Summary: I think EA Groups should be paying (or providing a stipend for) both facilitators and Fellows in Intro to EA Fellowships – as a norm. In this post I lay out what I view as the key reasons for this as well as the arguments I have seen against
this. I believe that the arguments for this are significantly more compelling than
the arguments against, but I mainly just want to start a community dialogue
about this topic. I do not give a comprehensive explanation for how to best
institute this, as I do not have one. I did not do a literature review of any kind.
Arguments are in no specific order.
 

1 Arguments for paying Fellows


1.1 Makes Fellowships more accessible to people who are
not wealthy, potentially leading to a more diverse
community


Including in Fellowship applications that Fellows get a stipend for participating
will make more people consider the Fellowship who otherwise would assume they
do not have time to spend on it. There is empirical evidence demonstrating that
financial considerations factor into people’s decisions to pursue grad programs,
and my guess is that this carries over here (Source). It also seems to me that
being more inclusive is good, in and of itself.
 

1.2 Incentivizes people to complete the Fellowship, in-
creases accountability


Once people are already doing a Fellowship, having a stipend be contingent on
completion may be an effective incentive to convince people that they should
complete the Fellowship. Evidence generally seems to indicate that financial
incentives do not increase completion rates for College, but I expect that the
short time-frame of EA Fellowships will make financial incentives more impact-
ful (Source).


1.3 It is the norm for Fellowships to be paid, and us breaking this norm looks bad


From US News,

“the simplest definition [of a Fellowship] is a funding award given to
subsidize the cost of education. In academic settings, when people
say ‘fellowship,’ they are generally referring to a monetary award
given to a scholar to pay for his or her academic pursuits. A fellow-
ship is typically a merit-based scholarship for advanced study of an
academic subject”

Anecdotally speaking, when I first heard about the Intro EA Fellowship (through
Stanford EA), I was surprised and confused about it not being funded. In fact,
this was one of my biggest hesitations about doing the program, because it
seemed so odd – in retrospect I’m very glad I did as it has led to my involvement in EA, but at the time it was pretty much a toss up due to the weirdness.
I think when most folks hear the word “fellowship” they think of programs like
the Fulbright fellowship, in which the US State Department gives stipends of
tens of thousands of dollars for recent college grads to do research or teach in
other countries. I think the way in which Intro Fellowships currently exist, call-
ing them Fellowships is highly misleading due to the fact that they don’t really
have the same features as many fellowship programs. This concern seems particularly important given that some of the arguments against funding Fellows
are about the reputation of EA.


1.4 Paid Fellowships appear more prestigious to outsiders helping Fellows spend more time on the Fellowship


Anecdotally, one of the Fellows I have facilitated for stated that their family
would take the Fellowship (and their spending time on it) more seriously if it
were paid. Personally, I live in a culture where things being paid automatically
makes them more prestigious and more of a priority – I suspect this is the case
for many Fellows.


1.5 Fellows might put more effort into a program if they
are being paid for it


Personally, I put more effort into something if I am being financially compensated for it, I feel like I owe it to somebody to do a good job. It also helps
justify spending lots of time on something if I am being compensated beyond
simply learning.


2 Arguments against paying Fellows


2.1 Might draw people to the Fellowship for the money
rather than genuine interest


People might do Fellowships for self-interested reasons, to make money, rather
than actual interest in EA. This seems possible to counteract via the advertising
of Fellowships and methods of ensuring accountability such that folks actually
have to do the work.
 

2.2 Seems odd to pay people who are reading moral arguments


This may come across as us promoting conversion to EA – or something. Personally, I think this is fairly easy to avoid if you’re a good facilitator. For example, socially rewarding/thanking people for bringing up criticisms of EA ideas. I also like to frame Intro Fellowships as “Here are some ideas that some smart people think are good. The goal of the Fellowship is to show you what the ideas are, and then you can take the ones that resonate with you and apply them to your life, and you can leave the rest.” This feels like only a partial rebuttal because it doesn’t deal with the perception that friends/family may have.
 

2.3 Might make EA look bad as we are a community oriented around helping others


It seems ironic to have a community of people who aim to help others as much
as possible – but then we spend a significant amount of money on ourselves. Not
sure there’s a great way around this one. On the one hand, the expected value
of these Fellowships is probably net positive even if paying Fellows $250. But
this is hard to explain to people. While this seems like a reputational threat,
I’m not sure we should be too worried about it internally... What is working in
the social impact/non-profit sector if not “being paid in the name of altruism”?
 

2.4 Counterfactual use of money, could be better used
elsewhere


This argument speaks for itself. However, I’m not convinced, mainly because I
think we’re systematically undervaluing community building. I don’t quite know
what the benefit from somebody doing an Intro Fellowship is, but it seems quite
likely higher than the few hundred dollars per person that a stipend would cost.
For example,
 

“To get a sense of how much value you create by working at an EA
organisation, we asked the organisations how much funding they
would have traded for their most recent hire. They gave an average
of $126,000 – $505,000 and a median of $77,000 – $307,000 per year.”


(Source). I’m not going to run the math, because there’s a ton of uncertainty,
but it seems like the benefit from even a single person choosing a highly impactful career, taking a giving pledge, etc. is simply large enough that it justifies
spending lots of money on the top of the pipeline.

 

2.5 Counterfactually, might not do the things listed as
pros


Offering stipends might not actually increase the diversity of applicant pools,
increase completion rates, or lead Fellows to put in more effort – relative to not
providing stipends.


3 Other notes/considerations


Most of the above arguments center around paying Fellows in Intro programs,
but I think they extend to Fellows in other programs, and I think they extend
to facilitators too. I’ve heard quite a few people speak about how facilitating a
program is a good “next step” for many people’s journey with EA (after completing Intro or Intro + In-Depth), so making this financially accessible seems important. Good facilitators are also creating tons of value for the EA community, and we should be rewarding that work, on principle.


Even though I do not know what best practices are for paying Fellows, I have
a few ideas. First, call it a stipend, not a payment. This seems to be the norm
for other Fellowships. Second, don’t make it an obscene amount of money,
but don’t make it insultingly low. Third, include accountability mechanisms
to ensure people are actually doing the work – maybe this includes individual,
small, research projects along with the normal Fellowship (or summarize a recommended reading each week).


It seems like there’s mostly agreement that we should pay group organizers
for their time (Example). It sorta feels like a matter of time before we, as a
community, realize that it is also best to provide Intro Fellows with stipends.
I would note that many of the arguments I have presented here are not original
– especially credit to CEA for some of the arguments against.

 

I'm not quite sure who should provide funding for stipends. Full disclosure, part of the reason I'm writing this post is because CEA (Group Support Funding) did not want to fund stipends for Fellows in a program I am running, as stipends are not a group expense. It seems somewhat obvious to me that providing stipends is the right thing to do, but this is clearly not a position held by everybody – hopefully the comment section of this post provides an area for discussion. 


I am pretty sure that we should be awarding stipends to Fellows for which money
is a barrier to completing the Fellowship, but I am less sure about whether we
should provide a stipend to all Fellows. I am also unsure how best to ask about
this, though I think this phrasing seems alright: “We recognize that devoting
time to a Fellowship or reading group can be financially difficult; it takes away
time you might otherwise spend making necessary money. Do you think the
financial burden would inhibit your ability to complete this Fellowship?” Even
if we, as a community, decide it is the right thing to provide stipends to Fellows, there is still lots of uncertainty about how best to do this. Resolving this
uncertainty requires a coordinated effort of trial and error.

 

But what do you think?


 

22

11 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:48 AM
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I've always thought the name "fellowship" was misleading. But that seems like an argument to change the name, not really to pay people.

You do lay out some plausible arguments for how paying fellows could be good. As Michael mentions in another thread, Penn EA paid their fellows last term. I think the most useful evidence for or against this idea would be a writeup from them about how well it worked and what kind of people it attracted.

Also, this is definitely the kind of thing that you should preclear with funders prior to trying; it is not included in CEA's list of common expenses.

I agree with you, and with Issa that insofar as it's just a series of readings and discussions, "fellowship" is misleading. 

And I agree with the OP that it's good to fund people, to incentivise students to learn and contribute. But I think paying reading group attendees is a weird place to start. Better to pay tutors, offer prizes, fund people if they recruit people to EA jobs, and so on.

Yes, this simply isn't an example of a fellowship - it's a free series of seminars. There's no need to pay people to complete it.

Agree with the name being misleading! I suspect 'fellowship' was chosen to improve marketability but then it runs the risk of risk 1.3. I know some university groups have rebranded the fellowships to be 'Seminar Programs' - I wonder if perhaps that should be the new norm?

In general, I agree with all related comments in this comment thread.

Semi-relatedly: I'd love to create a more involved, further-down-the-pipeline program that more closely resembles a fellowship. UChicago has various 'career programs,' including in Policy + Social Impact, Social Sector, and Business (which is competitive and highly sought-after).

I know Penn EA offers fellows a $500 stipend, and I've always found this to feel a little odd, and I'm concerned other applicants might feel the same way. Having a stipend makes sense in the context of fellowships generally being paid, but I'm not sure that I would have known that a year ago or that other undergrads would know that fellowships are usually paid. It raises the question, if EA is so focused on effectiveness, why does it make sense to pay people to just learn about EA, especially when no other student group is paying people for things. Why does a student group even have this money to give out? Are you sure EA isn't a cult?? (Though generally you pay cults, not the other way around.) We've been offering incentives in the form of charity gift card credit (for things like referring a friend to apply to the EA Fellowship or applying for career advising from 80,000 Hours) rather than direct cash.

You could probably avoid this reputation risk by marketing it right and making sure the fellowship seems prestigious, so that it seems reasonable to be getting paid. E.g., rather than writing,

Intro Fellowship

Understand the core ideas of effective altruism while earning a $500 stipend.

You’ll have 8 weekly 1-hour discussions with a cohort of 3-5 participants and one facilitator, and earn a $500 stipend. Before attending each discussion, you’ll complete a set of readings (and sometimes a brief written exercise). Application due 9/19.

You could instead write something like,

Intro Fellowship

Learn about and reflect on how to maximize your impact

Most of us want to help others, but figuring out the best ways to do that can be difficult. Fellows will read about and discuss ideas from effective altruism about how to do the most good, and start to form a plan on having a more impactful career. All fellows will receive a $500 at the completion of this 8-week program. Applications due 9/19.

As for where you could get funding for stipends from, have you asked the EA Infrastructure Fund about whether they would fund this?

If someone asks about where funding is coming from, I think it would be good to say something like,

We get club funding from the Centre for Effective Altruism and EA Infrastructure Fund. They're largely/partially funded by Open Philanthropy, a foundation which also makes major grants in global poverty relief, climate change, farm animal welfare, and criminal justice reform.

Great points, Michael! Some of these questions (e.g., why does it make sense to pay people for learning about EA?) came up during Penn EA's fellowships this year.

In my experience as a facilitator, these conversations were almost always productive. I would generally use these moments as opportunities to explain why careers in high-impact cause areas are so valuable. I'd say something like "EA is willing to invest resources into student groups because they've seen that student groups (and intro fellowships) can help people apply EA principles in their careers, which is ultimately worth the financial investment. People who resonate with these ideas & take them seriously often go on to have really important careers in AI alignment, biosecurity, animal welfare, and other really important areas."

This explanation generally seemed persuasive (or at least helped people understand this perspective). 

*Also quick note of clarification: Penn EA experimented with $500 stipends this semester. Just to be clear, I don't believe this is something that Penn EA has ever done in the past, and it might not be something we do in the future.

Hey Michael! I read your comment when you wrote it, but am only replying now :/ 

Thank you for your thoughts, you raise important questions. One I want to hone in on is: 

if EA is so focused on effectiveness, why does it make sense to pay people to just learn about EA

In a way, this seems like the classic question of "how can we convert money into X?", where X is sometimes organizer time. Here, X is "highly engaged EAs who use an EA mindset to determine their career". One proposed answer is to give out tons of books. I'm not sure if we have good cost-effectiveness estimates of book giveaways, but we also don't have cost-effectiveness estimates of paying program participants. Giving out books is reputationally much safer, but in principle it is also "spend money so people learn about EA."

The second part of your question is "especially when no other student group is paying people for things." which also seems important. I think I am more and more believing that we should not think about EA groups like other student groups. This transition (and messaging around it) here seems complicated, but I think if done right, we should totally give ourselves space to do things no other student groups are doing.

Penn EA organizer here! Thanks for raising this discussion, Aaron. Penn EA paid intro fellows $500 this semester, and we plan to write-up a reflection soon. For now, though, I have a few quick thoughts on the points you raised:

1.1-- This seems quite reasonable. Does this require paying everyone, or just having an optional financial aid policy? I suppose people might feel bad applying for financial aid, especially from a group focused on altruism. 

1.2-- I actually see this as an argument against paying fellows. I think one common failure mode of fellowships is that you end up with groups where like 1 person is engaged and 3-5 people are clearly not engaged. After week 2 or 3, I would love it if we just said "hey, if you're not super interested in these ideas, no worries, you can stop coming." Paying people (for completion) increases the likelihood that people will stay out of a sense of commitment/obligation, even if they have no plans to take EA ideas seriously. I think this is quite harmful. It makes fellowship discussions less interesting/engaging. It makes going to the fellowship meetings feel more like a chore than something that feels really special/exciting. And I think it makes the experience worse for the fellows who are really committed.

1.3-- I think this is mostly a naming thing. It's completely normal for "weekly reading groups" to be unpaid. I think the term "fellowship" usually implies a much more involved experience (e.g., a 40hr/week 8-week research fellowship), which is why we associate the term "fellowship" with "paid."

1.4-- Agreed. Again, though, I worry about the concern I expressed in 1.2. I want people to spend time on these ideas because they're important, serious, inspiring, etc.

1.5-- Same thoughts as 1.2 and 1.4.

2.1-- Agreed. I think there's probably two things going on here: a) people who come for the money and b) people who stay out of a feeling of commitment/obligation that is reinforced by the money. I'm more worried about B than A. If we were offering stipends of, say, $5000, then I would become more worried about A.

2.2-2.5-- Pretty much agree with these risks and your ideas for managing them. The reputational risks in 2.3 seem especially important. The tail risk here seems pretty bad (e.g., media coverage that frames paying fellows in an uncharitable light). I believe CEA has talked about how tech companies and management consulting companies spend a lot of money on recruiting/outreach at universities. And there's no equivalent for high-impact work, which is a shame. So perhaps this can be framed as "we need to be competitive with these other organizations that are trying to attract top talent." I'm not sure how well this would work, though, since tech companies and management consultancies generally don't have super altruistic/feel-good/admirable reputations.

Final thought-- you claim:

I believe that the arguments for [paying fellows] are significantly more compelling than
the arguments against.

I think this is a pretty strong statement, and I currently don't agree with it. Even if the benefits outweighed the costs on average, I think there would be substantial variability across groups. At some universities, this may cause more reputational risk; at others, the added value from prestige might be especially high. 

Thank you for raising this discussion! Excited to say more once the Penn EA reflection is out.

Quick question: How many applications did you receive? To what extent do you think the number of high-quality applications was boosted by offering stipends?

Thanks for your response, Akash! I know I'm late to reply, so forgive me. 

Especially thanks for bringing up 1.2 as a failure mode where people aren't engaged but continue coming. This seems worrisome, and I think I didn't consider it because it's not something I've noticed in my facilitating. But it's obviously very important. 

I agree that there would be lots of variability across groups, but I'm not unsure what this implies. I am not totally against high risk, high reward strategies, and this probably depends on existential risk timelines as well as what the status quo (or counterfactual) looks like. If Uni groups are already getting ~80% of the people they want, high risk/reward strategies are not so good, but if it's more like 20% this flips. I should probably figure out what I think it is. 

Anyway, thanks for your thoughts, I have found them very helpful.

I think that stipends for intro fellows is an idea worth considering, but I have real concerns at the moment, especially since Penn’s write-up about it hasn’t come out yet.

1.1 “Makes Fellowships more accessible to people who are not wealthy, potentially leading to a more diverse community”
I think there’s probably some truth to this, but honestly, I don’t think an amount that we could give every fellow would allow anyone to meaningfully decrease the outside work they do.  I’d be in support of packages for those that wouldn’t be able to participate without one, or for whom sacrificing several hours each week would cause stress.  There could be a very easy, low-barrier-to-entry application, and it could be made clear that anyone who could use the money is highly encouraged to take it.

1.2 “Incentivizes people to complete the Fellowship, in-creases accountability”
Likely true, but not necessarily positive.  I don’t want people to come to the meetings for the money; I just don’t want money to be a barrier.  Potentially decreasing the quality of fellows scares me.  Also, too much accountability comes with a few problems.  It could deter people from applying.  The fellowship itself could feel more like a class and be less enjoyable.  And organizers’ time, one of the hottest commodities in EA right now, would go to the administrative work of holding people to account.  Failing to complete something and being held accountable for it could cause fellows to have negative sentiments toward EA, and whether that would be justified or not is irrelevant.

1.3 “It is the norm for Fellowships to be paid, and us breaking this norm looks bad”
Agreed.  Fellowship does have a nice ring to it, but the program really isn’t one.  I wouldn’t mind changing the name.  The only problem is that everyone uses it.  I would like to see broader discussion on this issue, and I think the organization that I work with (EA at Georgia Tech) would be very open to changing our terminology.

1.4 “Paid Fellowships appear more prestigious to outsiders helping Fellows spend more time on the Fellowship”
I think a paid EA intro fellowship would look better on the surface, but I don’t think there’s enough commitment in the intro fellowship to warrant much prestige anyway.

1.5 “Fellows might put more effort into a program if they are being paid for it”
Agreed, generally, but I think the effect would be smaller in an EA fellowship than other programs. Also, it doesn’t matter that much if people put more effort into the fellowship if it doesn’t affect the likelihood that they’ll take effective actions. You can’t really pay people to be altruistic, and I’m uncertain about the degree to which you can educate people into being altruistic if the underlying philosophy or empathy isn’t there.

2.1 “Might draw people to the Fellowship for the money rather than genuine interest”
I’m really concerned about this.  As mentioned earlier, having high-quality fellows is a top priority.  One reason I fell in love with EA during my fellowship was that my cohort had smart, thoughtful people who really cared about EA.  Every member of the cohort that I’m currently facilitating is really into EA too.  Having one disinterested person could really damage that experience for the others.

2.2/2.3 “Seems odd to pay people who are reading moral arguments,” “Might make EA look bad as we are a community oriented around helping others”
Communicating EA ideas with fidelity is widely discussed for a reason.  If hundreds of new fellows tell their families that they’re getting a significant amount of money to read about how to best help people, that could be very problematic.  I have a hard enough time explaining EA myself.

2.4 “Counterfactual use of money, could be better used elsewhere”
I’d rather give larger amounts of money to highly engaged EAs who organize or do other community building work so they can have more time/be more effective. There are a hundred things you could help interested people do with the money. These highly engaged people are the ones that will provide the most value by far, and are likely the recent hires that EA organizations would pay six figures for. They likely would have joined anyway after hearing our marketing.  Also, the money could go to direct impact organizations rather than meta work.  I think leading by example is important, and not wasting (or even just looking like we’re wasting) money is part of that.  For me, this relates to veganism and sustainability.  I know I don’t actually change that much by being vegan compared to donating to an effective animal advocacy nonprofit, but I do demonstrate a willingness to make sacrifices and gain credibility from it. Also, I read somewhere about GiveWell saying that their growth resulted mostly from outside people actively finding them rather than their own outreach. Others talked about GiveWell because they were so good at what they do, and I think this applies to the EA movement as a whole as well.

I know there’s plenty of EA meta money sloshing around out there, but I think it’ll pay to be careful here.  For anyone considering whether to offer a stipend, at least wait on deciding until the Penn write-up comes out.  I certainly have an opinion at the moment, but I don’t think my personal experience here is nearly broad enough for me to make a very strong judgement, so that piece could switch my thinking. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to reading any responses.