, we like work tests where the range of possible answers and ways of approaching it is wider. We want to give applicants a chance to demonstrate creativity, judgment, and ownership, which are qualities we value across all roles.

It’s worth noting that creating work tests is often an iterative process, and that we know early versions of our work tests can be flawed and in some cases have caused unnecessary work or stress — particularly because work tests are more time-consuming than traditional interviews. We now pay “work test testers” for help refining our work tests before sending them to applicants, and sometimes have had multiple versions of a given work test over the course of a year before we were fully satisfied that it was giving us good signal about applicants.

What are some other downsides or challenges to our approach to recruiting?

We know it can be frustrating or just not workable for candidates who are actively looking for work and need or want a job. They might not have the luxury of waiting for us. Or we might lose a great candidate because they get a competing offer and decide to take it before they’ve gotten through our process. We try to avoid ever getting into that situation, but generally it’s a risk we’re willing to take — we think it’s generally better to lose somebody who might have been a fit than to take a risk on hiring somebody without the right information. But we are also always on the lookout for ways to mitigate those issues.

Are there any good strategies you’ve found for dealing with that?

One strategy is generally moving away from reactive and towards more proactive recruiting in a number of ways. Normally recruiting is contingent on a lot of factors — candidates have to see the job posting, decide it’s worth their time to apply, and be open to changing jobs at that time. A lot of things have to line up. The General Application is meant to help with that; we’re looking at it as a way of giving people the opportunity to get on our radar as a passive or active candidate, so if we see a match we can reach out to them directly. Making it so people don’t have to wait for an open role to let us know they might be interested increases the chances that the stars will align in that way.

But people also have to know we exist, which isn’t always the case, especially outside the effective altruism community. So, increasingly, we’re working on identifying prospective candidates early on, proactively reaching out to build relationships with them, and encouraging them to apply. We’ve always done that to some extent, but I want to make that a bigger part of what we do as a recruiting team. Partly for that reason, we recently decided to expand the recruiting team.

What is your vision for recruiting at Open Phil going forward?

Our main goal will be to help meet immediate hiring needs, which we’re expecting to grow over the coming year. Another big goal will be figuring out what networks and communities of people aren’t in our pipeline but should be, and building bridges and relationships there. We think it will take a while to pay off, but over time we’re hopeful this will have the effect of diversifying our pipeline by bringing more and different kinds of people into contact with our work, and just generally helping us develop our strategy for attracting talent. Some of these communities are quite hard to break into if you’re not a well-known organization — for example, econ PhDs from top schools tend to be really reluctant to look outside of academia. So if we want someone with that particular expertise, it’s a really small pool who would even consider not doing a tenure-track thing. And within that pool, maybe they’d be willing to consider Google or something, but mostly they haven’t really heard of Open Phil, so it’s on us to convince them this is a really cool opportunity. One thing we’d like to try to do is cultivate relationships with specific professors at these programs who seem like they could be interested in our work, so that they’re able to vouch for us next time they have a really stellar student who isn’t interested in staying on an academic path and send that person our way.

Growing our team is going to be a big meta-project over the coming years, and I feel like we still have a lot to learn about how to do hiring well. If anyone reading this has thoughts or ideas about that, I hope they’ll reach out to me — I’m always excited to brainstorm about hiring.

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