Post co-written by Joey Savoie and Vaidehi Agarwalla
CE has historically researched cause areas focused on a specific set of interventions directly affecting beneficiaries (such as farmed animal welfare or mental health). However, we have always been highly involved in the Effective Altruism meta (EA meta) space and believe it is an impactful area to make charity recommendations in.
What is Effective Altruism meta?
EA meta is typically defined as charities that are a step removed from direct impact. Meta charities include those focused on a single cause area, such as Animal Advocacy Careers (AAC), which helps animal advocates have higher impact careers; and cross-cutting charities such as Charity Entrepreneurship, which incubates charities across a number of causes. Meta EA also includes organizations focused directly on improving the EA community, like the Centre for Effective Altruism.
We believe meta EA charities are uniquely positioned for both direct impact and improving the EA movement. It seems that there are many untapped opportunities and that 2021 is a good time for various reasons, including CE’s own track record. While we have some concerns regarding impact and evaluation, we are optimistic that the charities we incubate will have a strong commitment to careful measurement and evaluation.
This post goes over why we think Effective Altruism meta could be highly impactful, why CE is well-positioned to incubate these charities, why 2021 is a good time, differences in handling EA meta compared to other causes, and potential concerns. We finish by introducing our three top recommendations for new charities in the space: exploratory altruism, earning to give +, and EA training.
1. Why EA meta is an important cause area
The main reason we consider any area is because we think it is highly impactful. The same is true of EA meta.
EA meta charities cover a large range of direct impact causes as they are broader and cross-cutting.
We think that this broadness is a key advantage of meta charities since it allows for more possible pathways to impact. Some areas such as policy, fundraising and career advice seem particularly conducive to this. For example, a policy charity could work on tractable interventions in both the animal and poverty space; a fundraising charity could advocate for many different cause areas that have room for more funding.
One of our main uncertainties is that measurability of impact varies greatly within meta charities. On one end of the spectrum, charities that fundraise for GiveWell top charities can pretty easily measure the money they affected compared to the money they spent (1). For other areas, such as careers, this measurement can be more challenging but we still think it's possible to do, as we have observed from AAC. When we have seen careful impact measurements of meta charities several have stood out as highly effective – GiveWell, for example, is on par with the best direct charities we have seen.
We are happy with the progress of meta charities we have incubated and advised. We are also pleased with CE’s process (we are a meta charity as well), and will publish our annual review in the coming months.
In general, we are optimistic that well-founded and well-run meta organizations can create metrics that approximate impact closely enough to get a sense of their progress (even if we lack some precision).
Impact on the EA movement
We believe that the EA movement is one of the most promising social movements and has a high ability to impact the world. EA has already identified several neglected and promising cause areas, and has succeeded in counterfactually directing millions of dollars to these causes (2). It has also created a community of thousands of engaged members with strong norms of truth-seekingness, cause impartiality, and a focus on impact.
However, we think there is still room for improvement for the EA movement to have more impact, both with regards to research and promoting effective actions for individuals to take.
We believe that meta organizations (even those not directly improving the EA community) are uniquely positioned to have a positive impact on the movement. For example, new charities (such as the ones CE incubates) can create opportunities for EAs to get involved in highly impactful career paths. These paths have historically been limited, causing a lot of frustration (3).
2. Why is CE well-positioned to have an impact?
Although EA meta has always been on our radar we have not worked on the area before. What changed this year that made us more confident in the space?
Proof of concept
Perhaps the biggest factor was that we wanted to run CE in a few areas that are easier to evaluate progress on before starting more speculative charities. As we have founded more charities and see our older charities progress we are more confident in the CE model and thus more willing to take on harder to measure areas.
We have recommended a few animal charity ideas that were in both the animal and meta space (4). The oldest of these that we have incubated is AAC. We have been pleased with their overall progress and commitment to measurement. When implementing their career advice program, for example, AAC pre-registered a study to evaluate the effects of career advising calls on animals because of a lack of systematic evidence for this intervention (5). This study would not only help AAC evaluate their impact, but provide valuable data to other EA meta charities. We also incubated the Happier Lives Institute, which conducts research in the mental health and subjective well-being space, and have been pleased with their progress. We feel as though there are more opportunities that could be executed in this way.
In general, we think meta charities are often not held to a high enough standard but have gained confidence through experience that our entrepreneurs will hold themselves to high standards of impact.
CE’s experience & knowledge
Our team has had a hand in directly founding or advising half a dozen EA meta charities in the past, several of which are currently seen as highly successful. Meta EA is also one of the cause areas in which our team has the strongest level of baseline knowledge and experience. Most of our team has been involved in the EA movement for a number of years, including founding EA chapters and working for other EA organizations (6). We feel fairly confident in our ability to incubate new charities in this space and mitigate risks that may arise.
Momentum & support
The EA movement is dynamic and changes every year, but we generally believe that the timing in 2021 is good for new organizations.
Risk of stagnation: In particular, it seems the movement is fairly stable with established meta organizations in a number of areas, but may be at some risk of stagnating (7).
New spaces opening up: New promising spaces have opened up by some of the larger meta EA organisations clarifying what ground they intend to cover in the near future (8). These spaces are a low-hanging fruit as there are a growing number of EA community members not being served by the existing organisations.
Stable funding & support: CE has a strong connection to a large community of EAs who are highly supportive of the idea of new EA meta charities being founded – even our location in London was partly chosen due to the benefits of proximity to a strong EA community. As a result, we also have confidence in the funding space of EA meta.
3. Differences between EA meta and other cause areas
EA meta is an unusual cause area. It's both broader and has less preexisting content than other cause areas we have investigated. For this reason, our research process differs from previous cause areas, and the content we publicly publish will also be different.
We use the same systems and techniques of broad research, iterative depth and systematic consideration. We started by speaking to a number of experts (over 40) and pulling out key flaws and possible charity ideas within the EA movement. From there we are writing shallow reports for ~10 of the ideas and deeper reports on the top recommended ideas. You can see a summary of our research process here.
We have published a summary of the survey, but we only plan on publishing deeper reports on the top ideas we recommend. Due to the lack of preexisting research, we would be less confident in the robustness of the shallow reports. We think it’s quite likely we will find exciting-sounding but ultimately less impactful ideas, and do not want people to found charities based on our reports on non-recommended areas.
4. Concerns with EA meta
We do have some major worries about working in the EA meta space, mostly around impact and measurement and evaluation.
Risk of a meta loop
There is some risk that EA meta charities would fall into a loop where they encourage more meta EA activities, rather than direct impact activities. Thus, they would fail to achieve direct impact (9). This is especially true for interventions to improve the EA community.
Charities would need to have a very clear theory of change, demonstrate through measurement the direct impact of the work they were doing, and try to minimize the number of steps between their actions and the impact they are trying to have.
Issues with metrics
We have some major concerns about quantifying the impact of certain meta EA charities whose impact is harder to measure. Charities with the following attributes are of greater concern: programs that are multiple steps removed from direct impact, long feedback timelines, and complex interventions where many other variables are present. Some examples include policy and career advising charities.
Many meta charities may need to use proxy metrics to estimate their impact. This means they may be at risk of using vanity metrics. Vanity metrics don’t measure what actually matters, but instead poorly chosen proxies. They can lead to an overestimation of the expected impact. For example, if you were advising someone you might ask them whether they liked the advising session. However, this does not track whether they changed their actions as a result of your advice (10).
Long feedback timelines also increase the uncertainty about the impact (or attributable impact) of an intervention. Overall, it seems important that meta charities provide thoughtful estimates of impact in their early stages while they are still establishing a track record.
5. Top EA meta charity ideas
For 2021 we currently recommend three meta ideas: exploratory altruism, earning to give +, and EA training (11). This section intends to give a sense of what the final ideas will look like for applicants to the Incubation Program while we finalize the deeper reports for publication.
We may accept people into the program with their own EA meta idea. However, we expect EA meta charities launched in 2021 to implement ideas from among these recommendations..
Description: Effective altruism is the question of how to do the most good. As the movement is relatively young, many areas and causes still have not been examined in depth. The idea of a cause X is that highly impactful areas could still be undiscovered, so finding a new cause X would be highly effective. The EA movement currently has no organization dedicated full time to exploring and making a strong case for new cause areas. Given the amount of unexplored ground, it’s likely that multiple highly promising causes are not yet on the EA radar, or that more work is needed to systematically evaluate them against other options. This organization would focus long term on making the case for new areas (both known unknowns and unknown unknowns) rather than choosing one cause and focusing exclusively on that.
Personal fit: An ideal co-founder for a project like this would be highly informed about the EA movement and its current causes. They would be excited about multiple cause areas within the movement and open to the possibility that more areas with equal or greater impact could be discovered. The team would include at least one good writer and at least one good researcher. Both founders would be good thinkers with a strong background in epistemology and good judgment when it comes to cause comparison.
Earning to give +
Description: Earning to give (E2G) has been long considered by effective altruists. Earning to give + follows the same idea but includes more elements: in particular, bringing lessons from the E2G field into EA (e.g. management practices, communications strategies, and decision making methodologies) and bringing EA insights into the E2G workplace (e.g. fundraisers, donation matching, and EA movement building).
E2G has historically lacked an organization focused specifically on providing support, community, and advice to those going down this path. The additions encapsulated in E2G+ make the career path even more impactful and more connected to the EA movement. A new organization would also address two of the largest concerns with the EA movement: the small number of impactful opportunities available; and EA’s insularity, which often leads to reinventing the wheel. E2G+ can be a highly impactful career path able to absorb a large number of impact-focused individuals and could strengthen the EA movement, both financially and through introducing best practices and ideas from outside.
Personal fit: Ideal co-founders would have experience with earning to give as well as a high interest in helping those later in their career path. They would have experience in community building or event running (such as being part of an EA chapter), and be generally comfortable in helping teach EAs how to talk to coworkers about EA concepts. Communication skills – particularly those applicable outside of the EA movement – would be particularly important for founders of this charity.
Description: The most important talent gaps in EA often change more quickly than the time it takes for many to skill up in an area or for mass outreach to successfully target groups with that skill set. This organization would identify talent gaps (e.g. through surveys) and then address these through ~quarterly training and mentorship programs. For example, one round could focus on operations skills if that were determined to be a major bottleneck; the next could focus on communications skills or burnout prevention, etc. This organization would be built flexibly to adapt to the highest area of need and quickly upskill people in this area. Our best guess based on our research is that the organization would run a training program 2-4 times a year, focusing on a different topic in each program, and conduct a survey once or twice a year. We expect a lot of the organization's activities to involve gathering resources and mentors (similar to WANBAM). Training would be relatively short (e.g. a few weeks), and roughly half of the content would consist of preexisting materials rather than those created internally.
Personal fit: A large part of this organization would entail synthesizing useful content, acquiring mentors, and quickly learning and passing on knowledge about new skills. Experience in more generalist roles (such as early stage organizations) or in generally teaching and organizing content would make someone a strong fit for an organization like this. The ability to quickly sort and prioritize many different books or courses on a given topic would also be highly important.
If you are keen on any of these ideas you should apply to the CE Incubation Program!
We are happy to talk about these ideas in depth with applicants for the CE Incubation Program who reach the second round interview. For more about CE's research into EA meta ideas (including detailed methodology and other ideas considered), see our recent EA forum post.
1. A number of meta EA charities are focused on fundraising such as One For the World, Giving What We Can, and Founders’ Pledge, which have been very successful in getting thousands of people to donate significant portions of their income to charity. You can see some write-ups of their evaluations in numerous EA Infrastructure Fund payout reports. (Note: Charity Entrepreneurship has also received funding from the Infrastructure Fund.)
3. There have been several discussions on the challenges for individual members pursuing high impact career paths within the EA community on the EA Forum, and this is a widely accepted issue. A few examples include several in-depth experiences that sparked community-wide discussions, including a post in early 2019 by an anonymous community member and more recently My mistakes on the path to impact by Denise Melchin. There have also been a number of constraints identified including specific skills, vetting, and network constraints that contribute to a sense of frustration.
4. Animal Research Report
5. Pre-registration: The Effects of Career Advising Calls on Expected Impact for Animals
6. Archived CE Team Page from December 31st 2020.
7. An EA Forum post outlines the case for intellectual stagnation in EA, and points to a lack of cause prioritization research (research to identify new promising cause areas). Many EA organizations that started from a more general position narrowed focus, and other organisations did not continue that original research. In the 2019 EA Survey, stagnation was the 5th most mentioned reason for decreased interest in the movement.
8. What will 80,000 Hours provide (and not provide) within the effective altruism community?
9. Peter Hurford provides an illustrative example of this.
10. 80,000 Hours changed their entire metric of evaluation in 2019 as a result of updating feedback from career advisees from previous years.
11. Please keep in mind that these are the names and descriptions of the broad areas, not of the charities that will be founded in these areas.