First, I’d like to express my deepest sympathies to everyone affected by the FTX breakdown. A lot of people have lost their life savings and are suffering terribly, something I do not wish to diminish in any way. Many are affected in far worse ways than I can even imagine, and I hope as many of those as possible will be able to find the support they need to get through these challenging times.
I got confirmation this week on Wednesday (Nov 9) that payouts from the FTX Future Fund had stopped. Since I had an outstanding grant with them, this was of great concern to me personally. The days following that, and what is still unravelling minute by minute, it seems, was the complete meltdown of FTX and all related entities, including the Future Fund. You are all following these events in other places, so I won’t go into that much, but I wanted to offer a perspective from a Future Fund grantee and the specific ways something like this can do damage.
This post is also a call for support since all funding for my next year of operations has suddenly evaporated entirely. Specifically, if you or someone you know is a grantmaker or donor to EA meta/infrastructure/operations projects and would be interested in funding a new organisation with a good track record, please get in touch. I’d be happy to share much more details and data on the proven value so far, my grant application to the Future Fund, and anything else that might be of interest.
I will also mention the benefits of being vigilant about organisational structure and how it can save your organisation in the long run, even though it might be an upfront and ongoing cost of time and money.
I founded the Altruistic Agency in January this year. The idea was to apply my knowledge and experience from 15+ years as a full-stack developer to help organisations and others in the EA community with tech expertise. I hypothesised that the kind of work I had done mostly in a commercial context for most of my professional life is also highly valuable to nonprofits/charities and others doing high-impact work within EA cause areas. I have always been fond of meta projects, and this seemed like something that could greatly increase productivity (like technology does), especially by saving people lots of time that they could instead spend on their core mission.
Thanks to a grant from the EA Infrastructure Fund, I was able to test this hypothesis full-time and spent the first half of this year providing free tech support to many EA organisations and individuals. During that time, I worked with around 45 of them in areas such as existential risk, animal advocacy, climate, legal research, mental health, and effective fundraising. The work ranged from small tasks, such as improving email deliverability, fixing website bugs, and making software recommendations, to larger tasks, such as building websites, doing security audits, and software integration.
The response from the community was overwhelmingly positive, and the data from the January–June pilot phase of the Altruistic Agency indicates high value. I solved issues (on median) in a fifth of the time it would have taken organisations themselves. The data indicates just one person doing this work for six months saved EA organisations at least 900 hours of work. Additionally, many respondents said they learned a lot from working with me, both about their own systems and setups and about tech in general. Not least, increased awareness of security issues in code and systems, which will only become more crucial over time, and can be significantly harmful if not dealt with properly.
Insights from the pilot phase told me two important things: First, that this was a worthwhile project that provided a lot of value and should be continued. I have been over capacity essentially since the start, meaning there is a lot of demand. Second, that I could be far more ambitious. Most notably, working with many different organisations and projects, I started to notice the outlines of ideas for various infrastructure projects that could help many people simultaneously. This includes things such as donation platforms, job boards, and databases that each organisation does their own version of, often helped by volunteers with limited time.
Capacity issues were at times challenging, as the demand turned out to be very high, and I was combining the client work with the organisational work, which sometimes caused delays and interrupted planning – all of which were insights during this pilot phase that informed the plan for how the agency was to be improved. Towards the end of the pilot phase, I decided the next phase would be about fixing these things, mainly by raising more funds to hire at least a couple of people to help with technical work and operations.
To scale up the Altruistic Agency and aim for a more ambitious version of it, I started looking into turning it into a proper nonprofit organisation. I have run it under my own (sole proprietorship) company until now, which isn’t ideal in terms of taxation, bookkeeping, auditing, and so on. Setting up a dedicated legal entity would allow a complete separation and also make it much easier to accept donations and other funding and eventually employ people. The formal nonprofit status would also benefit the project in various ways, for example, in terms of accountability and assurance, as well as financially, since many services offer nonprofit discount pricing and such.
At the time, I lived in Amsterdam, but decided to set up the organisation in Brussels and consequently move there. The main reasons were firstly that it’s the de facto centre of power for institutions such as the EU and NATO, with an enormous secondary layer of institutions related to European governance and an even larger tertiary layer of NGOs, lobbyists, journalists etc. Secondly, that there seems to be plenty of room for development of the EA community in Brussels, which I would love to be part of. Simply put, Brussels is a vastly connected place for a nonprofit in Europe.
The EA Infrastructure Fund agreed with the soundness of my plans and made a second grant to cover the costs of setting up this organisation and that of my own time while working on it, simultaneously also initiating some of the mentioned infrastructure projects.
Working with a legal consultant, in turn, working with a notary (a legal requirement), we decided on a public interest foundation. This is one of the kinds of nonprofit forms available in Belgium. It’s similar to a private foundation in its governance but with additional provisions that declare the organisation has a philanthropic purpose by law. It’s more expensive to set up because it’s more paperwork and requires a Royal Decree of approval, meaning it also takes a lot more time. That we decided to go for this form might turn out to have been one of the most consequential decisions I made for the organisation.
While working with the legal consultant during July–September to get everything in order, I also spent a lot of time on additional fundraising opportunities. One of the people I had worked with on a client project was very enthusiastic about the Altruistic Agency and turned out to be a regrantor for the FTX Future Fund. This person suggested I start working on a proposal for them to raise funds mainly for hiring people. I got to work on this, which involved writing and rewriting a lot of my thinking about the agency’s purpose, its priorities, and figuring out what exact funding model it would use going forward. I got a lot of input on this both from the regrantor and from many other long-time EA technologists, for which I am immensely thankful.
Working backwards from the vision of the Altruistic Agency I have in mind for the coming years, I eventually came up with a proposal that struck a good balance between ambitious and intentional. The next phase of the organisation would be to hire a full-time developer and a full-time Director of Operations as soon as possible, with me acting as the Executive Director. This would allow the client work and other technical development to run non-stop, regardless of my own schedule from week to week. With the Director of Operations, I would spend much more time working out better processes for all parts of the work and much more time on research and publication about the technical needs of the EA community and its cause areas.
Eventually, I want the Altruistic Agency to work as a broad technical agency and a kind of incubator for high-impact technical projects. We would help any organisation develop MVPs and other things that help them get things off the ground, and even more importantly, develop software and services as public goods for the benefit of the entire EA community and more broadly anyone working within high-impact cause areas.
Until this week, I thought this next phase of the Altruistic Agency would take place during 2023 and that I had funding for it. That I would no longer have to juggle every single aspect of the organisation myself. That I would soon have an employment contract and salary from my newly formed organisation, thus also fulfilling the requirements for residency in Belgium. Now, none of that is the case anymore, and I need to get back to fundraising, just to solve my own income situation, if nothing else.
A small bit of irony in all this: I mentioned before that setting up a public interest foundation takes a lot more time. All the necessary paperwork was submitted by the notary some time ago, and as soon as I got word back that it had been approved, I would be able to set up a bank account, finish the due diligence with the Future Fund and receive the funds. But because we went for the slightly more complicated form of organisation, the process did not finish soon enough for any of that to happen. By going for increased legitimacy, the Altruistic Agency also accidentally avoided this whole world of trouble. So it goes. This has reminded me the that it is up to ourselves what level of scrutiny, accountability, transparency, and safeguarding we want to put our organisations under. I hope this is something many EA organisations revisit in light of the current situation, especially grantmaking organisations.
Again, if my work resonates with you and you have any way of pointing funders or funding my way, please do so. You can email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. I don’t know yet how many other Future Fund grantees are in my situation or how much funds were “committed” (they weren’t really, it turned out) to approved grants. I can’t imagine there is a straightforward way for funding organisations within EA alone to pick up all of that, especially as most of them have other funding bars and criteria.
Already from the start, I’ve been aware that the EA funding landscape is rather small and homogenous compared to the bigger nonprofit sector, and that any EA organisation should aim to diversify their funding. This FTX crisis just shows again that relying on a small number of very large donors is fragile, which is a lesson both for nonprofits themselves, and for the grantmaking organisations they get funding from.
I think I ultimately dodged a bullet. Not having signed any contracts or received funds from any entity related to FTX seems like the safe place to be right now. It would have tainted my organisation legally and morally. Starting a new organisation is always uncertain, especially in terms of funding prospects, so I know not to put too much faith in opportunities until they are fully resolved. But I’d rather be set back a year and once again full of uncertainty, than find out my organisation was built on resources from potentially criminal activities. We are all trying to act morally and should always reject any benefit from immoral actions.
Please forgive the insensitivity of the following question. I've been wondering about this for a while and now I'm (ab)using your post about your troubles and ambitions as a place to ask it: What is your thinking on charging money for the tech support part of your work?
The EA ecosystem appears to consist of organizations supporting each other for free, while being funded by a third party. How about third-parties funding only those organizations that do direct work and can't have paying customers, and having the rest be semi-commercial, organized by market forces? (I know that this wouldn't work for your more ambitious projects. But for the day-to-day tech support it should be possible, at least in a market economist's dream world.)
I've spent a lot of time this year looking into this exact scenario and discussing various models with many people with different views. Most other EA agencies are trying to figure it out as well.
What is most likely is that I'll move to a hybrid model where the first X hours are free, and after that, most would pay some (below market rate) fee that is offset by larger clients that can afford market rate. The main reason for this is that my data suggests around 70% of clients would have tried to solve the issues themselves otherwise, which is a huge time waste. Another reason is that there is a significant transaction cost, especially given that the funding for services like these often comes from the same sources (in the EA funding landscape) in the end.
In any case, I expect this part of the agency's activities to be relatively small in the future, as creating public goods and services is immensely more valuable.
Thanks for explaining! I'm happy to read that you're discussing this with other people, too.
See NonLinear Emergency Funding https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/L4S2NCysoJxgCBuB6/announcing-nonlinear-emergency-funding
Thank you for taking the time to post this reply, this is really helpful.
I also worked with Markus during his pilot phase, and his work was extreamly helpful in helping us figure out some technical bits that he was able to do very quickly, but would have taken me hours (maybe would have just never been able to fix alone). I was exceptionally grateful for his help and it just gave me so much faith in the EA community that such a service would even exist. Still feel really grateful for all his help.
Thank you for the kind words.
Wishing you best of luck Markus!
As one of the people who Markus worked with during the pilot phase, I can very much attest to the value he brings to an organization, and would be happy to speak with any potential funders about my experience working with Altruistic Agency.
Thank you, Ezra, that is very kind of you.