I'm stepping down as chair of the Long-Term Future Fund. I'm writing this post partially as a loose set of reflections on my time there, and partially as an overall update on what's going on with the fund, as I think we should generally be transparent with donors and grantees, and my sense is the broader community has fairly little insight into the fund's current operations. I'll start with a brief history of what's happened since I joined the fund, and its impact, and move to a few reflections on ways the fund is working now.
(Also- you can donate to the Long-Term Future Fund here, and let us know here if you might be interested in becoming a fund manager. (The Long-Term Future Fund is part of EA Funds, which is a fiscally sponsored project of Effective Ventures Foundation (UK) (EV UK) and Effective Ventures Foundation USA Inc. (EV US). Donations to the Long-Term Future Fund are donations to EV US or EV UK.))
A brief history of my time on the Long-Term Future Fund
I joined the Long-Term Future Fund as a fund manager in June 2020. At the time, it was chaired by Matt Wage, had five fund managers (including me), and ran three rounds per year, with order ~50 applications per round, giving away an average of ~$450K per round in both 2019 and 2020, for a total of ~$1.35M per year.
Matt Wage left the fund, and I was appointed the new chair in February 2021. We also hired a number of new fund managers, and decided to try out a guest manager system where we had more temporary fund managers work with the fund. (We're still doing that today.)
The biggest change that I pushed for during my time as chair (which I believe was originally suggested by Ozzie Gooen, thanks Ozzie) was switching from three fixed rounds a year to a rolling application system, where anyone could apply to the fund at any time. My current guess is that this was a pretty big boost to the fund's impact, via giving us access to a bunch of counterfactual grant opportunities that other funders (who either didn't have rolling applications, or were funding a more constrained set of things) didn't have access to. I also pushed for a switch away from mandatory public reporting for our grant applicants (which I discuss somewhat below), which I also think gave us access to better grant opportunities, and which I also overall still endorse.
At a high-level, the fund consists of a number of fund managers who work a relatively low number of hours per week (generally 3 - 10, though I think it might be trending even lower recently). EA Funds itself only has one full-time employee— Caleb Parikh. There's been significant fund manager turnover since I joined the fund, generally because relevant fund managers have wanted to prioritize their other work— since I joined the fund, Matt Wage and Helen Toner have left, Adam Gleave, Evan Hubinger, and Becca Kagan have joined as permanent fund managers and then left, Linchuan Zhang has joined as a permanent fund manager, and we've had a number of guest managers join and leave the fund.
Also during my time on the fund, the volume of our grantmaking work has scaled significantly— whereas in 2020, we received 211 applications and funded 34 as grants, worth ~$1.3M dollars total, from March 2022 to March 2023, we received 878 applications and funded 263 as grants, worth ~$9.1M dollars total.
The fund’s impact
My reflections below focus on ways I think the Long-Term Future Fund has been suboptimal over my time as chair, and I got feedback on my original draft of this post that this made it seem like my view of the fund was negative overall, which wasn’t my intention. For clarity, my best guess is that overall, the Long-Term Future Fund has been, and continues to be, pretty (positively) impactful:
- Historically, it was one of the first grantmakers to start making small grants to individuals, at a time when that kind of grantmaking was fairly neglected. I think we’ve served an important role in the ecosystem as a big funder of individuals, smaller projects, and new organizations.
- By virtue of being the only "anything, anytime" grantmaker, I think we’ve had access and continue to have access to grant opportunities that other funders have not, and would guess that some of those have led to fairly good grants.
- Looking back, I think a number of our grants have been “great”— you can see our full grantmaking track record here, but some public grantees that stand out to me are Manifold Markets, AXRP, Robert Miles, the Existential-Risk Persuasion Tournament, David Krueger, Vanessa Kosoy, and SERI MATS.
- Personally, seeing submissions to an open application form has helped me get a sense of the space of work and projects that people are interested in, which has been helpful for understanding what funding opportunities might exist in my work at Open Philanthropy. Working at the LTFF has also led me to push my team at Open Phil to move faster on grants, streamline our grantmaking infrastructure, and investigate certain grantmaking areas sooner.
To the extent that this section is shorter than others, it's because I think most of our impact, which has come through our grantmaking, is well-documented in other places, e.g. our payout reports and our grants database, and I think it's generally more interesting (both for others, and for my reflection) to think about ways in which things could have gone better. (I also wanted to make clear that most of my reflections on suboptimality are about our grantee experience, rather than our grantmaking quality (which I have no particular reason to think has declined)).
Problems with scale
I think the Long-Term Future Fund hasn’t done a good job staying fast and reliable in the face of a massive increase in application and grant numbers. (As I say above, we went from 34 grants in 2020 to 263 grants from March 2022 - March 2023). In particular, I don’t think we’re able to get back in time reliably on time-sensitive applications, and have taken a very long time to get back on a small number of applications– our median response time from January 2022 to April 2023 was 29 days, but our current mean (across all time) is 54 days (although the mean is very unstable). As the single person arguably most responsible for the fund functioning well, and definitely most responsible for its increase in applications, I think I should take a fair share of the blame for this.
In my view, a fundamental problem at play here is that the fund isn't structurally well set-up to handle its current application load. In general, I think having a bunch of people working part-time on something outside of their main job is not an amazing set-up— even for extremely conscientious people, it's hard to juggle multiple responsibilities, especially when there's no formal managerial relationship or accountability, meaning it's difficult to count on people (chiefly and including me) working reliable hours, or keeping track of deadlines. I think switching the fund to rolling applications made these dynamics even worse, as it meant that fund managers had a lot more applications to evaluate, had to keep track of a lot more individual deadlines, and had to work more consistent hours to keep on top of those deadlines (as opposed to everyone being able to plan around a constrained busy stretch during each funding round). The collapse of FTX also substantively worsened this dynamic, as it meant that we got more applications, each application decision was harder and had higher stakes (as a result of the overall decrease in funding in the space), and at least one fund manager was overwhelmingly busy dealing with the aftermath.
As our applicant pool has increased and our fund managers have turned over rapidly, I personally have been more of a bottleneck on our funding decisions, as I've had to do more work assigning applications, tracking deadlines, and providing a second eye on applications that only one fund manager looks at (which is currently the default for most applications, given the ratio of applications to fund managers).I've recently spent some time writing up some policies for how the LTFF should operate that I can share with new fund managers, in the hopes that it will save me time in the long run, as the amount of time I end up spending per application we get is approximately inversely proportional to how long the primary evaluator investigating has been on the fund. Overall, I think the chair role has expanded significantly since I joined the fund— originally, the chair was originally just a slightly special fund manager who had the job of assigning applications; now, it feels more like I'm half-heartedly managing a small team who don't interact with each other much by default.
(I also suspect that the lack of active discussion about grants has made the fund a worse experience for fund managers— I might describe the overall shift in the culture of the fund to have gone from "lively epistemic forum" to "solitary grantmaking machine".)
The main consequence of all of the above is that I think the Long-Term Future Fund has been significantly less reliable and consistent in the last year, and especially in the last eight months (since the collapse of FTX). I'm sorry to any applicants that this affected, and I'm especially sorry to the extent that the LTFF has set false expectations around our speed and reliability— we previously changed our application form to say "if your application is time-sensitive, we may or may not have the capacity to get back to you in time", but I now think that language is too weak, and have changed it to say "the LTFF is low on capacity and may not be able to get back to you by your stated deadline— we encourage you to apply to other funders as well if you have a time-sensitive ask." (That said, I think applicants who want time-sensitive decisions should still apply to the LTFF— we do get back to people in time in a lot of cases, and I'm pushing us to increasingly prioritize applications that look particularly promising at a quick glance.)
Some obvious paths to improving the fund on this dimension are a) hiring more fund managers; b) hiring a full-time chair, or otherwise restructuring the fund so as not to have one person bottlenecking its work as much (e.g. by giving multiple more senior fund managers the responsibility to be a second eye on grant evaluations by more junior ones); or c) changing the way the fund operates in a more major way, e.g. going back to a round-based system, or changing the fund to a collection of independent regrantors. In my remaining time as chair, I plan to work on hiring, but currently think it's unlikely that I'll push for any major restructures. (But it seems like something to consider for whoever replaces me).
Historically, we've had trouble hiring fund managers, especially in technical AI alignment, largely for the reasons mentioned above (people generally want to focus on their work). I think there's an extent to which I've contributed to our difficulty in hiring, in that I'm not sold that people doing good direct work should be taking on additional responsibilities as fund managers (so haven’t been great at convincing people to join), though others on the fund feel differently, and I'll let them comment below.
I also think it's possible that some combination of existing and new funders will increasingly fill the historic niche that the LTFF has had (as an always-open funder accepting applications for anything), which would be a good outcome in my eyes, and could reduce the LTFF's workload to a more sustainable level.
Several people have told me that they feel disappointed that the Long-Term Future Fund hasn't been putting out detailed payout reports the way we have historically (at least not since this report covering our giving through 2021). I stopped mandating those reports, and we switched to a grantmaking database, as I felt like the fund was overwhelmed with evaluating applications, though my hope was that individual fund managers would still be interested in publishing grant reports independently. (In hindsight, it seems obvious that this wasn’t going to happen without active encouragement on my part, though Linch did write this great post about lessons he learned as a grantmaker.) I also pushed to switch the fund away from mandatory reporting for all of its grants, which means that some fraction of the grants we make are no longer publicly reported.
I think both of these actions arguably trade off one theory of change for the fund, "contributing to the epistemic commons", for another, "making more (good) grants". I personally have always been more sold on the latter theory of change (for the LTFF in particular), so think that these were good trades, but I think there's room for disagreement on that, and all things equal, I think it's too bad that we haven't put out more payout reports over the last year. We recently did release a new payout report here, and I'd guess the fund is likely to continue putting them out at least somewhat more frequently, as it does more independent fundraising.
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For the rounds I had access to.
One thing I feel less bullish on than I did in the past is solving the problem with the set-up above by decreasing the bar for fund manager hires-- at least in my experience, I felt like bringing on people who I thought were less strong resulted in more overhead for me, which just made the part of the process that I was bottlenecking worse.
From January 2022 to April 2023, 11% of our total funding recommended has gone to grants that weren’t publicly reported.