- The Effective Institutions Project is a philanthropic advisory and research organization that seeks out and incubates high-impact strategies to improve institutional decision-making around the world.
- To further that mission, we've launched a pilot grantmaking vehicle called the EIP Innovation Fund that supports initiatives we think will boost the likelihood that important institutions take actions that benefit the world.
- In addition to the resources under our direct control, we are able to refer funding opportunities to a broader network of EA and non-EA funders that have expressed interest in our research.
- If you are potentially interested in contributing to institution-focused grantmaking opportunities recommended by EIP, please fill out this form. We aim to finalize our recommendations and grant decisions by the end of January.
Why we think this is potentially exciting
Actions taken by powerful institutions—such as central governments, multinational corporations, and influential media outlets—shape our lives in myriad ways. According to 80,000 Hours, “improving the quality of decision-making in high-stakes situations — which often take place in important institutions — could improve our ability to solve many other [societal] problems.” Yet until recently, there was no comprehensive effort to map the strategic landscape and identify the highest-impact actions that donors or working professionals could take to deliver on that promise.
The Effective Institutions Project was created to fill this gap and work towards providing the clarity needed to make confident decisions about supporting policy- and institution-focused initiatives. To date, we have identified nearly 200 opportunities and completed preliminary evaluations of 45 of them (more details about our process below). We've been impressed with both the quality of opportunities we're encountering and proportion which were not previously known to us. Based on our analysis so far, we expect that our top recommendations will be able to productively absorb many times more funding than we are able to grant to them directly, presenting a significant potential impact opportunity for donors.
Eligibility and screening criteria
By design, EIP’s grant recommendations are extremely broad in scope: the only hard requirement is that the theory of change must at some point involve at least one important institution taking different actions than it would have otherwise. EIP values institution-focused work through the lens of two, not-mutually-exclusive outcomes: the expected impact on global health and wellbeing over the next ten years, and the expected reduction in the probability of existential risk over the next hundred years. Within this very broad scope, we use the following two heuristics to prioritize opportunities for serious consideration:
- Big if true: We're trying to use a modest pool of money to have the most impact we can, so that leads us in the direction of focusing on opportunities with exceptionally high impact potential. This means that a major consideration for us is just how big of a deal it would be for the world if the grantee is able to accomplish what it says it's trying to accomplish.
- A legible theory of change: To balance the "big if true" heuristic, we're also looking for opportunities that can tell a very clear and crisp story about how their work would make a difference in the behavior of one or more important institutions. As an example, for our purposes a not-so-legible theory of change might be, "there's a collective action problem in this industry, so we're going to fund some fellowships for postdoctorates to publish articles in academic journals about the problem." A more legible theory of change could be, "there's a collective action problem in this industry, so we're going to convene a roundtable of the relevant players and use a facilitation technique that has performed well in high-stakes negotiations to try to get the participants to sign on to a consensus solution."
Although we expect to primarily recommend 501(c)(3) nonprofits and their international equivalents, we are also open to considering recommendations for grants to individuals and other non-tax-deductible entities.
Sourcing and vetting process
We have sourced grantmaking opportunities throughout this year from a combination of asking other funders to share relevant proposals with us; asking our advisors and broader expert network for recommendations of organizations, campaigns, and initiatives doing promising work; consulting databases of aligned grants and grantmakers to identify potential fits; and leveraging the in-depth research we’re conducting on specific institutions to scout people and organizations that we may want to support in those contexts.
After an initial screening, we write up a detailed preliminary evaluation of selected grant opportunities that covers the grantee’s strategy and theory of change, the activities to be funded and the expected marginal impact of a grant, potential risks, and key uncertainties. We often conduct at least one interview with the grantee organization and request additional materials at this stage of the process.
For the most promising opportunities, we progress to a formal evaluation that includes a rough quantitative estimate of the costs and benefits using the “specific-strategy” version of our evaluation framework. When potential grants have a credible case for impacting both near-term and long-term outcomes, we will assess them on both dimensions. Because of the high degree of uncertainty involved, we plan to use these estimates primarily as a decision tool to test the logical consistency of our hypotheses and assumptions about the opportunities in question, much as we did with the quantitative estimates in our landscape analysis earlier this year.
There are many different ways EIP could go about seeking out grantmaking opportunities and other factors that come up during the vetting process. Some of the relevant dimensions are listed below in no particular order, with comments on how we are navigating each.
- Strategy types: As discussed in our landscape analysis, institution-focused work generally falls into one of several paradigms: an issue-centered approach that involves advocating for specific policy priorities across many different institutions; an audience-centered approach that involves trying to improve the way a single institution or well-defined group of institutions operates; an intervention-centered approach that emphasizes the broad adoption of a specific technology or intervention to improve institutional governance, management, or decision-making; and a system-centered approach that seeks to build, strengthen, and/or coordinate the field of people and organizations doing work in one or more of the other categories. For this funding round, any of the above approaches are technically eligible, but EIP is most interested in opportunities that fall into the audience-centered paradigm, and in particular ones that focus on those institutions we’ve highlighted in our landscape analysis.
- Outcome- vs. capacity-oriented: Some institution-focused strategies emphasize specific decisions or policy outcomes that are to be pursued by whatever means necessary, while others emphasize establishing better institutional culture, incentives, norms, and/or practices that will hopefully yield a range of good outcomes in the future. Each of these has advantages and disadvantages: outcome-oriented strategies are easier to evaluate and offer a clearer path to impact in the short term, but the benefits from successful capacity-oriented strategies may be much longer-lasting and more comprehensive. At EIP, we are interested in both strategies as long as the case for impact is clear.
- Connection to the effective altruist community: In our experience, funders tend to source grant opportunities from established and stable networks, and so we feel that one of the primary ways EIP can add value is by finding and promoting relevant opportunities across those networks. Since EIP is one of only a few organizations that has extensive ties to both the mainstream and EA philanthropic communities, ensuring a balanced distribution of opportunities along this dimension helps us to achieve this goal, and is valuable in its own right since EA-affiliated and mainstream organizations often bring complementary strengths and perspectives to the work. (For example, many mainstream organizations have much longer histories with the institutions in question and have built strong networks around them, while EA-affiliated organizations may offer a fresh perspectives and in-depth expertise on certain issues.) We therefore expect to recommend an approximately equal number of EA, EA-adjacent, and non-EA grant opportunities.
- Near-term vs. long-term orientation: As noted above, we use both a 10-year and a 100-year frame to evaluate grant opportunities, with different outcome metrics for each. This reflects a choice on EIP’s part to emphasize worldview diversification, and one frame is not more important than the other from our perspective. Thus, our recommendations should reflect a balanced mix of near-term and long-term solutions.
- Risk profile: Institution-focused work can be very risky, particularly when it involves trying to get a lot of public attention or working in sensitive political contexts. Since this is EIP’s first round of grant recommendations, we intend to be slightly risk-averse in our approach. This will give us the benefit of testing how accurate our judgments about risk are before we go ahead and greenlight apparently riskier work. We view the presence of risk as a factor to be incorporated alongside analysis of potential benefits, not an automatic dealbreaker. Nevertheless, there may be some situations in which opportunities that score highly from a pure expected-value point of view are not recommended because of significant concerns about accidental harm.
- Confidentiality: Institution-focused work can vary greatly in its public profile: some potential grantees will see transparency as a virtue and straightforwardly describe their aims and methods to the public, while others prefer to stay out of the public eye or even take active measures to operate in secret. At EIP, we believe that the choice to reveal information about the existence or nature of a project should be driven by the case and strategy for impact, and grantees’ preferences on this front should be respected by default. Accordingly, we can expect that some of our recommendations will be more confidential than others, and we may choose to share a subset of our recommendations publicly where safe to do so.
- EIP’s value-add as a funder: As part of our process, we should always consider the counterfactual contribution EIP makes by “getting involved” in a grant strategy. We sometimes may encounter opportunities that presently have a funding gap, but are part of a system with strong demand from funders; in such situations, the potential grantees may be very likely to meet their fundraising goals eventually and it’s just a question of how long it takes. An opportunity like this may not be the best fit for EIP’s resources even if it otherwise seems great on paper. This consideration will tend to focus our work on newer, more obscure, and/or smaller-budget organizations and strategies, although we don't disqualify opportunities solely for failing to meet these criteria, especially early in the process. There may also be situations in which worthwhile organizations that were well-funded before have become less so due to changes in the funding landscape, and therefore represent good opportunities for EIP.
If you'd like to help
- Donors: We are strongly committed to building a field of philanthropists interested in this type of work. To register interest in supporting opportunities EIP recommends, please fill out this form. We'll add you to the distribution list for our recommendations when they're ready next month, and you'll be in the loop for additional opportunities we may come across in the future.
- Organization/project leaders: We decided not to run a formal open call for proposals this time around because we were building our operational systems from the ground up and wanted to avoid making commitments that we might have difficulty following through on with our limited capacity. With that said, if you feel that you have or know about an opportunity that is an exceptionally strong fit for the fund's priorities, you can feel free to message me through the Forum and we will get back to you if we'd like to learn more.
We are grateful to SoGive Grants and a private donor for supporting the inaugural edition of the EIP Innovation Fund.
Obviously, the actual merit of proposals like these will depend on a lot on the details.