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The purchase of Wytham Abbey was originally justified as a long term investment, when people were still claiming EA wasn't cash constrained. One of the arguments advanced by defenders of the purchase was that the money wasn't lost, merely invested

Right now, EA is hella funding constrained...

In the last few months, I've seen multiple posts of EA orgs claiming to be so funding constrained they're facing existential risk (disclaimer: I was a trustee of CEEALAR until last month). By the numbers given by those three orgs, 10% of the price of Wytham would be enough to fund them all for several years. 

This is to say nothing of all the organisations less urgently seeking funding, the fact that regional groups seem to be getting funding cuts of 40%, of numerous word-of-mouth accounts of people being turned down for funding or not trying to start an organisation because they don't expect to get it, and the fact that earlier this year the EA funds were reportedly suffering some kind of liquidity crisis (and are among those seeking funding now).

Here's a breakdown of the small-medium size orgs who've written 'we are funding constrained' posts on the forum in the last 6 months or so, along with the length of time the sale of Wytham Abbey (at its original £15,000,000 purchase price) could fund them:
 

OrganisationAnnual budget*Number of years Wytham Abbey’s sale could fund orgSource
EA Poland£24-48,000312-614Link
Centre for Enabling EA Learning & Research£150-£300,00050-100Personal involvement
AI Safety Camp£46-246,00048-326Link
Concentric Policies£16,500**900**Link
Center on Long-Term Risk£600,00024Link
EA Germany£226,000***66Link
Vida Plena’s 'Group Interpersonal Therapy' project£159,00094Link
Happier Lives Institute£161,00093Link
Riesgos Catastróficos Globales£137,000109Link
Giving What We Can£1,650,0009Link
All above organisations excluding GWWC (assuming max of budget ranges)£1,893,5007.9  
All above organisations including GWWC (assuming max of budget ranges)£3,543,5004.2  


 

* Converted from various currencies

** Their stated ‘funding gap’ for the year. It sounds like that’s their whole planned budget, but isn’t clear

*** They were seeking replacement funding for the 40% shortfall of this, which they’ve now received

... but in five years, EA probably won't need the long-term savings 

Wytham Abbey was meant to be a multi-year investment. But though EA is currently funding constrained as heck, the consensus estimate seems to be that within half a decade the movement will have multiple new billionaire donors - so investing for a payoff more than a few years ahead rapidly loses value.

Also (disclaimer again noted) CEEALAR has hosted retreats for Allfed and Orthogonal, and is due to host the forthcoming ML4Good bootcamp, so is already serving a similar function to Wytham Abbey - for a fraction of the operational cost, and less than 2% of the purchase/sale value. 

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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:56 AM

To me this post ignores the elephant in the room: OpenPhil still has billions of dollars left and is trying to make funding decisions relative to where they think their last dollar is. I'd be pretty surprised if having the Wytham money liquid rather than illiquid (or even having £15mn out of nowhere!) really made a difference to that estimate.

It seems reasonable to argue that they're being too conservative, and should be funding the various things you mention in this post, but also plausible to me that they're acting correctly? More importantly, I think this is a totally separate question to whether to sell Wytham,and requires different arguments. Eg I gather that CEEALAR has several times been considered and passed over for funding before, I don't have a ton of context for why, but that suggests to me it's not a slam dunk re being a better use of money.

I personally feel strongly about CEEALAR being better value, but that's just one of the many organisations listed - you can mentally delete it if your mileage varies. 

Also, for better or worse, the mansion now belongs to EVF, so it's now up to EVF to decide whether it's the most effective path for them to keep it. Does a status quo reversal test suggest that right now, if they had £15million in cash, the best thing to spend it on would be a mansion near Oxford (let's assume that spending it on anything else would come with a couple of months' worth of admin work)?

Re your second paragraph: OP remains EVF's predominant funder, and it seems likely that OP would respond to EVF selling Wytham by reducing its own grant to EVF in the same amount. Thus, the end result of selling Wytham would be that OP has more money to spend elsewhere. OP is probably in a better position than EVF to evaluate the value of Wytham vs. whatever it would fund with the reduction in EVF's grant next year after the Wytham sale.

That's an interesting point.  I wonder if this would also be the case if EVF (hypothetically) immediately earmarked proceeds from selling Wytham as donations to other organisations.

All of this of course is ignoring how grantmaking works in practice. 

The number for HLI is also a funding gap figure. In the linked post, the potential budget presented for next year ranges from 442k to 1.073M pounds.

I think Neel makes a good point.

And to me the sort of 'other' elephant in the room is the value of Wytham Abbey beyond thinking of it purely as an investment, i.e. in the comment that you link, Owen Cotton-Barratt tried to explain something about his belief in the value of specialist venues that can host conferences, workshops, researcher meetings etc. and that are committed to promoting a certain flavour of "open-ended intellectual exploration". One can obviously reasonably disagree with him (and admittedly it is very difficult to figure out the monetary value of this stuff), but it probably at least deserves rebutting explicitly?

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3mo27
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It would be helpful to know what events have been hosted there by now.

It would also be helpful to know what their cost-benefit analysis actually consisted of, but I asked that they publish it in response to Owen's comment and never heard anything.

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