In December, I (Nicole Ross) joined CEA to run the EA Grants program, which gives relatively small grants (usually under $60,000 per grant) to individuals and start-up projects within EA cause areas. Before joining CEA, I worked at the Open Philanthropy Project and GiveWell doing both research and grants operations.
When I joined CEA, the EA Grants program had been running since 2017. Upon my initial review, it had a mixed track record. Some grants seemed quite exciting, some seemed promising, others lacked the information I needed to make an impact judgment, and others raised some concerns.
Additionally, the program had a history of operational and strategic challenges. I've spent the majority of the last nine months working to improve the overall functioning of the program. I'm now planning the future of EA Grants, and trying to determine whether some version of the program ought to exist moving forward.
In this brief update, I’ll describe some of the program’s past challenges, a few things I’ve worked on, and some preliminary thoughts about the future of the program. I’ll also request feedback on the current EA funding landscape, and what value EA Grants might be able to add if we decide to maintain the program going forward.
Note on early 2019 EA Grants round
Last year, we publicly stated that we “expect the next round after this one to be early next year  but we want to review lessons from this round before committing to a date.” When it became clear that we would not hold a round in early 2019, we did not update the previous statement. We regret any confusion we may have caused by failing to provide a clear update on our plans.
Issues with the program
EA Grants began in 2017. From June 2017 to December 2018 (when I joined CEA), grant management was a part-time responsibility of various staff members who also had other roles. As a result, the program did not get as much strategic and evaluative attention as it needed. Additionally, CEA did not appropriately anticipate the operational systems and capacity needed to run a grantmaking operation, and we did not have the full infrastructure and capacity in place to run the program.
Because everyone involved recognized the importance of the program, CEA eventually began to take steps to resolve broader issues related to this lack of attention, including establishing the full-time Grants role for which I was hired and hiring an operations contractor to process grants. We believe it was a mistake that we didn’t act more quickly to improve the program, and that we weren’t more transparent during this process.
My first responsibility in my new role was to investigate these issues, with support from staff who had worked on the EA Grants program in the past. I am grateful for the many hours current and former staff have spent helping me get up to speed and build a consolidated picture of the EA Grants program.
Below are what I view as the most important historical challenges with the EA Grants program:
1) Lack of consolidated records and communications
We did not maintain well-organized records of individuals applying for grants, grant applications under evaluation, and records of approved or rejected applications. We sometimes verbally promised grants without full documentation in our system. As a result, it was difficult for us to keep track of outstanding commitments, and of which individuals were waiting to hear back from CEA. This resulted in us spending much longer preparing for our independent audit than would have been ideal.
2) Lack of clarification about the role EA Grants played in the funding ecosystem
While we gave information about the types of projects EA Grants would consider funding, we didn’t explicitly discuss how we saw EA Grants complementing other sources in the EA funding ecosystem (e.g. EA Funds and BERI). As a result, individuals applied who were not a good fit for EA Grants, and there was confusion about where people should apply for grants (e.g., EA Grants versus EA Funds).
3) Significant delays in payment
A lack of appropriate operational infrastructure and processes resulted in some grant payments taking longer than expected. This lack of grantmaking operational systems, combined with the lack of consolidated records, led to delays of around a year between an individual being promised a grant and receiving their payment in at least one case. We are aware of cases where this contributed to difficult financial or career situations for recipients. CEA is now in a place where we are able to disburse EA Grants with correct bank information routinely within a month, sometimes quicker, putting us solidly within the norm of the grant making industry.
4) Lack of post-grant assessment
Historically, EA Grants did not conduct consistent evaluation of grant performance. Since joining, I have developed a consistent process for evaluating grants upon completion and a process for periodically monitoring progress on grants. CEA is planning further improvements to this process next year.
5) Lack of transparency
Apart from this post, we didn’t share much information with the community about these operational and strategic issues. We provided public updates about the EA Grants program about once a year, but we likely should have done so more often.
On behalf of CEA, I am deeply sorry to people who were hurt or disappointed by the program. EA Grants caused significant harm through delays and poor communication, and I believe we’ve also left value on the table by failing to quickly address the issues I mentioned above.
I hope that any future version of the EA Grants program will be run much more smoothly, though I’m uncertain that the program will continue to exist. (I’ve provided more details on this point at the end of the post.)
How I’ve spent my time this year
Addressing historical issues
I’ve spent most of my first year at CEA addressing historical issues mentioned above: creating consolidated records of grants, working with our operations team to improve timely payment of grants, piloting evaluation and grants assessment processes, and locating documentation for our independent audit in the U.K. (August). To do this, I spent time learning about these issues by interviewing past employees, grantees, and other stakeholders, and I conducted an extensive review of documentation from the first 18 months of the program’s existence. Overall, I think we’ve made significant progress resolving these issues.
I’ve made decisions on a few time-sensitive grants, as well as some grant applications that had been pending for a long time. Since joining CEA last December, I’ve given out 11 grants totaling ~$150,000. I’m working on a writeup of the grants I’ve evaluated since I joined in December. Once I’ve finished the writeup, I will post it to the Forum and CEA’s blog, and link to it in this post.
Grantmaking ecosystem investigation
In addition to addressing historical challenges with EA Grants, one of my major focuses has been analyzing what unique role EA Grants might be able to play in the current EA funding ecosystem, specifically when funding individuals and small projects. This was driven by a desire to figure out whether EA Grants should continue to exist.
I think the areas that the EA Grants program covers or could cover, and that historically have not been covered by other EA-aligned grantmaking entities, are:
- Time-sensitive opportunities, where flexibility and very quick turnaround times are critical to capture the value of the grant.
- Developing networks outside the U.S. and U.K. This work allows us to discover and vet grantmaking opportunities that we wouldn't have otherwise known about. I did a small test of this by going to continental Europe in 2019 (the Center for Applied Rationality’s European “rEUnion” in Prague, and EAGxNordics in Stockholm) and meeting a lot of people. I believe that I wouldn't have felt confident making two of the grants I did without taking that trip and making those connections.
- Proactive and collaborative grantmaking (e.g., reaching out to talented people who might really benefit from a grant and encouraging them to apply, or helping to improve applicants’ plans during a collaborative application process). I haven’t done a lot of this, though I’ve tried a few test cases and I think there is at least some value to be gained by this method.
Ongoing and future work
Working with current grantees
As I consider the program’s future, my top priority is to ensure that we serve our current grantees reliably and continue to follow through on our existing commitments. If we limit or redirect the future scope of EA Grants, this will not impact any funding already committed.
Planning for the program’s future
I observed an overlap between individuals applying for EA Grants and individuals applying for EA Funds. As a result, I am running tests to establish whether EA Funds could continue to take on the role played by EA Grants (with a focus on whether EA Funds can process time-sensitive grants). At this stage, I think it is fairly likely that EA Grants won’t continue in its current form, and that we will instead encourage individuals to apply to EA Funds.
To be clear, I believe that EA Grants is currently having a positive impact, particularly now that we’ve resolved most of our historical issues. However, I’m skeptical that we serve enough of a unique role within the EA funding landscape to justify our existence. As mentioned, it’s pretty plausible that EA Funds can, with additional funding/capacity, cover many of the grants I’d want to make in the future.
While we don’t think it’s likely that we’ll open a new round for EA Grants, you can sign up here to be alerted if we do. And as always, if you have specific questions, feel free to email me.
I’m always open to feedback. Right now, I’m especially interested in getting people’s thoughts on gaps in the EA funding landscape:
- What funding options should exist that don’t?
- Which types of work are uniquely hard to find funding for?
- What bad thing(s) might happen if EA Grants shuts down or gets merged into EA Funds?
If you have time and interest, I’d really appreciate your filling out this survey.
Correction: We originally stated that grant recipients had experienced payment delays of “up to six months.” After posting this, we learned of one case where payment was delayed for around a year. It’s plausible that this occurred in other cases as well. We deeply apologize for this payment delay and the harm it caused.
No time to track down the cite now, but I recall Oliver mentioning somewhere on the Forum that he felt there was a lot of value in there being multiple independent grant-makers with overlapping focus areas, to mitigate the biases of any one decision-maker. (I agree with this.)
Thanks for raising this! I agree with this concern, and more broadly think it’s important to do work to mitigate grantmaker biases and make the grantmaking ecosystem more robust. In this particular case I think the trade-offs are too high, the biggest ones being the ability to narrow CEA’s focus (which has historically been too broad) and our staff capacity.
Got it. What could staff capacity trade off for here that feels higher priority?
Thanks for the question! My exact role is still being nailed down, but as an example, I’m likely to work on things related to risk mitigation. E.g. coordinating advice on how to give a talk to foreign government officials. Another consideration that’s related to staff capacity and is an input into this decision, is the importance of narrowing down CEA’s scope to allow more focus for the organization.
"As I consider the program’s future, my top priority is to ensure that we serve our current grantees reliably and continue to follow through on our existing commitments."
I'm really glad to hear this, as well as hearing that you're considering closing the program. There aren't usually good incentives for providing consistently good service or for eliminating your own job. I'm glad you're trying to do it anyways.
Re: future of the program & ecosystem influences.
What bad things will happen if the program is just closed
All of that could be somewhat mitigated if rest of the funding ecosystem adapts; e.g. by creating more funds with intentional overlap, or creating others stream of funding going e.g. along geographical structures.
Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree with most of your points, (though am a bit confused on your first one and would like to understand it better if you’d have the time to elaborate. EA Grants didn’t, when I was involved, have an overlapping funding mandate with CBGs, although I think that the distinction was a bit blurrier in the past). I am keen to work with others in the funding ecosystem so it can adapt in a good, healthy way. If you have more specific thoughts on how to make this happen, would love to hear them here or in a call.
Thanks for the update, I appreciate the transparency on the project's shortcomings.
"Upon my initial review, it had a mixed track record. Some grants seemed quite exciting, some seemed promising, others lacked the information I needed to make an impact judgment, and others raised some concerns."
I'd be interested in what (kind of) grants you think seem great and not so great.
This is a bit hard to go into detail without investing a lot of time. On a general level, I think some grants led to people starting projects with good, impactful output on areas EA cares about (including “meta”). This only describes some of the grants, but I think this is appropriate given the hits-based approach of this style of grantmaking. There were also some grants that I think created or deepened some risks without having much positive benefit. This is not specific to the particular grants made, but some of the general types of risks I would investigate if I did a more thorough review would be: impacts on the EA ecosystem/incentives (e.g. how does funding/not funding a particular project incentivize others), impacts on nascent fields (e.g. AI safety), and infohazards.
Hi all - just a quick note to thank everyone who has commented. I've been out on leave for personal reasons and will respond when I'm back. Apologies for the delay!
Thank you, Nicole, for compiling and sharing this writeup. It sounds like you inherited a program with a lot of significant problems, and have been working hard to rectify them. I agree with many of the points you raise, and this post is a welcome improvement in transparency around EA Grants.
However, I’d like to push back against the idea that there was a “Lack of clarification about the role EA Grants played in the funding ecosystem”. I’d argue that your predecessors clearly articulated a vision of EA Grants as a major funder in the ecosystem.
See, for instance, CEA’s 2017 Annual Report:
And the former head of EA Grants commenting on that report:
And CEA’s end of 2018 fundraising appeal (which solicited donations to fund EA Grants):
Throughout 2018, CEA also repeatedly communicated that a large, open round of EA Grants would be starting soon, which turned out to be overly optimistic. (See updates in mid-February, April, and mid-August.)
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure EA Grants has granted significantly less money than the public communications would suggest. Your writeup explains several reasons why that would be the case. But that doesn’t change the fact that CEA’s communications have likely led potential grantees and potential funders to overestimate how much funding was available for early stage projects. My strong intuition is that these dynamics have contributed to a funding shortage for this type of project, and that addressing this shortage should be a priority for the EA community.
I think Hauke is asking a critical question: “Would shutting down EA grants significantly reduce the overall quantity of meta funding in the community or would the freed up resources be routed into the Meta-fund?” Even if the money gets routed into the Meta Fund (and/or other funds), some of it will likely be granted to established organizations leaving less money for individuals and early stage projects.
I also wonder whether shuttering EA Grants now risks wasting the progress that’s been made in developing operational capacity (“CEA is now in a place where we are able to disburse EA Grants with correct bank information routinely within a month, sometimes quicker, putting us solidly within the norm of the grant making industry.”) Would EA Funds be able to leverage those improvements?
I hope this doesn’t come across as overly critical. I know EA Grants, and CEA as a whole, has changed leadership since most of these issues occurred. But to fix things going forward, I think it’s important to have an accurate understanding of how they worked in the past. With respect to EA Grants, the past has involved a lot of overpromising and underdelivering, which seems to be a recurring theme in feedback.
Thanks for this thoughtful comment! I agree with many of the points you raise. A few responses/clarifications:
Thank you for your thoughtful response Nicole!
Can you share any information about how likely it is these donors will fund similar projects through alternative means if EA Grants winds down? Do you know what the 1 anonymous donor is planning?
Taking a longer perspective, my understanding is that Open Phil funded the initial 2017 round of EA Grants (~$475k), and I’d guess they wouldn’t fund small early stage projects without a mechanism like EA Grants to do so through. Then in 2018, EA Grants awarded ~$850k through the referral round and some amount (that I haven’t seen announced) during the September 2018 round. Were these also funded by Open Phil? Do you have any sense of whether the funder(s) of these rounds funded similar projects through non-EA Grants channels in 2019? If not, is there any reason to expect them to fund these types of projects in 2020 or beyond? Are you able to share the amount granted from the September 2018 round, to help the community understand how much funding would need to be replaced if other channels need to fill the role EA Grants historically played?
Unfortunately, I don’t know the identity of the anonymous donor myself, so I can’t speak to their plans for 2020 and beyond.
The most relevant question might be: if EA Grants is going to collapse into EA Funds, what would that mean in terms of funding needs for EA Funds? EA Funds grew something like 30% last year. From 2018-2019, Funds grew by $1.3M (and growth was concentrated in the Meta, Long Term Future, and Animal Welfare Funds, all of which make grants to individuals). If this growth rate remained steady through 2020, we would expect the ‘funding gap’ created by EA Grants (at the historical level of Grants funding, under $1M per year) to be covered by organic growth in EA Funds. However, if the number of strong grant opportunities also continues to increase, organic growth could still leave a similar proportion of strong opportunities going unfunded. In that case, I’d encourage Fund teams to make that known and fundraise accordingly. Of course, it’s hard to predict how much the size of the total pool of opportunities will increase in 2020 and beyond.
My strong prior (which it sounds like you disagree with), is that we should generally expect funding needs to increase over time. If that’s true, then EA Funds would need to grow by more than enough to offset EA Grants in order to keep pace with needs. More reliance on EA Funds would shift the mix of funding too: for instance, relatively more funding going to established organizations (which EA Grants doesn’t fund) and no natural source of funding for individuals working on Global Poverty (as that fund doesn’t grant to individuals).
I agree it would be helpful for Fund management teams to explicitly make it known if they think there are a lot of strong opportunities going unfunded. Similarly, if Fund managers think they have limited opportunities to make strong grants with additional funds, it would be good to know that too. I’ve been operating on the assumption that the funds all believe they have room for more funding; if that’s not the case, seems like an important thing to share.
In your opinion, is this a recent development or do you think feedback was a larger constraint than funding even when EA Grants was more actively funding projects? If you think it’s a recent development, was the change driven by EA Grants, EA Funds, and other grantmakers funding the most funding constrained projects, or did something else change?
I feel very uncertain. I wasn’t very involved with funding individuals and that ecosystem before taking on EA Grants, so it’s hard for me to speak to the changes over time.
Would shutting down EA grants significantly reduce the overall quantity of meta funding in the community or would the freed up resources be routed into the Meta-fund?
As mentioned in another response, where the freed up resources go is dependent on donors. EA Grants never had (to my knowledge) multi-year commitments. For example, since I've started, it's been ~entirely funded by 1 anonymous donor. On funding, if the Meta Fund sees funding shortages, I hope that they will make that known to donors, so that donors can fund the Meta Fund accordingly. To my knowledge, this has not been the case to date, even though EA Grants has been somewhat limited in its disbursements this year.
I think the option of having (a possible renamed) EA Grants as one option in EA funds is interesting. It could preserve almost all of the benefits (one extra independent grantmaker picking different kinds of targets) while reducing maybe half the overhead, and clarifying the difference between EA Grants and EA Funds.
Thanks for the comment! I agree. I think that whether this iteration makes sense will depend on what Funds can handle and what it looks like in the future. I do like this general idea of thinking creatively about how to best integrate EA Grants into EA Funds, and would be keen to hear more ideas if you have them.
Thanks for the update. I was not aware that people could apply for EA funds. The FAQ seems to be just for donors, and I hadn't seen anything on the EA forum about applying.
Huh, really? I'm surprised to hear that, and makes me think it might need to be much clearer on the Funds pages. Regarding things on the Forum about applying, there have been several posts that either explicitly mention applications to LTFF/Meta fund in the title (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) or else discuss the fact that you can apply to them in the post (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). (The latter list is basically all the grant writeups and one AMA.) The very first line of the most recent LTFF writeup has a link to the application.
But yeah, am surprised that you didn't know about it.
Sorry - was writing too late at night for me - I got confused.
Seems fine :)
Different funds have application rounds open at different times. When applications are open for a Fund, we have the app open linked on the Fund's page (e.g. on the LTFF page). We could consider moving that line higher up on the page, and we should add something to the FAQ -- thanks for the suggestion!
Currently, LTFF and Animal Welfare are (as far as I've been told) happy to have people fill out the form anytime, while the Meta fund doesn't have an open application form and the Global Development fund has a totally different structure for allocating funds (no open applications).
Per the last solicitation, the Meta Fund (like the LTFF) has “rolling applications, with a window of about 3-4 months between responses.”
Could you add this link to the Meta Fund’s page? Apply to the EA Meta Fund
The application form notes “Applications are open continuously, but the deadline to be considered for our next distribution is on October 11th” so ideally it could be updated with the date of the next deadline.
I believe this has been fixed, but please let us know if you see any more issues.
Yes, this was fixed. Thanks!
Sorry - was writing too late at night for me - I got confused.