Better governance would not necessarily have prevented prominent scandals in EA. However, stronger accountability and governance mechanisms would almost certainly have mitigated them, and possibly even prevented them entirely.

Governance standards are generally quite poor in EA. If you audited EA organisations using a checklist of things like whistleblowing protections, managing conflicts of interest, Board function and Board composition, I think most Boards would be 'amber' or 'red' against wider governance norms. This unnecessarily increases the risk of future scandals. Unless this is reformed, we should expect more scandals that hurt people, organisations and the community, and which prevent us achieving the goals of the EA community.

One of the easiest fixes here is Board composition. You want a Board that has:

  1. enough members that it can continue to function well if ~2 people are unavailable for some reason (therefore 6-8 people, given that some members may be conflicted on some issues)
  2. at least some people with relevant expertise, particularly the ability to interpret internal financial reports; to manage, assess and hold accountable the CEO; and to create strong governance processes
  3. a mixture of inside and outside views of the organisation (and the EA community) to reduce blind spots

These things are much less likely to be achieved if the recruitment process for Boards is entirely done via personal networks and direct, unconditional invitations to join the Board. This approach is especially likely to fail tests two and three.

Accordingly, I think it's really important that there have been at least three open calls for trustee recruitment this year. Rethink Priorities led the way in January, and One for the World (my organisation) and EVF are conducting open searches at the moment. This is a significant positive step and should become a norm.

It can also be really inspiring. In our latest round, we had more than 20 people who met our bar for 'would be a values-aligned, valuable Board member'. Also, some of them were so impressive that we wouldn't have approached them directly, believing that they would be unlikely to accept.

Epistemic status: reasonably high. There are well-established governance norms based on more than a century of real-world experience; it seems highly unlikely that EA is exempt from these.

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I appreciate this post and agree with your points. Especially that of having some outside-EA board members. I am an academic and my research is EA-adjacent, but I have no ties to any EA org/cause area, which would reduce perceived conflicts of interest (which I have seen discussed on the forum). I also believe there is a lot that an EA org could learn (especially related to governance/transparency best practices) from a board member that has a lot of experience in traditional nonprofit work (especially at a large organization).

 

I would add that it would be very desirable for prominent EA organizations to also create junior boards (or just have a few designated junior board members). Junior boards have a lot of benefits:

  1. Younger professionals may be able to invest more time than more senior/prominent professionals
  2. It creates a pipeline of board talent in the EA community
  3. There are a TON of early-career EAs who are passionate about advancing their career and a junior board is an excellent opportunity for them to do so

For me personally, I am a relatively-early career professional (not working at an EA org) who wants to give back to the community as a board member, but frankly I don't believe I quite have the experience to join a big-time board (for example, I applied for the EV open call, but really have 0 expectation that I qualify for a short list). The alternative is to find a smaller org to join, but that is also quite challenging.

Thanks, Kyle! Can you say a bit more about what kinds of things you envision a "junior board" doing? In my experience outside EA, different organizations use that terminology to mean different things.

I think it depends a lot on the org and their needs. In an EA context, I think it makes sense for junior boards to possibly take on a larger share of the board work, while taking a smaller share of the decision making. Then eventually they can move into more senior board positions when they have more experience.

 

My experience is with university young alumni boards, which do a few things differently than the main board:

  1. The junior board is pretty large, and a big purpose is to bring in the successful early career alumni to cultivate them as future board members/donors.
  2. Junior boards do a lot of committee/active work with students/departments. In part this is good because they are more relatable than big time CEOs in their 50s, and in part it keeps them engaged for point 1 above.
  3. They have pretty much no decision making authority, other than their own internal board rules/membership. Though my experience is with college-level boards, where even the main board has no real power/authority. 

My skepticism about "junior boards" in general is that they can often be implemented in a way that feels like donor recruitment/reward, or fundraising empowerment, outfits. I like the idea, but the trickiness is in an implementation that serves the desired purposes.

Where allowed under applicable law, I like the idea of farming out a decent slice of Board work to subcommittees consisting of a majority of Board members and a minority of others (which could be "junior board" types). That the subcommittee can exercise most of the Board's powers (to the extent delegated) lets you expose junior-board people to realistic board-level work without duplication of work (which happens when their role is advisory only and has to be redone by the Board).

That's fair. I'll revise a bit - I think in the current EA landscape, boards should at least consider bringing on some board members that are more junior. Or we should find ways to allow junior professionals the chance to gain the experience necessary to be effective board members.

Jack - or others who have run open board rounds recently - can you say more concretely what your advertisement and selection process was? In HLI, we're thinking about doing an open board round soon, but I'm not sure exactly how we'd do it.

For reference, for selection for staff, we standardly do an initial application, two interviews and two test tasks (1 about 2 hours, 1 about 5 hours). This doesn't seem like obviously the right process for board members: I'm hesitant to ask board members to do (long) test tasks, as they would be volunteers, plus I'm not sure what they would even be. But I'm also wary of spending lots of staff time on interviews and, similarly, don't have a very clear idea of what criteria I'm selecting against. So, any recommendations you have would be great!

I think the application process is spelt out in the application pack, which is still live here: https://1fortheworld.org/jobs-at-oftw

We did an initial screen on the application form, then 3 people reviewed the remaining candidates in more depth to form a longlist, and now 10 people are having three 30-min 'informal chats' with me and two Board members. Finally, our recommendations will go to the whole Board. In each round, we had three opinions and the other two were Board members.

Grayden and the EA Good Governance Project will advise you to keep the ED out of the process, as they answer to the Board, but I found this was impractical as I have so much more time I can dedicate to moving the process on as part of my job.

If you'd like details on questions asked etc., let me know

Risks/objections/exemptions:

1. Bigger Boards are unwieldy - yes, they can be. This is really a question of Board process though. A good chairperson and CEO can keep meetings on track, prevent grandstanding etc.

2. Board members can interfere and slow things down - yes, bad Board members can, but you can manage this (especially with a competent chairperson). Imagine an employee told you that they won't accept having a manager, because managers can interfere and slow things down. I imagine the response would be 'yes, bad managers do that; but you don't get to opt out of management altogether because of that. If it happens, let us know and we'll address it.'

3. It takes time to assess potential Board members - yes, it does. I think our latest round has taken around 30 hours split between 4 people. Of course, it also takes time to hire staff. I guess a Board member would be seen as somewhere between 0.5x and 1.5x as important as a top hire depending on context, and you can adjust your hiring process accordingly.

4. Appointing Board members with an outside view will reduce value alignment - it depends. In our recent round, we used some short screening questions to assess value-alignment on the application form. We found that 22/27 applicants met our bar for 'would be a valuable, values-aligned Board member'. Only one of the applicants could be considered a 'core EA'.

5. All the best potential Board members are already core EAs/my mates/part of my organisation's universe - I assume you don't mean this.

6. One bad Board member can hijack organisations and make them ineffective - this seems very unlikely because they are only one of several and they would need to overcome other Board members, the CEO and the organisation's founding documents to do this. Theories about how people from outside EA will infiltrate Boards and change the organisation's mission tend to sound like conspiracy theories to me.

7. My org is only just starting, so can't I just appoint quickly from people I already trust? - yes, plausibly. This will come with significant downsides in terms of accountability, blindspots and diversity, but you might choose to prioritise speed and ease at the start. I would still probably recommend an open call to see who you get; and at the least have a plan for doing proper Board recruitment within 24 months.

In our latest round, we had more than 20 people who met our bar for 'would be a values-aligned, valuable Board member'. Also, some of them were so impressive that we wouldn't have approached them directly, believing that they would be unlikely to accept.

How many of these 20 people were people you already knew? I think for us at RP doing open board recruitment, the key thing was finding a bunch of people that we had no idea to ask and never would've invited.

Somewhat related question for both of you—what was your strategy, if any, for announcing/sharing your open board search so that strong applicants outside your usual networks would see it and apply?

I think a common sticking point for hiring and search processes of all kinds is that it can be difficult to get the word out beyond the most obvious places, but still keep it targeted enough to get strong applicants, and I’m curious if you encountered this problem or have any generalizable suggestions for solving it.

Great question. Our two main sources were targeted messages to potential candidates using LinkedIn searches; and 80k, which has such a big reach that it bought in a lot of people who wouldn't consider themselves 'part of EA' (obviously you could argue that they are if they are on 80k's newsletter, but I think that is a low bar).

We are also a bit unusual in having a Board almost entirely composed of people who are 'EA adjacent but not core EA', and so that helped to spread the word to people within their networks but still able to offer an outside view.

I think two

At the risk of slightly turning the focus, I'd like to pitch for the importance of properly onboarding whoever is selected. Some of that onboarding is general in nature and could be more efficiently done at a community level -- for instance, learning about the legal responsibilities of trustees in the UK or board members in the US, learning how to evaluate an executive director, etc. Some of it is probably cause-area specific and could be semi-centralized; I imagine there is a body of information that directors of AI safety organizations need to know. And some of it is organization-specific.

I speculate that the onboarding needs of open-recruitment directors and "traditionally" found directors could be different on average. The former might need relatively more onboarding of the cause-area type, while the latter might need relatively more on good governance (and specific board skills less likely to be developed through object-level work) more generally.

100%. Very happy to share our onboarding flow for anyone who is interested

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