Some Organisational Changes at the Centre for Effective Altruism

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This post explains a number of recent changes regarding the organisational structure of the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA). These are primarily changes to the internal structure of the organisation; for that reason, this post should be primarily of interest to people who follow CEA very closely. However, I also explain briefly how this might bear on the externally-facing activities CEA does in the future. 

In summary:
  • Up until recently, CEA ran on a ‘federal’ model, as five largely autonomous teams: 80,000 Hours, Giving What We Can, Global Priorities Project, Effective Altruism Outreach, and the Central team.
  • Four of these teams (EAO, GWWC, GPP and the Central team) are merging into the same management structure, and from now on will operate as a single unit. 80,000 Hours will continue as an autonomous organisation, based in the Bay, though still fiscally sponsored by CEA.
  • CEA will therefore act much more like a unified organisation than it has done in the past. This newly-defined CEA will be led by myself (Will MacAskill); I will therefore be playing a much more active role in the management of CEA than I have in the past.

Background

In the past, CEA has been the umbrella organisation for a collection of different nonprofits. As of the end of last year, these consisted of: Giving What We Can, 80,000 Hours, the Global Priorities Project (in collaboration with the Future of Humanity Institute), and Effective Altruism Outreach. There was also a Central team, which did shared operations for all the other projects.
 
The arguments for running CEA as a collection of separate organisations included the following:
  • By experimenting with different ideas, cultures, and approaches, we could learn what worked best and focus on that.
  • We allow different projects to promote messages that may differ in tone, content, or emphasis.
  • We could target different organisations to different demographics.
  • Sometimes, running separate projects would increase our available resources. (For example, a donor might only be interested in one project).

For example, in 2011 we decided to set up 80,000 Hours as a distinct organisation from GWWC because:
  • We worried that 80k might become a lot more controversial than GWWC, because of the idea of earning to give, and we wanted to keep these messages separate.
  • Some people felt much more excited by the potential impact of 80k, whereas others felt more excited by the potential impact of GWWC.
  • We thought that sorts of people who would be interested in socially-oriented career advice was very different from sorts of people who were interested in donating.
  • Having separate organisations allowed each team to focus entirely on their own project.

The founding of new projects within CEA then progressed on the model we’d set up with 80,000 Hours and GWWC.

Recently — due in significant part to changes in our situation — we started to become less convinced that the federal model was the optimal way to structure all the different relationships between the different projects in CEA.
  • The reasons in favour, though still present, in some cases became weaker:
  • We felt that it’s easier to quickly experiment and scale up or scale down projects within one organisational structure, rather than when those projects are run as separate organisations.
  • We found that the different messages naturally came to be closely associated. Because of the rise of ‘effective altruism’ as a term, people would refer to CEA as a single organisation (despite our initial intentions of this organisational label not to be public-facing).
  • Because we now have much greater access to funding and potential employees than we did previously, the argument from additional resources no longer has the same force.

Moreover, there were some cases where the different organisations led to confusion:
  • Sometimes different organisations ended up running similar projects: for example, EA Build (run by EAO) and GWWC were both trying to help grow EA local groups. This created confusion for staff, donors, for EA community members, and for third parties interested in the work of CEA.
  • Internally, there would often be decisions that affected all the different organisations. These decisions would be made by the “Senior Management Team”, consisting of leaders of all the different organisations. This decision-making process often felt slow, bureaucratic and unnecessarily complicated.

Finally, there was an unusual opportunity for this change to happen. I had significantly more free time as a result of (i) the launch of the book and subsequent media activity dying down; (ii) renegotiating my contract with the University, resulting in a much lower teaching load. This gave us the unusual opportunity for CEA to be led by someone with many years of experience working with each of the individual organisations within CEA. At the same time, leadership of the different organisations within CEA felt excited by the prospect of being able to work together and rally around a single shared vision.

What changes are happening at CEA

We’re unifying the teams that compose GWWC, EAO, GPP and CEA Central. We’ll divide CEA into a Community & Outreach Division and a Special Projects Division. The Community and Outreach Division will focus on the ‘core’ CEA activity, which is helping to grow and strengthen the EA community. This includes our on-line presence, local groups, EA Global, EAGx, media, marketing, and the Giving What We Can Trust. The Special Projects Division will have three aims: high net worth philanthropic advising, policy, and fundamentals (explained more below); the former is a continuation of the research arm of GWWC; the latter two are continuations of the two aims of GPP, separated into different teams.

80k will still operate independently; and we would encourage people to regard 80k as separate entity from CEA (though CEA will remain as a fiscal sponsor of 80k). The case for also merging the 80k team with the other teams seemed weaker for a number of reasons: 80k was already by far the most autonomous of the organisations under CEA’s umbrella; and it had not faced the issue of overlap with other organisations within CEA.

I am taking on the role of CEO of CEA (in addition to being a Trustee). This means I will spend far more time guiding and managing CEA than I have done in the past. Tara Mac Aulay will continue as COO and lead the Community & Outreach Division. Michael Page, a new hire, will lead the Special Projects Division. Kerry Vaughan will continue to work on EA community-building and Seb Farquhar will continue to work on policy. Michelle Hutchinson will transition from running GWWC to helping to set up an Oxford Institute for Effective Altruism (explained more below).

 

How will that change what you see from CEA?

In the short term, not all that much. We’ll continue to promote effective giving under the banner of ‘Giving What We Can’, keeping its pledge, website etc. The main change for it is that people will work on it from within a unified team rather than in its own, siloed team. We’re reasonably likely to deprioritise or discontinue the GPP label, and we will not continue with the EAO label.


In the mid term, our aims include the following:
  • Development of and greater focus on effectivealtruism.org
  • Greater focus on understanding the desires of the EA community, and using that as an input to decisions about what projects to try or prioritise.
  • Greater focus on increasing the impact of those who already self-identify as EAs and on increasing the potential benefits of EA as a community.
  • Greater focus on:
  • Cause neutrality (rather than a focus on global poverty)
  • Means neutrality (rather than a focus on donation)
  • Greater focus on intellectual development of EA, including on high-level theory.
As a default, we plan to continue to grow at at least the rate that we’ve grown in the past (which has meant doubling in size approximately every 18 months).

Some other changes include the following:

Local Groups

We’ll encourage people to call new groups an “EA local group” rather than a “GWWC local group”. (We currently give people the choice and in most cases local group founders choose to refer to themselves as EA local groups.)  However, if people want to run as a GWWC group and not an EA group, we won’t force the issue.

Charity Research

Our main focus within charitable research will be experimenting with a new project: boutique philanthropic advice to major donors. We’ve found that there is notable demand for evidence-based charity research from major donors who, for a variety of reasons, do not want simply to support GiveWell’s top charities or to work with Open Philanthropy. (Often, the donor is interested in a particular cause area, such as disaster preparedness, that is different from the work of GiveWell’s top charities.)

We’ve already been experimenting with this project over the last six months. People we’ve provided advice for include: entrepreneurs who have taken the Founders’ Pledge and exited; private major donors who contacted us as a result of reading Doing Good Better; former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, for his International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity; and Alwaleed Philanthropies, a $30 billion foundation focused on global humanitarianism. This project is still very much in its infancy and we’ll assess its development on an ongoing basis.

Within global health and development, we will move to simply recommending GiveWell’s top charities, rather than curating an independent but overlapping list of recommended charities based in large part on their research (as we do now). In the past, the existence of two similar lists of recommended charities has created confusion, and we feel that the amount of value to be gained from doing work so similar to GiveWell’s is comparatively small relative to our other research opportunities.

It’s possible we may, in addition, point readers to charities in cause areas outside of global health and development, with the caveat that such charities will not have had the same level of assessment as GiveWell’s top charities.

Policy

Both our policy work and our fundamentals research will continue the work done by GPP, though now split into two separate teams.
We think that policy is an important area for effective altruism to develop into, and we feel we have had some significant success within policy so far. Recent developments in British politics mean that our plans regarding our policy work are currently in flux; depending on how this plays out, we could do considerably more or considerably less policy work.

Fundamentals Research

Partly due to demand from some members of the EA community, we’ll be experimenting with doing more theoretical research on effective altruism. This comes in two main categories: ‘crucial considerations,’ or ideas that have the potential to radically change how we evaluate our options; and ‘cause prioritisation’, or research on how to figure out which cause-areas one ought to focus on. We believe that this work is both extremely important and extremely hard to do, and will assess our progress on this front on an ongoing basis.

Oxford Institute for Effective Altruism

We have plans to set up an academic institute focused on effective altruism, based at Oxford University. We hope that it can begin as of October 2017, though this is contingent on successful grant applications. The Institute will work on theoretical issues that arise from the project of trying to do the most good, straddling philosophy, economics, and other relevant fields, producing research that is suitable for publication in academic journals. The aim is for this to be run by Hilary Greaves as Research Director and Michelle Hutchinson as Operations Director. We believe that this represents an exciting opportunity to help create and shape effective altruism as an academic research field.

We’ll write more about our plans, including elaborating on some of the projects listed above, in the near future.