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From late 2020 to last month, I worked at grassroots-level non-profits in operational roles. Over that time, I’ve seen surprisingly effective deployments of strategies that were counter-intuitive to my EA and rationalist sensibilities.

I spent 6 months being the on-shift operations manager at one of the five largest food banks in Toronto (~50 staff/volunteers), and 2 years doing logistics work at Samaritans (fake name), a long-lived charity that was so multi-armed that it was basically operating as a supplementary social services department for the city it was in(~200 staff and 200 volunteers). Both orgs were well-run, though both dealt with the traditional non-profit double whammy of being underfunded and understaffed.

Neither place was super open to many EA concepts (explicit cost-benefit analyses, the ITN framework, geographic impartiality, the general sense that talent was the constraining factor instead of money, etc). Samaritans in particular is a spectacular non-profit, despite(?) having basically anti-EA philosophies, such as:

  • Being very localist; Samaritans was established to help residents of the city it was founded in, and now very specialized in doing that.
  • Adherence to faith; the philosophy of The Catholic Worker Movement continues to inform the operating choices of Samaritans to this day.
  • A big streak of techno-pessimism; technology is first and foremost seen as a source of exploitation and alienation, and adopted only with great reluctance when necessary.
  • Not treating money as fungible. The majority of funding came from grants or donations tied to specific projects or outcomes. (This is a system that the vast majority of nonprofits operate in.)
  • Once early on I gently pushed them towards applying to some EA grants for some of their more EA-aligned work, and they were immediately turned off by the general vibes of EA upon visiting some of its websites. I think the term “borg-like” was used.

Over this post, I’ll be largely focusing on Samaritans as I’ve worked there longer and in a more central role, and it’s also a more interesting case study due to its stronger anti-EA sentiment.

 

Things I Learned

  1. Long Term Reputation is Priceless
  2. Non-Profits Shouldn’t Be Islands
  3. Slack is Incredibly Powerful
  4. Hospitality is Pretty Important

For each learning, I have a section for sketches for EA integration – I hesitate to call them anything as strong as recommendations, because the point is to give more concrete examples of what it could look like integrated in an EA framework, rather than saying that it’s the correct way forward.

 

1. Long Term Reputation is Priceless

Institutional trust unlocks a stupid amount of value, and you can’t buy it with money. Lots of resources (amenity rentals; the mayor’s endorsement; business services; pro-bono and monetary donations) are priced/offered based on tail risk. If you can establish that you’re not a risk by having a longstanding, unblemished reputation, costs go way down for you, and opportunities way up. This is the world that Samaritans now operate in.

Samaritans had a much better, easier time at city hall compared to newer organizations, because of a decades-long productive relationship where we were really helpful with issues surrounding unemployment and homelessness. Permits get back to us really fast, applications get waved through with tedious steps bypassed, and fees are frequently waived. And it made sense that this was happening! Cities also deal with budget and staffing issues, why waste more time and effort than necessary on someone who you know knows the proper procedure and will ethically follow it to the letter?

It’s not just city hall. A few years ago, a local church offered up their recreation space for us to run an emergency winter shelter in – an incredibly generous move on their part, as using a space as a shelter puts a lot of wear on it. They made the offer only to Samaritans, and would not have made it to organizations that didn’t have good reputations for treating the unhoused well, and for cleaning after themselves when they move out of temporary spaces that were donated to them for use.

Several companies with good reputations of their own and deep expertise on topics we weren’t as familiar with also approached us to do pro-bono work, both for their staff to get some fuzzies and to improve their own reputation as ethical companies who give back to the community.

Samaritans also leveraged their reputation proactively. Recently, we established a respectful and novel way of supporting the unhoused in our city. The solution (in short, tiny homes on public land) would have been deadlocked for possibly years if the organization’s name didn’t grease the wheels significantly on many fronts. The city was eager to work with us, the NIMBYs were reluctant to come out against us, and the city’s unhoused community had a level of trust in us that made them willing to leave their established encampments.

I can see how it’s unfair for Samaritans to have gotten this kind of special treatment from everyone, and it’s the exact same dynamic that leads to entrenchment of older and less efficient institutions over newer ones. However, these dynamics are inevitable in any system or industry, and hard to overcome with brute cash. I am not very thrilled about having this take, but I think it may be worth figuring out how to gain similar kinds of advantage or leverage these dynamics for EA causes.

Sketches for EA integration

Thinking of money as a universal means of exchange slightly less. Money can buy lots of goods and services, but not all of them. I know it sucks for nerds to hear that reputation (popularity) is important but I think it’s unfortunately a real thing, and not just on the margin.

Thinking more about what actions and trade-offs EA organizations should take such that they’re beloved institutions in 25 years’ time – and if such a thing is worth it to pursue.

 

2. Non-Profits Shouldn’t Be Islands

Effective altruists consider the overall neglectedness of a cause area in terms of total field capacity, but when it’s time to donate, they support specific charities within that space. This approach makes sense, but it risks missing the bigger picture. Multiple organizations working on parts of the same problem can achieve more collectively than one big charity alone.

The non-profits I worked at communicated closely with community partners. This is good for the people we help. For example, knowing which shelters still have beds open (and what restrictions they impose around couples, pets, and drug use) when our own beds are at capacity so we can send people with very limited means for travel to places that can take them. Or which nearby food banks are open late if people arrive 5 minutes after we closed.

It’s also good for us, the service operators. It leads to better resource allocation and decision making on a community-wide scale. People who need the help of one charitable organization often need the help of other ones (e.g. food banks, affordable housing, job search support, and possibly translation support to access the above). When someone comes to your non-profit for a service, you can direct them to other services that they need.

When I operated the seasonal tax clinic, I can often see through people’s financial information when participants were eligible for benefits that they are not getting. I was trained in being able to spot this information by another non-profit that was focused on increasing benefits access for all Canadians. Providing assistance for benefits applications was out of scope for the tax clinic, but I was able to integrate a very streamlined path for referring people out to get those additional benefits at basically zero cost to us. I really don’t want to sound like I’m bragging here; it’s less that I was able to do that as much as there was a concerted effort by all community organizations to cross-train and communicate with each other to maximize the help that we can all provide to the community with the least amount of effort.

We were also able to take advantage of specialization, such as providing supervised injection sites for harm reduction purposes with staff trained by the non-profit that was focused on harm reduction specifically. Having another org provide training once every month or two was a lot more cost effective than having to have our own specialists.

Sketches for EA integration

Evaluate single charities slightly less, and [non-profit + government] networks for specific regions or cause areas slightly more, and think of possibly shoring up weak links. When evaluating cause areas and how to best approach them, think about potential groupings of charities instead of single charities.

One question I often see on EA grant applications is something along the lines of “if we gave you 10x the money you requested, what would you do with it?” I think another useful question to ask could be something like, “what is your fantasy partner/complement organization?” Lots of nonprofits are doing their thing and they have no intentions to expand to do an entire other thing, and if you give them more money they will just do more of their own thing. But I’d bet that a lot of them have recurring problems just outside of their own scope that they would love having another org to refer out to, and a sense of what those problems are could be useful for the EA community as a while.

 

3. Slack is Powerful

This was a really interesting lesson from Samaritans. Because we had staff for what were basically 20 semi-autonomous organizations doing almost uncorrelated things, we ended up with a lot of organizational slack. Different parts of the organization underwent crunch at different times, and people were temporarily re-allocated to smooth out the spikiness regularly. If you’re an organization of like 20 people and you can occasionally, with minimal friction, harness the efforts of 20 more people who are aligned with you, you can do some really significant barn-raising moves that you can’t if you were just an organization with 25 FTEs.

The coolest example I participated in was when 30 people from various departments showed up to help move an emergency shelter we were running from one location to another. The work included deep cleaning the previous space and the new space, doing last minute construction work in the new space, packing and unpacking a bunch of cot beds, sleeping mats and bedding, a boatload of laundry, re-assembling all of the beds and making them, moving in all of the kitchen supplies and sundry, setting up the phone system, and dozens of other miscellaneous tasks. What would have taken a week to do if it was just shelter staff ended up taking only two days, which was great for the people who were depending on us for shelter. In addition to this, the shelter folks were relatively well rested despite the ordeal and able to continue their work without burning out.

Sketches for EA integration

Thinking more about what sorts of resources can be constrained besides money. I know, I know, the EA thing is about how money beats other interventions in like 99.9% of cases, but I do think that there could be some exceptions – especially when it comes to staffing.

Creating a group of EA free agents that can be allocated/rented to EA-aligned non-profits? One thing that might make sense is to have lawyers/payroll/HR people on retainer on hand to consult with fledgling nonprofits who aren’t big enough to hire them full-time.

 

4. Hospitality is Pretty Important

People won’t use your service if it seems impersonal and cold, even if, like, their livelihoods depend on it? Samaritans had a policy where we try to help people as much as we can and say no as infrequently as possible. As a result, people line up for up to six hours a day, or come back three or four days in a row, to use Samaritan’s services. While we’re drowning in this demand, competing service providers which are as close as a 5 minute walk away had no wait times.

This didn’t really make sense to me as we were helping with some pretty urgent things. Things like emergency benefits applications so a person can make rent and not get evicted, or helping new refugees find jobs before their savings run out.

Despite all this, trying to refer people out was a pretty futile practice. A lot of them will come back a few days later and say stuff like “I’m here because Samaritans are the only ones that will actually listen to my problems”.

From this, I’ve realized that it’s actually really important to make the people you help feel comfortable – especially since a lot of them likely had terrible experiences with other service providers previously.

Sketches for EA integration

Have nonprofits that are public-facing, and EA infrastructure orgs, care more about customer service.

This take is so basic that I honestly feel a little dumb giving it. But honestly yeah, I now think that organizations that are interfacing directly with the public can increase uptake pretty significantly by just strongly signalling that they care about the people that they are helping, to the people that they are helping. Be warm, caring, convivial presences.

 

Final Thoughts

Effective altruism aims to avoid the pitfalls of human brains and traditional charities by using optimized, data-driven approaches as much as possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of EAs see my takes here as a slippery slope to warm glow thinking and wanton spending that needs to be protected against.

My goal is that this post provides insight into why many relatively well run, non-EA organizations adopt these strategies. They recognize that reputation, relationships and culture, while seemingly intangible, can become viable vehicles for realizing impact. And when implemented responsibly, based on evidence, I think there’s room for compatibility with EA.

To be clear, I don’t actually expect that most of the strategies outlined here will pass muster when thrown into the cost-benefit analysis machine, most of the time. On the other hand, if there exists no marginal case in which they are useful at all, that would also be pretty surprising to me.

I hope that it’s clear that I am not aiming to strong-arm EA towards these practices; I only want to bring them to the community’s attention because I think they’re pretty neat. Better understanding of diverse approaches will only benefit this community, making it stronger, wiser and more able to do the most good.

Thanks for reading <3

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Thanks for this post Jenn! I think it's great to share perspectives from traditional non-profits! I think we should absolutely be trying our best to adopt what works really well at traditional non-profits. I think all the lessons you've raised make a lot of sense, and I'm especially passionate about the power of great customer service in all interactions! 

Having worked in the traditional, local non-profit setting for nearly a decade before joining the EA world last year, I appreciated the thought you put into this article particularly surrounding hospitality and partnerships!

I also think that EA organizations can get SO bogged down with data, that we forget that we're still human and that we are wired to resonate with stories. I think we could glean some aspects of storytelling from traditional non-profits—the story of one individual served brings context and power to our impressive numbers. 

Thanks for posting this! Definitely agree that reputational dynamics are "hard to overcome with brute cash" -- and that they are particularly hard to overcome with brute cash in a relatively short period of time.

Looking at its resources, EA is in many ways much more capable of handling surge/emergency/opportunity needs than other social movements. If the necessity or advantage were compelling enough, it could deploy billions of dollars in fairly short order. Its surge capacity is somewhat less, but still considerable, for stuff that can be acquired with money even if non-readily. The limiting factor on EA's surge capacity is likely the stuff that can't be bought with money, or can't be bought in a matter of months to a few years. Given that various resources often work together in a synergistic manner, that's a considerable argument to me for investing in non-purchaseable resources for option value even if nothing else.

I think another useful question to ask could be something like, “what is your fantasy partner/complement organization?”


This part here is where my eyes widened. Adding this as standard question on EA grants is, in hindsight, so obviously a good idea to me that I am kinda in shock we don't do so already.

Creating a group of EA free agents that can be allocated/rented to EA-aligned non-profits?

Actually, this already exists I believe! I know there is a website called "EA Services" that allows you to sign up to basically be allocated around EA/EA-aligned orgs. Can anyone link the website? I've lost the URL.

Thank you for this post Jenn. As someone who has worked in UK charities for my whole career (32 years) I am lurking with fascination around EA wondering whether it is amazing or damning my whole career choice and life purpose. It was great to read this piece and your perspective.

Offtopic: This post was a joy to read. Would love to read if you have any thoughts to share about writing in general, but no worries if not. :) Welcome to the forum.

Thank you! Honestly, I think all of the advice that I could give has been said better by Scott here: https://slatestarcodex.com/2016/02/20/writing-advice/

He's been a really big influence on the way that I think, and also my writing style :)

"Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater" is a really great piece of wisdom...just because you have some new useful take on an old process, doesn't mean the old one doesn't have some really good stuff in it already. 

EA brings the scientific process to charity...charity was long overdue for this...but the collective wisdom of hundreds of years or more of charitable work is rich with effectiveness of it's own, it didn't come from testing, but it did come from evolutionary processes.

This is just another support for my thesis that EA needs more veteran's, sprinkling their evolutionary wisdom in our midst. I'm so glad Jenn that you got this huge amount of experience and were able to translate it back to us...how about a bunch more like Jenn around?

What a brilliant post! Thanks for writing this, Jenn!

I know that my own passion to help others came from seeing my father work in charities like the one you describe here, especially the St. Vincent de Paul, in Dublin. Good people devoting their time to help others is great. 

We need to keep in mind that the vast majority of people spend the vast majority of their time and money doing activities whose primary purpose is not altruistic at all. So when we see people doing something altruistic, and doing it well, and getting very good at it, this is wonderful. And I think it's wonderful that you spent 5,000 hours doing this. 

Regarding the Samaritans, at no point did you say or suggest that anything these charities did was misguided or wrong. We're not talking about people spending vast amounts of money on frivolous or vanity-driven projects. We're not talking about a billionaire making a charity donation of $100m for a new stadium named after him. Your EA mind was asking "could we do even more?" - but really, the Samaritans were already doing pretty well. They had got very good and efficient at what they do, they were passionate about that, people depended on them providing that - not just the people they helped, but also the public officials whose failures they were helping to cover up (really, there should not be homeless people in a rich country). I'm not sure I would want them to change. As you perfectly observed, they certainly should not change the humanity with which they approach their role and the people they help. 

There may be some explanation of the push-back you experienced in personality-tools like Myers-Briggs. In MBTI, there is a spectrum from "Thinking" to "Feeling". EA is very much on the thinking (T) end of that. It does NOT mean that EA people are less feeling - it means that EA people care, and so they think about how best to help as many people as possible. Feeling (F) people tend to be more focused on the emotional, less logical approach - they see someone who is unhappy, they want to help. They don't analyse, they just feel and act. What is potentially interesting is how the two extremes often fail to understand each other - the extreme T's maybe get frustrated at the apparently irrational, non-optimised approach of the F's, but maybe also they don't understand the value that the emotional, feeling connection has for the people. Meanwhile, the extreme F's tend to view T's as unfeeling and even cynical, because it's just not how their brain works - while the EA person in you wanted to help even more people, they may have seen your idea as being less caring, more calculating ... 

Which is why your post is so great. You clearly manage to bridge the divide - your thinking side understands the EA mentality, but your feeling side sees how individual people react to being treated like people. 

I don't have some magical solution to propose. I'm just sharing some thoughts that were inspired by reading this great post. 

And one final point: we must never forget that when a person interacts with an organisation like the Samaritans, it can be transformational for them personally, it can be the moment when they decide that they too will devote more time, energy or money to charitable work. And some people impacted in this way will eventually find themselves in the EA community. It's hard to calculate the impact of this, but I'll bet a lot of us, like myself, first encountered charity at home and then broadened our horizons. 

Great post! I love the scout / open mindset you display in this post. It was very interesting to learn more about possible areas of improvement for EA orgs.

Do you have any suggestions or takes about ways to move towards the sketches for EA integration for points 1 and 4? 

I think point one is simultaneously really important and also a really risky thing for EA to pursue. I think a lot of the current discussion around EA's reputation has been really defensive/reactive. Part of that is because we're trying to put out controversy fires, but I also think that EAs are much more comfortable not interacting at all with illegible, traditional systems and undervalue what playing the game well could get us.

As a dramatic example, the UN spent $47 billion in 2021 on a hilariously imbalanced set of 17 development goals. These goals are revised every 15 years. We can try to grab a seat at the table in 2030 or 2045 and align the new goals with EA principles - that could mean billions dollars per year diverted to EA causes assuming current funding levels. (This is a very very conservative assumption btw - funding appears to be increasing steadily YoY)

But on the flipside, would an organization that can get a seat at the UN table still be recognizably EA? Or will we have destroyed the heart of it to get there?

EA has some essential weirdnesses that will mean that it'll always be a black sheep in the nonprofit industrial complex, and I really don't want to see us lose those weird things for the sake of increasing reputation/funding. So it'll be a delicate balancing act.

I personally think that the ideal (but very difficult) way forward is to try to be (and also seem[1]) so staunchly ethical that it warps public opinion away from the rest of the nonprofit ecosystem and towards us, instead of trying to become part of the trad nonprofit in-group. I think the anti-slavery activist and quaker, Benjamin Lay, is an inspirational figure for this path.

  1. ^

    To be explicit, this means stopping or setting much higher bars for doing things that are effective and actually are the rational things to do in a social vacuum but burn social capital. Buying castles, having really nice office spaces, paying above market rates for employees at EA charities, overly enthusiastic and conspicuously well funded university groups, etc.

    My sense is that a lot of EAs think that trading off reputation to do these effective things is worth it, but my claim is that they think so because they don't realize how good the upside of having a good reputation is. I certainly didn't think of positive reputation as having any value before I started working at Samaritans; my model was that reputation is something that you strive to keep non-negative and then you're basically good.

    I also do want to state explicitly that even with the correct model of the upside of having a stellar reputation, it could still be more optimal in the long run to continue to do things that are slightly offputting. "Reputation is priceless" is not literally true; it could be more effort than it's worth to pursue for EA considering that we have a pretty deep stock of like, google softengs who feel very alienated from the trad nonprofit world etc

Man, I really wish I had more to say about point 4! It's so deeply counter-intuitive that people would literally risk eviction or starvation than go to places that treat them kind of crappily, but that's honestly the extent of the observation.

Could it be that these places actually told them that they couldn't help them, or tried to help but weren't able to solve their issues, rather than they decided to leave because they weren't being spoken to nicely enough or something? I too would predict that they would prioritise solving their urgent issues over feeling comfortable. It could also be that showing a lot of care indicates that you are correctly understanding their issues and needs and are better equipped to give helpful advice, so their avoidance of places that treat them badly does not necessarily signify distorted priorities. 

Great post btw!

Thank you!

To go into the weeds a little, a lot of this goes back to funding restrictions. As an example, if you're helping people find employment, you generally operate using funding for that from the state, and the funding generally comes with stringent quotas and reporting requirements.

The expectation is, and what organizations generally do, is deal with the reporting requirements by requiring people to fill out a 3+ page intake form before they will book an appointment to talk to a person[1]. Samaritans chooses to talk to people right away, subtly probing for answers during the meeting (since it's all stuff they need to know to help with the job search anyways) and have their staff fill out the forms themselves afterwards. This truly creates a lot more work on their end; you can maybe intuit that by choosing to internalize filling out the intake forms, Samaritans are spending 30% more time per client for the same amount of funding.

This sort of "internalization" is standard across Samaritans ventures. It is a giant pain, but they do it because it removes barriers for so many people to access much needed services.

  1. ^

    In a truly unfortunate number of cases too, the forms are only available in English and the clients are new immigrants/refugees with limited English skills.

This also then loops right back to point 1; one reason they can afford to spend more time per client is that people are willing to be paid under market rate to work at Samaritans, because of its well deserved great reputation.

One more tactic for reputation management: they have a salary policy where everyone in the entire org has salaries that are within 15% of each other, and the founders, who work regular 60 hour weeks, earn around 55k a year (CAD). The messaging around this is that they both want more of their funding to go towards helping others, and that they want to pay around the Canadian median salary, and it helps with increasing solidarity between Samaritans workers and the people they help. Donors love this.

EAs have this take that you should pay people well, and it's a good take. It unfortunately also burns reputation.

Very interesting! I would want to see more evidence before concluding that EA salary practices affirmatively burn reputation, though. GiveWell and Open Phil look a bit higher than U.S. federal government to me, even after accounting for the fact that the feds don't adjust salaries enough in very high COL areas. But I sense that most other orgs pay at a somewhat lower scale . . . so on the whole EA pay may be roughly similar to US Government employee pay? It's not obvious to me how that rate of pay would affirmatively burn reputation.

Many, many people think of government workers as lazy parasites who are overpaid and hard to fire for no reason, so I'm not sure that's a super useful comparison lol. I worked in the federal public service for a bit and experienced some of this firsthand :')

Fair enough, although I think thats a function of their perception of employee quality and about of effort than the rates per se. I used it as a comparison point because the USG underpays at the high end of the talent market (so it's under market rate for good talent) and because the pay scale is more uniform than the private sector and thus easier to compare with.

Thanks for this! I feel like I have a bunch of thoughts swirling in my head as a result of reading this :)

Thanks for writing this, I found it really interesting.

I really appreciate that you wrote this post. I think these are some extremely valuable lessons and a good reminder that EA orgs are not always more enlightened than traditional charities. 

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