EA Meta Fund Grants - July 2019

by agdfoster 7d13th Sep 20194 comments

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This post contains our allocations and some explanatory reasoning for the grants made by the EA Meta Fund in the July 2019 grant round, which was paid out in August. This write-up was also posted on the EA Funds page here.

Fund: Effective Altruism Meta Fund

Payout date: August 24, 2019

Payout amount: $466,000.00

Grant author(s): Luke Ding, Alex Foster, Denise Melchin, Matt Wage

Grant recipients:

Grant rationale

The EA Meta Fund made the following grant recommendations in the July 2019 round:

  1. 80,000 Hours - $200,000
  2. EA Community Building Grants - $120,000
  3. HIPE (High Impact Policy Engine) - $40,000
  4. Generation Pledge - $30,000
  5. EA Coaching - $23,000
  6. EA Survey (via CEA & Rethink Charity) - $20,000
  7. Rethink Priorities - $12,000
  8. RC Forward - $11,000
  9. Effective Thesis - $10,000

In this round, we saw a significant increase in the number of promising funding applications we received from early-stage organizations. We decided to allocate over half of the total amount granted to these relatively early-stage groups. We think there is significant value in encouraging early-stage initiatives, and we hope that our grant allocations signal that we see these groups as particularly promising.

This said, it is important that donors understand this is traded off with increased uncertainty. The main value we see in making grants to promising early-stage groups is experimental value: the information gained from exploring a new idea. We expect the experimental value to be greater than the direct impact of the funding.

If there is a meta initiative that you would like us to consider for a future grant, please complete this form. 7 of the 9 grantees in this round applied through this process.

Below are some of the key considerations behind our grant decisions. As with the previous rounds, these summaries are by no means meant to be read as a complete or exhaustive case for (or against) each grant. They are based on a series of conversations between the fund managers, incorporating our past experience, knowledge and judgement. While risks and reservations for these organizations have been taken into account, we do not discuss them below.

If you would like to discuss our decision-making process with us further, please complete this form and we will put you in touch with the appropriate fund manager.

(1) 80,000 Hours - $200,000

80,000 Hours aims to solve the world's most pressing problems by getting more talented people working on them. To do this, they carry out research into how talented individuals can maximize the impact of their careers, produce online advice, identify readers who might be able to enter priority areas, and provide these readers with free in-person advice and connections to mentors, job openings, and funding.

Categories: Talent leverage, scale-stage

We have made grants to 80,000 Hours in two previous rounds, and we continue to believe that they are one of the highest impact-per-dollar meta organizations. Please see the previous payout reports including our discussion on 80,000 Hours here and here.

There are a number of reasons we decided to write a grant to 80,000 Hours in each of three consecutive funding rounds. In addition to the points discussed in previous rounds:

  • We are excited to see that 80,000 Hours is beginning to grow their headcount and operations at a greater speed. They are planning to hire 5 FTE over 2019 and another 5 over 2020 (they currently have 13 FTE equivalent). Although they have had good reasons for growing cautiously over the years, we are in favour of their scaling up and are keen to ensure they have sufficient funding to expand.
  • Their funding shortfall from their end-of-2018 fundraiser is $400,000, despite it being July. This is largely due to their increased growth budget, but they have also not found sufficient new large donors to cover their growth. Their funding gap for 2020 is $1.3m. Right now, they cannot fully commit to hiring in 2020 as their expansion budget has not been filled. Ideally, they would already be searching for those hires, so they are being somewhat slowed down by their lack of funding.
  • We think their headhunting function, which has been growing in recent months, is an exciting new focus area with significant potential for impact. 80,000 Hours launched this function in late 2018 to help key organizations in their priority paths recruit for important positions. The headhunting feature has helped make 8 placements at key organizations to date and we are keen to see it grow further. Disclaimer: starting in September, Peter McIntyre, who runs headhunting at 80,000 Hours, will join the EA Meta Fund team. He is recused from proposing, advocating for, or approving grants to 80,000 Hours.

For more information on how 80,000 Hours works and tracks their progress, please see their 2018 Annual Review here.

(2) EA Community Building Grants - $120,000

Effective Altruism Community Building Grants is a project run by the Centre for Effective Altruism. They write grants (typically for $5,000-$100,000) to individuals and groups working on growing effective altruism within high-potential communities. They have a particular emphasis on funding groups aiming to transition from being run by volunteers to being run by full-time, paid organizers.

Categories: Talent leverage, early-stage

This is an early-stage grant; we expect the experimental value to be greater than the direct impact of the grant.

  • In our experience, the career-focused aspects of the effective altruism community play a highly valuable role in filling skill gaps in high-impact and talent-constrained cause areas. However, it is often tricky to attribute outcomes from these communities to any particular organization, and, potentially as a result, it appears there is a shortfall of funding for these projects.
  • We have looked into a number of community projects in our last three grant rounds. Much of the strength of these projects seems to rely on highly subjective judgement calls about the calibre of the team and what they are aiming to achieve. There are also no clear KPIs for us to use across all projects. It seems likely that decisions are best made from a top-down perspective within the context of other community efforts and opportunities.
  • We think that EA Community Building Grants (EA CBG) is the best-placed group to evaluate community projects from this perspective. The program seems well-managed: they appear to operate a thorough assessment process and to have a strong shortlist for their next grant round.
  • While the program is relatively new, having been launched 18 months ago, the team has carried out some initial impact assessment; so far, the results seem to be positive. In the future, if we continue to support EA CBG, we plan to dig deeper into their individual grant outcomes and to further discuss the evaluation process and evidence of impact with the CBG team.

As part of our decision to write this grant, we have referred all our highest-potential community building grants to EA CBG. In previous grant rounds, we referred grant applications from local groups to EA CBG, but funded some one-off projects run by local groups. In this round, we received several applications that did not clearly fall into either category (e.g. coworking spaces and other longer-term projects). We think these kinds of projects are better evaluated by EA CBG, and we will refer all such projects to them going forward. We expect to still consider funding for one-off projects run by local groups in future rounds.

(3) HIPE (High Impact Policy Engine) - $40,000

HIPE is a high-impact careers network within the UK government civil service. The group aims to help civil servants maximize the social impact of their careers, through helping them to identify government roles where they can do the most good, build relevant skills, and connect with like-minded and motivated government employees.

Categories: Talent leverage, early-stage

HIPE performs research into how civil servants can choose high-impact career paths, does outreach within the civil service to disseminate key ideas, and provides in-depth coaching for highly engaged and promising civil servants. Because this model appears to have been successful for 80,000 Hours, we are keen to see it being experimented with in other areas.

To date, HIPE has been run by volunteers within the civil service alongside their day-to-day roles. There is now an opportunity to create a new role within a UK government department for a government employee to work on HIPE full-time. We believe funding at this stage is particularly valuable to allow HIPE to capitalize on this opportunity. HIPE is fundraising to cover salary and travel costs for one full-time employee for 2 years.

As well as focusing on HIPE's existing research, outreach, and advisory work, the new full-time hire would support a broader team of civil servants to work on HIPE and measure its impact. We believe this impact measurement will be highly valuable in both directing HIPE's future work and supporting their future fundraising.

If HIPE can demonstrate value to the UK government department (e.g., through improving policy-making, staff wellbeing, or staff retention), HIPE believes they would have a reasonably strong chance of being made a permanent project fully funded by the government.

As the key hire can only be made once funding is secured due to government regulations, the members of the central HIPE team going forwards are still to be determined, while the two original founding volunteers are primarily focused on other projects. This grant is made experimentally, largely on the promise of the idea and the reputation of the two founding volunteers. Any further funding will be sensitive to the strength of their team in the future.

(4) Generation Pledge - $30,000

Generation Pledge aims to direct more philanthropic capital to the world's most pressing problems, through building a community of future heirs from ultra high net worth families ('next gens'). They invite next gens to sign the 'generation pledge', to donate a percentage of their inheritance for social impact, and support pledgers to decide where to give.

Categories: Capital leverage, early-stage

This is an early-stage grant; we expect the experimental value to be greater than the direct impact of the grant.

Generation Pledge mirrors the Founders Pledge model, but working with next gens rather than founders. The world's ultra high net worth families collectively own $31.5 trillion. Several thousand next gens will inherit this wealth. Generation Pledge aims to support those next gens to maximise their social impact.

We have previously considered Generation Pledge for a grant, but we weren't confident enough that their model would work successfully. However, in the past few months they have grown their pledger community significantly. They have an expected pledge value of over $300 million, with a number of sensible discount factors applied.

We think that these positive updates are enough to justify Generation Pledge being funded through to a later stage, where they will have the opportunity to prove they can turn these pledges into donations to effective charities.

This grant will contribute towards Generation Pledge's immediate funding gap for 2019, giving them more runway to fundraise and further grow their pledger base.

(5) EA Coaching - $23,000

Through EA Coaching, Lynette Bye works with clients at high-impact organizations to help them improve their prioritization, implement better strategies, and increase focused work time.

Categories: Talent leverage, early-stage

This is an early-stage grant; we expect the experimental value to be greater than the direct impact of the grant.

While funding a productivity coach may not be the most intuitive grant decision for many donors, the basic premise seems reasonably clear. For a small investment in time and money, productivity coaching could result in long-term positive changes to the output of individuals already having a significant impact with their career.

Lynette's own impact evaluation can be found here. Given the early-stage nature of her project, we found the results fairly compelling. A number of her clients working at high-impact organizations have reported significant increases in their hours of productive work. Even if clients have achieved only a small fraction of the reported increase in productivity, this would likely be enough to 'break even' on the cost of coaching. That said, our intuition is to be cautious about leaning too heavily on numerical reasoning for projects of this type.

Lynette focuses on clients working in AI alignment and at high-impact "meta" organizations. She has previously worked with employees at FHI, the Open Philanthropy Project, CEA, CHAI, MIRI, DeepMind, and the Forethought Foundation, and she expects to continue to do so. Given that these organizations focus on particularly high-impact areas, we expect that increasing their productivity should be very valuable.

This grant will allow Lynette to offer coaching calls to people working at high-impact organizations at a highly subsidized rate, offer free coaching for select referrals from 80,000 Hours, and hire contractors to help create materials to scale her coaching.

(6) EA Survey (CEA & Rethink Charity) - $20,000

The EA Survey provides an annual snapshot of the EA community. The survey acts as a benchmark for better understanding the community, including: demographics and characteristics; how people first get involved; where people first hear about EA; influences on involvement with the community; donation data; cause selection; and growth metrics.

Categories: Information leverage, specific one-off

While it is difficult to quantify how useful the survey has been, it does seem like it is valuable to generate more empirical data to inform movement-building strategy. In particular, we are aware that some high-impact organizations consistently collaborate with the researchers who analyze the survey, in order to inform their organizational and community-building strategies.

There are a limited number of ways of collecting meaningful data that tracks the broad effective altruism movement. Maintaining a sufficiently large survey and in-depth analysis seems like one of the better methods to generate data and insights of this kind.

We think part of the benefit of the survey is ensuring data that is collected on a regular basis to allow for consistent year-on-year comparisons. Funding at this stage will allow the survey and analysis to be carried out this year in line with the annual publishing cycle.

Historically, the survey has been run by Rethink Charity. $15,000 of this grant will go to Rethink to design and run an updated 2019 survey. Rethink has been collaborating with CEA and other meta organizations to gather input on the 2019 survey. Like last year, Rethink will release anonymized data and summary survey output. $5,000 of the grant will go to CEA, which will use the funding to pay Rethink for bespoke analysis of the results.

(7) Rethink Priorities - $12,000

Rethink Priorities is a cause prioritization research group that focuses on neglected cause areas. Their research agenda is currently focused on how to apply cost-effectiveness frameworks to uncertain domains, interventions aimed at animal welfare, and the growth of the EA movement. Rethink Priorities is a project of Rethink Charity.

Categories: Information leverage, early-stage

This is an early-stage grant; we expect the experimental value to be greater than the direct impact of the grant.

We made a grant to Rethink Priorities in our previous grant round, and we believe the reasons behind this grant still stand. You can read the previous write-up here.

We noted in the previous round that we expect there is particular value in Rethink Priorities undertaking commissioned research into areas that are neglected by other researchers. In this round, Rethink Priorities applied for funding to support two specific research projects, both of which were suggested by researchers at other high-impact organizations, and require collaboration with those researchers.  We view this as an indication that these projects will provide value.

The first research project would focus on the geopolitical implications of climate change on mass migration. Rethink Priorities has an initial draft, and now has the opportunity to expand the research under the mentorship of Luke Kemp, a research associate at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge. The second project would evaluate the cost-effectiveness of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, at the suggestion of Carl Shulman, a research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford.

We think both of these projects sound potentially highly valuable and demonstrate that Rethink Priorities is undertaking commissioned research into neglected areas. We decided to make this grant as unrestricted funding, rather than directing it to one of the projects specifically, to give Rethink Priorities the flexibility to decide on their current highest-priority research.

(8) RC Forward - $11,000

RC Forward is a donation platform through which Canadians can make tax-advantaged donations to high-impact charities located in and outside of Canada. RC Forward is a project of Rethink Charity.

Categories: Capital leverage, early-stage

This is an early-stage grant, we expect the experimental value to be greater than the direct impact of the grant.

RC Forward seems to fill a valuable niche for Canadian donors. In 2018, the first year in which the project was run, RC Forward moved net $3.3m to 25 effective charities on a budget of ~$50,000.

Rethink Priorities has carried out a cost-effectiveness analysis of RC Forward, which is linked here. While this analysis relies on a number of estimates from donors about how the platform has changed their behaviour, RC Forward still looks to be a relatively strong donation opportunity even when applying the most pessimistic estimates. In 2018, RC Forward is expected to have moved at least $3 for every $1 spent.

That said, RC Forward does not advise donors on where to give, instead providing a service that (in some cases greatly) increases tax savings and convenience for Canadian donors who are already motivated to give to highly effective charities. This makes investigating the counterfactual much more challenging for RC Forward. While this weakens the case for the project, the 'break-even point' is still very low. Even if only 2% of the total money moved through the platform last year was directly caused by RC Forward, they would beat the break-even point.

Although any potential scale-up is limited to the Canadian market, the platform could process many more donations within that market without a proportional rise in costs. We think this is a promising aspect of the platform and are keen to see it grow within Canada.

This grant will fill RC Forward's immediate remaining funding gap for 2019.

(9) Effective Thesis - $10,000

Effective Thesis advises students on choosing an impactful research topic for their thesis by connecting them with experienced researchers. The goal of the project is to encourage junior researchers to research high-impact topics and continue producing valuable, rigorous research throughout their academic careers.

Categories: Talent leverage, information leverage, early stage

This is an early-stage grant, we expect the experimental value to be greater than the direct impact of the grant.

Advice on a student's choice of thesis topic has the potential to influence where they spend hundreds of hours of research time (300 hours per student on average). Topic choice could also have some impact on future career steps or future research focus, although this is more challenging to measure.

Providing students with thesis topic advice requires a small level of input from an experienced researcher, usually 1-3 hours per student. Given the small input for potentially large outputs, we think this is an interesting meta initiative worth exploring further.

Effective Thesis has a network of 44 coaches with the capacity to take on at least 2x as many students as they help now. As finding high-caliber coaches with enough available time seems to be the most significant hurdle for many coaching projects, we are impressed that Effective Thesis seems to have made good progress in this area.

Since September 2018, Effective Thesis has received over 200 applications from students who want help with figuring out their thesis topic and provided 60 students with coaching. We share their expectation that a small number of cases likely account for the majority of the project's impact. The best cases so far appear to have been cases where students - who already planned to become researchers in the long-term - substantially changed their focus to higher-impact topics primarily because of their work with Effective Thesis.

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