As far as I can tell The Long-Term Future Fund (LTFF) wants to fund work that will influence public policy. They say they are looking to fund “policy analysis, advocacy ...” work and post in policy Facebook groups asking for applications.
However, as far as I can tell, in practice, the LTFF appears to never (or only very rarely) fund such projects that apply for funding. Especially new projects.
My view that such funding is rare is based on the following pieces of evidence:
- Very few policy grants have been made. Looking at the payout reports of the LTFF, they funded a grant for policy influencing work in 2019 (to me, for a project that was not a new project). Upon asking them they say they have funded at least one more policy grant that has not been written up.
- Very many policy people have applied for LTFF grants. Without actively looking for it I know of: someone in an established think tank looking for funds for EA work, 3 groups wanting to start EA think tank type projects, a group wanting to do mass campaigning work. All these groups looked competent and were rejected. I am sure many others apply too. I know one of these has gone on to get funding elsewhere (FTX).
- Comments from staff at leading EA orgs. In January last year, a senior staff member at a leading EA institution mentioned, to my surprise, that EA funders tend not to fund any new longtermist policy projects (except perhaps with very senior trusted people like OpenPhil funding CSET). Recently I spoke to someone at CEA about this and asked if it matched their views too and they said they do think there is a problem here. Note this was about EA funders in general, not specifically the LTFF.
- Comments from EA policy folk looking for funding. There seems to be (at least there was in 2021) a general view from EAs working in the policy space that it has been very hard to find funding for policy work. Note this is about EA funders in general, not the LTFF.
- Odd lines of questioning. When I applied, the line of questioning was very odd. I faced an hour of: Why should we do any policy stuff? Isn't all policy work a waste of time? Didn’t [random unconnected policy thing] not work? Etc. Of course it can be useful to check applicants have a good understanding of what they are doing, but it made me question whether they wanted to fund policy work at all. [Edit: apparently they do this style of questioning for various topics like AI safety research not just policy, so maybe not an issue.]
- Odd feedback. Multiple applicants to the LTFF have reported receiving feedback along the lines of: We see high downside risks but cannot clarify what those risks are. Or: We want to fund you but an anonymous person vetoed you and we cannot say who or why. Or: Start-up policy projects are too risky. Or: We worry you might be successful and hard to shut down if we decided we don’t like you in future. This makes me worry that the fund managers do not think through the risks and reasons for funding or not funding policy work in as much depth as I would like, and that they maybe do not fund any new/start-up policy projects.
- Acknowledgment that they do apply a higher bar for policy work. Staff at the LTFF have told me that they apply a higher bar for policy work than for other grants.
Of course, this is all circumstantial, and not necessarily a criticism of the LTFF. The fund managers might argue they never get any policy projects worth funding and that all the promising projects I happened to hear of were actually net negative and it was good not to fund them. It is also possible that things have improved in the last year (the notes that make up this post have been sitting in an email chain for a long while now).
Relevance and recommendation
That said I thought it was worth me writing this up publicly as the possibility that the LTFF (and maybe other funders) are systematically not funding any new policy advocacy projects is relevant for:
- Applicants. I don’t want people who have not received funding to be demotivated. To all those folk out there looking to run an EA policy project but have struggled with funding from the LTFF, or elsewhere, I just want to say: Heads up, don’t be put off, the work you do may well be of high value. Stop applying to the LTFF. There are funders more keen on policy such as SFP/SFF or FLI so consider applying there or talking to local funders in your area! Also such founders should feel free to reach out to me if they want an independent view on their project and advice on finding funding.
- Other funders. I don’t want other funders to hold back from funding as they think the LTFF will cover policy stuff. Maybe these funders being aware of exactly how rare it is for the LTFF to fund (new) projects aimed at influencing public policy, will help ensure they are fully informed and can make the best decisions.
- Both funders and policy folk. Maybe there is a discussion to be had here as to why this might be going on. If there are lot of entrepreneurial policy folk applying for funding and not getting it then maybe the entrepreneurial policy folk in EA have a very different view than funders of what kinds of policy projects are valuable. Maybe this is a communication issue and we can bring it into the light. My hope is that a public post could spark some discussion about what kinds of policy projects would bring value to the world, and that this could be of use to both funders and policy entrepreneurs.
Overall, more transparency could help. I would love to hear from funders (LTFF and otherwise) a bit more about what they are looking for. I think this could lead to either push back (why are you looking for that?) or better applications or both. And if the LTFF are not funding policy work, or only funding certain types of policy work, or if they are applying a higher bar to policy projects then they should say this publicly on their website!
Opinions & speculation
I would note that it is only possible to make this post because the LTFF has written public payout reports and given feedback to people who have applied for funding. These are both really good and deserving of praise. There is much the LTFF gets correct, and this critique should be seen in this light. (I also note that my interactions with staff at the LTFF have been extremely positive and I have a lot of respect for them.)
Does this apply to other funders?
I also worry similar problems apply elsewhere in EA but are only noticeable in the LTFF as the LTFF are more transparent and easier to apply to than other funders. Given that senior staff at EA orgs have suggested that there is a general reticence to fund new policy work, it seems plausible that many other (longtermist?) funders are also not funding new policy projects.
A guess as to what might be going on.
I speculate that there is an underfunding of policy projects and that this might be connected to EA funders approach to minimising risks.
EA funders are risk averse and want to avoid funding projects with downside risks. I think this is super important. Most movements that exists fail and fracture and collapse and that EA has succeeded as much as it has is perhaps down to this caution.
However I think:
- Funders and policy actors might have very different views is on how to manage the risks of policy work, meaning they prefer different kinds of projects. Based on the conversations it seems that funders believe that a reasonable plan to manage the risks is to look for very senior (say 20 years experience) that they know very well to start new policy projects. Also they might give veto power to a range of external advisors. On the other hand policy folk think it is more important to be cautious about the kinds of projects started and risk mitigation plans, but they note that senior people often come with political baggage that increases risks whereas junior folk can fly under the political radar. Also they note that giving vetoes has problems as if different people veto different things a funders de-facto bar could be significantly higher than any single person's bar.
- It is not clear to me that funders are considering the risks of not funding projects. Firstly funding can be used by projects to directly decrease risks of that project, especially if it is given with this purpose in mind, such as to hire a good comms person. Secondly, new projects can decrease policy risks, e.g. a project that supports longtermist academics to engage with policy makers believes they have cut not increased the risks. Thirdly, not funding can miss key policy windows, like COVID.
Additionally, there is the risk that a default of not funding action feeds into a culture of EA only ever researching and never acting. If it is the case that many funders are applying a much higher bar to doing/influencing projects than to thinking/research projects (as the LTFF say they do) then this could lead to bad community dynamics. In particular it might be feeding into a culture where doers are ostracised or not supported and thinkers are welcome in with open arms. People have recently been raising this as an issue with EA (or longtermism) culture on this forum see here (see comments too) and here and here.
The above is speculative. It is my current best guess as the crux behind any difference in views between funders and policy folk. That said I would not be surprised if I was wrong on this.
I think both sides have their biases and I would be keen for both sides to talk more on this or I think at a minimum funders should be transparent about their views on funding policy work and minimising risks. If nothing else it could save people wasted time applying for funding they cannot get.
I expect this is worth funders time. I had the impression that as of 2021 a lot of talented policy people who could start new projects were not doing so because of a real or perceived belief that there was a lack of funding. (FTX may have fixed or partly fixed this I don’t know.)
Thank you to the LTFF team and many others for feedback on an early draft and for all the great work they do. Entered as part of the EA red team challenge.
Edit: I have now written up a long list of longtermist policy projects that should be funded, this gives some idea how big the space of opportunities is here: List of donation opportunities (focus: non-US longtermist policy work)