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Title in homage to Linch.

In the second half of 2022, I was a Manifund regrantor. I ended up funding:

  1. Holly Elmore to “[organize] for a frontier AI moratorium.” ($2.5k.)
  2. Jordan Schneider/ChinaTalk to produce “deep coverage of China and AI.” ($17.55k.)
  3. Robert Long to conduct “empirical research into AI consciousness and moral patienthood.” ($7.2k.)
  4. Greg Sadler/GAP organizational expenses. ($10k.)
  5. Nuño Sempere to “make ALERT happen.” ($8k.)
  6. Zhonghao He to “[map] neuroscience and mechanistic interpretability.” ($1.75k.)
  7. Alexa Pan to write an “explainer and analysis of CNCERT/CC (国家互联网应急中心).” ($1.5k.)
  8. Marcel van Diemen to build “The Base Rate Times.” ($2.5k, currently unclaimed.)

You can find my decisions and comments on grants on my profile. Here, I want to reflect on lessons learned from this wonderful opportunity.

I was pretty wrong about my edge

In my bio, I wrote:

To the extent that I have an edge as a regrantor, I think it comes from having an unusually large professional network. This, plus not having serious expertise in any particular area, makes me excited to invest in "people not projects."

I had previously ran a prestigious fellowship program where (by the end) I thought I was pretty good at selection. Successfully running an analogous selection process over people recommended from my wide network (this time for grants) seemed like it would transfer neatly. Austin, who co-runs Manifund, and who participated in my earlier program, seemed to agree on both counts.

I still believe the premises, and so remain hopeful that this could be an edge in future. But it was largely unimportant for my recent regranting experience. (Only the grant to Greg Sadler/GAP came out of asking my network for recommendations; only the grant to Robert Long came from private knowledge I would have had regardless of being a regrantor.)

I haven’t fully figured out why this was. My current best guesses are:

  1. What matters most for ‘deal flow’ is not having a talented network but in-person conversations (with people in a talented network). 2023 was perhaps my most socially isolated non-COVID year.
  2. A fraction of a $50k budget is not enough for the kinds of recommendations one might want from one’s network. I don’t hear about opportunities like “this great person should start that great organization” because these would require more than $50k.
  3. Recommenders aren’t naturally in the mode of looking out for nor dreaming up novel opportunities.
    1. Evidence in favor: Greg Sadler was recommended by someone who previously regranted to Greg Sadler.
    2. Perhaps I could have found a better way to get recommenders to change mode in conversations with me. Or perhaps this problem would fix itself if Manifund became better-known.

But I have been happy about my low-level strategy

Above the edge section of my bio, I wrote:

I plan on using my regranting role to optimize for "good AI/bio funding ecosystem" and not "perceived ROI of regrants I make personally." I think that this means trying to:

  • Be really cooperative behind the scenes. (E.g. sharing information and strategies with other regrantors, proactively helping Manifund founders with strategy.)
  • Post questions about/evaluations of grants publicly.
  • Work quickly.
  • Pursue grants that might otherwise fall through the gaps. (E.g. because they're too small, or politically challenging for other funders, or from somewhat unknown grantees, or from grantees who are unaware that they should ask for funding.)
  • Not get too excited about grants where (1) evaluation would benefit strongly from a project-first investment thesis (e.g. supporting AI safety agenda X vs. Y) or (2) the ideas are obvious enough that (to the extent that the ideas are good) I strongly expect others to fund them (e.g. career transition grants to IMO medalists).
  • Occasionally make small regrants as credible signals of interest rather than endorsements. (To improve speed, information, and funder-chicken dynamics.)
  • Encourage criticism of my thought processes and decisions from the Manifund community.

I still endorse these strategies. I think I was successful at deploying most of them. For example:

  1. I left critical comments that I hope others found helpful. (Judge for yourself e.g. herehere, and here.)
  2. My grants are well-characterized as things that might have otherwise fallen through gaps. 
    1. Holly Elmore and Jordan Schneider are difficult to support with philanthropic funds.
    2. I was responsible for Robert Long, Zhonghao He, and Alexa Pan asking for any funding.
    3. I think that ALERT and GAP had been (sort of, it’s complicated) passed on by Open Philanthropy.
  3. I didn’t fund some projects despite being excited by them, because I thought that others were in a better position to cheaply evaluate. These projects were all funded by grantmakers more expert than me. (E.g. Lawrence Chan.)

And I feel good about my decisions

See the respective project pages for my thoughts on projects I did decide to fund. I still stand by most of them.

Early on, I had considerable self-doubt concerning my judgment. This eased as I observed that my peers seem to value my judgment. Mostly this comes up in private conversations, but here’s some concrete evidence:

  1. I was the first donor to more or less all of my grants (with minor caveats), most of which later received significant funding from others (with the notable exception of ChinaTalk, where I allocated the plurality of my pot).
  2. Other regrantors left comments on projects from Holly Elmore, Jordan Schneider, Greg Sadler, and Nuño Sempere that +1’d or deferred to my reasoning.
  3. Cullen O’Keefe is the only person I saw make donations to regrantor budgets, most of which went to me. (Cullen also gave $4.7k to a project that I was responsible for getting on Manifund.)

Regranting brings some of the benefits of “skin in the game”

Previously, my charitable donation decisions felt more disconnected from outcomes. Of course I tend to prefer giving to projects that I think are more impactful. But I would relate to this preference via pontification-as-hobby, encouraging epistemic complacency. 

Regranting forced me to interrogate my process.

Some of this force came from stakes — wasting $10k/year matters less than wasting $100k/year. But I think the large majority of force came from three social factors:

  1. Feeling responsibility for projects happening or not happening,
  2. Not wanting to look dumb publicly, in front of my professional peers, and
  3. Choosing between projects that didn’t come pre-packaged with social approval.

Feeling this force made me think that my previous process was in some sense corrupted. At best, low-responsibility, low-social-downside giving now feels not as effective as it could be. At worst, this giving behavior makes me feel like a self-inhibited, intentionless, incomplete person.

Concretely, I think I will halt recurring donations. I want to give in bulk, less frequently, more thoughtfully, and perhaps not to recognisable charities. If this feels like it goes against the spirit of the Giving What We Can Pledge, then I will exit the pledge.

Finally, I might audit other aspects of my life for possible inauthenticity.

It had fewer personal downsides than I expected

I had two primary downsides to regranting in mind:

  1. It would be an unwanted time-suck.
  2. It would make people I interact with relate to me differently.

I still think it was reasonable to be worried about both of these things. It really was a time-suck, and I really have experienced the relating point in the past! But I loved putting time into Manifund instead of reading yet another decision-irrelevant post. And I experienced only a small amount of people relating to me differently, which I felt able to appropriately control.

I’m a bit worried about how the regrantor model scales

I expect more quickly diminishing returns within the grantmaking of a given regrantor than I would for a more centralized operation. This is principally because independent regrantors have more limited deal flow, making their early grants look unusually strong. (Perhaps this wouldn’t be true if Manifund received many more project applications. I would guess that, at present, the majority of funded projects are first discovered by regrantors outside the platform.)

(I am more bearish on other possible reasons for skepticism — diminishing deal flow or judgment between regrantors, challenges due to part-time grantmaking, best regrantors having high opportunity cost.)

Still, I love Manifund

Decentralizing and increasing the transparency of funding both seem beneficial at the current margin. My confidence in the skill of regrantors vs. centralized grantmakers has strengthened. And Manifund provide a great grantee experience!

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At best, low-responsibility, low-social-downside giving now feels not as effective as it could be. At worst, this giving behavior makes me feel like a self-inhibited, intentionless, incomplete person.

Concretely, I think I will halt recurring donations. I want to give in bulk, less frequently, more thoughtfully, and perhaps not to recognisable charities. If this feels like it goes against the spirit of the Giving What We Can Pledge, then I will exit the pledge.

 

Thanks for writing this bit; it mirrors my own thinking on my personal donation allocation as I've spent more time in the core EA ecosystem. While I was working at Google, sending a yearly donation to Givewell's top charities seemed reasonable; now I have a much better handle on what opportunities may be more effective.

In fact, your regranting process seems reminiscent of early EA. Pre-Givewell, Holden & Elie spent a bunch of time investigating orgs themselves and made judgement calls about where to send their money. In contrast, EA donations today are characterized by a lot of deference to other experts and evaluators (Givewell, OpenPhil, ACE etc); I like the regranting captures some of the original spirit of the movement.

I expect more quickly diminishing returns within the grantmaking of a given regrantor than I would for a more centralized operation. This is principally because independent regrantors have more limited deal flow, making their early grants look unusually strong.

 

I think this could become true eventually; but imo currently, most of our small ($50k) budget regrantors could effectively allocate $200-$500k/year budgets. Eg you mentioned earlier that many opportunities of the form "start this great org" require >$50k; also, many regrants on Manifund include a statement like "I would give more here if I could but my budget is limited".

I also want to note that the overall regranting model can easily scale by adding additional regrantors; we've received a lot of inbound interest in becoming regrantors despite little outreach, and many highly-trusted EA folks (even some grantmakers!) appreciate the greater flexibility offered by the regranting model.

Like @MarcusAbramovitch , I'd feel pretty comfortable allocating ~$1m part-time. I mean just on my existing grants I would've been happy to donate another ~$150k without thinking more about it! Concrete >$50k grants I had to pass up but would otherwise have wanted to fund total >$200k (extremely rough). So I'm already at >$400k (EDIT: per 5 months!) without even thinking about how my behavior or prospective grantee behavior might have changed if I had a larger pot.

That said, I think there's a sense in which I hit strongly diminishing returns at ~$10k, albeit still above-bar. The Robert Long grant was by far my best, and I knew from day 0 that I wanted to make it. After that, a bet on me became a bet on my taste, not a bet on my private information, which seems less exciting. (Again I'm optimistic that the past 5 months was an unusually low-private-information period for me, but you see my point.)

And I'm somewhat skeptical that others had $200k-$500k/year of productive grants to make. To me it's a bad sign that >30% of Manifund funding went to 3 projects (MATS, Apollo, and LTFF) that I wouldn't think especially benefit from the regranting model.

Manifund funding went to... LTFF

This is explained by LTFF/Open Philanthropy doing the imho misguided matching. This has the effect of diverting funding from other places for no clear gain. A lump sum would have been a better option

Fair enough, I agree.

I feel quite able to give >$500k/year. I also think more money would make a lot more "just completely fund the thing" instead of people throwing $1000-2000 for "signal boosting" or hoping others come along to fund the thing.

I feel I could do similar and even larger amounts for the animal welfare space.

It really was a time-suck, and I really have experienced the relating point in the past! But I loved putting time into Manifund instead of reading yet another decision-irrelevant post.

 

Happy to hear you enjoyed your time regranting! I'd love to get a quick estimate on how much time you spent as a regrantor, just for the purposes of our calibration. My napkin math: (8 grants made * 6h) + (16 grants investigated * 1h) = 64h?

I think my estimate isn't going to be very informative -- I intentionally spent more time than I might otherwise endorse working on Manifund stuff, because it was fun and seemed like good skills-building. My best guess as to how much time I would have spent on an otherwise similar process in the absence of this factor is (EDIT: there was a mistake in my BOTEC) 59 (42 to 85) hours.

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