Part 4: Intra-organizational and non-tech agencies

by Arepo8 min read25th Jul 202110 comments

12

Community infrastructureOrg strategyPublic interest technology
Frontpage

Back to part 3

In previous parts, I’ve laid out the case a) that EA orgs should outsource tech work to agencies and b) that a donor-funded agency has some unique advantages over other funding models.

An alternative mode: agencies as a branch of existing orgs

Instead of having a separate organisation dedicated to tech work, an alternative would be to just expand the domain of an existing EA organisation. This would probably be a form of de facto donor-funding, and could either be in the form of giving its developers occasional flexibility to work on external projects, or giving them the ‘impartial’ task of working on projects from the EA space at all times. This has pros...

  • It might be easier for an established organisation to bring credibility to the idea, and hence less difficult for them to get funding for it, especially if they already had a somewhat flexible budget and were willing to take a chance on the idea
  • It might be more practical to find someone capable of doing the admin work at an org that has already gone through such growing pains, so the marginal overhead of early hires would probably be lower
  • They might have existing resources to spare, eg spare spaces in an office that the developers could work from if they were based in the location
  • It might be more culturally appealing to be part of a larger organisation than one with just two or three staff
  • If the proto-agency used the bonus-payment incentive described in part 3, it might benefit from having someone relatively impartial to judge how to allocate the extra payments in the inevitable edge cases (eg the person with whom the developer has been working suddenly becoming unavailable near the end of the project)
  • Starting out as part of an existing org would mean you’d get de facto charitable status immediately, if that turns out to matter

And cons...

  • Their goals won’t be perfectly aligned - eg an org that focused strongly on the long-term future might not be willing to donate even comparatively ‘low-value’ developer time on their cause to comparatively high value time on global poverty
  • Diluting the focus of an org might reduce the interest that people with specific cause area preferences had in funding it (a donor-funded agency would still lack cause area focus, at least until the movement was big enough to support cause-specific ones, but would isolate it to a single entity, giving funders more total options)
  • It would make reporting outputs difficult - if part of your org’s output was intermittent software support to other charities that would be hard to compare to your other activities (the agency would again isolate this concern to a single entity)
  • If the devs were supposed to be impartial towards the hosting org it would be difficult to ensure no bias
  • If they were expected to be partial to the hosting org, uncertainty about when hosting-org projects might take over would reduce the planning ability of other orgs receiving or hoping to receive aid
  • It would reduce the flexibility to experiment with different organisational structures - for eg it might be impolitic to give too much flexitime or have too flat a hierarchy if the other staff of the hosting org had less freedom
  • The meta-incentives for fixing these problems are bad. The incentives issue is IMO the biggest thorn for donor-funded agencies, but in the long run they would have a strong incentive to fix that issue or lose their funding. Whereas if the incentives for cooperation were difficult to deal with at any given EA org, the simple path would be to prioritise in-house development and ignore the problem, and cooperation would break down.
  • Another way to look at the last point is that the infrastructure for inter-org cooperation is already in place (lots of EA orgs all who know about and are generally willing to at least talk to each other), so if the meta-incentives were right, EA developers would already be doing a bunch of cross-org work, and this whole sequence would be unnecessary.

The arguments here don’t seem conclusive to me either way - I can imagine either way working better. I think either mode would have the advantages and disadvantages discussed in part 3. It’s worth noting that CEA have been spinning off orgs to shrink their domain in order to avoid diluting what they see as their comparative advantages. But Jack Lewars of One for the World has expressed possible interest in supporting such a project.

It might be possible to combine the benefits by starting out an ‘agency’ as a branch of an org while building development capacity and trust, with the explicit intention of spinning it off into an independent donor-funded organisation once it had established a track record .

Generalising the idea to other skills

I’ve discussed the idea of a tech agency, because that’s the area I have the most insight on and conviction in. But there are many general skills which EA orgs need, which might suffer less from professional development (or perhaps not - I don't know how much eg marketers gain from peer feedback), but certainly have the allocation inefficiencies and difficulties of hiring skilled staff described in part 1 (perhaps more so than a tech agency, given that other areas have fewer objective measures of skill), and where an agency would have the same misc benefits described in part 2 and those described in part 3 if it was donor-funded. Whether or not tech agencies in particular take off, I could imagine agencies being useful eg for marketing, design (if that were separated from tech), HR, perhaps operations, events management, and research.[1] There's a spectrum of how much in-house specialisation a role has, where eg the C-suite are at one extreme, and the software devs closer to the other - the position of various other roles is debatable.

In fact, ACE, FHI, CSER, MIRI, perhaps Givewell and others are essentially donor-funded research agencies. This suggests a status quo reversal test: would the EA movement benefit a) from splitting its researchers up so that some worked at AMF, some at Givedirectly, some at CEA, some at CFAR, and many primarily as volunteers for tiny independent orgs? or b) from these orgs redistributing their current holdings to ‘end-user organisations’ (eg top Givewell or ACE charities for animals and welfare, and perhaps Ought - or no-one - for AI safety practices), and then fund further research via payments from those organisations? It’s an imperfect analogy since the case for them has different details, but nonetheless, I think that they shouldn’t, which strengths my intuition for a) agencies and b) donor-funding them.

Conclusion & call for involvement

There remains a lot of uncertainty about the feasibility, desirability and even the nature of an EA agency, whether low-bono or donor-funded. Please let me know if you can help answer any of the open questions (by PM if you prefer). In particular:

  • Software developers: how appealing do you find the idea of working at a low bono vs donor-funded agency vs in-house at an EA org vs sticking with non-EA work? How much difference would it make if you were involved in the prioritisation process at a donor-funded org with a remit to find the highest value tech projects?
  • Grant managers: under what circumstances if any would you consider supporting a donor-funded agency? How comfortable would you be with it doing each of the following: a) work for an EA org that would have counterfactually been granted money for a tech project/tech staff; b) one-off projects that would otherwise have had to rely on volunteers; c) cross-org projects that benefited multiple orgs but that none would individually have paid for; d) internships or other support for less experienced EA developers looking to develop their skills on high value projects? To what extent would you expect to be involved in the agency’s prioritisation process?
  • EA organisations: under what circumstances if any would you forego hiring in-house if an agency was available as an alternative? Would you consider paying a retainer towards one, and if so, how flexible would you be about them doing an amount of work proportional to your fee vs prioritising other work when it seemed to be higher value? (I would suggest answering the latter question anonymously or via PM, since there will be strong pressure and response bias towards giving the ‘optimal’ answer) Would you consider buying (quadratic?) voting rights if donor-funding was insufficient?
  • Individuals who have or have previously had one-off project ideas: reveal thyselves, so we can attempt a headcount! Would you feel sufficiently more optimistic about getting your ideas implemented if donor-funded developers were potentially available that you’d be likely to propose more such ideas or otherwise contribute more if it meant they were implemented sooner/more reliably?
  • Legal advisors: how difficult would it be to become a charity in various countries? Would there be a clear advantage to registering in the UK vs the EU vs North America, or elsewhere? Would donation-based funding allow you to avoid VAT even for a nonprofit that wasn’t a charity if it were a registered nonprofit? Would any of these answers change if the organisation it was offering services to was a noncharity-nonprofit, or a for-profit?
  • Other staff (eg marketers, designers, and others mentioned in the previous section): do you feel like the arguments presented in this sequence generalise to your type of work, such that it would make sense for EA orgs to outsource it to an agency?

If anyone wants to answer these or make other comments in private, feel free to PM me.

Acknowledgements

I’m indebted to Grayden Reece-Smith, Roy Rinberg, Michael Peyton-Jones, Srdjan Miletic, Simon Marshall, Adam Millican, Petr Maslov, Johan Lugthart, Jack Lewars, Tamara Borine, Sebastian Becker, Vaidehi Agarwalla, JP Addison and Scott Adams for encouragement and many helpful comments on this essay. Mistakes, heresies and other bouts of insanity are all mine.


  1. Luke Muehlhauser advocated something similar. ↩︎

12

10 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:47 PM
New Comment

Thank you very much for this sequence! I've been thinking about the tech agency model for EA  and was even contemplating writing a post about it but I'm glad you did a much better job than I would have been able to.

  • Software developers: how appealing do you find the idea of working at a low bono vs donor-funded agency vs in-house at an EA org vs sticking with non-EA work?

I've worked as a developer in my own small agency and at a client for 10 years and started volunteering on two web development projects for EAs this year plus a bit of mentoring for a startup charity. From this experience a would very much welcome an agency approach.  For me the biggest upsides would be:

  • Having other developers to talk about projects
  • Having others to do code reviews (and vice-versa)
  • Having partners that can cover for me if I get sick or am on vacation (especially around DevOps issues)
  • Having people who both are EA-aligned and value high quality software development

I would love put my volunteer work under this model and could see the agency mixing different funding cases:

  • Doing work for (lower-end) market-rates for established EA orgs
    • If an org is good at getting funds that may be easier than fundraising for a new org
    • Just having EA-aligned people in it (with experience in working for non-profits) might be enough of an incentive for the org
    • For this case it would still be motivating for a developer to choose this path instead of a slightly higher paying company and stick around for longer
    • In addition to development this could also include recruiting, training and mentorship for developers working at orgs (also giving them a team to talk about tech issues)
    • Also I see consulting and business analysis as promising areas. Often companies are fast to request a software solution when the problem starts at the processes and coordination level. I expect EA orgs could have similar issues.
  • Donor-funded work on specific projects like
    • EA-wide infrastructure (resources several orgs would use but no single one would want to finance)
    • Mentoring of tech people in the community
    • Training for (non-tech) product owners in orgs on writing user stories etc.
    • Workshops and retreats for the EA tech community (including tech people from orgs)
  • Low-Bono work 
    • for EA charity startups that are still in the trial phase. This could also be seen as an investment as the org will be able to pay market rates if it gets funding.
    • for experimental projects to fill a funding gap
    • for anything developers think they'd donate to any way (although this is the weakest case for me)
  • Volunteer work
    • I'm over 40 and for my point in life doing an additional 10-20 hours per week as a volunteer seems best suited for me now. I expect there are more people in similar situations, especially among older EAs.

Also one model I like that wasn't mentioned is that of a cooperative of freelancers. I've been doing some work with one in Munich and for developers that want to stay independent while also sharing responsibility in a project seems like a good combination. The coop that I know chooses their clients based on their values and also does pro-bono work on the side and donates all their profits. They seem pretty happy with that.

How much difference would it make if you were involved in the prioritisation process at a donor-funded org with a remit to find the highest value tech projects?

I'd be personally happy to work for any cause areas, although I'd want to make sure that the project I'm working on has impact and is not a "nice to have". But the more the client pays the less I would want to interfere, so I could imagine some orgs paying market-rate for lower-value projects.

  • Individuals who have or have previously had one-off project ideas: reveal thyselves, so we can attempt a headcount! Would you feel sufficiently more optimistic about getting your ideas implemented if donor-funded developers were potentially available that you’d be likely to propose more such ideas or otherwise contribute more if it meant they were implemented sooner/more reliably?

 

Yes.  There are lots of ideas that I would consider exploring or doing if I knew that I could apply and have a reasonable chance of getting the needed tech support, that I would immediately rule out as infeasible at present. 

As an example, right now READI has a pretty basic website that a few of us had to learn to make and maintain.  It is probably costly  our credibility and engagement to have such a basic website  and I would really like to improve it.

At one time during the SCRUB project we were in contact with various people in health and government overseas about about helping them with their Covid-19 response (based on ongoing work we were doing (funded through one of our employers) for  the Victorian Government.

 Our website for that work probably severely undermined us as and we had no easy way to resolve that short of spending thousands to hire a dev (which we didn't have time or expertise to do anyway).

Many things we could do now (for instance, analytics, tracking reads shares and downloads, presenting information on our website) are bottlenecked by our limited access to relevant tech resources. 

Some other related data points:

Effective Altruism Australia lacked the resources to make desired improvements to their website for many years (to the best of my knowledge).

At one point I was volunteering to help a few EA charities and organisations with their websites. Some of those organisations told me that they had no capacity at all to improve their website. At least one (maybe more, can't remember) didn't even have google analytics and therefore lacked the most basic information about their audience's behaviour and composition. 

The decreased bounce conversion rates and their lack of ability to track audiences and strategies probably cost them a lot of donations.

  • Other staff (eg marketers, designers, and others mentioned in the previous section): do you feel like the arguments presented in this sequence generalise to your type of work, such that it would make sense for EA orgs to outsource it to an agency?

As I mentioned in my response to your first sequence post - I am very keen on the agency idea for areas like marketing, PR, datascience, statistics/research design, research and video production etc. I'd strongly consider using and even joining a EA focused agency in the future.

Thanks Peter, that's a really helpful set of ideas. Do you know in the cases you mention why in practice they didn't/don't get funded to hire a contractor or agency? Eg did they apply and get rejected? Or not consider it a good use of time to apply? Were they at hoping at any given point that volunteers would be available in less time than it took to turn around a grant application? Or something else entirely?

So with READI  - we are a volunteer org with no funding for tech support and limited capacity to even figure out what we need and manage a new tech project.  We have ~1 hour a week to meet, then a few hours a week of time communicating and working on our research projects and/or getting funding. 

Seeking funding and planning a better website would take up a big chunk of that time each week. It might be worth us paying something for that if we had an affordable and reliable option (e.g., a trusted low cost/subsidised EA tech agency). 

However,  it definitely seems like a risk and potential waste of time and money to try to pay a contractor. I am not even sure where would be a good place to look. I know that it can take a lot of time from my start-up days and also that it doesn't always work out (it didn't the last time I paid for a website).

If we had more time we could try to find a volunteer. However, they might not be useful enough to justify the time put into getting them onboarded. We had a few people sort of helping with tech things but they mostly dropped off the radar or ended up needing to focus on other things. 

With EAA it was something similar I think (note that I wasn't one of the key people so this is more speculative).  There was some tech support available from volunteers but then it stopped and it was hard to determine what was needed to solve the various issues that existed and how to hire for/fund that role. (Reminds me that another issue with decentralised/volunteer tech development is that there are many different codebases/stacks used and inefficiencies in handovers, or lack of).

With the other charities, I don't know why they didn't hire tech  support. I think that one issue is that they want to keep overheads down for marketing reasons. Another is the risk of such work. It could go bad or break something.  They possible also didn't have much headspace for innovation. I think that most of these orgs had just enough capacity to keep the charity going but not much more than that.

Thanks, those are great case studies! Given that it wasn't worth your time to seek funding for and plan a website, would you say that that a 50-66% discount would have made the difference? (ie the total discount you would get directly from a low-bono charity, or that the movement as a whole would get from a donor-funded one)

To play Devil's advocate, that seems like a relatively fine-grained cost-benefit analysis in a movement where a) there's now a lot of money floating around and b) we think the best projects are multiple orders of magnitude more valuable than a typical non-EA charitable project. If there are other considerations that would make you think an EA tech agency would have made a bigger difference in practice, can you describe in your own words what they were?

Thanks!

would you say that that a 50-66% discount would have made the difference?

Probably not as we were unfunded and unwilling to self fund to any great extent. What would have helped would be a source of work we could reliably outsource to for free or for a 90% subsidy. I could imagine that we might self-fund up to 1000aud say, for a website/work valued at 10,000 Aud. But that's just speculation. It's hard to say what we might have done as we didn't even consider paying for a website/tech support in the current landscape.

To play Devil's advocate, that seems like a relatively fine-grained cost-benefit analysis in a movement where a) there's now a lot of money floating around and b) we think the best projects are multiple orders of magnitude more valuable than a typical non-EA charitable project.

Can you please clarify?

If there are other considerations that would make you think an EA tech agency would have made a bigger difference in practice, can you describe in your own words what they were?

Not sure if I understand this question fully but a big one is efficiency - We have spent probably 50-100 hours using GitHub to update and maintain our current website and that was substituted for time where we could have been adding more value as a researchers etc. At EAA I spent a reasonable amount of time  (100 hours or more) working with Drupal to learn how to update and manage that website. I imagine that an experienced tech person would have been many times more efficient (and happier too) if they did this work instead of us!

Probably not as we were unfunded and unwilling to self fund to any great extent. What would have helped would be a source of work we could reliably outsource to for free or for a 90% subsidy. I could imagine that we might self-fund up to 1000aud say, for a website/work valued at 10,000 Aud. But that's just speculation. It's hard to say what we might have done as we didn't even consider paying for a website/tech support in the current landscape.

Why didn't you apply for funding from EA meta or similar to hire an agency to fund the website?

Can you please clarify?

The most common pushback I got when writing this is that in a simple counterfactual, a low-bono and donor-funded agency are nearly equivalent, feedback mechanisms aside. In one case, you apply to EA meta or somesuch fund for funding to pay the agency, in the other, in the other the agency applies to a similar fund for operations costs, and then you apply to the agency for 'free' work - approx the same amount of money gets spent either way.

In which case, suppose a low bono agency is available. In a case like this you'd still need to apply for funding for the former and, based on the estimations in part 2, it would be 50-66% cheaper than existing for-profit agencies at most - so if that discount wouldn't have made you a) feel the project was worth paying for out of your own pocket or b) make you optimistic enough about the prospects of getting funding to apply to eg EA meta, then the argument would be that the work you wanted done was low enough value that it wouldn't have been a good use of the movement's money to subsidise an agency to work do pro bono work for you.

Having made a very theoretical argument, I want to hear from someone who's actually been in that position whether you think that counterfactual is valid, and if not, why not.

Some quick responses, sorry if unclear:

 

Why didn't you apply for funding from EA meta or similar to hire an agency to fund the website?

This didn't seem like a live opportunity (I have never heard of it happening). I don't think we would have received any funding if we had applied. We would also have needed to cost the project, find an agency first etc. 

suppose a low bono agency is available. In a case like this you'd still need to apply for funding for the former and, based on the estimations in part 2, it would be 50-66% cheaper than existing for-profit agencies at most - so if that discount wouldn't have made you a) feel the project was worth paying for out of your own pocket or b) make you optimistic enough about the prospects of getting funding to apply to eg EA meta, then the argument would be that the work you wanted done was low enough value that it wouldn't have been a good use of the movement's money to subsidise an agency to work do pro bono work for you.

This model has lots of frictions, uncertainties and double handling - we need to explain the issue to the org to price the work, then apply for the funding by explaining what we want, then get back to the agency to start the work if we are approved. We probably also need to report back to the funder later on. Seems better to have have more certainty and do things more quickly.

I think we would consider paying a low-bono agency if we knew they would do a good job.  Speed and certainty of outcome are very important. 

Having made a very theoretical argument, I want to hear from someone who's actually been in that position whether you think that counterfactual is valid, and if not, why not.

The free/donor funded agency option appears to be much easier and less effortful overall. I imagine that READI would be more likely to apply for that than seeking funding for a low bono org to do the work.  To be clear, I am imagining that we apply for help with problem x, the funded agency reviews that request, prioritises it, and then rejects us or informs us they can help us at x time. 

The free/donor funded agency  approach seems to distribute responsibility more effectively as they invest time with funding and resource rather than the more time poor startup/EA  org.  

The challenges of nontechnical EAs are pretty trivial. Today, I could probably have saved a few hours of my time if I could get help to get analytics working on our github page (it may not be working yet either!). I don't want to have to explain my issue to a third party and apply for funding every time I have an issue like that!

Appreciate the insight. I imagine I will be directing people to this a lot!

Great, glad it was helpful!