[ Question ]

What caused EA movement growth to slow down?

by Evan_Gaensbauer 3 min read12th May 201914 comments

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Summary: It appears the annual growth rate of EA began dramatically slowing as late as around 2015-16, at around the same time EA started experiencing other bottlenecks, such as reported talent gaps at EA-aligned organizations. I explore the possibility of a relationship between a potential bottleneck for growth, and other bottlenecks in EA, and identify a potential common relationship between them to be a lack of organization or coordination of resources in EA. What specific factors have generated these bottlenecks is the answer I am seeking.

In my last question, I glossed over the origin of EA.

Historically, the following organizations were the earliest to be associated with what would become EA:
Givewell, launched in 2007
LessWrong, launched in 2009
Giving What We Can, launched in 2009
80,000 Hours, launched in 2011
It's with multiple organizations, and the communities that built up around them, connecting online that first developed the community that would become 'effective altruism.' This started in 2009. It was with the launch of 80,000 Hours in 2011 that community began to grow, and the label 'effective altruism' began to stick.

Going with the assumption EA began circa 2009, the following people would more or less qualify as part of the founding numbers of the what would become the EA movement at its earliest stage:

  • the staff of Givewell, and Givewell's direct supporters.
  • the members of community blog 'LessWrong' who were part of the burgeoning EA community, and the supporters of the then-Singularity Institute which would go on to become the Machine Intelligence Research Institute.
  • GWWC's founders and earliest members.
  • the supporters of these communities in Oxford and the San Francisco Bay Area, would qualify as as founders of EA.

If we were to estimate the number of people who would have counted as 'effective altruists' in 2009 from this list, it could easily be around 100, and would probably not exceed 200. I joined the EA movement in 2011, so I would have been among the first several hundred people to join the EA community. In the first several years of EA, the movement was growing extremely rapidly, to the point it was nearly doubling in size, i.e., growing by 100%, each year. Some years the growth rate would have been lower, and some years higher, but a model assuming an average annual growth rate of 100% tracks the growth of the EA movement decently for the first several years of the movement's existence. If we assumed the number of people part of the EA movement in 2009 was 100-200, assuming EA had been doubling in size each year after, by 2010 the number would be between 200 and 400, and by 2011, between 400 and 800. If we plot this growth, we see how many people might be part of the EA movement by now.

2009 | 100-200

2010 | 200-400

2011 | 400-800

2012 | 800-1,600

2013 | 1,600-3200

2014 | 3,200-6,400

2015 | 6,400-12,800

2016 | 12,800-25,600

2017 | 25,600-51,200

2018 | 51,200-102,400

2019 | 102,400-204,800

In my last question, I also laid out what would be the peak estimate for the number of people part of the EA movement.

The biggest count for potential membership of EA is the 'Effective Altruism' Facebook group, which currently stands 16,482 members. So, at most, EA sits at between 10k and 20k members.

Were EA to have kept doubling in size every year through the end of 2019, we might expect to see up to ~200k people belonging to the EA movement. By the greatest estimate, no more than ~20k people are currently part of the EA movement. So, had EA sustained an annual average growth rate of 100% for each year of the 10 years it existed, it might be up to an order of magnitude larger than it currently is. It appears EA has been growing at a still significant but much more modest rate since. As it stands, it doesn't appear tenable to maintain EA sustained doubling in size each year past either 2015 or 2016.

As Jon Behar pointed out in his Framework for Thinking about the EA Labor Market, the EA community has increasingly been discussing talent gaps since 2015. One thing that has significantly changed in EA since 2015 is the size of the grants made by EA-aligned foundation Good Ventures, and grantmaking organization the Open Philanthropy Project (Open Phil). Many other charities and other non-profit organizations the EA community has supported, through support from grants from Open Phil and other donors, are able to clear their room for more funding, and even their capacity for growth and expansion, each year. With a glut of people, and a glut of money, one plausible story for why the growth rate of EA slowed is because EA as an ecosystem acquired much greater amount of resources much faster than we have learned how to optimally allocate them. Ergo, growth of EA slowed as the community lost control of driving the growth rate of effective altruism as a movement.

From one angle, it is negative that the growth of EA has slowed. However, if EA has so many resources, it doesn't know how to spend them more to do the most good, it might make sense that resources are not wasted on extra growth that won't currently be applied to one or another cause. If there is a glut of effective altruists to either donate or work, but talent gaps remaining to be filled, and projects that don't receive sufficient funding that deserve it, a major problem in EA is a lack of coordination and organization of resources. Overall, the question of what the main bottlenecks to movement growth for EA remain, but it appears it may have a relationship to other bottlenecks in EA.

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3 Answers

Maybe it's just a result of EA deciding to focus on fidelity rather than speed of movement growth + decreasing marginal returns on outreach

I hope that the slowdown is due to the high fidelity model. But I am concerned that it might be that we are getting closer to saturation, and following a sigmoidal curve. If you count all the media impressions for EA, I think it would be more like tens of millions (and many predisposed people have sought it out online already). Various people have posited the 1% of developed countries becoming EA. At points I have been even more optimistic by recognizing that more than 10% of people take 10% salary cut working for nonprofits or the government. However, for most people, there is a big psychological difference between taking a 10% pay cut and donating 10% (and there are other factors comparing jobs). Furthermore, you need not just effort or sacrifice, but to actually prioritize effectiveness. I am concerned that the coincidence of these two characteristics is relatively low. I think that we can continue to get growth by continually exposing new college students, hopefully in more colleges, and also by recruiting better in groups underrepresented in EA. But that probably won't produce the strong exponential growth of the past of EA. Has anyone done comparisons with say environmentalism or feminism? Because it seems like for them to have achieved such high penetration, they would have done something like doubling every year for decades.

As someone who is quite familiar with what drives traffic to EA and Rationality related websites, 2015 marks the end of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, which (whatever you might think about it) was probably the single biggest recruitment device that has existed in at least the rationality community's history (though I also think it was also a major driver to the EA community). It is also the time Eliezer broadly stopped posting online, and he obviously had a very outsized effect on recruitment.

I also know that during 2015 (which is when I started working at CEA), CEA was investing very heavily in trying to grow the community, which included efforts of trying to get people like Elon Musk to talk at EAG 2015, which I do think was also a major draw to the community. A lot of the staff responsible for that focus on growth left over the following years and CEA stopped thinking as much in terms of growth (I think whether that was good or bad is complicated, though I mostly think that that shift was good).