Executive Summary

  • EA has a distinct culture, patterns of thinking, and commitments to certain conclusions that stem from its origins.
  • The culture emphasizes analysis over practice, and it does not attract many of the leaders and builders that are critical for maximizing impact.
  • Ideas around EA capacity building have lacked an imagination of what’s possible, and tend to be designed around reinforcing and propagating the existing subculture and current ways of doing things.
  • If your goal truly IS to maximize impact you do not want to only focus on specific projects, programs, or individuals, you want to focus on building ecosystems. And you want to use these ecosystems to attract and support people that share your values and push your mission forward, even if they don’t fit in with the current EA subculture.
  • If you want to have maximum impact you often want to focus on leadership and governance. Most solvable problems in the world are really leadership and governance problems at their core.
  • If you want that impact to be lasting, you should focus on building organizations, institutions, or ecosystems that endure over time.
  • I give an example of what ecosystem building would look like in the context of Haiti, show how this approach is different from current EA approaches, and give real-world examples of different aspects of an ecosystem building approach.
  • There are so many wonderful people with so much potential to drive positive change that feel unwelcome in the movement as it currently stands. Let them in. And there are so many people that could become effective altruistic leaders if they just received the right encouragement, inspiration, and support. Build ecosystems welcome them, and that inspire, encourage, and support them at scale. This is the type of movement the world is waiting for.

Introduction

I first want to establish that I am an Effective Altruism outsider. I have been vaguely aware of the movement for some time, mainly from guest appearances by EA leaders on podcasts that I listen to. I learned about the FTX Future Fund from Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution blog, and through that I have submitted three proposals to EA-aligned grant opportunities (none were accepted).

However, I was very impressed with the value system expressed in the grant proposal solicitations, and since then I’ve done a deeper dive to try to understand what EA is all about. I have read quite a few forum posts, and spoken to probably a dozen EA affiliated people (all of whom have been kind, intelligent, earnest, and impressive), but that’s more or less where my involvement ends. 

So this criticism is based on my observations as a curious outsider, and my lack of insider experience will undoubtedly be obvious in parts of what I write. However, even though I may miss the mark on certain details, I do think that my core point is worth considering, so I would ask for a charitable reading despite these mistakes.

My core criticism is this: Due to its origins and the specific path the movement has taken thus far, there exists a subculture and patterns of thinking that are severely limiting EA’s potential future impact. EA now has the resources to legitimately change things for the better, in a way that few institutions in the world do, and in a way it has not had in the past. However, in order to realize that potential it will require a shift in thinking and strategy by the EA movement that may or may not be possible.

Please understand the core of what I am claiming. EA has an embarrassment of riches. Not just in money, but also in a core of extremely motivated, good-hearted, talented people. The opportunity in front of the movement is truly incredible, but that opportunity could easily be squandered. 

It will not be ‘squandered’ in the sense that ‘it will come to nothing’. No matter the path it takes, EA will have a major positive impact. But it could easily be squandered in the sense that its realized impact falls far far short of what is possible.

Observations About the EA Culture

The primacy of analysis in effective altruism

First I want to look at the definition of Effective Altruism as proposed by Will MacAskill in this post:

Effective altruism is:

(i) the use of evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to maximize the good with a given unit of resources, tentatively understanding ‘the good’ in impartial welfarist terms, and

(ii) the use of the findings from (i) to try to improve the world.

What is interesting to me about this definition is embedded within it is a specific strategy to do good. First, we use careful analysis to figure out the best course of action, then we use those findings to try to improve the world. Implied in this definition is the primacy of analysis, and that is also reflected in what I have observed of EA culture.

In general EA culture seems welcoming to people that thrive in the realm of ideas, theory, discussion, debate, and analysis. In this and in other ways, it very much feels like many of the roots of EA come from academia (and the rationalist community, with which I’m less familiar). The discourse on the EA forum most reminds me of my college philosophy classes. 

Other apparent academic influences include an emphasis on intelligence, research, and youth. There is also a sensitivity to prestige, and a focus on recruitment at prestigious universities.

A more inclusive definition

Compare Will’s EA definition to this statement on this page for EA London: 

The mission of CEA is to create a global community of people who make helping others a core part of their lives and to do good as effectively as possible.

Using that as a base, a possible new definition for effective altruism is:

Effective altruism is a global community of people who make helping others a core part of their lives and strive to do good as effectively as possible.

This second definition is less prescriptive and more welcoming to a larger group of people. This includes people that are more oriented towards leadership and building than analysis. Obviously the movement needs both types of people, but I would argue that there are embedded cultural reasons why it is currently light on builders compared to analyzers.

The ‘theory vs. practice’ tension in many academic disciplines is not a perfect match, but it is roughly analogous. Placing so much emphasis on ‘theory’ may have made a lot of sense in the early days of the movement, but that makes much less sense now. The ultimate point of theory is to inform practice, and practice needs theory to optimize its effectiveness. Both are stronger when they interact with the other.

Conclusions vs. stated values

I really like this post that touches on similar themes to what I’m expressing here: "Big tent" effective altruism is very important (particularly right now).

I get the sense that effective altruism is at a crossroads right now. We can either become a movement of people who appear dedicated to a particular set of conclusions about the world, or we can become a movement of people that appear united by a shared commitment to using reason and evidence to do the most good we can.

In the former case, I expect to become a much smaller group, easier to coordinate our focus, but it's also a group that's more easily dismissed. People might see us as a bunch of nerds who have read too many philosophy papers and who are out of touch with the real world.

In the latter case, I'd expect to become a much bigger group. I'll admit that it's also a group that's harder to organize (people are coming at the problem from different angles and with varying levels of knowledge). However, if we are to have the impact we want: I'd bet on the latter option.

This quote highlights another observation I have about EA. It is not just a community of people that have a bias for analysis and ideas, there is a dedication to a particular set of conclusions. This becomes much more dangerous when these conclusions are used to separate ‘in-group’ from ‘out-group’, and when infrastructure is built up around these conclusions and they become difficult to challenge.

Encountering EA cause areas can also be a little jarring for the uninitiated. EA has a lot of rhetoric around openness to ideas and perspectives, but actual interaction with the EA universe can feel more like certain conclusions are encased in concrete. And ‘do you agree with our conclusions?’ can feel like more of a litmus test than ‘do you agree with our stated values?’. I felt this acutely when applying for EA-aligned grants.

I would venture to say the “weirdness” or “cultishness[1]” that some feel around the EA community has very little to do with the movement’s stated values (which I think are basically sensible and uncontroversial), and a lot more to do with the movement’s apparent commitment to certain conclusions.

EA capacity building strategies reinforce the subculture

From what I have seen, the current ideas around EA capacity building have lacked an imagination of what’s possible, and tend to be designed around reinforcing and propagating the existing subculture and current ways of doing things. 

EA seems to increasingly recognize the importance of physical spaces, and of bringing people together and building physical hubs. There are several EA coworking or coliving spaces, the recently announced New York EA Hub sounds extremely interesting, and the following idea was a runner up in the Future Fund’s Project Ideas Competition:

RyanCarey - EA Coworking Spaces at Scale

The EA community has created several great coworking spaces, but mostly in an ad hoc way, with large overheads. Instead, a standard EA office could be created in up to 100 towns and cities. Companies,  community organizers, and individuals  working full-time on EA projects would be awarded a membership that allows them to use these offices in any city. Members gain from being able to work more flexibly, in collaboration with people with similar interests (this especially helps independent researchers with motivation). EA organizations benefit from decreased need to do office management (which can be done centrally without special EA expertise). EA community organizers gain easier access to an event space and standard resources, such as a library, and hotdesking space, and some access to the expertise of others using the office.

While this is a great idea, the description seems (to me at least) to focus on people that identify closely with the current EA subculture. I think it’s very possible that someone like me would not feel especially at home in an EA coworking space. But more importantly, I think such spaces might not attract many of the people that have the potential to have the most positive impact.

This is a mistake!! There are a huge number of wonderful people out there that EA should very much want to find and support, but that might feel uncomfortable in the EA of today. They might not fit in at an EA event, and they might not agree with all of EA’s current conclusions, but they share EA’s core values, and are not people that you want to exclude if your goal is to maximize impact.

If your goal truly IS to maximize impact you do not want to only focus on specific projects, programs, or individuals, you want to focus on building ecosystems. And you want to use these ecosystems to attract and support people that share your values and push your mission forward, even if they don’t fit in with the current EA subculture.

But here’s the thing. If you open up the tent in the right way, if you do it strategically, you can create something that is much better for everyone. Better for existing EAs, better for new ones, and better for the world. And furthermore, you don’t need to devote a significant percentage of your resources to it. You just need the right vision, the right strategy, and the right execution.

So the question I would have for the EA community is, are you trying to preserve the specific EA subculture and practices as they currently stand, or are you trying to maximize impact in accordance with your stated values?

Focus on Leadership and Building Ecosystems for Maximum Impact

Leadership: An EA blindspot

I am definitely someone with an altruistic impulse, and someone that has thought a lot about how to maximize impact with limited resources. 

Based on my own reflection and experience, I’ve reached the following conclusions:

  1. If you want to have maximum impact you typically want to focus on leadership and governance. Most solvable problems in the world are really leadership and governance problems at their core.
  2. If you want that impact to be lasting, you should focus on building organizations, institutions, or ecosystems that endure over time.

For an organization that claims to want to maximize impact per unit of resource, it is very strange to me that EA does not focus much much more on leadership and governance. I’m currently typing this in Mexico City, a city that I’ve lived in on and off for the past 3 years. 

I love Mexico, but the country undeniably has many problems. However, in reality, Mexico has one fundamental problem. It is a fundamental problem that it shares with all of Latin America and most of the developing world: corruption.[2]

An EA style analysis of how to most efficiently help the country of Mexico could conceivably yield suggestions like improvements in education, or policy recommendations to promote economic growth, or public health initiatives. All of these are worthy causes, but their impact would pale in comparison to reducing corruption. Because a less corrupt Mexican government would improve the country along all fronts simultaneously.

What is the measurable, quantitative impact of Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership of Singapore?[3] Or of Deng Xiaoping’s leadership and break from Mao’s policies?[4] I am open to the argument that improving leadership and governance is not a tractable problem for a movement like EA, but it would be difficult to convince me there was a more important one.[5][6] Even existential threats, to the extent they are not properly mitigated, are more likely to be realized because of poor leadership and governance than any other reason.

I am not suggesting that EA ignores the importance of leadership and governance. It does not. But it occupies a much smaller part of the conversation than it should for a movement that claims to care about achieving the maximum good. 

Leadership is critical at all levels, not only at the level of governments. Whether it’s a family, or a project, or an organization, or an institution, or a nation… if it needs improvement, the most effective way to improve it is most likely to improve its leadership. 

Put another way, if you are trying to positively impact any group or initiative, leadership is most often your point of maximum leverage.

Build ecosystems that develop leaders and that combine theory and practice

Here’s a question: in the history of MIT, what individual or team that has been affiliated with the university has had the greatest positive impact on the world? There’s a way in which that is a very difficult question to answer. After all, there have been so many remarkable leaders and projects that have come out of MIT that have impacted the world in profound ways.

But I would argue the correct answer is this: the team that founded and launched the university has had the greatest impact by far. Of course there was no way they could predict what the university would ultimately become, but they embraced founding values that set the university on its very specific course. What they started became a remarkable ecosystem, and all of the wonderful things that have come out of the university since its founding have only been possible because of their initial efforts.

Here’s an excerpt about the history of MIT from the university’s admission site

The story of MIT begins with a heartfelt belief: that the American educational system of the 19th century was fundamentally broken. Instead of treating a scientific education and a practical education as fundamentally incompatible, its founders envisioned a new education to unify mens et manus, mind and hand, theory and practice, into a coherent program of study within a single institution. 

As I stated earlier, theory and practice are much stronger together.

The founders of MIT based their new institution on very simple values, but the values they articulated attracted a certain type of person that shared these values. Over time this grew into an amazing ecosystem that represents perhaps the most successful marriage of theory and practice of any institution in the world.[7]

Despite its elite status, MIT does not isolate itself from the outside world, but is known for actively developing partnerships in both the public and private sector. It is also known for developing entrepreneurs and other leaders that go on to have a massive impact.  

EA should establish ecosystems that empower altruistic leaders at scale, and that allow those that build and those that analyze to collaborate to each other's mutual benefit.  These ecosystems should aggressively seek to partner with individuals and organizations that share EA's values. With relatively little expense, EA could position itself at the center of the worldwide altruism community, and systematically improve its effectiveness.

Example: Helping Haiti on a Limited Budget

Meeting true altruistic leaders

I am not a religious person, but my brother works for one of the largest churches in the United States. This church is very influential, and he is in charge of an international network of smaller churches that partner with his church. Each year there is a conference for the lead pastors of these small partner churches, and I attended last year’s conference.

I found myself sitting at a table of Haitian pastors, and talking with them was a very humbling experience for me. This was a group of clearly remarkable people and truly remarkable leaders that had a genuine heart for their country. The conference took place soon after the assassination of Haiti’s president when the country was in a desperate and rapidly deteriorating situation.

Each of these pastors had the talent and means to leave Haiti behind and find success elsewhere, but that is not what they chose. Their hearts were breaking for the people in their country, and they were committed to doing what they could to help. I consider myself to be an altruistic person and a good leader, but these individuals were in a completely different league.

While it was definitely humbling to be confronted with individuals like this, it caused me to reflect on my strengths and the way that I can have the most impact with my talents and energy. It also caused me to reflect on how to maximize impact in general.

What I’m good at is working with small budgets to build ecosystems that support and develop people that are more talented than myself. I did this previously while working at a large US university, but that was an ecosystem of designers and software developers. 

I am never going to be counted among the most elite altruistic leaders, but I can build an ecosystem that gathers them together, helps them maximize their effectiveness, and inspires and develops the next generation. In many ways my career has been built around maximizing impact with limited resources, and I think that many of the lessons I’ve learned doing this in an academic and technology context are applicable to an altruism context.

Thought experiment: $1 million to help Haiti

Here is a thought experiment: if you were given $1 million dollars with the directive to use the money to have the most positive impact possible on the country of Haiti, how would you spend it?

This is how I would spend it. I would start by building a small team of talented people in Port-au-Prince that were committed to the vision of building an ecosystem of altruistic leaders. We would scour the city for the most remarkable altruistic leaders that bought in to the vision of what we were trying to build. We would then establish a social club/coworking-type space in the heart of the city that would act as the physical headquarters for our altruistic ecosystem. 

  1. The space would maintain very high standards for core membership: only trustworthy, humble, altruistic leaders and builders allowed.
  2. It would enable these leaders to form a tight-knit community of support. They would build strong relationships over time, have fun together, support one another, and coordinate their efforts to impact their city and country.
  3. This community of remarkable leaders would inspire and attract the next generation of altruistic leaders. This next generation would be trained, mentored, and supported.
  4. To the extent possible, members would coordinate with the government and partner with local organizations to create ongoing events and programs that directly impact the surrounding community.
  5. Over time an ecosystem would form. The space would act as a source of inspiration for altruistic-minded people, and give them a concrete community that they could join. It would provide a pipeline of trustworthy leaders that would found new organizations and slowly populate and improve existing institutions. It would be a place where philanthropists and outside funders could feel confident their financial support would have maximum impact.

I don’t mean to suggest any of this would be easy. In fact it would be extremely difficult and would require an incredibly high level of persistence and execution. However, I personally can not think of a more effective way to maximize the potential impact of $1 million dollars on a nation with such a myriad of intractable problems.

This is just an example, and I do not mean to suggest this exact approach is the only one or the best one. However, this approach also differs materially from many of the current approaches that I observe from EA, and these differences matter.

Differences from current EA approaches

  • It places more emphasis on builders and leaders - This approach acknowledges the importance of those that build and lead. They may not be ‘elite’ along intelligence or academic dimensions, but they are elite along the dimensions of trustworthiness, altruism, and leadership. These are the types of people that are critical to driving positive change in the real world. You want them to be a part of your movement.
  • It is ecosystem building - This is not an investment in a specific project, cause, or individual. It is an investment in an ecosystem that grows over time, and that supports a myriad of people, projects, and causes.
  • It emphasizes connections, partnerships, and collaborations - A big part of building an ecosystem is connecting with all of the like-minded leaders and organizations that you can. This approach emphasizes partnering with existing organizations and leaders, and on creating a place where they can find and partner with one another.
  • It is a ‘big tent’ approach - EA needs physical places and events that attract altruistic-minded people that might not otherwise fit in to the current subculture. The number of EAs in the world is small, but the number of altruistic-oriented people in the world that want to have the most impact that they can is enormous. These people are looking for a movement they can join that they believe in. Give it to them. As a great example of this, I love this post EA for dumb people?
  • It provides a place for analysis and practice to intersect - Many current EAs may be stronger in gathering and analyzing data to help guide and influence those on the front lines. At the same time, all analysis is improved by interaction with the real world. This represents a place where those that analyze and those that build can interact to their mutual benefit.
  • It understands the importance of inspiration and fun - I really enjoyed this post about Emphasizing emotional altruism in effective altruism. If you want to build a movement that attracts human beings, you have to engage them at an emotional level in addition to a rational one. This approach acknowledges the importance of inspiration and fun in movement building.
  • It focuses on common values, not demographics - EA skews young, intelligent, credentialed, Western, etc. This approach does not cluster along demographic lines like an EA university group does. It groups people that have common values but perhaps very different demographics. There is a huge advantage to including older, more experienced people that are not educated at elite institutions if your goal is to maximize impact.
  • It is not committed to certain conclusions - This approach still has a commitment to the values of altruism and maximizing effectiveness, but a humility that analysis and prediction have their limits. It opens the door to cause areas, projects, and individuals whose impact is hard to predict ahead of time, but that may turn out to be extremely impactful. As Will MacAskill states, “It’s much easier, and more reliable, to assess a project once it's already been tried.” (However, I would like to add that coworking spaces or hubs built around certain themes like the proposed AI Safety/Longtermism Office in New York are a great idea.)
  • It understands that common goals are important - One of the things that bonds a group together is common goals or a common mission. This approach helps its members bond with one another in a way that a typical coworking space does not.
  • It is not especially expensive - There are many ways for these ecosystems to be self-sustaining over time. They do not need perpetual financial support, but rather a relatively small amount of seed funding to get started. Also, if any one of these ecosystems fails (and likely many will), it is easy to try again with a different founding team. It’s also easy to start more than one in the same city.
  • It is international - I have seen an emphasis on trying to grow EA in areas of the world where it is not currently popular. This is not only an approach that grows EA internationally, it develops local leaders and recognizes that often they are the ones that are best equipped to address the problems in their region.[6]
  • It is strategic not scattershot - Because EA’s budget has grown massively in a short amount of time, it seems like it has not yet had the time to form a clear strategic vision. To the movement’s credit, it appears to be wrestling with this problem very honestly. However, a lack of a strategic vision introduces the possibility of burning through a large amount of cash with underwhelming results.
  • It interacts with the non-EA real world - I would doubt that many non-EA people in a city with an EA chapter or meetup really feel the presence of that chapter. This approach attempts to directly impact the people in the city in which the space resides. Regardless of whether they’re EA-affiliated, a large number of people should truly feel the presence of an EA hub, and it should have a material impact on their lives. Besides improving lives, this has the additional benefit of inspiring people and attracting them to the movement.

Real-world Examples

The best rebuttal to “that would never work!” is “actually, it’s already working”. Here are some real-world examples that demonstrate different aspects of what I’ve discussed.

Building an altruism ecosystem - My favorite example of this is Impact House in Chicago. I love the ambition of Impact House. Impact House is a large work club that aims to put all of the city’s key philanthropic funders and changemakers under the same roof so that they can collaborate with one another and coordinate their efforts. They are thinking big, and are building a city-wide ecosystem.

Building an ecosystem of leaders in the developing world - Five One Labs helps talented entrepreneurs from conflict-affected areas launch their startups.

Building ecosystems on a limited budget (relatively speaking) - DARPA is a US government research program that is far more efficient than its counterparts in other agencies. The structure of DARPA is fascinating, and the program operates in a fundamentally different way than a typical research program. From Why does DARPA work?

Since 1958, it has been a driving force in the creation of weather satellites, GPS, personal computers, modern robotics, the Internet, autonomous cars, and voice interfaces, to name a few.

...

As of April 2020, DARPA has 124 staff and three layers of management.

...

DARPA facilitates cross-pollination both between PMs and Performers. Everybody at DARPA has deep experience in some technical area and there is a culture of people dropping by and asking each other about the subject of their expertise. This cultural artifact is special because it would be easy for everybody to mind their own business as everybody is working on their own programs.

...

DARPA program managers act as ‘brokers’ and ‘boundary spanners’ –terms of art for people who connect relatively unconnected clusters of people. DARPA PMs network in the literal sense of creating networks, not just plugging into them.

The Wall Street Journal article How a Public School in Florida Built America’s Greatest Math Team (non-paywalled version) describes how a retired Wall Street bond trader built a math team that has won 13 of the last 14 national math championships at an otherwise unremarkable high school. His success is not based on having a large budget, but rather on thinking differently and building an ecosystem. 

Groupthink: The brainstorming myth is one of my all-time favorite articles. It describes how a dilapidated, neglected building at MIT became a legendary hotbed of innovation:

Building 20 became a strange, chaotic domain, full of groups who had been thrown together by chance and who knew little about one another’s work. And yet, by the time it was finally demolished, in 1998, Building 20 had become a legend of innovation, widely regarded as one of the most creative spaces in the world.

Spaces built around common values - Two important aspects of community building are shared values and/or a common project. Increasingly coworking-type spaces are being built around themes or certain values. Here are a few relevant examples:

  • Impact Hub - An international network of coworking spaces that cater to social impact organizations.
  • Open Gov Hub - A coworking space and innovation hub in Washington DC that caters to organizations that want to open up authoritarian governments and empower citizens around the world.
  • The Nonprofit Centers Network - A network of coworking and other spaces that are shared spaces for nonprofits. Often the nonprofits in each space are organized around a certain cause or theme.
  • EA Coworking Spaces / Hubs - Obviously!

Mixing coworking with a social club - Coworking alone can be a difficult business, so one trend in coworking is to create spaces that are a hybrid of a social club and coworking space. This not only helps from a revenue generating perspective (additional recurring revenue from people that occupy the space only occasionally), it also helps to build actual community. While events and conferences are nice, relationships are built over time through proximity and repeated, unplanned interactions.[8] What many people need and do not have is a clubhouse.[9][10]

There are many many examples of this, and here are a few of them:

  • Kwench - A work and social club in Victoria, Canada. The woman who founded it has a really interesting story.
  • Soho House - Probably the most famous example. Tries to cater to the hip, creative class.
  • HAAB - More or less a Soho House clone here in Mexico City. Again catering to hip people.
  • Collective Seattle - A coworking space and social club that caters to outdoorsy types.

Direct impact on the surrounding community - Saddleback Church in California has made a remarkable commitment to impacting the community in which they reside. From food banks, to addiction recovery programs, to working with the homeless, they have dozens of local impact programs. They do an amazing job of inspiring people to volunteer, discovering the strengths of each volunteer (they have thousands), and matching them with opportunities where they will have the most impact. Almost everyone that lives in the area is aware of Saddleback, regardless of their religious affiliation.

Conclusion

I do not think most of what I have said here is especially controversial. I think there is a general acknowledgement that the movement is going through growing pains and that it has a distinct subculture that isn’t a fit for everyone. However, for many that are highly engaged in the movement, or those that have high status within it, there may be too strong a commitment to the subculture and current way of doing things. I also think the subculture is stronger (and stranger) than many highly-committed EAs understand.

This subculture, and the current approaches, make perfect sense considering the movement’s origins and path that it has taken up to this point. However, the movement also has stated values that it is striving to live up to. EAs want to do good as effectively as possible. They want to use the resources they’ve been blessed with as wisely as they can. And now that they have real resources to put to work, that goal takes on additional weight.

But what is an EA? Is it an individual committed to the movement’s current conclusions about the world, or is it someone that is committed to making the world a better place as effectively as they can? I very much agree with Luke Freeman’s conclusion that if the movement wants to maximize its impact, it will lean into the latter definition.

And that means opening up EA to new people that have different strengths, and that genuinely have the opportunity to reach different conclusions, than the EAs of today. This opening up does not need to be painful or destructive, it can be better for everyone. And most importantly, it can help the movement maximize its positive impact on the world.

Again, my fundamental question for the movement is this: You claim to want to maximize your positive impact on the world, do you mean it? If you do, then it is time that you open your mind to fundamental shifts in the way that you do things, and to who feels welcomed into the club. To repeat a sentiment that I saw repeatedly on the EA grant solicitations, it’s time for you to think bigger.

This post by Will MacAskill EA and the current funding situation demonstrates incredible wisdom and thoughtfulness. Reading it gives someone like me a lot of hope that not only does EA have excellent leadership, that leadership genuinely wants to seize the opportunity in front of them. The entire post is packed with wisdom, but here are two quotes:

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. 

. . .

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.

A shift in thinking more than funding priorities

The thing limiting EA is much more about how you think versus how you spend your funds. The ecosystem-building approach that I outlined is not expensive, you could seed founding teams in 20 cities throughout the world for $10 million dollars (with the requirement that they be self-sustaining). However, the approach represents a break from the culture and approaches of the EA of today.

There are so many potentially impactful altruistic leaders and builders that are looking for a home. They are laboring in isolation, or are searching for direction, and are looking for a cause to join. And if they can just connect with their tribe[11], and find the cause that matches their gifts, they will flourish. 

These are people that are critical to pushing forward positive change, and they are people that you want in any movement that seeks to improve the world. There are also a lot of them, and if the current structure of EA is unwelcoming to these people, then the structure should change.

It’s time to move beyond a movement that’s numbered in the thousands, to one that thinks in terms of millions and billions.[12] It’s time to move beyond funding hundreds of altruistic leaders, to inspiring and developing millions of them. 

There are so many wonderful people with so much potential to drive positive change that feel unwelcome in the movement as it currently stands. Let them in. And there are so many people that could become effective altruistic leaders if they just received the right encouragement, inspiration, and support. Build ecosystems welcome them, and that inspire, encourage, and support them at scale

This is the type of movement the world is waiting for.

 

Contact

In addition to public comments, I welcome any private thoughts or feedback on this post or on my altruistic ecosystem building project in Mexico City: https://notribe.org . Please feel free to message me or to email me for any reason at peter.elam@notribe.org .  I'm very interested in getting constructive feedback and connecting with like-minded people.

 

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49 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:54 AM

"Leadership" and "eco-systems" sound very nice as far as they're described here but I find this post unhelpful as a guide to what "EA" should do. 

Assuming this post is addressing EA funders – rather than the collection of diverse, largely uncoordinated, people, organizations, and perspectives that 'EA' is – is the claim that funders should open 20 of these offices? Who do they pay to do that and apply the "high standards" for early membership? What are the standards? Should people have models of the world that distinguish good/bad opportunities and big/small ones? At what point does answering these questions become too analytical? 

"Find all the smart altruistic people, point them to each other, give them some money, and let them do what they want" sounds nice, but aren't there hundreds or thousands of organizations interested in funding various projects, not least of which the whole VC industry? My sense is that not analyzing why you might be the funder of last resort, at least a little bit, is a recipe to crash and burn very quickly. $1m/yr/office could feed a handful of people and keep the lights on, but it's not scaling any projects. "EA" doesn't have enough money to last long without a lot of analysis and it's only been around for ~10 years.

People with diverse, niche interests and moxie have had really outsized influence on the world. It's easy to say "go find them," but the ones who will actually make a difference are very very few and far between and it takes some analysis to find them. There are a million people in Port Au Prince and probably hundreds of discernible perspectives on how to make things better there. Some multiplication for other localities. The Future Fund has 30 categories of ideas they want to pursue. Maybe that's "too small," but they're largely unaddressed and really big in scale. If they wanted to count all wins as equal, I don't doubt they could rack up a lot of very concrete wins and cool stories, but that seems to be what... all the rest of philanthropy is doing. And I'm glad they are! 

There's an undergrad econ thing where burning a dollar lowers the price level for all other dollar holders and increases their welfare, but everyone thinks you can do better than that by being more discerning. So just saying "more causes/ideas!" isn't really helpful without some limiting principle.

Strong upvote for asking - what are the tangible actions one can take, and who do you want should take them. This answer is often missing in EA critiques.

There's a lot here, but I would just say building ecosystems of leaders and builders is not an exotic idea, but actually something that is extremely common. Even just restricting it to the altruistic space, the The Nonprofit Centers Network has many spaces that are analogous to the example I gave.

Each space in the international Impact Hub network is self sustaining, and actually does not receive any seed funding (they're mostly funded by friends/family or bank loans). And it is a completely reasonable to expect any space to be self-sustaining after it is seeded.

The building of EA hubs in cities across the world might turn out to be a bad idea, but as I pointed out it's not my idea (it was the runner up in an EA ideas contest), and versions of it are currently being pursued by various different groups in the movement right now.

I think that the overall philanthropic sector could benefit greatly from more collaboration with EA, and that EA could take a leadership role to help to systematically improve it. However, that would require a shift in thinking.

I think most people on this forum would agree that the rest of the philanthropy sector would benefit from more contact with EA, but the question is whether the world would benefit from it [more than what EAs would otherwise be doing]. Interested to hear your thoughts on that

I think the world would unquestionably benefit from a more efficient/effective philanthropy sector. A central tenet of EA seems to be that the philanthropic sector is too inefficient. I think that sentiment is very uncontroversial, even among those operating within the sector. Engaging with those in the sector that share your core values, and helping them become more efficient, is a great way to maximize impact (in my view). I also think the statement 'more than what EAs would otherwise be doing' reflects a scarcity mindset that made a lot more sense in days past. EA has traditionally been a small movement, it doesn't have to remain that way.

I’m a bit confused, Mjreard seems to be saying something more like ‘hubs are common’ than ‘hubs are exotic’?

I was responding to the series of questions that implied building these would mean encountering difficult or impossible to answer questions.

I don’t think that’s what was implied - rather that they require analysis to answer, and that your post is in the vein of encouraging less analysis

Analysis is of course incredibly important no matter what you are trying to do. Ecosystem building requires an incredible amount of analysis to answer these and a myriad of other questions. But analysis coupled with building/data gathering/experimentation is much better than analysis alone.

From my post:

  • It provides a place for analysis and practice to intersect - Many current EAs may be stronger in gathering and analyzing data to help guide and influence those on the front lines. At the same time, all analysis is improved by interaction with the real world. This represents a place where those that analyze and those that build can interact to their mutual benefit.

I don’t think anyone disagrees with that

Yes and it's also not ideal to lust after hyper-legible solutions. Sometimes a general direction can be a useful starting point. 

This looks like it might be a valuable post. However, it has an estimated reading time of 30 mins. Can I encourage you to add an executive summary? This may encourage greater engagement with your claims.

That's a great suggestion Matt, and I just added an executive summary.

I think this is a strong post. It's been obvious for a long time that the skills and inclinations that make a good philosophy professor or forum poster are not precisely the same as the skills and inclinations that make a good CEO or project manager.

Solving this problem by reducing the influence of analytical discussion in EA, however, would solve the problem at the cost of reducing the distinctiveness of EA as a movement.

What is EA? EA is 1) an existing network of human relationships 2) a large pot of money, 3) a specific set of cultural norms about how weird philosophy nerds talk to each other and, downstream of 3), 4) a specific set of current ideas about how to do the most good.

The world has a very large number of altruistic ecosystems trying to do good. There are literally millions of civic organisations around the globefilled with worthy Haitian pastors. The Catholic Church is a single organisation with 1.3bn members and explicitly altruistic goals. In the EU alone, $13tn is invested in "ESG" funds with explicitly altruistic goals. 

My concern is that a "big tent" approach which attempts to unite people around altruistic goals while jettisoning EA's culture and methods will simply collapse into existing efforts to do good. EA's unusual leverage comes from the fact that it is a relatively tightly connected group of quite unusual individuals with extremely unusual beliefs.

Underlying the OP is an implied discomfort with the existing distribution of views within EA. If spending resources on averting nuclear war, or global health and wellbeing, or AI, is not in fact the best way to make the world a better place, I would prefer to see a post arguing this explicitly. Peter seems to be imagining that it's enough simply to build a large enough network of willing and capable volunteers, analogous to starting a company with the idea that once you have hired enough of the very best people across all continents the need to come up with a product will solve itself.

Two points. First, I don't think jettisoning the EA culture is desirable or even possible. As the movement grows some cultural change is inevitable, and posts about these cultural growing pains are some of the most popular on the forum. What I think is desirable is taking the best of what EA's culture and people have to offer to help influence and improve all these other altruistic efforts. But doing that means a willingness to partner with and engage a wider group of people and organizations. The entire EA movement does not need to pivot in this way, but it is a direction that I think at least a modest of part of EA should explicitly start experimenting with in the name of maximizing impact. You conduct experiments, collect data, and go from there.

Second. I think that ecosystem building is long and difficult work filled with a lot of very hard decisions. The reason people engage with it (including everyone involved in building the overall EA ecosystem) is because of the large payoffs if you are successful.

The Wall Street Journal article How a Public School in Florida Built America’s Greatest Math Team (non-paywalled version) describes how a retired Wall Street bond trader built a math team that has won 13 of the last 14 national math championships at an otherwise unremarkable high school. His success is not based on having a large budget, but rather on thinking differently and building an ecosystem.

The otherwise unremarkable high school has pick of the litter from everyone living around one of the largest universities in the country which is <5 miles away. ("Many of the gifted kids in his program have parents who work at the nearby University of Florida and push to get on Mr. Frazer’s radar.") That the school has unremarkably low average scores says little about their tails. (Note all the Asian names.)

There are probably hundreds of high schools located within close proximity to large US universities, including universities with stronger math programs than the University of Florida. 

The reason parents push to get on Mr. Frazer's radar is because he built a successful ecosystem. One of the core reasons you build an ecosystem is to attract talent. The success of what he built is what attracts additional talent. When he started nobody was trying to get on his radar, that only happened once the program gained momentum. 

And of course tails, if they are remarkable, are reflected in averages. But all of that aside. Before he arrived and built the the program the math team was unremarkable. The thing that's meaningfully different is what he built, not the talent pool he was drawing from (especially at the beginning). I'm sure the talent pool he's drawing from now is much stronger.

I appreciate a lot of what's in this post! I do think it's the case that we as a community have only explored a fraction of the space of development initiatives. It's really plausible to me that there are more impactful approaches or things to fund out there.

That said, I feel this swings too hard against the traditional EA approach of careful analysis and prioritization. After working in development I'm kind of allergic to calls to do things like "establish ecosystems that empower altruistic leaders at scale, and that allow those that build and those that analyze to collaborate to each other's mutual benefit". Many of these programs do exist. Only a few of them are impactful.

I did a quick Google search and found that something kind of like what you propose does actually exist. The Global Shapers Community has a hub in Port-Au-Prince, which "brings together exceptional Haitian youths whose mission is to shape the community to which they belong". I found it useful as an example of what something like this would actually look like in practice. Anyone can glance over their website and form their own view on how promising they think it would be to give this organization (or something like it) $1M.

I don't think this project, or other projects like what you discuss in the post, are un-analyzable by EA evaluators. I do think it's likely that many of them just sound better in theory than in practice.

I don't think they're un-analyzable either. I think EA should probably provide funding to help scale the most effective ones (if they want/need it), and fund new ones that they deem to be especially promising.

Thank you for writing this. I think the most valuable bit was for the community to hear that an outsider felt acutely as though the movement is committed to specific conclusions. I think it's important for us to reflect on this.

The culture emphasizes analysis over practice, and it does not attract many of the leaders and builders that are critical for maximizing impact.

 

EA has a lot of rhetoric around openness to ideas and perspectives, but actual interaction with the EA universe can feel more like certain conclusions are encased in concrete.

It seems to me that there is some tension between these two criticisms — you want EA to focus less on analysis, but you also don't want us to be too wedded to our conclusions. So how are we supposed to change our minds about the conclusions w/o doing analysis?

My guess (based on the rest of the essay), is that you want our analysis to be more informed by practice.

But I just want to emphasize that, in my view, analysis (and specifically cause neutrality) is what makes EA unique. If you take out the analysis, then it's not clear what value EA has to offer the rest of the charity / social impact world.

Analysis is of course incredibly important no matter what you are trying to do. Analysis coupled with building/data gathering/experimentation is much better than analysis alone.

“It’s much easier, and more reliable, to assess a project once it's already been tried.”

you also don't want us to be too wedded to our conclusions

Isn't not being wedded to your conclusions a core idea of the EA movement?

But I just want to emphasize that, in my view, analysis (and specifically cause neutrality) is what makes EA unique. If you take out the analysis, then it's not clear what value EA has to offer the rest of the charity / social impact world.

So of course I am not suggesting EA take out the analysis. From my post:

  • It provides a place for analysis and practice to intersect - Many current EAs may be stronger in gathering and analyzing data to help guide and influence those on the front lines. At the same time, all analysis is improved by interaction with the real world. This represents a place where those that analyze and those that build can interact to their mutual benefit.

My second thought is what is EAs core priority? Is it uniqueness or impact? If becoming less unique increases your impact would you choose to become less unique? If the core value is maximizing impact, all secondary values should be subordinate to that one.

Very nice! I really enjoyed this post -- it aligns well with a lot of my personal critiques of EA as well as things I've been working on. Thanks for writing this up.

This is a super interesting and inspiring post. Are you able to expand a bit about what you mean concretely by leadership? It’s such a broad term that sometimes people are using different definitions of.

Are you able to expand a bit more on what you mean in “ I also think the subculture is stronger (and stranger) than many highly-committed EAs understand.”

I just mean leadership in the most generic way; as in those that lead teams, organizations, hold government positions, etc.

Are you able to expand a bit more on what you mean in “ I also think the subculture is stronger (and stranger) than many highly-committed EAs understand.”

That would be a really long post. There's the stated values of EA (which as I said are relatively sensible and uncontroversial), and the reality of actually interacting with EA. I read some comment on the forum (I can't find it) that was talking about how EA in its current form is actually an amalgamation of several like-minded movements/organizations (Givewell, rationalism community, etc.) and that really helped me understand the culture a lot better. I'd also say this post hits a lot of the highlights.

Ah ok I think I misunderstood then - I thought by ‘highly committed EAs’ you meant people already involved in those organisations/communities

This is a great post and the most passionate defense I've seen of something like 'improving institutional decision-making', but broader, being an underrated cause area. I'm sympathetic to your ideas on the importance of good leadership, and the lack of it (and of low-trust, low-coordination environments more generally) as a plausible root cause behind many of the problems EAs care about most. However, I don't think this post has the evidence to support your key conclusions, beyond the general intuition that leadership is important.

Some of your thoughts:

  • If you want to have maximum impact you typically want to focus on leadership and governance. Most solvable problems in the world are really leadership and governance problems at their core.
  • If you want that impact to be lasting, you should focus on building organizations, institutions, or ecosystems that endure over time.
  • If you are trying to positively impact any group or initiative, leadership is most often your point of maximum leverage.
  • Corruption is Mexico's one fundamental problem.

Note the last point isn't a key conclusion, but is illustrative of the lack of evidence in this post. Is corruption Mexico's fundamental problem? The IADB report pretty convincingly argues that societal trust is vital to economic development, and is your best piece of evidence. But it doesn't argue that trust is the most (or most fundamental) factor, especially outside of Latin America, as opposed to things like effective institutions or more basic economic factors. And note that it indicates that Mexico has the second-highest level of trust in Latin America. Trust isn't lack of corruption isn't leadership/governance; they're all related, but it leaves me confused as to what specifically you're arguing for.

The rest of your points are huge claims, but other than the IADB report your evidence seems to be the blog post about Haiti and DR's divergence, and your list of real-world examples. The post about Haiti is suggestive, but is a fundamentally limited example as the history of one small, idiosyncratic country. It discusses the corruption of the Duvaliers, but also a host of other factors, and furthermore argues that the divergence began decades before François came to power. So corruption vs trust isn't the slam-dunk takeaway that it would need to be to even start thinking about generalizing from Haiti to the world.

Your list of places where ecosystem-building "actually [is] already working" is DARPA, a building at MIT, a math team, and a bunch of clubs. Regarding evidence of their cost-effective impact relative to the current EA paradigm, I'll give you the first three, which are your "building ecosystems on a limited budget" category. But again, this doesn't get us far beyond the general intuition that everyone already agrees with, that good leadership is good.

It's true that the best interventions can often only be identified with hindsight, but that's less applicable to meta-level criticisms of EA like yours. There are a lot of wonderful-sounding ideas like ecosystem-building out there, that hit all the right intuitions and are hard to explicitly argue against. But should EA make this pivot? That question needs more evidence than what's in this post.

Thank you for the reply Martin!! And I completely agree that I made some large claims without sufficient evidence. That's primarily because I got feedback that the post was very long as-is, and I made a decision not to flesh out the leadership part (which could be a very long post of its own).

I just want to be clear that I actually don't want EA to make any significant pivot. I do think that leadership/governance is not discussed by the community to the level of its importance, but I don't know if  corruption/poor governance is a tractable problem for EA (maybe it is, I genuinely don't know).

My main recommendation, and what I'm fundamentally arguing for, is that EA become a bigger tent organization that builds ecosystems of altruistic leaders and builders, and that engages with the larger nonprofit community in order to systematically improve it. 

There are a lot of wonderful-sounding ideas like ecosystem-building out there, that hit all the right intuitions and are hard to explicitly argue against.

Totally agree. Which is why I recommend a series of (relatively) small scale ecosystem building experiments to learn from. As I say, this could be done at low cost, but it does represent a shift from the current strategies that I've seen. I think a lot of these experiments would fail, but the ones that didn't could be quite impactful and could yield some very important insights. But I'm not suggesting a fundamental EA pivot in funding priorities or anything like that.

In terms of the governance/corruption stuff.

I would just say that the link between good governance and desirable outcomes is a very strong one, and that counterexamples are more an exception to the rule (typically places that are extraordinarily gifted with natural resources like Kuwait). There is of course a lot of evidence to back that up, but here is once piece (Human Development Index vs. Corruption Perception Index).

I've heard many people say that the Chinese economic miracle is the largest poverty reduction program in history. That was set in motion (I think pretty much uncontroversially) by a change in leadership from Mao to Deng. Singapore's economic transformation under Lee Kuan Yew was perhaps even more miraculous given the city's lack of resources and foreign support in the beginning.

There is of course a lot more to be said here, but I would just say the Mexico/governance/corruption points were secondary to my main points. And I completely agree they were not adequately supported. I could make a much stronger support of those points, but that would be an entire post.

Agree  that the impactfulness of working on better government is an important claim, and one you don't provide much evidence for. In the interest of avoiding an asymmetric burden of proof, I want to note that I personally don't have strong evidence against this claim either. I would love to see it further investigated and/or tried out more.

I don’t think asymmetric burden of proof applies when one side is making a positive claim against the current weight of evidence. But I fully agree that more research would be worthwhile.

i'm loving this genre of people who didn't get Future Fund $ writing big critiques! Looking forward to contribute my own soon

This sounds like a really cool idea and I'd love to see someone experiment with it. I'm curious, what feedback on these ideas have you received from talking with Effective Altruists?

I also noticed that your post title was "EA's Culture and Thinking are Severely Limiting Its Impact" and while there's nothing wrong with criticism, I would have personally chosen a title that would have promoted the idea of developing an ecosystem of leaders.

With the Effective Altruists that I've spoken to the feedback has been very very supportive, but I'm not sure if I've spoken to enough to get a truly representative sample. The most negative 'feedback' I've gotten has been on receiving generic rejection notices on my grant proposals, which is something I completely understand, but that also makes someone like me unsure if there's a place for me and my ideas in the movement. The main point of this post for me was to try to figure that out and to see if I could find some like-minded individuals.

And I totally agree that the way to try this is multiple small-scale experiments. There are a lot of factors that go into success and failure, and every context is unique. But when it's done right, it really can have a major impact.

I'm curious. Do you only think it's worth being connected to the community if your ideas get funded by the community? You've got a cool idea, but a lot of other people have cool ideas too and not everything can be funded.

I guess I see the community offering a host of other potential benefits as well, such as feedback, frameworks, access to talent, ect. I know it must be frustrating, but sometimes the negatives cloud out the positives. And there's nothing wrong if you disagree with me here, just thought I'd offer another way of seeing things.

Again, from my (an admitted outsider) perspective there seems to be a tension between "this is who we're for and this is how we do things" and the actual goal of maximizing impact. I'm all about trying to maximize impact, I'm not sure that I would have been a part of the various organizations that EA seems to be an amalgamation of.

I think a bigger tent version of EA is definitely a community I could join, but as it stands right now the biggest benefit for me is connecting with individuals within the movement that are like-minded. This post and some other conversations have really helped me do that.

I’m happy to hear you have been able to make some worthwhile connections.

You're absolutely right that improved leadership and governance has much greater impact than the typical EA / GiveWell causes, e.g. bed nets.

However, the problem is we don't know how to improve leadership and governance, with "we" being all of development academics and practitioners. Indeed, the World Bank and countless NGOs have been working for decades, spending billions of dollars on improving governance with little impact. Because of this poor track record, I'm suspicious that spending yet another 1 million on Haiti's governance wouldn't have any impact.

As someone who studies economic development and works in international development for 2 years, I'm quite jaded. The pie seems large, but it's entirely in the sky. In contrast, the EA / Give Well approach only makes small promises, but it surely delivers. That's the appeal.

So I'd be a little careful about those statements. Countries with a history of corruption are improving all the time, and in fact the divergence of the Dominican Republic and Haiti (two countries that literally share an island) are a stark example of that. Governance does tend to improve incrementally, but in many many places it has improved substantially over time. Here in Mexico governance is significantly less corrupt than it was when the PRI party had unchallenged dominance.

I am not an expert on how much of that is because of outside interventions versus other things, but due to the outsized returns to improved governance I think it isn't something to dismiss as hopeless. Perhaps improved governance is an intractable  problem for a movement like EA. I would just be careful about reaching that conclusion too quickly. And indeed portions of EA seem to engage directly with improving governance (such as better voting systems).

The Haiti example was a thought experiment to contrast that approach with current EA approaches.

The point about corruption is a good one and it worries me that so many EA cause areas seem to ignore corruption. When you send money to well funded NGOs in corrupt countries, you are also supporting the status quo political leadership there, and the side effects from this seem like they could be more impactful than the stated work of the NGO.

Yeah. Foreign aid is often problematic in corrupt countries, and it can be a major major problem. A quote from the Haiti / DR article that I linked to in the footnotes:

After the 2010 earthquake, Haiti elected Michel Martelly, a former pop star, to the presidency. When his successor, the late Jovenel Moïse, took office, an investigation revealed that Martelly’s administration had embezzled about $2 billion of aid.

Last weekend I was speaking to a leader of a nonprofit last gives large sums of aid to Haiti, and she was telling me just how difficult it is to translate the aid into tangible impact because of the corruption. 

Where do EA's interested in improving institutions tend to congregate? I'd love to dive deeper into these subjects with like minds. 

If you find out, let me know!

I wrote a post calling for folks interested in this topic at the end. Maybe we can get an email list or something similar going? https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/wBre7Rm6tBzKbZ86B/the-california-case-for-state-capacity-as-an-ea-cause-area