This post gives an overview of how I’m thinking about the “funding in EA” issue, building on many conversations. Although I’m involved with a number of organisations in EA, this post is written in my personal capacity. You might also want to see my EAG talk which has a related theme, though with different emphases. As a warning, I’m particularly stretched for time at the moment and might not have capacity to respond to comments. For helpful comments, I thank Abie Rohrig, Asya Bergal, Claire Zabel, Eirin Evjen, Julia Wise, Ketan Ramakrishnan, Leopold Aschenbrenner, Matt Wage, Max Daniel, Nick Beckstead, Stephen Clare, and Toby Ord.
- EA is in a very different funding situation than it was when it was founded. This is both an enormous responsibility and an incredible opportunity.
- It means the norms and culture that made sense at EA’s founding will have to adapt. It’s good that there’s now a serious conversation about this.
- There are two ways we could fail to respond correctly:
- By commission: We damage, unnecessarily, the aspects of EA culture that make it valuable; we support harmful projects; or we just spend most of our money in a way that’s below-the-bar.
- By omission: we aren’t ambitious enough, and fail to make full use of the opportunities we now have available to us. Failure by omission is much less salient than failure by commission, but it’s no less real, and may be more likely.
- Though it’s hard, we need to inhabit both modes of mind at once. The right attitude is one of judicious ambition.
- Judicious, because I think we can avoid most of the risks that come with an influx of potential funding without compromising on our ability to achieve big things. That means: avoiding unnecessary extravagance, and conveying the moral seriousness of distributing funding; emphasising that our total potential funding is still tiny compared to the problems in the world, and there is still a high bar for getting funded; being willing to shut down lower-performing projects; and cooperating within the community to mitigate risks of harm.
- Ambition, because it would be very easy to fail by thinking too small, or just not taking enough action, such that we’re unable to convert the funding we’ve raised into good outcomes. That means we should, for example: create more projects that are scalable with respect to funding; buy time and increased productivity when we can; and be more willing to use money to gain information, by just trying something out, rather than assessing whether it’s good in the abstract.
Well, things have gotten weird, haven’t they?
Recently, I went on a walk with a writer, and it gave me a chance to reflect on the earlier days of EA. I showed him the first office that CEA rented, back in 2013. It looks like this:
To be clear: the office didn’t get converted into an estate agent — it was in the estate agent, in a poorly-lit room in the basement. Here’s a photo from that time:
Normally, about a dozen people worked in that room. When one early donor visited, his first reaction was to ask: “Is this legal?”
At the time, there was very little funding available in EA. Lunch was the same, every day: budget baguettes and plain hummus. The initial salaries offered by CEA were £15,000/yr pre-tax. When it started off, CEA was only able to pay its staff at all because I loaned them £7,000 — my entire life savings at the time. One of our first major donations was from Julia Wise, for $10,000, which was a significant fraction of the annual salary she received from being a mental health social worker at a prison. Every new GWWC pledge we got was a cause for celebration: Toby Ord estimated the expected present value of donations from a GWWC pledge at around $70,000, which was a truly huge sum at the time.
Now the funding situation is… a little different. This post is about taking stock, and reflecting on how we should respond to that. It builds on thinking I’ve done over the last 14 months, many conversations I’ve had, and the many recent Forum posts and comments. I’m not trying to be prescriptive — you should figure out your own takes — but hopefully I can be a little helpful. I’m aiming for this post to convey what I hope to be the right attitude to the situation as a whole, rather than merely discussing one aspect or other of the issue, as most of the recent posts have done.
In a nutshell: our current situation is both an enormous responsibility and an incredible opportunity. If we’re going to respond appropriately, we need to act with judicious ambition, holding both of these frames in mind.
The current situation
Effective altruism has done very well at raising potential funding for our top causes. This was true two years ago: GiveWell was moving hundreds of millions of dollars per year; Open Philanthropy had potential assets of $14 billion from Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna. But the last two years have changed the situation considerably, even compared to that. The primary update comes from the success of FTX: Sam Bankman-Fried has an estimated net worth of $24 billion (though bear in mind the difficulty of valuing crypto assets, and their volatility), and intends to give essentially all of it away. The other EA-aligned FTX early employees add considerably to that total.
There are other prospective major donors, too. Jaan Tallinn, the cofounder of Skype, is an active EA donor. At least one person earning to give (and not related to FTX) has a net worth of over a billion; a number of others are on track to give hundreds of millions in their lifetime. Among Giving Pledge signatories, there are around ten who are at least somewhat sympathetic to either effective altruism or longtermism. And there are a number of other successful entrepreneurs who take EA or longtermism seriously, and who could increase the total aligned funding by a lot. So, while FTX’s rapid growth is obviously unusual, it doesn’t seem like a several-orders-of-magnitude sort of fluke to me, and I think it would be a mistake to think of it as a ‘black swan’ sort of event, in terms of EA-aligned funding.
So the update I’ve made isn’t just about the level of funding we have, but also the growth rate. Previously, it wasn’t obvious to me whether Dustin and Cari were flukes or not; if they were, all it would take is for their interests to move elsewhere, or for Facebook stock to tank, for the amount of EA-aligned potential funding to decline considerably.
Now I think the amount of EA-aligned funding is, in expectation, considerably bigger in the future than it is today. Of course, over the next five years, total potential funding could still decrease by a lot, especially if FTX crashes. But it also could increase by many tens of billions more, if FTX does very well, or if new very large donors get on board. So we should at least be prepared for a world where there’s even more EA-aligned potential funding than there is today.
There’s a tricky question about how fast we should be spending this down. Compared to others in EA, I think I’m unusually sympathetic to patient philanthropy: I don’t think the chance of a hinge moment in the next decade is dramatically higher than the chance of a hinge moment in 2072-82 (say); and I think our understanding of how to do good is improving every year, which gives a reason for delay.
But even I think that we should greatly increase our giving compared to now. One reason in favour of spending quickly is that, even if you endorse patient philanthropy, you should probably still distribute some significant proportion of your funding over time (perhaps in the low single-digit percentage points) because philanthropic resources have diminishing returns. And if you think that we’re at a very influential time, perhaps because you think we’ll probably see transformative AI in our lifetimes, then it should be larger still. (I lay out some more reasons for and against faster spending in an appendix.)
A second reason is that we can fund community-building, which is a form of investment, and which seems to have very high returns. Indeed, the success of FTX, and of EA in general, should give us a major update in this direction. So far, we've generated more than $30 bn for something like $200 mn, at a benefit:cost ratio of 150 to 1; and even excluding the success of FTX, the benefit-cost looks very good (especially if we consider that funding raised is not all, or maybe even most, of the impact that outreach to date has generated). Further investment in outreach is likely to continue to raise much more money for the most pressing problems than it costs.
A third reason is option value: if we build the infrastructure to productively and scalably absorb funding, then we can choose not to use it if it turns out to not be the right decision; whereas if we don’t build the infrastructure now, then it will take time to do so if in a few years’ time it does turn out to be needed.
A final consideration that weighs on me for spending faster isn’t based on impact grounds. Rather, it simply feels wrong to have such financial assets when there’s such suffering in the world, and such grave risks that we face. Now, of course what we ought to do is whatever is impact-maximising over the long run; but at least in terms of my moral aesthetics, it really feels that the appropriate thing is for this money to get used, soon.
For the time being, let’s suppose that we aim just to spend the return on EA-aligned funding: about $2 billion per year (at 5% real rate of return). Spending even this amount of funding effectively will be a huge challenge. It’s a big challenge even within global health and wellbeing, where the biggest scale-up in giving is currently happening. GiveWell now aims to move $1 billion per year by 2025, including (as a tentative plan) an annual allocation from Open Phil of about $500 million. But even now, and even if they lower their funding bar from 8x the cost-effectiveness of GiveDirectly to 5x the cost-effectiveness of GiveDirectly, they still have more funding available than funding gaps to fill.
Spending this funding will be a truly enormous challenge within cause areas such as AI risk and governance, worst-case biorisk, and community-building, that have fewer or no existing organisations that could productively use such sums of money. The Future Fund expressed a bold aim of giving between $100mn and $1bn this year. Let’s say that this ends up at $300mn in grants (which might be about 30% of total EA money moved this year). That’s a rapid scale-up from a standing start, but it’s a shortfall of $1.2 billion compared to what it would need to spend just to distribute the rate of return on the financial assets of Sam Bankman-Fried and Gary Wang.
If the total potential funding grows, or if the right thing to do is to be spending down our assets, then that number increases, perhaps considerably. And we should be particularly prepared for scenarios where our potential funding increases by a lot, because we have more impact in those scenarios than in scenarios where our potential funding decreases considerably.
Meeting this challenge means that EA’s culture and norms will need to adapt. In 2013, it made sense for us to work in a poorly-lit basement, eating baguettes and hummus. Now it doesn’t. Frugality is now comparatively less valuable, and saving time and boosting productivity in order to make more progress on the most pressing problems is comparatively more valuable. Creating projects that are maximally cost-effective is now comparatively less valuable; creating projects that are highly scalable with respect to funding, and can thereby create greater total impact even at lower cost-effectiveness, is comparatively more valuable. Extensive desk research to evaluate a small or medium-sized funding opportunity is comparatively less valuable; just spending money to actually try something and find out empirically if it works is comparatively more worthwhile.
Now, I miss the basement days. It feels morally appropriate to be eating baguettes and hummus every day. But solving the big problems in the world isn’t about acting in a way that feels appropriate; it’s about doing the highest-impact thing.
Nonetheless, it’s natural to worry: is this really EA adapting to a new situation, or is it value-drift? Maybe we’re fooling ourselves! I think it’s good we’re being vigilant about this. So let’s discuss how we should adapt; how to respond appropriately to the situation we’re in, while not losing the mission-driven focus that was present in the basement of an Oxford estate agent.
There are two ways in which we could fail in response to this challenge. We could cause harm by commission: doing dumb things that end up net-negative overall. Or we could cause harm by omission: failing to do things that would have enormous positive impact. Let’s take each of these risks in turn.
Risks of commission: causing harm
As has been noted in a number of recent Forum posts, there are ways that scaling up our giving could cause harm, such as by damaging EA’s culture — destroying what makes EA distinctive and great — or by funding net-negative projects. There are a number of risks here; I’ll discuss a few, but this list is still incomplete.
Appearances of extravagance
Other things being equal, EA wants to appeal to morally-motivated people. It’s more valuable to have someone who intrinsically wants to make the world better than someone who’s just doing it for a paycheck: they’ll be in it for longer, and are more likely to make better decisions even in cases where their income doesn’t depend on them making the right decision. But morally-motivated people, especially on college campuses, often find seemingly-extravagant spending distasteful.
What’s more, this is a perfectly rational response. Living on rice and beans is a costly signal: it’s easier for genuinely morally motivated people to do it than people who are faking. So if I meet someone living on rice and beans and giving a chunk of their income away, I take seriously their claims to be morally motivated. If I meet someone who’s flying business class — they might be doing that because they’re morally serious and trying to maximise their output, but it’s much harder for an outsider to tell. 
So we don’t want to turn off morally dedicated people. This is a major worry for me; I think that EA developing a bad reputation is one of the leading existential risks to the community, and a reputation for extravagance would not at all be helpful for that.
But there’s a balancing act. Very few people will want to live on rice and beans forever. Initially, we disproportionately appealed to people who were willing to be very frugal, and turned off those who weren’t, so the current community is disproportionately constituted of such people. Now, we have the chance to appeal to people who are less willing to be ultra-frugal, but have many other great qualities and can contribute enormously to the world. And this is a great thing.
My impression is that most of the issues that have gotten people worried have been unforced errors: people getting carried away, or not thinking about how what they did would be perceived, or talking about spending in a way that seems flippant. (And sometimes the alleged situations have been misrepresented, distorted through a game of Telephone.) This, naturally, feels alienating to many people, especially those who are new to EA. The opportunity cost of spending is very real and very major, in absolute terms; not recognising that can seem suspicious.
Given that the most egregious errors seem unforced, I think there are some easy wins, such as:
- Treating expenditure with the moral seriousness it deserves. Even offhand or joking comments that take a flippant attitude to spending will often be seen as in bad taste, and apt to turn people off. Similarly, luxurious aesthetics are generally not a good look, especially on college campuses, and often don’t have commensurate benefits.
- Heavily considering what you show as well as what you do, especially if you’re in a position of high visibility. “Signalling” is often very important! For example, the funding situation means I now take my personal giving more seriously, not less. I think the fact that Sam Bankman-Fried is a vegan and drives a Corolla is awesome, and totally the right call. And, even though it won’t be the right choice for most of us, we can still celebrate those people who do make very intense moral commitments, like the many kidney donors in EA, or a Christian EA I heard about recently who lives in a van on the campus of the tech company he works for, giving away everything above $3000 per year.
Harming quality of thought
Another worry is that funding will negatively impact EA’s ability to think; that, insidiously, people will be incentivised to believe whatever will help them get funding, or that particular worldviews will get artificially inflated in virtue of receiving more funding than they should receive.
My guess is that culture is an even bigger worry (where people, including funders, go too far in the direction of deferring to those regarded as particularly smart, or are too worried about deviating from what they regard as consensus views within the community). But either way, having incorrect beliefs or focusing on the wrong things is an easy way for the EA community to lose almost all its value. And we want to reduce that as much as possible.
Again, I think there are actions we can take to mitigate this risk:
- One partial solution is to diversify funding. For example, the goal of diversifying and decentralising decision-making was a major motivation behind the launch of Future Fund’s regrantors program. Now, if you have some heterodox idea, you can potentially receive funding from lots of different sources, from different people with different perspectives and networks, rather than just one. And I expect the pool of large EA-aligned donors or grantmakers to increase in the future.
- Another is to champion independence of thought. It seems to me we do pretty well at this (depending on how you count, three to five of the 10 most-upvoted Forum posts are ‘critical’ or at least ‘critically self-reflective’ posts). But I’d love to see more high-quality research that critically engages with views that are widely held within the community.
There’s a tough messaging challenge around the funding situation. On the one hand, we want to convey that people should be developing big, ambitious plans, and convey how much we need to scale up the community’s giving. Given that, it’s natural to feel disappointed or even resentful if you create such plans but then don’t receive funding.
But there’s always an opportunity cost, and the bar for receiving funding is still extremely high. We could easily use up the entirety of our potential funding on cash transfers, or clean tech funding, or pandemic preparedness technology, or compute for the most safety-conscious AI labs. Given this opportunity cost, even despite the scale-up in funding, most well-meaning projects still won’t get funded. For example, Future Fund is trying to scale up its giving rapidly, but in the recent open call it rejected over 95% of applications.
As a proportion of the world’s resources, EA-aligned financial resources are still tiny: the return on EA-aligned financial assets is less than a hundredth of Alphabet’s yearly revenue and about one four-hundredths of the US defence budget. And they’re also tiny compared to the problems we face: despite about $160bn in annual official development assistance, and $630bn in annual (public and private) climate spending, extreme poverty and climate change are still serious problems.
To address this issue, how we talk about the situation is important:
- As well as emphasising the importance of forming big plans, and the potential for projects to scale, we need to emphasise that it’s not easy to get funding for projects; the bar for last-dollar funding is very high.
- In my experience, EA funders are highly aware that they’re going to get a lot of funding decisions wrong. But more could be done to emphasise that any funding processes are going to be imperfect, and many great opportunities won’t get funded even though, in a perfect world, they would be.
Losing evolutionary forces towards greater impact
One worry I’ve had is that availability of funding could mean we lose incentives towards excellence. If it’s too easy to get funding, then a mediocre project could just keep limping on, rather than improving itself; or a substandard project could continue, even though it would be better if it shut down and the people involved worked elsewhere.
Within the nonprofit world, there’s a general problem where, unlike unprofitable companies, bad nonprofits don’t die. We should worry that the same problem will affect us.
That said, this is something that I think donors are generally keeping in mind; many seed grants won’t be renewed, and if a project doesn’t seem like a good use of the people running it, then it’s not likely to get funded.
One way we as a community can mitigate this concern further is to celebrate failures. For example, No Lean Season was an impressive-looking global development non-profit; it was incubated at Evidence Action, and went through Y Combinator (in the same batch as CEA). But, after an RCT found that its impact was lower than they’d hoped, and after they had to terminate their relationship with a partner organisation, they shut down and published their reasons for doing so.
This is a socially weird thing to do, and very unusual within the nonprofit world. But it was awesome, and should be praised as such.
Risks of harm
There’s one huge difference between aiming to do good and aiming to make profit. If you set up a company aiming to make money, generally the very worst that can happen is that you go bankrupt; there’s a legal system in place that prevents you from getting burdened by arbitrarily large debt. However, if you set up a project aiming to do good, the amount of harm that you can do is basically unbounded.
This is a common worry in EA, and it's extremely important as far as it goes. The standard solution is to communicate and cooperate with others with shared goals; if there’s a range of opinions on whether something is a good idea, then following the majority view is the right strategy. And, in practice, all the major funders closely communicate and coordinate, and behave cautiously; similarly, when someone is starting a new project, in my experience they tend to get extensive feedback from the community on the risks and benefits of that project.
Indeed, my honest take is that EAs are generally on the too-cautious end. As well as the unilateralist’s curse (where the most optimistic decision-maker determines what happens), there’s a risk of falling into what we could call the bureaucrat’s curse, where everyone has a veto over the actions of others; in such a situation, if everyone follows their own best-guesses, then the most pessimistic decision-maker determines what happens. I’ve certainly seen something closer to the bureaucrat’s curse in play: if you’re getting feedback and your plans, and one person voices strong objections, it feels irresponsible to go ahead anyway, even in cases where you should. At its worst, I’ve seen the idea of unilateralism taken as a reason against competition within the EA ecosystem, as if all EA organisations should be monopolies.
The suggested examples of harmful projects I’ve heard tend, in my view, not to come from people who take the unilateralist’s curse seriously and are in close communication with the community, but go ahead and do it anyway. Instead, all along they were power-grabs, or they were by people who just didn’t care what others thought of their plans. In contrast, I’ve found that, for those who are highly concerned about unilateralism, if they end up doing something that might be harmful, they quickly receive feedback and course-correct.
Overall, risks of harm are something I think we’re actually managing pretty well as a community, and can keep managing well if we:
- Stay in constant communication about our plans with others, inside and outside of the EA community, who have similar aims to do the most good they can
- Remember that, in the standard solution to the unilateralist’s dilemma, it’s the median view that’s the right (rather than the most optimistic or most pessimistic view)
- Are highly willing to course-correct in response to feedback
Risks of omission: squandering the opportunity
There are a number of ways in which the influx of funding could cause real harm. Despite this, I don’t think it’s the most likely way we’ll fail.
It seems to me to be more likely that we’ll fail by not being ambitious enough; by failing to take advantage of the situation we’re in, and simply not being able to use the resources we have for good ends.
It’s hard to internalise, intuitively, the loss from failing to do good things; the loss of value if, say, EA continued at its current giving levels, even though it ought to have scaled up more. For global health and development, the loss is clear and visceral: every year, people suffer and lives are lost. It’s harder to imagine for those concerned by existential risks. But one way to make the situation more vivid is to imagine you were in an “end of the world” movie with a clear and visible threat, like the incoming asteroid in Don’t Look Up. How would you act? For sure, you’d worry about doing the wrong thing. But the risk of failure by being unresponsive and simply not doing enough would probably weigh on you even harder.
There are a couple of reasons why I’m particularly worried about risks of omission. First, it’s just very hard to seriously scale up giving while spending the money effectively. It’ll involve enormous amounts of work, from hundreds or thousands of people. Often, it’ll involve people doing things that just aren’t that enjoyable: management and scaling organisations to large sizes are rarely people’s favourite activities; and, it will be challenging to incentivise enough people to do these things effectively.
To see how hard this is, we can look at existing foundations. The foundation that has most successfully scaled up its giving is the Gates Foundation: it gives out about $6 bn per year, which is extremely impressive — far more than any other foundation. But it seems to me they are falling far short of their goals. Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates have said they want the foundation to spend all its assets within 20 years of their deaths, and comment that: “The decision to use all of the foundation’s resources in this century underscores our optimism for progress and determination to do as much as possible, as soon as possible, to address the comparatively narrow set of issues we’ve chosen to focus on.”
Even though the Gates Foundation spends far more than any other foundation, since 2000 their total assets have increased from $100 billion to $316 billion — over a factor of 3. They’re distributing close to $6 bn per year, but that’s less than half the return they get on their total financial assets (at 5% real return per year). Given the ages of Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates, they should expect to live approximately another 30 years. But in order to spend down their assets within 50 years, if the foundation distributed a fixed amount every year, it would need to give out over $17 bn per year.
I don’t want to make any claims about the tricky question of the optimal rate of giving over time. But we should at least feel the potential loss, here, if scaling up too slowly means that less good is done.
A second reason why I’m worried about scaling too slowly, or too low a plateau, is that there are asymmetric costs to trying to do big things versus being cautious. Compare: (i) How many times can you think of an organisation being criticised for not being effective enough? and (ii) How many times can you think of someone being criticised for not-founding an organisation that should have existed? (Or, suppose I hadn’t given a talk on earning to give at MIT in 2012, would anyone be berating me?) In general, you get public criticism for doing things and making mistakes, not for failing to do anything at all.
The asymmetric costs are especially worrying when salaries represent only a tiny fraction of the value you create, which is especially true for non-profit projects. VCs struggle to get entrepreneurs to be ambitious and risk-taking enough: the solution that has emerged is to pay successful entrepreneurs huge amounts of money. A successful EA megaproject might generate far more value for the world than Uber (for example), but, even if EA salaries were to increase enormously, the founders and early employees will still get paid much less than the founders and early employees of Uber.
The importance of finding ways to scale our giving also changes how we should think about grantmaking. Early EA culture was built on a highly skeptical mindset. This is still important in many ways (this post by Holden on ‘minimal trust investigations’ is one of my favourite blog posts of the last year). But it can cause us to go awry if it means we don’t take chances of upside seriously, or when we focus our concern on false positives rather than false negatives.
I worry we’ve made some errors in the past by not taking the chance of best-case scenarios seriously, out of a desire to be rigorous and skeptical. For example, I mentioned that Toby initially estimated the value of a Giving What We Can Pledge at $70,000 (as one example of quantifying the benefits of outreach and community-building more generally). I remember having arguments with people who claimed that estimate was too optimistic. But take the 7000 Giving What We Can members, and assume that none of them give anything apart from Sam Bankman-Fried, who gives his net worth. Then a Pledge was actually worth $2 million — 30 times higher than Toby’s “optimistic” estimate at the time. In general, if our successes are sampling from a heavy-tailed distribution, the historical average value of our impact will very likely be lower than the true mean.
And when we look to future community-building efforts, the asymmetry of upside and downside suggests to me that, if we put the risk of harm to one side, we should be much more concerned about missing opportunities for impact than about spending money in ways that don’t have impact.
It’s easiest to quantify when looking at earning to give (but is in no way limited to that). We’ve seen, now, that EA outreach can inspire people to earn to give in ways that put them on track to donate hundreds of millions of dollars or more. That means the worry about missing out on opportunities to change people’s careers should, for the time being, loom larger than the worry about overspending.
(Quantitatively: suppose $200 is spent on an intro to EA retreat for someone. If that has a more than a one in a five hundred thousand chance of inspiring the attendee to earn to give and successfully donate $100 million over their lifetime, then the expected financial benefit is positive. Given the successes we’ve seen, both from FTX and outside of that, the real probability is orders of magnitude larger. That’s not to say $200 on a retreat is how much should be spent — if you can have the same impact at cheaper cost, you should. And excessive spending can even become counterproductive if it sends the wrong message. But it indicates just how small community-building spending is in comparison the potential benefits from changing people’s careers for the better.)
The need to scale changes the optimal approach to grantmaking in another way, too: it also means that making many small grants (small relative to the tens of billions of dollars per year we might need to spend) in order to find out, empirically, what things seem cost-effective, becomes well worth it.
Here’s a toy example. Suppose you give out 100 grants of $100,000 each. They all do nothing apart from one, which demonstrates a scalable way of absorbing $100 million at 120% of the cost-effectiveness of last-dollar spending. You’ve spent $10 million in order to gain impact equivalent to $20 million at last-dollar spending. It’s a good use of money, even though 99 of the grants achieved nothing.
I think this toy example often reflects reality. It’s much easier, and more reliable, to assess a project once it's already been tried. If you need to scale giving dramatically, then often it makes sense to fund something and find out empirically how good it is, so that in two years’ time you can decide whether to stop funding altogether, or scale donations considerably. If the cost to fund and get the information is a small proportion of the giving you hope to scale up to, then it can be well worth just making the grant and figuring out how cost-effective it is later on if it seems potentially promising as something to scale. (A similar thought lies in part behind Future Fund’s 2022 goal of doing “bold and decisive tests of highly scalable funding models.”)
An incredible opportunity
It’s easy to feel stressed about the current situation. But paralysing anxiety or insomnia-inducing stress probably aren’t the attitudes that will help you have the most long-term impact.
So let’s reframe things, for a moment at least.
A classic reason why people feel unmotivated to do good things is that their contribution will be just “a drop in the bucket.” A helpful psychological response is to think of the impact that a community you’re part of, working together on that problem, will have.
When we think of the impact EA has had so far, it’s pretty inspiring. Let’s just take one organisation: Against Malaria Foundation. Since its founding, it has raised $460 million, in large part because of GiveWell’s recommendation. Because of that funding, 400 million people have been protected against malaria for two years each; that’s a third of the population of sub-Saharan Africa. It’s saved on the order of 100,000 lives — the population of a small city.
We did that.
And the current funding situation means that is just the beginning.
The amount of potential funding is still very small from the perspective of the world as a whole. But we’re now at a stage where we can plausibly have a very significant impact on some of the world’s biggest problems. Could we reduce existential risk from AI or pandemic by more than 10%, eradicate a global disease, or bring forward the end of factory farming by a year? Probably.
We should be judiciously ambitious. To achieve the sort of impact we’re now capable of, it means being sensitive to the risks of ambition, and the negatives of spending funds, for sure. But it also means we need to use the opportunities we have available to us. We should think big and be willing to take bold actions, while mitigating the risks. If we can manage to do both of these at once, we as a community can achieve some amazing things.
Appendix: how fast should we be scaling funding?
It’s non-obvious to me what the ideal rate of distributing funding should be, although my fairly strong best guess is that we should be scaling up to giving much more than we are at the moment.
Briefly, the main reasons I see in favour of giving more are:
- To date, community-building has been an outstanding investment.
- Even on fairly patient philanthropy models, we should be spending more than we currently are.
- We have more impact in worlds where there is even more potential funding in a few years’ time, so we should be particularly prepared for those scenarios.
- Option value: if we build the infrastructure to productively absorb funding, then we can choose not to use it if it turns out to not be necessary; whereas if we don’t build the infrastructure now, then it will take time to do so if in a few years’ time it does turn out to be necessary.
- At least within longtermist funding, the lack of scalable funding opportunities is a turn-off for some potential donors; creating new scalable funding opportunities can lead to more funding overall in the long run.
- The chance of near-term hinge moments, such as transformative AI within the next 20 years.
In my mind, the strongest cases against dramatically scaling up our giving are:
- We might do it badly, with negative cultural consequences for our movement that are hard to reverse.
- There might be some future time where it would be extremely valuable to spend truly enormous amounts of funding. This could be on compute in the run-up to AGI, or on rapid responses to a worst-case pandemic.
- Perhaps the returns to giving diminish extremely rapidly, and scaling up our giving is a distraction from other things we could be doing.
I considered suggesting the slogan “Move fast and don’t break things” to encapsulate this, but I thought that “move fast” isn’t really the right framing for ambition: setting up a massively scalable project might mean being small and testing things out for years in order to put yourself in a position to grow enormously.
I don’t know exactly what the situation was like for GiveWell in New York or for the LessWrong / SingInst crowd in the Bay, but it wasn’t radically different: salaries were low, and funding was scarce.
By “potential funding” I mean financial assets from people who plan to give those financial assets away to EA-aligned causes.
For example, Gary Wang has a publicly estimated net worth of $5.9 billion, and plans to use the majority of that for EA-aligned goals.
For example, in a very simple model by Phil Trammell, if you find yourself at a moderately influential time, you should spend 2.4% of your resources per year. On this simple model, if you think that “influentialness” (or “hingeyness”) will be roughly flat over the next fifty years, but will permanently fall to 1/10 of its current level soon after that, then you should give out 0.83% each year. (These numbers shouldn’t be relied on though; they are intended only to be illustrative.)
If you were sceptical of replicating FTX-esque success, then that number might drop - but I think even so it should be much higher than 10:1.
Note that the ‘community-building’ argument also justifies significant funding of direct work, simply because a movement that never does anything of actual value is not very compelling.
What’s weird but important to bear in mind is that the perception of extravagance often has little to do with the amount of money actually being spent. One organisation I know hosted a conference at a very fancy venue: in reality, the venue is owned by a charitable foundation, so was a comparatively cheap option. But it looked extremely grand, and there were a number of complaints.
In some cases, an extravagant lifestyle can even produce a lot of good, depending on the circumstances. I know of some people who have attended luxurious parties, met major philanthropists there, and gotten them involved in EA. It’s not my preferred moral aesthetic, but the world’s problems don’t care about my aesthetics. (Needless to say, if you find yourself in this unusual position, you should probably take special care to make sure that attending luxurious parties really is the way you can do the most good.)
H/T Nick Beckstead
I believe the foundation that distributes the second-largest amount per year is Wellcome, which in 2020/1 gave out £1.2 billion.
Inflation-adjusted to today’s money
Including the pledge from Warren Buffet to give almost all his wealth, which is currently $120 billion.
Of course, relative to Uber there is the additional “incentive” of the impact that the project will create, which mitigates this issue.
Of course, there’s plenty to argue with in the estimate, but I don’t think it changes the core point.
In this toy example, I’m ignoring inflation and investment returns, and assuming that you can’t in advance identify which project is a “hit”. See also https://www.openphilanthropy.org/blog/hits-based-giving
I feel like this post mostly doesn't talk about what feels like to me the most substantial downside of trying to scale up spending in EA, and increased availability of funding.
I think the biggest risk of the increased availability of funding, and general increase in scale, is that it will create a culture where people will be incentivized to act more deceptively towards others and that it will attract many people who will be much more open to deceptive action in order to take resources we currently have.
Here are some paragraphs from an internal memo I wrote a while ago that tried to capture this:
========... (read more)
Reading this, I guess I'll just post the second half of this memo that I wrote here as well, since it has some additional points that seem valuable to the discussion:... (read more)
I thought this comment was valuable and it's also a concern I have.
It makes me wonder if some of the "original EA norms", like donating a substantial proportion of income or becoming vegan, might still be quite important to build trust, even as they seem less important in the grand scheme of things (mostly, the increase in the proportion of people believing in longtermism). This post makes a case for signalling.
It also seems to increase the importance of vetting people in somewhat creative ways. For instance, did they demonstrate altruistic things before they knew there was lots of money in EA? I know EAs who spent a lot of their childhoods volunteering, told their families to stop giving them birthday presents and instead donate to charities, became vegan at a young age at their own initiative, were interested in utilitarianism very young, adopted certain prosocial beliefs their communities didn't have, etc. When somebody did such things long before it was "cool" or they knew there was anything in it for them, this demonstrates something, even if they didn't become involved with EA until it might help their self-interest. At least until we have Silicon Valley parents making ... (read more)
I think it's easier than it might seem to do something net negative even ignoring opportunity cost. For example, actively compete with some other better project, interfere with politics or policy incorrectly, create a negative culture shift in the overall ecosystem, etc.
Besides, I don't think the attitude that our primary problem is spending down the money is prudent. This is putting the cart before the horse, and as Habryka said might lead to people asking "how can I spend money quick?" rather than "how can I ambitiously do good?" EA certainly has a lot of money, but I think people underestimate how fast $50 billion can disappear if it's mismanaged (see, for an extreme example, Enron).
I share your worries about the effects on culture. At the same time I don't see this vision as bad:
Imagine a global health charity that wants to get on the GiveWell Top Charities list. Wouldn't we want it to spend much time thinking about how to get there, ultimately changing the way it works in order to come up with the evidence needed to get included? For example, Helen Keller International was founded more than 100 years ago and its vitamin A supplementation program is recommended by GiveWell. I would love to see more external organisations change in order to get EA grants instead of us trying to reinvent the wheel where others might already be good.
Organisat... (read more)
Almost all nonprofit grants usually require everyone to take very low salaries. There are very few well-paying nonprofit projects. My guess is EA is the most widely-known community that might pay high salaries for relatively illegible nonprofit projects (and maybe the only widely-known funder/community that pays high-salaries for nonprofit projects in-general).
Definitely agree that networks will become worse predictors and ultimately grants, job offers etc. will become more impersonal. This isn't entirely a bad thing. For example personal and network-oriented approaches have significant issues around inclusivity that well-designed systems can avoid, especially if the original network is pretty concentrated and similar (see: the pic in the original post...)
As this happens this may also mean that over time people who have been in EA for a while may feel that 'over time the average person in the movement feels less similar to them'. This is a good thing!... if recognised, and well-managed, and people are willing to make the cognitive effort to make it work.
Thanks so much for writing this Will! I can't emphasise enough how much I appreciate it.
Two norms that I'd really like to see (that I haven't seen enough of) are:
1. Funders being much more explicit to applicants about why things aren't funded (or why they get less funding than asked for). Even a simple tagging system like "out of our funding scope" or "seemed too expensive", "not targeted enough", or "promising (review and resubmit)" (with a short line about why) is explicit yet simple.
2. More funder diversity while maintaining close communications (e.g. multiple funders with different focus areas/approaches/epistemics, but single application form to apply to multiple funders and those funders sharing private information such as fraud allegation etc).
I know feedback is extremely difficult to do well (and there are risks in giving feedback), but I think that lack of feedback creates a lot of problems, e.g.:
... (read more)
- resentment and uneasiness towards funders within the community;
- the unilateralists curse is exacerbated (in cases where something is not funded because it's seen
Heartily agree with this.
For the pilot of SoGive Grants, we plan to
(1) Provide feedback as much as we can (the only reason we haven't promised to give feedback to everyone is that this is a pilot and we don't know whether that's feasible for us)
(2) The application form is almost a copy and paste of the EA Funds application form, to make life easier for those who are applying to both
(BTW applications are still open and close on 22nd May)
I also want to echo pretty much every bullet point that Luke made about the value of feedback, which I think are excellent points.
I don't know but FWIW my guess is some people might have perceived it as self-promotion of a kind they don't like.
(I upvoted Sanjay's comment because I think it's relevant to know about his agreement and about the plans for SoGive Grants given the context.)
Related thread that Sam and Nick are speaking on: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/hDK9CZJwH2Cqc9n9J/some-clarifications-on-the-future-fund-s-approach-to?commentId=JLDaxyk8uxdwcYNye#comments
Thanks for writing this, Will. I appreciate the honesty and ambition. Thank you for all you do and I hope you have people around you who love and support you.
I like the framing of judicious ambition. My key question around this and the related longtermism discussion is something like, What is the EA community for?
Are we the democratic body that makes funding decisions? No and I don't want us to be. Doing the most good likely involves decisions that the median EA will disagree with. I would like to trial forecasting funding outcomes and voting systems, but I don't assume that EA should be democratic. The question is what actually does the most good.
Are we a body of talented professionals who work on lower wages than they otherwise would? Yes, but I think we are more than that. Fundamentally it's our work that is undervalued, rather than us. Animals, the global poor and future generations cannot pay to save their own lives, so we won't be properly remunerated, except by the joy we take from doing it.
Are we community support for one another? Yes, and I think in regard to this dramatic shift in EA's fortunes that... (read more)
I think this could be a standalone post
I think talent pool doesn't /quite/ capture things like entrepreneurs and field builders and people who are building things.
Error checkers is good, but also something like finding cause x isn't quite error checking. It's more like avoiding the risk of omission kind of stuff / rethinking fundamental assumptions.
I think my problem with this question, which I've been thinking about in maybe different ways for many years, is that there isn't a binary between community member and [core ea decision maker / etc.] - it's very much a continuum and people occupy multiple roles at once. This becomes complicated because you can't quite set boundaries the same way.
For example, if a community member starts their own grantmaking foundation, are they still a community members or a decision maker? Does it only count if they know the right people or are in a certain cause area? How do their responsibilities change (or not change)?
Thanks for writing this, really great post.
I don't think this is super important, but when it comes to things like FTX I think it's also worth keeping in mind that besides the crypto volatility and stuff there's also the fact that a lot of what we're marking EA funding to aren't publicly-traded assets, and so numbers should probably be taken with an even bigger pinch of salt than usual.
For example, the numbers for FTX here are presumably backed out of the implied valuation from its last equity raise, but AFAIK this was at the end of January this year. Since then Coinbase (probably the best publicly traded comparator) stock has fallen ~62% in value, whereas FTX's nominal valuation hasn't changed in the interim since there hasn't been a capital raise. But presumably, were FTX to raise money today the implied valuation would reflect a somewhat similar move
Not a huge point, and in any case these kinds of numbers are always very rough proxies anyway since things aren't liquid, but I think maybe worth keeping in mind when doing BOTECs for EA funding
This comment has aged very well!
Thanks for this write up, Will! I hope it changes the minds of people who are skeptical/unhappy about our massive funding influx.
I think a lot of EAs are not motivated to seek personal financial rewards, instead they find themselves seeking truth in graduate school/academia or trying to improve the world via non-profits. They see their similarly intelligent, well educated peers go into industry, optimizing for "make as much money as possible" and they just fundamentally do not relate to that value function. I wonder if this kind of personality type (if you can call it that) lies at the root of a lot of people's discomfort with EA non-profit jobs suddenly paying really well.
Maybe we could offer special community building grants with the option that you will work in a basement, subsisting only on baguettes and hummus? ;)
I agree (and have formerly resembled this type...) This is quite embedded in a lot of nonprofit culture. Part of it is what motivates the individual and their personality, part of it is the concept of supporters' money. 'Would the person who gave you £5 a month want you to be spending your money on that?' In practice this leads to counterproductive underspending. I remember waiting weeks to get maybe £100 worth of extra memory so I could crunch numbers at a reasonable speed without crashing the computer. The concept of taxpayers' money works similarly.
There's probably a good forum post in there somewhere about how the psychology of charity affects perceptions of EA...
I think this framing is wrong, or at best unhelpful because we shouldn’t avoid prioritizing cost-effectiveness. When you stop prioritizing cost-effectiveness, it stops being effective altruism. Resources are still finite. The effectiveness of solutions to dire problems still differs dramatically. And we have only scratched the surface of understanding which solutions are gold and which are duds. I think it’s cost-effectiveness all the way down.
I hope Will doesn’t mean “creating maximally cost-effective projects is now less valuable” when he says “creating maximally cost-effective projects is now less valuable”. I hope Will means “We should use average cost-effectiveness instead of marginal cost-effectiveness because cost-effectiveness often decreases with more funding. This means that some projects which were more cost-effective at small levels of funding will become less cost-effective at larger levels of fun... (read more)
Really interesting, and something I'll need to come back to. Just to pick out one bit:
I've seen variations on this theme in a few posts, and it doesn't resonate with my own experience. In a genuinely influential management/ops role, there's a great deal of satisfaction to be had in seeing your organisation become more effective - if what that organisation is doing is highly worthwhile. I worry a bit that the tone of 'yeah this isn't glamorous, but someone has to do it' is putting off talent in the area. If an attraction to EA is around doing the most good, and this area is a bottleneck, there seem much more positive framings to be used.
One other question - I've seen quite a few posts trying to set what to do with EA's increased resources through inductive reasoning. I've seen less around examining what others have done successfully or unsuccessfully in terms of embedding sustainable growth and development (e.g. Singapore), m... (read more)
I was also surprised to be seeing management and scaling organisations described as "rarely people’s favourite activities", this seems to be a strong claim. For me, it's the most motivating activity and I'm trying to find an organisation where I can contribute in this area.
Agreed, I love management and improving organisational systems, and was really surprised by this comment!
Couldn't agree more, Rob. Perhaps my perception is coloured by my own experience and circle of friends, but there certainly seems to be a subset of people out there who genuinely enjoy scaling organisations. I think this is particularly the case in the for-profit sphere, where feedback loops are sometimes instantaneous thus leading to increased satisfaction among the scale-up types.
I know that they very much are not doing it for the gratitude, but I still want to express my thanks to Sam and the other core members of Alameda and FTX, as well as others earning-to-give, for making the current funding situation possible. I think earning-to-give has been downplayed in recent years in EA, and it seems like a thankless job to work crazy hours and take crazy risks for many years, doing frequently weird, uninteresting, or frustrating work, just to donate it in service of making the future better.
My own organization and I'm sure that of many others in this movement have and will benefit greatly from this influx of funding. But as the post says, this is a huge responsibility and we should not bear it lightly.
I hope that the large donors in EA will continue to be responsible stewards of the resources they've gathered. I hope too, that the rest of us in the EA community will become strong enough to execute well on the most important priorities, to build a safe and flourishing future for our grandchildren's grandchildren.
This is a bit of a nit, but $200 is very low here. You're likely to spend that much per attendee on housing alone, before considering other costs like organizer time or covering transportation.
I had the same exact reaction! "Only $200 for one attendee? In this economy? What is that, 20 bananas?"
Will this person please give an in-depth interview on some podcast? Could be anonymous if desired.
That person is Oliver Yeung and he has done a two part talk where he discusses this - main talk, Q&A.
(I spoke to him to okay sharing these, if any interviewer wants to speak to him then DM me and I can put you in touch)
Will, thanks very much for writing this. It's great to be having this discussion and to see the major players are thinking hard about this. I wanted to raise a couple of issues that merit reflection but haven't (AFAIT) been made so far.
You note that EA has gone from a few guys in a basement to commanding serious funding. But, what might the future of EA be? Where could it be in another 10 years? There could be 10x, or even 100x, of relevant funding. In line with the idea of judicious ambition, how should we be planning for it? Who should be planning for it?
Related to this, how much, and what type, of centralisation and governance are optimal across the various bits of the movement? One thing that strikes me is that 'EA resources' are very centralised: there are only a few major donors, advisors to those donors, and leaders of key organisations, and all those people know each other. What's more, lots of decision-making happens privately. All of this clearly has some major advantages, such as speed and coordination; it's appropriate, given it's about private individuals spending their money; it's also pretty unsurprising that this has happened because EA started so recently.
But, as E... (read more)
I logically acknowledge that: "In some cases, an extravagant lifestyle can even produce a lot of good, depending on the circumstances... It’s not my preferred moral aesthetic, but the world’s problems don’t care about my aesthetics."
I know that, but... I care about my aesthetics.
For nearly everyone, I think there exists is a level of extravagance that disgusts their moral aesthetics. I'm sure I sit above that level for some, with my international flights and two $80 keyboards. My personal aesthetic disgust triggers somewhere around "how dare you spend $1000 on a watch when people die of dehydration". Giving a blog $100,000 isn't quite disgusting, yet, ew?
The post I've read that had the least missing mood around speculative philanthropy was probably the So You Want To Run A Microgrants Program retrospective on Astral Codex Ten, which included the following:
I like the scenario this post gives for risks of omission: a giant Don't Look Up... (read more)
[EDIT 2: Based on the responses I received, I am probably wrong here. I will probably delete my portion eventually to not deter future readers from applying for grants. Leaving it up for a while longer for epistemic reasons. FYI that reading this thread might be a poor use of time.]
Side note: I see you mention multiple times that community building is a good use of money, and I agree, but that hasn't been what I have been seeing EAIF, the primary funder for CB work, go by. It is possible you are not using the term community building in the way I think of it, but:
Embarrassing context: I was refused by EAIF for FTE salary to do CB (in Austin, TX), and in response I: talked to many community builders, looked at past grant reports, dug through all the EA groups resources and relevant forum posts I could find, and spent most of my EAG London in 1:1s trying to understand. Result: It seems that funding for full-time community-building salary is not really a thing that happens (at least in America, outside of priority cities: NYC, DC, Boston, and the bay).
This to me says that funders (EAIF?) simply don't believe in CB. Personally, I think that if something is worth doing at all, it is:
1. w... (read more)
[I’m an EAIF grant manager, but I wasn’t involved in this particular grant.]
I’m sorry you’ve been having a frustrating time in your community building work. As you say, rejections sting even in the best of circumstances, particularly when it feels counter to the narrative being portrayed of there being funding available. Working hard to help others is difficult enough without feeling that others are refusing to support you in it.
It seems very difficult to me to accurately represent in advance what kinds of community building EAIF is and isn’t keen to fund, because it depends on a lot of details about the place/person/description of activities planned. Having said that, I’m keen to avoid people getting a false impression of our priorities. I wanted to clarify that we are in fact keen to fund full time community builders outside of existing EA hubs.
It happens that the majority of past requests we’ve had for full time positions in the US have come from Boston/NY/SF/Berkeley. We’ve received a number of applications for full time community builders in non-hub cities in the rest of the world though. For example we’ve funded full time community builders in Italy, the Philippines, De... (read more)
Thanks for saying that. I understand that grantmaking is complex and that some CB plans simply won't be right to encourage. But I still don't really feel this changes my expectation around community building being funded for full-time. Some questions that would go a long way to correct this impression if answered:
(FWIW I feel weird posting this publicly, [EDIT: and I don't necessarily think you/EAIF should be expected to respond here] but I think it is important to ask these questions)
[EDIT: Also reading all this is probably not a productive activity for people who don't work in CB or grantmaking]
... (read more)
- Can you share how many of those organisers of non-american areas (Italy, Denmark, Czech Republic, Philippines) were mainly funded for FTE after doing PTE first? I know at least that in the Phillipines, some organizers were funded for part-time work first. I also remember reading one post by a part-time organizer (I think in the Phillipines) reflecting on that dilemma. S/he was lucky to get their full-time job to reduce to part-time, but wondering whether they should just quit their part-time job and work the remaining hours as EA Phillipine hours for free because there was so much to be do
Hi, EAIF chair here. I agree with Michelle's comment above, but wanted to reply as well to hopefully help shed more light on our thinking and priorities.
As a preamble, I think all of your requests for information are super reasonable, and that in an ideal world we'd provide such information proactively. The main reason we're not doing so are capacity constraints.
I also agree it would be helpful if we shared more about community building activities we'd especially like to see, such as Buck did here and as some AMA questions may have touched uppn. Again this is because we need to focus our limited capacity on other priorities, such as getting back to applicants in a reasonable timeframe.
I should also add that I generally think that most of the strategizing about what kind of community building models are most valuable is best done by organizations and people who (unlike the fund managers) focus on the space full time – such as the Groups team at CEA, Open Phil's Longtermist EA Movement Building Team, and the Global Challenges Project. Given the current setup of EA Funds, I think the EAIF will more often be in a role of enabling more such work. E.g., we funded the Global Challen... (read more)
Thank you for this well-thought-out response. I appreciate the effort it took you and Michelle to respond to me. I am leaning much more that I was wrong about all this then. And if LA's application was initially part-time, that was one foundational wrong piece. I still wish that I could have received more details about my own application (the email specified that no feedback could be provided), but I will encourage more people I know to apply for CB work.
I have added a qualifier to my original comment that I am probably wrong. As this particular forum piece and the comments are likely to be revisited for some time (maybe years?), I will probably eventually redact my comment fully to not confuse and deter future readers about how supported CB work would be. Will leave it up for epistemic reasons for at least a week longer.
Recently, but it's complicated:
I applied mid-March to FTX Future Fund. They passed me on to EAIF, saying they felt EAIF was better equipped to evaluate the grant (Fair, but I had chosen FTX because I saw no full-time employment grants for community builders in EAIF's past grant reports). To their credit, EAIF did reach out to my references and gave me an interview in early April (so they were probably on the fence). Then said no on April 15th.
P.S. I'm confident I could have gotten funding for part-time work, but I think the most impactful and innovative stuff for information value comes in the "later" hours, like designing and presenting workshops and courses. I could be thinking about this wrong but part-time work for an entire city is comparatively (and urgently) full of meetups, 1:1s, information dissemination, email, light outreach, and ops. Still important but not what I thought made the role most worth creating.
I am very confused about this reasoning. It seems clear that there is a lot worse harm that can be caused by a for-profit enterprise than simply that enterprise going bankrupt. What about weapons manufacturers or fossil fuel and tobacco companies? There are many industries that profit from activities that many people would consider a net harm to humanity.
The key difference I see with a non-profit enterprise aiming to do good is that its scale is driven by external factors, the choices of donors. The harm a non-profit can cause is bounded simply because the funding it receives from its donors is bounded. In contrast, a successful for profit enterprise has a mechanism to scale itself up by using its profits to grow the enterprise. The practical implication of this is for profit corpo... (read more)
I think it was good that you noticed your confusion! In this case, I believe your confusion primarily stems from misunderstanding the paragraph. Will is not saying that the worst that a company can do from the impartial point of view is go bankrupt. He's saying that the worst that a company can do from a profit-maximizing perspective ("aiming to make profit") is go bankrupt. Whereas (EA) charities are presumed to be judged from the impartial point of view, in which case it will be inappropriate to ignore the moral downsides.
To be clear, stating that I was confused was a polite way of indicating that I think this reasoning itself is confused. Why should we evaluate for-profit businesses only from a profit-maximizing perspective? Having profitability as the primary goal of enterprise doesn't preclude that enterprise from doing massive amounts of harm. If a for-profit enterprise does harm in its attempts to make profit should we ignore that harm simply because they've succeeded in turning a profit? If you interpretation of Will's reasoning is what he intended, then he is asking us compare aiming to do good and aiming to make profit by evaluating each on different criteria. Generally, this is a misleading way of making comparisons.
This is important because this sort of reasoning is used to justify an uncircumspect version of encouraging people to earn to give that I see coming from this community. As I've seen it, the argument goes that in your career your should focus on acquiring wealth rather than doing good because you can then use that wealth to do good by being an effective altruist. But this ignores that you can potentially do more harm in acquiring great wealth than you can compensate for by using... (read more)
Great post! I'll think about the ramifications later. One minor note:
If I understand Bostrom et.al's paper correctly, this is just a special case of the unilateralist's curse, and is mathematically equivalent (bottom of pg.7-8 in pdf, 355-356 in the journal):... (read more)
As someone who has heard a lot of criticism from non-EAs about the perception of loose money and funding in EA, I really appreciate this post and the thoughtfulness :)
I do really believe that the outsider perception of lots of money in EA is a significantly negative and potentially a major deterrent to community-building efforts. Posts like this and, as you mention, criticisms/red teaming of EA I think really help build a more positive image and more importantly accountability. Curious about how to translate these efforts (which take place mainly on the Forum, not something new EAs typically are on) into outreach material and community building.
Great to hear Will's thinking this. Some thoughts
I believe that EA is about
EA has capital, but the bottleneck is either problem areas that are underfunded and/or robust testable solutions to problem areas.
To me, this sounds a lot like starting a startup. Founders aim to find under-explored areas in which they can build robust solutions. We know this works well for incentivizing innovation.
So my thinking is as follows: rather than attempting to prescribe what people could solve, EA starts giving large cash payouts for demonstrated QALYs saved (near term / long term / recurring). Admittedly this could be a lot of work. However, EA is already doing this in its assessment of charities. The objective would be to use EA capital to provide an upside for startups that demonstrate that they save a considerable number of QALYs. Maybe this creates strange incentives but could be something to explore.
Some clarifications on terminology:
Regarding Harming quality of thought, my main worry is a more subtle one:
It is not that people might end up with different priorities than they would otherwise have, but that they might end up with the same priorities but worse reasoning.
I.e. before there was a lot funding, they thought "Oh I should really think about what to work on. After thinking about it really careful, X seems most important".
Now they think "Oh X seems important and also what I will get funded for, so I'll look into that first. After looking into it, I agree with funders that this seems most important."
This is still for the same X, and their conclusions are still the same. But their reasoning about X has now become worse because they investigated important claims less thoroughly.
Great post - always fun to see Will weighing in on hot-button issues. 🎉
As for where to draw the line on personal spending and frugality, the example of flying business class on an airplane is a perfect illustration: no one needs to fly business class, and the marginal benefits of extra legroom and early boarding are so not worth the 2x or 3x ticket price, imo.
To the concern about value drift and optics, our reputation as a movement would obviously be tarnished if folks like Will and Toby (or any of us) bought yachts and mansions. If we can avoid flagrantly conspicuous consumption, that'd be great. Beyond that, we shouldn't be eating rice and beans every night. I want a well-balanced diet of kale and quinoa for every EA doing good work out there!
Let's not forget that SBF cooks his own meals
Also relevant, I once asked Peter Singer why we don't all walk around in ash and sackcloth in order to donate every spare penny, and his response was "if everyone in a movement you had never heard of before were walking around in ash and sackcloth, would you really want to join?" So even my homeboy Peety acknowledges the importance of optics.
Last point: take the Further Pledge i... (read more)
I massively disagree re the business class point. In particular, many people (e.g. me) can sleep in business class seats that let you lie flat, when they would have not slept and been quite sad and unproductive.
As a general point, the ratio between prices is irrelevant to the purchasing choice if you're only buying something once--you only care about the difference in price and the difference in value.
If all you want is extra legroom, you can get an exit-row seat for much less. Early boarding isn't worth very much unless you're traveling with a carry-on that can't be checked (ex: musical instrument) and there are cheaper ways to get it. I see the real benefit of business class as (a) a more comfortable place to work or (b) arriving better rested, especially if it gets you a lay-flat seat on an overnight flight. Personally, this isn't a trade-off that has made sense for me, but I can see cases where it would be worth it if it gives you essentially an extra working day.
FWIW I've been trying to fly business class for transatlantic flights for a few years for these reasons. I think it's an usually big effect size for me because otherwise long haul flights play badly with my chronic fatigue and can cost me effectively >1 day, but I expect that many people would get a few hours' worth of extra productive time (I take advantage of both the lie-flat bed and the good work environment for writing that doesn't need internet).
I've felt weird about expensing it so mostly just been paying for it myself (I don't have many other big expenses in my life except childcare), but I have noticed that I'm sometimes wanting to make a strong recommendation that a particular other person try to fly business class, and offered to pay for it personally because I think this will help significantly more than what I can otherwise do with my donations. So I seem to be at "we should probably do a bit more of this at the margin".
Here's a prediction: In the not-too-distant future, someone who calls themselves an effective altruist is going to purchase a private plane or helicopter and justify it saying the time it saves and the amount of extra good they can do with that saved time is worth the expense. The community is going to have a large population that disagrees and sees it as a wasteful extravagance, and a smaller but vocal population that will agree with the purchase as a worthwhile tradeoff, especially if that person is part of a sub-community within EA that is ok with more speculative expected value calculations. Instead of there being a clear, coordinated response disavowing the purchase as extravagant, the community is going to hesitate and argue about the extent to which it is good to feed utility monsters and be muted in its outward response. But that's not going to stop the wider media picking up the story. A small fraction of the population will then henceforth liken EAs to the pastors at megachurches with private jets who use do-gooder justifications for selfish purposes. And yes, you could construct some sort of hypothetical where someone needs a helicopter to more quickly fly between trolley levers to save a bunch of people. But the much more likely scenario is that someone wants a helicopter and is fine using an iffy, cursory justification for it and the trolley brakes are working just fine.
My intuition is that there is also some potential cultural damage, not from the money the community has, but from not communicating well that we also care a lot about many standard problems such as third world poverty. I feel that too often the cause prioritization step is taken for granted or obvious, and can lead to a culture where only "cool AI Safety stuff" is the only thing worth doing.
Can you give an example of communication that you feel suggests "only AI safety matters"?
Adding onto this, the Virtual Programs (Introductory) currently has 3 weeks dedicated to Longtermism, Existential Risks and Emerging Technologies whereas there are little to no compulsory content on poverty, global health or climate change. (except Pandemics) Many of my participants have voiced out on this. If facilitators are not able to give a good answer, it can be easy for newcomers to have a skewed perspective that EA is just longtermism and x-risk.
In particular, this comment by Max Dalton. While I don't think that means "Only AI safety matters" I think it would lead to much more content on AI safety than I expected.
This was a very clear and helpful thread. I'd suggest something that a much higher amount of funding could allow EA to pursue:
Recruit more mid-career and late-career researchers into EA, particularly established academics who are already working on EA-related issues, but who might not be inside the EA community yet, and who never viewed EA as a potential funding source. Often these researchers have established track records of publishing and consulting, run large lab groups full of grad students and post-docs, and have high impact and visibility within their fields.
But they're often spending huge amounts of time applying for government research grants that have very low funding rates (below 10%), to keep their labs going and to supplement their salaries (e.g. for teaching buy-outs & summer salaries). This is extremely frustrating for most of them. And they have to wrap their real research interests up in some kind of package that sounds appealing given the current NIH, NSF, EU, or UK Research Council funding priorities, which have heavy political biases & very narrow Overton windows.
If these researchers were more aware that EA can offer grants just as large as t... (read more)
Here’s a reminder I’ve found helpful for feeling risks of omission: there’s a world in which we fail.
There’s a world in which we tried to stop X-risk by unaligned AI or a catastrophic pandemic, but we didn’t. We didn’t act with enough urgency, and being really cautious about our spending slowed us down.
Thanks for writing this! I am also very strongly drawn to frugality from a combination of, as you say, moral aesthetic, and experience during a time when money was much less available. I wish I could give some solid advice here on "how I learned to stop making bad labor-money tradeoffs" but this is still not something I'm great at.
This is a great post and a fascinating history - has inspired me to create an account.
"So far, we've generated more than $30 bn for something like $200 mn, at a benefit:cost ratio of 150 to 1;"
This I think is a weak chain in the argument. You may have raised $30bn for great causes, but how much of that would have gone to great or even good causes regardless?
Charities can often find fundraising to be profitable, but they are also normally taking resources from each other - (shifting donations from charity a to charity b) and so sometimes the net effect across the charitable economy is just spending more on seeking donations.
In EA case - would these people pledging to against malaria foundation really have spent the money on sports cars? Or even on ineffective opera house charities? I don't think so. The kind of people motivated to seek out a good charity would still do so, but they would arguably do less effectively in the absence of an effective altruism movement guiding them.
I don't disagree with the general thrust of the piece. But I think that throwaway 10x return claim on fundraising is perhaps dangerous.
I think the question of what people would have done in the absence of EA movement building is really hard, but my impression is different here. Personally, without being surrounded by a group of people who view altruistic dedication as normal, I think a likely outcome would have been to increasingly prioritize myself and my family as I got older. That is a common pattern, with idealism and willingness to make sacrifices decreasing with age.
The excited/obligatory motivation perspective is also relevant here: without a movement I think you get many fewer excitement-motivated people working on altruistically valuable things.
What are we going to spend this on? There seems to be a shortage of evidence-based global development causes. Current GiveWell charities are growing as fast as they can but the funding pool is growing faster (which is great! But it is already making me hesitant to give or encourage others to)
Should we not be working with and giving to orgs like Innovations for Poverty Action and JPAL to help us find new causes? Our cause discovery rate seems very slow as it is. The only new GiveWell cause in the last few years has been New Incentives, which is already fully-funded.
As far as I can see, no-one else has raised this, but to me the optics of having large sums of money available and not spending it are as bad or worse as spending too freely. Cf Christopher Hitchens' criticism of Mother Teresa - and closer to home, Evan's criticisms a few years ago that EA fund payouts were being granted too infrequently. For what it's worth, I find the latter a much bigger concern.
The "bureaucrat's curse" reminds me of Vitalik's bulldozer vs vetocracy political axis: https://vitalik.ca/general/2021/12/19/bullveto.html
Vetocracy can be beneficial if a system's strength depends on it not changing. e.g. People invest in Bitcoin because it's incredibly difficult to change its monetary policy. Bitcoin doesn't need to innovate.
But if Ethereum is too vetocratic and fails to innovate - it could get outcompeted by other more nimble startups like Solana or Avalanche.
The current mood in the AI Safety community appears to be pessimistic. F... (read more)
Apologies for the basic question but, if there’s more money allocated than there are effective projects, should those of us earning to give start funding less effective charities? Is there a ranking with effectiveness and funding % we can sort by?
I think there might be several things we could spend more money on while still being viewed in a positive light by most of our stakeholders and the more spartan among us. Examples include:
-More staff in organisations and projects to prevent burn-out
-Child-care facilities, paid parental leave, etc.
-At least 4 weeks paid holidays/year
I agree that all such spending should be vetted according to our high bars and must admit I have not done so before making this comment. That said, anecdotal evidence from for example from Patagonia offering child care see... (read more)
How are you defining longtermism, to end up with EA and longtermism being alternatives?
To clarify, is there another earning-to-give EA billionaire who is choosing to remain anonymous?
Can't be Gary Wang, as he's related to FTX
One of the keys things you hit on is "Treating expenditure with the moral seriousness it deserves. Even offhand or joking comments that take a flippant attitude to spending will often be seen as in bad taste, and apt to turn people off."
However, I wouldn't characterize this as an easy win, even if it would be an unqualified positive. Calling out such comments when they appear is straightforward enough, but that's a slow process that could result in only minor reductions. I'd be interested in hearing ideas for how to change attitudes more thoroughly and quickly, because I'm drawing a blank.
Thanks for the thoughtful post. (Cross-posting a comment I made on Nick's recent post.)
My understanding is that people were mostly speculating on the EAF about the rejection rate for the FTX future fund's grants and distribution of $ per grantee. What might have caused the propagation of "free-spending" EA stories:
This post ... (read more)
There being a lot of funding available in EA also changes the calculus for people deciding if they want to donate their own money. If there are super rich people donating to EA, to the extent that finding ways to spend money is a problem, then the motivation for normal individuals to donate is lower.
I think it changes it some, but not hugely? Even if the best remaining option for making the world better was direct cash transfers I think donations would still make a lot of sense; There's Lots More To Do.
I also don't think we stay in the current dynamic. Part of why it is important for a lot of people to go into directly doing useful things now is to identify and scale up opportunities for directing a lot of money toward valuable things. It's become harder to identify extremely cost-effective ways of spending your money to speed that process up, but money will still be very important.
I was responding to Jeff - and thank you, Jeff, for clarifying that downvotes can hide me.
In my response to him, I was expressing my concern that a subset of the Forum has the power to hide my self-defense, so that my correction of their misrepresentation goes unnoticed, while their misrepresentations stand in full view.
Another EA Forum post, just recently ("Bad Omens in Current Community Building") was trying to bring to the community's attention that, among other things, EA is sometimes perceived as cultish or cliquish. I hope you can all see that, when my correction of others' misrepresentations are downvoted to obscurity, then that concern of cliquishness is real.
Hi Anthony. I would say that in the responses I’ve read where they use words like ‘honestly’, my reading of the tone was that they were going for a “tough love” approach. Using the word ‘honestly’ (when not said to manipulate people) often indicates the person is aware that what they’re saying may been seen as too harsh, but that they think what they’re saying is of enough value to others that it still merits saying (and sometimes may only have that value if said bluntly).
In contrast, my interpretation of the tone in your comments, using the word ‘disrespect’ a lot, asking for an apology etc, was that it was solely about providing value to yourself. For most people I know, the concept of feeling ‘disrespected’ by others, and going around demanding apologies for it, would never occur to them. Having that mindset is something I associate with arrogance, aggression and self-righteousness. I think in general people in this forum are wary of engaging further with people who appear to lack some level of humility.
Perhaps in certain circles it is expected that you ought to defend yourself in that way, in order to show that that what someone has said about you really is incorrect? But in the absence of social pressure in that direction, doing so suggests personality traits that some might be wary of.
"it can cause us to go awry if it means we don’t take chances of upside seriously, or when we focus our concern on false positives rather than false negatives"
I've encountered this problem repeatedly in my attempts to speak with EAs here in the East Bay. With one topic, for example, I can napkin the numbers for them: $5 Trillion in real estate impacted by hurricanes, in US alone - so, there's on-the-order-of a $1 Trillion wealth-effect if we can stop hurricanes. A proposal with a 1:1,000 chance of doing so would still be worth $1 Billion-ish to check for f... (read more)
You're referring to Seeking a Collaboration to Stop Hurricanes, right?
Reading your comments on that post, it sounds like you were hoping readers would respond to your post by making things happen. That's occasionally the way things go, but almost always if you want to move something along you need to drive it. For example, if you think this is possibly one of the most important things to do you could consider:
Seeking funding to work on this full-time. With your full time work you could learn how to run a simulation, or attempt to convince the government to run one. You could also explore related hurricane prevention proposals (for example, Myhrvold's proposal) .
Seeking funding to hire someone to work on this full-time (but if you aren't willing to do it I expect funders to consider that a negative signal)
Actively looking for collaborators, for example by attempting to identify relevant academics
I'm going to be honest. I think you'd have a better experience here if you engaged with people in a way that was less adversarial. I can understand why you might be frustrated that people didn't engage more with your ideas or that people misinterpreted what you wrote, but it seems to me that you're currently in a cycle where you felt you were mistreated or ignored which leads you to send out negative energy which then results in further negative interactions; and hence the cycle continues.
I think the biggest reason why your tone is relevant here is that you are seeking introductions to potential collaborators. People care a lot about what others are like to work with!
I can think of two main reasons why your posts haven't resulted in introductions to relevant specialists:
People with those connections haven't seen your posts.
While such people have seen your posts they don't consider this opportunity sufficiently promising to pass it on.
While many people do read the Forum it wouldn't be surprising if no one had seen your post who knew anyone relevant, since there aren't that many relevant experts. And even if they are, when you give someone an introduction you are staking some of your social capital, and based on your initial post and comments here I would not, personally, be willing to stake such capital.
I had seen that you'd written that you weren't looking for funding, and my post above doesn't suggest that you were. Instead, I was suggesting that you do and giving ideas on how you might use funding to make progress on this project. After reading your responses here, however, I withdraw that suggestion.
It is not reasonable to expect people to spend 1 to 2 hours listening to an idea that is not relevant to them.
Have you talked to Sella Nevo, who does flood prediction at Google?
My own hot take here is that if you spent 1 billion dollars of EA money to save the US gov't 1 trillion dollars, you've likely wasted >900 million dollars. But I know other people are more optimistic about US gov't funding priorities (or more pessimistic about EA uses of money).
I did not say you were looking for funding. I am sorry to the degree I am responsible for miscommunication, or if I unintentionally upset you in any way. I am always trying to be better at communication. I hope you have a good day.
I was not intentionally suggesting that Anthony was asking for a billion dollars in funding. It's strange to me that >=2 people will read my comment that way. I'm again sorry for any miscommunication.
I don't think it's prudent for me to engage further in this thread, even though this type of thing naturally draws me in. I will donate $10 to Homeopaths Without Borders if I comment further.
I hope you have a good day.
My read on your comment is that you misread Anthony's allusion to $1b as about potentially spending $1b at some stage (whether right now or later), rather than about the expected impact of his idea. I could be wrong, but that's the only way your comment makes sense to me ("if you spent $1b of EA money" - what could this refer to besides spending $1b of money?).
Anthony is asking for connection to someone who is skilled at running a particular kind of simulation to see if his idea has potential. He believes that the value of checking of his idea might be $1b, because of potentially trillions of dollars worth of gains. Crucially, it would not take $1b to check his idea - that figure is an estimate of the potential value of checking the idea, not of the cost of checking it. The cost of checking is probably something like the social capital to connect him with a relevant person and the costs involved in running the simulation (if it progresses to that stage).
I don't think this was a bad mistake on your end, just a quick, incorrect assumption that you made while trying to help someone. It only led to a fractious response because so many other EAs have also misread and misunderstood... (read more)
I could be wrong, but I think that most people think that the key bottleneck is "idea executors", not "idea providers". (E.g. I heard Charity Entrepreneurship has many intervention ideas, but even after extensive selection and training they are bottlenecked by finding enough founders).
So one shouldn't be surprised if they share a great idea but it doesn't get any traction, it seems to be the current state of things.