[ Question ]

Why is the EA Hotel having trouble fundraising?

by Milan_Griffes1 min read26th Mar 201948 comments

34

Community
Frontpage

As far as I can tell, the EA Hotel hasn't pulled in much money during its present fundraising drive (see its Patreon & its GoFundMe).

I'm curious about why this is, and whether it's indicative of a broader dynamic operating in the community. (It reminds me of the situation the Berkeley REACH was in last year: 1, 2.)

For reference, the recent EA Hotel fundraising posts: 1, 2, 3

New Answer
Ask Related Question
New Comment

1 Answers

Because it's not as good a funding opportunity as the top charities currently out there.

I think you should expand on why you believe this is the case. It would be useful for me to know your thinking, since I'm considering giving to them.

The EA Hotel would only be a top charity if it's producing higher quality work than other top charities.

Because the guests are always changing, and because the Hotel is new, we can't evaluate the work yet. We have to guess whether the work would be higher or lower quality than top charities.

A key factor for producing a large volume of quality work is feedback. Regular (eg daily or weekly) feedback helps you to focus on the right things, speed up or slow down, find better ways of doing things, and improve the quality of your work over time.

I don't expect the EA Hotel guests to be getting much high quality feedback. Many of them are working on very different projects from each other, and their peers are incentivized to be nice - it's not the kind of relationship a student has with a teacher or an employee has with a manager. In general, I think most EA Hotel guests are receiving significantly less quality feedback and mentorship than they would if they were working or studying in a formal program.

I would be less concerned about this if the average EA Hotel guest had several years of experience being mentored in their chosen field, but currently I would prefer for the majority of them to develop their skills in a way that gives them direct feedback before striking out on their own.

I agree that feedback is extremely important. I even imagine that feedback is almost universally the bottleneck to growth. Feedback in the general sense. Not just from people, but from experience as well.

We're giving guests 15 minutes of feedback per week, through personal check-ins with the manager (which is currently me). I can imagine that this is a bit less than what one would usually get from one's superior, and that this feedback is less good because management is unlikely to be an expert on the subject at hand.

Coming from a different perspective: EA seems to be more generally constrained by mentorship. If all the mentors are already mentoring at full capacity, the next best thing is to let people try and figure things out by themselves (or read books about it). I'd guess that that is better than letting people sit at home and wait for their turn, so to speak, which seems to be the real counterfactual.

I would also add that there seems to be a good amount of peer feedback and group discussion. People requesting and giving feedback on ideas and drafts, giving talks with Q&As, brainstorming together, that kind of thing.

There is a high level of shared knowledge of EA amongst hotel guests. Also the average level of education and work experience is pretty high (from a recent survey: 4.6 years university level education, 4.8 years work experience).

5Khorton2yI'm glad you've thought about feedback and that you have a system. I agree that 15 minutes a week from someone not intimately familiar with your project and subject area is probably much less useful than you'd get at work, although better than some PhD programs. I think the counterfactual to running your own unsupervised project with 15 minutes a week of feedback is studying or working outside the EA community, and I think that's more useful for developing skills and high quality work in almost every case.
2toonalfrink2yThat's a good point. You made me aware of a certain population of potential hotel residents that would be better off building career capital elsewhere. But I think "almost every case" is an overstatement. Here's some idealized examples, for the sake of argument: * The person with the high-profile career that decides to do independent research instead of taking a job at a multinational NGO that eventually leads them to a lot more influence * The EA-adjacent software developer that would have drifted outside of the community, if not for a place at the EA Hotel where they're doing useful knowledge work * The entrepreneurial person that starts an EA organisation at the hotel, instead of doing a second-grade Master's degree in relative obscurity because they were never good at caring about grades Would you agree that the first would be a net loss, while the second and the third would be a net gain? I'm curious what you think our pool of residents is like, and how this influences your opinion.
2Khorton2yI guess I find these scenarios hard to relate to because I can think of a lot of better solutions for 2 and 3 then the EA Hotel. Like 2 could work on their impactful project part time until it's good enough that someone would fund it (at which point the EA Hotel becomes really useful!), or they could become more involved in their local EA community or another community of donors. 3 could get a job at a startup so they better understand entrepreneurship, or take part in Charity Entrepreneurship. But yes, independent projects at the EA Hotel are better than the alternatives listed.
2dpiepgrass2yI live in a place with no established EA community and I don't see myself working on a project part-time with no oversight because I've been there, done that, and largely failed, because in the long term, isolation was hard for me. Charity Entrepreneurship? This is the first I've heard of it. For me, moving to a place like EA hotel would be a great way to "break into" the EA community; paying my way at an EA hotel (£10/day) is more attractive to me than attempting to get a job in an expensive EA hub like SF or NY, since I already tried to do that and failed. [That said I'm not going to this EA hotel since I'm not British.] Remember that we're not all Ivy league here. I graduated merely with honors from a local university.
5John_Maxwell2yThis is a good point. Maybe the hotel should have events where people anonymously write down the strongest criticisms they can think of for a particular person's project, then someone reads the criticisms aloud and they get discussed.

While I liked seeing the reasons for your belief in your subsequent comment, I also really appreciate the meta-level point this comment evoked in me (though I don't know whether this is what you meant):

"In general, most causes are unlikely to be competitive with the very best causes. Thus, a simple explanation for an organization's not getting funding is that potential funders didn't think it was among the very best opportunities after carefully thinking about it. This may be a much more important factor than arguments like 'too risky' or 'not tax-deductible'."

(Of course, risk may be factored into calculations about "the best opportunity", but I can also imagine some funders just looking at the portfolio of projects, estimating a reasonable "helpfulness" coefficient for how much value the Hotel adds, and deciding that the number didn't add up, even without consideration of risk.)

Similarly, if AMF had trouble fundraising one year, and someone asked why, the explanation I'd think of immediately wouldn't be "risk of mosquito-net fishing" or "concerns about their deal with Country X". It would be "their program's EV slipped below the EV of several other global-health charities, and many donors chose other charities on the margin instead of AMF, even if AMF is still a great charity".

--

I work for CEA, but these views are my own.

1Khorton2yYep, that's what I meant.
2Greg_Colbourn2yWhat are the counterfactual top charities you have in mind?
35 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 12:01 PM

I don’t necessarily think all these are true because I know some good people who have benefited from the hotel but my responses would be:

  1. Questions about what the residents are doing - The dominant activity reported in the current residents post is “self-study” - usually of AI related things and frequently in a pretty vague way. A more traditional way of framing this would be “unemployed”. The criticism of “This is going to attract people who are into EA and unusually bad at making a living” is not enhanced by this. Better to show what residents have actually achieved (if you can do that)?

  2. Lack of buy in from EA organisations - A decent number of the residents seem to have been hired from the EA hotel into EA organisations and/Or EA organisations staff are using it as free accommodation. There is certainly an argument that RISE or rethink priorities should be paying to upkeep the hotel since the hotel is allowing them to employ staff at presumably below market rate. But the fact that ea organisations are unwilling to even endorse the hotel as helpful in these posts is a red flag.

  3. Low entry bar - due to low demand Essentially anyone who has any familiarity with Effective altruism has been admitted even projects that seem pretty tragic like “writing a novel on AI alignment” and “writing a mobile game” - it’s a difficult balance here, unoccupied rooms are doing nothing for the hotel but equally I doubt indulging these sorts of things are valuable - especially if they are being publicly reported as outputs of the hotel .

  4. Poor presentation- I found the post on expected value essentially incoherent as a pitch , but in all of the posts so far little thought seems to have been put into the elevator pitch of why fund this or what are the best aspects of the project are. Funders want a one paragraph or one sentence summary of why they should fund it which seems absent here

  5. Wariness over founder quality- the founder previously attempted to setup a rationalist group house in Manchester that spectacularly imploded. (Through primarily the fault of others imo). One of the biggest metrics of success in venture capital is founder quality and there are legitimate questions over Greg’s personality and judgment from that episode that would make me personally step away from the hotel.

  6. Over ambition/ lack of social proof - people are more likely to contribute to online campaigns they think will be successful and which have a lot of backers - at the last time I checked, not even close to every current/previous resident had made even a nominal donation of £5 to the campaign

All of these together present a picture of quite a low status organisation. People don’t want to be associated with something low status and are likely to subject anything they perceive as low status to a lot of scrutiny.

1. We hope to post a list of outputs soon (within the next week).

2. Those on salaries from Rethink Priorities have been paying cost price (£10/day). AFAIK they have not adjusted their salaries downward because staff are staying at the hotel. RAISE has contributed to the Hotel from the limited funding they have received recently.

3. Depends what your counterfactual use of the money is in terms of what the bar of EV to clear is. Given our low costs, the EV bar could be quite low over a number of comparisons. We aim to adjust the entry bar depending on supply.

4. We have a pitch doc we've been circulating to potential funders. Will release it publicly soon (within the next week).

5. The rationalist group house in Manchester was most definitely not my project! I just moved into the original rental house with the organiser and a couple of others (and later bought a house and offered it as a shared space, while they continued to organise the project).

6. This doesn't seem like something most EAs would be that concerned with, but I could be wrong. If you think having more backers for nominal amounts is good, please donate a nominal amount!

A couple of thoughts I'd add (as another trustee):

3. Demand for the hotel has been increasing more or less linearly (until we hit current funding difficulties). As long as that continues, the projects will tend to get better.

This seems like a standard trajectory for meta-charities: for eg I doubt 80k's early career shifts looked anywhere near as high value as the average one does now. I should know - I *was* one of them, back when their 'career consultation' was 'speculating in a pub about earning to give' (and I was a far worse prospect than any 80k advisee or hotel resident today!)

Meanwhile it's easy to scorn such projects as novel-writing, but have we forgotten this? For better or worse, if Eliezer hadn't written that book the rationality and EA communities would look very different now.

6. This might be true as a psychological explanation, but, ceteris paribus, it's actually a reason *to* donate, since it (by definition) makes the hotel a more neglected cause.

Thanks for the response Greg - I look forward to reading the list of outputs and that is what I would have led with In the first post months ago. There may have been reasons that you didn’t but that’s what people are “buying” at the end of the day.

Here's the list of outputs. At the time of the first fundraising post, we'd only been at capacity for a couple of months, and not many people had stayed longer than that (with only approx. half the total person-days spent at the hotel). Back then, I was hoping the appeal of "Hits-based Giving", and "EA community hub" would be stronger than they have been.

Strong upvoted, and thank you, because finally someone is honest about their doubts. You're as critical in your speech as you are in your thoughts. This should be standard, but it's rare.

projects that seem pretty tragic like “writing a novel on AI alignment” and “writing a mobile game” - it’s a difficult balance here, unoccupied rooms are doing nothing for the hotel but equally I doubt indulging these sorts of things are valuable

This is what I understand to be hits-based giving. If you have 20 rooms, you can make these kinds of weird gambles, and someone should be doing that.

Poor presentation- I found the post on expected value essentially incoherent as a pitch , but in all of the posts so far little thought seems to have been put into the elevator pitch of why fund this or what are the best aspects of the project are. Funders want a one paragraph or one sentence summary of why they should fund it which seems absent here

I take full responsibility for that. Perhaps I should have studied how other meta organisations estimate their value. I was hubristic to assume that I would be able to do it from scratch.

People don’t want to be associated with something low status

I'd rather assume EA's to be above status when it comes to stakes this high.

not even close to every current/previous resident had made even a nominal donation of £5 to the campaign

I don't see why they should. At that point you're just manipulating impressions. I want to present an honest picture, and I don't want to engage in a signalling race to the bottom.

Perhaps that's naive.

EAs are super into status. I'm really surprised you don't think it affects their behaviour at all.

I do think it affects their behavior, I just refuse to let it affect mine more than is strictly necessary, because I think it's a negative sum game.

A few thoughts this post raised for me (not directed at OP specifically):

1. Does RAISE/the Hotel have a standardized way to measure the progress of people self-studying AI? If so, especially if it's been vetted by AI risk organizations, it seems like that would go a long ways towards resolving this issue.

2. Does "ea organisations are unwilling to even endorse the hotel" refer to RAISE/Rethink Charity (very surprising & important evidence!), or other EA organizations without direct ties to the Hotel?

3. I would be curious what the marginal cost of adding a new resident is: if high, this would be a good reason to leave rooms unoccupied rather than funding "tragic" projects.

4. Strongly agreed: the EV post seemed like an overly complex toy model that was unlikely to predict real-world outcomes. I think high-level heuristics for evaluating impact would be much more useful/convincing (e.g. the framework laid out here)

5. In general, donors who take a "hits-based giving" approach to funding speculative projects in their personal network are likely to become associated with failed projects regardless of personal competence, so I don't think this is evidence against the case the EA hotel makes. My relatively uninformed inside view is that the founder of the Kernel project should be associated with its failure, rather than Greg, and I think the outside view agrees.

6. I wonder how different the fundraising situation would be if it had started during the burst of initial enthusiasm/publicity surrounding the hotel?

2. RAISE very much does endorse the hotel (especially given that the founder works for and lives at the hotel, and the hotel was integral to their progress over the last 6 months). See e.g. here and here. We have no formal relationship with Rethink Charity (or Rethink Priorities in particular) - individuals at the hotel have applied for and got work from them independently.

3. The marginal cost of adding a new resident when already at ~75% capacity is ~£4k/yr.

6. I wonder too. I wonder also how different it would be if it was done after another 6-12 months of getting established.

1. Does RAISE/the Hotel have a standardized way to measure the progress of people self-studying AI? If so, especially if it's been vetted by AI risk organizations, it seems like that would go a long ways towards resolving this issue.

Not yet, but it's certainly a project that is on our radar. We also want to find ways to measure innate talent, so that people can tell earlier whether AIS research would be a good fit for them.

"People don’t want to be associated with something low status and are likely to subject anything they perceive as low status to a lot of scrutiny."

Ouch! Alas, it is true in general. However, I think it's a dangerous heuristic when not backed by the kinds of substantive comments made in 1-6.

I do think toning down 5 might foster a better culture. Perhaps there is more information here I don't know. But this kinda sounds like someone tried something it didn't work out, and they don't get a second chance. That's not a great rubric to establish if you want people to take risks.

Because reasons:

1. The hotel doesn't have charitable status yet, so donations are not tax deductible. A few donations are conditional on being granted charitable status.

2. The project is young and, as such, it can't have a successful fundraising history. This has been reason enough to deter at least one large donor.

3. Guest output and testimonials are not ready to be released. It's clear that several donors would prefer evidence of concrete output over an estimate of the value added by living at the hotel.

4. Some EA-aligned donors have a surprisingly low tolerance to philanthropic risk.

5. EA Grants is taking a long time to review the hotel's application. There have been rumours that this is because of one or several of the following: (a.) staffing issues at CEA which have only recently been resolved; (b.) desire to perform an audit/review of the hotel. Also, to see some operational changes at the hotel before extending runway; (c.) a strategic decision to delay funding the hotel as a countermeasure against cultural dilution, or PR risk. (c.) seems unlikely.

3. Guest output and testimonials are not ready to be released. It's clear that several donors would prefer evidence of concrete output over an estimate of the value added by living at the hotel.

Aiming for this Friday.

(c.) a strategic decision to delay funding the hotel as a countermeasure against cultural dilution, or PR risk. (c.) seems unlikely.

Typo, should be "(d.) seems unlikely."

Sorry – not sure if that's a joke. I meant that 5c. seems to be the least likely reason EA Grants is not funding the hotel, since a simple rebranding and more stringent guest screening could reduce both risks.

Ah. I parsed the second (c.) as a final item in the alphabetical list, but I see now that the second (c.) is making a comment about the third item in the list, and the third item is the final item.

Sorry, I was confused :-)

I wonder if the lack of tax deductibility and the non-conventional fundraising platform (GoFundMe) nudge people into not donating or donating less than they would to a more respectable-seeming charity.

(As a tangent, there's a donation swap opportunity for the EA Hotel that most people are probably not aware of).

Whoa, didn't know about the donation swap!

Fwiw I think GoFundMe is a pretty mainstream fundraising vehicle.

EA Hotel appears to still be having trouble raising funds:


Unfortunately our runway is down to <2 months. Donations made within the next month have particularly high marginal value

Ben Hoffman's post from last year on the Berkeley REACH also seems relevant to this: Humans need places

I think I disagree with this piece because although I think it's true that places are valuable for connecting, that doesn't necessarily mean it has to be a place that people own. In London we can use pubs, cafes and parks, often for free with just a picnic blanket indicating the edge of this space that separates the conversations from the outside world.

How big is the London community?

(I ask because there's a big difference between a community of 10-50 people and 200-300 people. I think at the latter scale, you actually need more infrastructure)

It depends on what you mean by 'how big.' The Facebook group has 2100 people. There are 31 local organizers. Socials usually have 50+ attendees (we've split them into newcomer and veteran socials, but they're still big enough that only David knows everyone). I personally know about 75 members of the EA London community, which means I know about 1/3 of the people at most events. Does that answer your question?

Reasonably. That does sound like it’s at a comparable scale.

Note that he's since retracted his recommendation.

True, but from what I recall that was largely for reasons that I expect not to apply to EA Hotel.

Does he still endorse the retraction? It's just idle curiosity on my part but it wasn't clear from the comments