Edit (Jan 18 2023): I changed my mind on this a while ago, but in case people read this post, it's worth noting that I have changed my stance on the overall thesis to "We should not be paying Intro Fellows"; the comments on this post provide some of the basis for my belief shifting.
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
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-
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-
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
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
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
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.
“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
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
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?