Harry Truman once said: "It's amazing what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit"

The Truman Prize, with a $100,000 prize pool, is now live on EA prize platform Superlinear, which recognizes Effective Altruists with $5,000-$10,000 prizes for declining credit in order to increase their impact, in ways that can't be publicized directly.

Theory of change: EA promotes caring about effectiveness over other goals like getting credit, but wanting credit or recognition for your work is natural. Rewarding people for maximizing impact over credit increases the health and future effectiveness of the community.

Example #1: Sam toils behind the scenes and makes a breakthrough on an important problem. Sam suggests the idea to, say, a political figure or other organization who can then take credit, because that leads to the breakthrough being more widely accepted.

Anyone that knows what happened, including the person/org that gets credit, can nominate Sam for The Truman Prize on Superlinear. Superlinear passes on the nomination to a committee of well-respected EAs from diverse backgrounds. If one of them verifies that Sam actually did make a breakthrough and allowed someone better placed to take credit to increase impact, Superlinear awards Sam $10,000.

The Truman Prize is the brainchild of David Manheim, and the judges are:

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky
  • Peter Wildeford
  • Spencer Greenberg
  • Cate Hall
  • Julia Wise
  • Gregory Lewis
  • Luke Freeman
  • Ozzie Gooen

The criteria, generally speaking, is that if you can’t make an EA forum post about someone for doing something noteworthy in order to publicize what they have done, they could be eligible for the prize.

Example #2: Greg works for the government. There are political or career consequences if it is publicly acknowledged that he’s working on something potentially controversial. Greg contributes an important idea to a research field and helps make it happen behind the scenes. Someone nominates him for The Truman Prize, and the committee asks someone in a position to know about what occurred, and confirms Greg’s contribution. Superlinear awards Greg $5,000 (to be paid out in accordance with local laws), and announces that a prize was awarded to the originator of the research idea to a recipient to be named in 5 years.

Example #3: Max has a criminal record and troubled past. He’s reformed now, but his background makes him a liability for any person or org to publicly associate with him. He silently does good work behind the scenes, so someone that knows him nominates him for The Truman Prize on the basis of a specific critical contribution which was made to a now successful larger project. The committee awards the prize, and names Max, likely without naming the specific work done.

Example #4: Steve has extreme political beliefs. It is risky for any person or org to work with him due to reputation risks. Steve knows this, but does apolitical high impact work behind the scenes anyways. Someone that knows Steve nominates him for The Truman Prize on the basis of a specific project which was not previously disclosed. The committee awards the prize and discloses the project, but not the individual, or vice-versa, to avoid undermining the project.

Example #5: Morgan has recurring depression. Therefore, she does not want to work or associate with any specific people or orgs because she doesn’t want to let them down due to an episode. Morgan does a lot of high impact work for free, and gives credit to others who are better placed to continue executing on the project. Someone nominates her for the Truman Prize on the basis of two specific projects that were done without credit. The committee members award the money, and names the individual and the project.

How the payout mechanism works:

  1. You see someone that deserves the award, so you nominate them by submitting their info (you can keep things anonymous, but make sure enough detail is provided that the event is clearly verifiable by someone likely to be known.). 
  2. If your submission looks promising, we’ll pass it along to one relevant member of our committee of well-respected EAs who is likely to be able to find someone who can verify the event actually happened. So, if the Truman Award nominee is in the biosecurity field, we’d forward it to our biorisk specialist committee member.
  3. The committee member who was selected chooses two additional people (that don’t have to be on the committee) they trust to assist. This allows them to, for example, delegate verification, discuss the award decision, potentially consider infohazards or reputational risks, and choose how much detail to provide publicly. The three people involved in the decision would inform Superlinear and sign off on the award. The three people involved in the decision would always be public. For example, it might be: "Gregory Lewis, Andrew Snyder Beattie, and Tessa Alexanian award $5,000 to John Doe for an unspecified Biosecurity project which was spearheaded by others," in others it could be "Luke Freeman, Hilary Greaves, and Abie Rohrig award a $5,000 Truman Award to an undisclosed recipient, to be named no sooner than 5 years from now, for work which will remain anonymous."

What is Superlinear? An EA prize platform and $500,000 prize fund

 Superlinear Platform: 

1) Browse prize competitions (make money and do good)
2) Submit your prize ideas (we’ll fund your idea if it’s good!)
3) Add to prize pools (e.g. “I’ll add $500 to that prize.”)

Superlinear Fund: We’re giving away up to $50,000 to 10+ “Superlinear regrantors”. These regrantors will generate prize ideas and fund them. What would you do if you had $50,000 to fund your best prize ideas? If that excites you, apply here.

Theory of change: Given enough prizes, there are hundreds of people working for EA orgs but thousands of lurker EAs (enjoyers of Dank EA Memes) that could be contributing directly.

Are you a grantmaker with rough prize ideas? Let us know. We’ll help make your prize ideas happen.

Are you a grantmaker looking for funding opportunities? Our vision: soon, you’ll browse 1,000+ prizes and, whenever you see a great idea (where you have comparative advantage) you can increase its prize pool.

Want to help others turn their rough prize ideas into reality? Let us know. 

If this project resonates with you, join our Discord and come build with us!

Drew from Nonlinear/Superlinear is going to be at EAG DC – feel free to book a time to meet on Swapcard.

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On unauthorized eponymous-naming. I'm excited to see rewards going to under-recognised altruists, and appreciate a bunch of the stuff you guys have been doing.

That said, I don't quite understand the strategy of naming the prize after Harry Truman without approval from his estate, after all, many of his grandchildren seem to still be alive today (and I've confirmed some weeks ago that you've not done this). I've not carefully researched the question, but I get the impression this is a somewhat shifty practice. Firstly, the usual recommended practice is to gain consent [1]. Secondly, as a consequence of that, naming a prize after someone gives an impression that the prize is approved by someone connected to the named person, otherwise it is a bit misleading. Thirdly, it could actually undermine the prize's prestige. Both because of any perception of the aforementioned shiftiness, and because it doesn't seem fancy to tout receipt of a prize whose name has changed, or is changing, due to the organisers having been confronted by an unhappy family.

There are also some concrete reasons: I know of an org having to change its (unauthorised eponymous) name in the past, and I know of another project that had to change its name for this and other related reasons. 

That said, I would be happy to hear counterarguments!

NB. I did sent a draft of essentially this comment to Nonlinear a couple of weeks ago, to give an opportunity to respond.

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[1]. e.g. the ACM, which requires, before instantiating a prize, that "A statement of permission for the use of the name from the person named (if living) or the person's estate"

Hi Ryan,

Having now done some research, I really don't think this is a thing to worry about. The Truman presidential library is run by the National Archives and Records Administration, without the involvement of the family, or a foundation (unlike those of  living and recently deceased presidents.) There is a Truman Foundation, but it does not operate as part of his estate, and seems to have no connection to the family. There seems to be no estate which even could give permission to use the name. I don't think anyone has the impression that Truman's family or estate authorized this, and as above, from my research, they couldn't now have done so, as there is no-one authorized to do it. Overall, it seems like it's really not a problem. 

And the ACM rules are for living and recently deceased individuals, not historical figures - and while I could see an argument that people who died a half century ago might still be a problem, I don't think it holds water.

Ryan, glad you liked the prize, and thanks for your feedback! Our partner has significant IP law and branding experience and does not share your concerns.

His perspective: the general case is that

  1. Celebrating our ancestors is common practice. Long-dead famous people frequently get things named after them. 
  2. Negative outcomes are unlikely. What you're proposing could happen, but is quite an edge case.
  3. Branding is important. A better-named prize can lead to more impact and improved community health.

So why are we calling this “The Truman Prize?” instead of something like “The Anonymous EA Award”? 

  1. There’s a reason why inspiring people from the past get things named after them. Could write a whole post on our thinking around this, but let’s just say we think having a community health prize with a more inspiring name would be more effective and lead to more impact.
  2. Spending a lot of time on preventing low probability, low downside possibilities, is low EV. 

Things like this usually end up being really bureaucratic and could take months or years to approve, so the cost is higher than a simple quick email. Following this general approach to low probability, low downside risks, would lead to it being prohibitive to get things done. 

It's low probability because first, a descendant of Truman would have to 

  1. Actually learn of this prize which is unlikely
  2. Not feel like we are honoring Truman by celebrating anonymous altruism, which seems unlikely. 
  3. Care enough to actually ask us to change the name, which is also unlikely. 

And in the unlikely event that all three of those things happen, then we'll just change the name. Which is also low cost.

I'm less certain that this is a low-probability risk, though I agree that it is honoring him, and should not be a problem. That said, I think we need to look into this and check with a lawyer - as I'm pretty sure the estate doesn't have perpetual rights to prevent naming after someone. If that's incorrect, we should consider a different name.

What was inspiring about Truman? 

I'm confused why this is downvoted. The only connection with Truman I see is the the quote attributed to him at the top of the post. Drew's comment implies that Truman himself was an inspiring person - perhaps it's worth explaining what was inspiring about him besides him coining a relevant quote? 

I also noticed unorthodox voting patterns on this post - my first comment was downvoted the minute I posted it. But it doesn't seem like many people would look at that criticism (polite, constructive, sent to the authors in advance) and think it should have negative karma. So basically, I wouldn't worry too much about it.

I don't know why sphor's comment was downvoted (I'm also confused by that), but for Ryan's, I can at least speak for myself of why I downvoted it:

  1. I strongly disagree with the comment and think that
    1.  This sort of thinking is paralyzing for the EA movement and leads to way more potential founders giving up on ideas, bouncing from the EA movement, not posting on the Forum, or moving so slowly that a lot of impact is lost.  (I might write a post about this because I think it's important and neglected in the movement)
    2. It derails the conversation on something I consider to be a small detail about an improbable small-downside outcome, and I wanted more people focusing on more fruitful potential criticisms or points about the prize. 
  2. While a lot of the comment was polite and constructive, it also said that we were being "shifty", which felt unnecessarily accusatory. I think if that word was changed I would change it from a strong downvote to just a downvote

Of note, I just strongly disagree with this comment/idea. In general, I think Ryan is great and consider him a friend. 

How confident are you that getting permission is the normal practice? I guess it feels a very small amount strange given that you could put up a statue of them or whatever.

Medium. It's what the ACM says, what the Simon Institute and (IIRC) the Parfit  Scholarships did, I heard previously from a person like me at Oxford that doing this without authorisation seemed weird to them, and ~half of the time that unauthorized eponymous naming is tried, I've heard of it causing problems.

Edit: if you named a thing after someone from many centuries ago - Socrates, Bentham, etc that would seem better, because a request from relatives to stop using the name would be less credible, and it doesn't give an impression that the prize was actually associated with that person.

But there are surely people who have a better sense.

Yeah, I agree we should consult a lawyer about it, but it's 50 years after his death, which seems like a sufficient time that objections about reputation or damage to his estate wouldn't hold water.

Edit: See other response - this should not be a problem.

FWIW, my guess would be that it is, or can be, legal, but that if they confronted you, you would want to change the name anyway.

Per my other comment, it seems there isn't anyone to "confront us," or at least, no one  who obviously can authorize this, which makes objections seem unlikely and unreasonable.

Example #2: Greg works for the government. ...

Cool idea. Minor point to flag: I would expect in at least some countries receiving  a prize for things done at work in government/politics could fall foul of various laws designed to prevent government officials or others receiving money or gifts that could bias their judgments. Receiving such a prize could be illegal or could need to be declared. This could be a thing to look into before awarding such prizes.  

Thanks for the flag! Was already aware of this but added a qualifier in the post above and added this to our org payout guidelines for extra redundancy.

FWIW I'm not sure "to be paid out when Greg no longer works for the government if local laws prohibit such awards" (your edit) is sufficient under anti-lobbying protocols . A commitment to pay in future still looks and feels like a bribe / undue influence. I would worry that in some jurisdictions accepting could potentially be risk for someone's job or security clearance (another issue). Like I'm not saying prize payments to political or government figures cannot be done but just giving a heads up that making it work well might need some more thought and consultation and legal advice

Getting legal counsel advice was always the intended procedure internally. Thanks for pointing out that the way I worded it had the potential to be misconstrued so I've updated it again :)

Agree, I don't think UK Civil Servants would be eligible.

They would be eligible for the recognition, even if they can't accept a prize. And the amount is mostly about recognition - it's certainly not life-changing for anyone working in civil service.

It's two years' salary!

It's not a single prize - as the examples show, individual prizes are likely in the $5-10k range.

Thank you - why would they say in the title is a $100k prize???

There is currently a total of $100,000 in funding for the prize, so up to that much will be awarded, total. (There is obviously some possibility that it will receive further funding if many prizes are given out, and funders see it as valuable enough to fund further.)

Sure, but that's not what it means to advertise a "$100,000 prize"

Agreed, this definitely should have been clearer.

I suggest "$100k prize pool"

Good suggestion! Updated the description.

The post says individual prizes are $5k-$10k. I'm not sure why the post title says $100k - maybe that's the total amount of prize money available. 

Thank you - why would they say in the title is a $100k prize???

Yes, that is the total funding currently available.

I love the spirit of this. I wonder if people will nominate non-EAs. I hope that, in time, we will think the prize pool is too small.

Superlinear is structured so that donors can top up the prize amounts, and I am hopeful that if this prize is found to be helpful and/or valuable, that will occur.

What's the overall end goal or theory of change and how will you know this prize is working / track the impact of this?

"Theory of change: EA promotes caring about effectiveness over other goals like getting credit, but wanting credit or recognition for your work is natural. Rewarding people for maximizing impact over credit increases the health and future effectiveness of the community."

You're asking people to trade-off public credit/recognition with the possibility of anonymous cash prizes. I'm sure no one is going to turn down free money, but I'm unconvinced many people would have kept their brilliant ideas to themselves were it not for the chance to receive $5-10k.

This sounds more like a prize to reward people for 'doing the right thing', than a prize that will actually lead to people 'doing the right thing' more often. There's nothing wrong with that per say - but I wanted to bring that out and see if I have misunderstood the idea.

You're asking people to trade-off public credit/recognition with the possibility of anonymous cash prizes.


No, we're fostering a norm that taking credit is not always the best way to be effective, and rewarding people, often not anonymously, for abiding by that norm. It would be great if there are people in the EA community who wouldn't have considered this question, but because they see the prize they decide to consider it, or decide to actually give up credit and be more impactful.

I'm hoping to be rewarded for all the information hazards I've been keeping to myself, but, alas, I've been keeping them to myself so I can't prove it. And the virtue is somewhat negated by the fact that I'm hinting at their existence in the first place. :3

Urk, I wasn't trying to make fun of the prize. I think it's good. I was just trying to be silly-funny. This now a place where I can't rely on infinite charity, so I have to beware of how my silly-funny gets interpreted.

Is this prize just for people who self-identify as effective altruists? I cannot tell from the post - some parts seem to imply it's just for Effective Altruists, and others seem to imply it's open to anyone. 

(Edit: sorry for the harshness, but I thought it important to convey that I really oppose this.)

This really seems to incentivise deception and secrecy. Take the example of a "reputational risk" - an organisation could take an action that the public would think is bad - and most importantly, people who interact with the organisation in good faith would think is bad - and you're explicitly encouraging them to do it anyway and just hide it. Why would we want this?

and most importantly, people who interact with the organisation in good faith would think is bad

Those are your words, not the words in the OP. 

If I was in the evaluation committee it would be one of my  evaluation criteria that people interacting with the organization in good faith would think it was a good deed / good involvement on part of the prize contender (and it would be strange to do it differently, so I don't expect the evaluation committee to think differently).

What do you take a reputational risk to be? If it's something that would be OK with people interacting with the org, how is it a risk?

Okay, I think you have a good point. The post "PR" is corrosive, "reputation" is not, which I really like and agree with, argues that "reputation" is the thing that actually matters. A good way to describe reputation is indeed "how you come across to people who interact with you in good faith." Based on this definition, I agree with your point!

That said, I interpreted the OP charitably in that I assumed they're talking about what Anna Salomon (author of the linked post) would call "PR risks." Anna's recommendation there is to basically not care about PR risk at all. By contrast, I think it's sometimes okay (but kind of a necessary evil) to care about PR risks. For instance, you have more to lose if you're running for a seat in politics than if you're a niche organization that anyway doesn't do a ton of public-facing communications. (But it's annoying and I would often recommend that orgs don't worry about them much and focus on the things that uphold their reputation, more narrowly construed, i.e., "among people whose opinions are worth caring about.")

Anyway, I reversed my downvote of your comment because I like a definition of "reputational risk" where it's basically generally bad not to care about it. I didn't change it into an upvote because you seem to disagree with the secrecy/censorship elements of the post in general (you gave "reputational risks" as an example, but worded your post in a way that implies you also have qualms with a bunch of other aspects – so far, I don't share this aversion; I think secrecy/censorship are sometimes appropriate).

Organizations or people that did the type of thing you're suggesting wouldn't get an award. Obviously. The award is for doing good things, not hiding bad ones.

And if someone misunderstood this, and for whatever reason nominated such behavior, I would expect that anyone on the prize committee would, if anything, highlight the misbehavior within the EA community, and the organization or person  in question would have much more difficulty getting funded, hired, or supported in the future.