- A biosecurity & pandemic preparedness grant was made by Open Philanthropy to Helena for $500,000 in Nov 2022
- The grant profile raises questions about how it was justified and approved
- There is scant public information that could justify it as the best-placed and most appropriate recipient, a clear risk of nepotism inherent in the nature of the recipient organization, and what appear to be previous false representations made by the recipient organization
- This post asks OP to, in an effort to support accountability and transparency, publish further grant details and the investigation documents for the grant
Notes: I apologize in advance as I am not experienced in writing using the EA syntax and structure, all errors are my own. Full disclosure, I previously applied to and was rejected for a role at Open Philanthropy. I work for an organization that in the past has been a recipient of funding from OP, as a person who has an affinity with the short-termist global health and development side of EA but does not identify strongly as an EA. I think it is a good thing for accountability, transparency, and the broader governance of EA that OP listed the grant online, that I am able to question the grant in this forum and expect that OP will respond in good faith.
I have watched with interest as EA’s influence has grown within global health and development, in particular Open Philanthropy’s work in health security and biosecurity. Recent calls for transparency and accountability within effective altruism have thankfully been met by new initiatives like openbook.fyi. In light of this, a particular grant seems like it warrants further inspection and from OP’s perspective raises enough questions that it should have been accompanied by more information.
I occasionally trawl the grants databases for philanthropic foundations working in global health & health security and found a $500,000 grant to ‘Helena’ awarded in November 2022. I didn’t think anything of it until I saw it again in the openbook log, and upon seeing it looked into the organization.
I hope that my initial perception of the grant and the organization is entirely wrong, but the grant is striking in that it has scant details on what is a sizable grant to an organization with no track record in the subject matter that appears to have pretty clearly misrepresented itself in the recent past.
The grant commitment and recipient organization as they stand are emblematic of the challenges in effective and equitable grantmaking for philanthropies like Open Philanthropy. Henry Elkus and Helena’s path can be summed up as:
- Henry’s VC dad uses his resources to support Henry’s interests
- Henry drops out of school because he thinks he is exceptionally smarter and better equipped to solve 'our problems’
- Henry starts an obtuse org with for-profit venture capital and non-profit 501(c)3 sides
- The organization has a confusing and meandering scope of work, that appears to be a collection of personal interests at each point in time
- Has no proven tangible value-add beyond ‘networking’, with previous programmatic activities summed up as funding a semi-academic sociology event and acting as a rogue PPE procurement agency during COVID
- Helena then gets half a million from OP to explore ‘policy related to health security’ work that they have no track record of doing or apparent expertise in
It feels wrong when Helena (subjectively) seems like a self-aggrandizing nepotism project at best, and (objectively) gets a large grant with no details and no track record in the area of work. It is also notable that Henry and Helena have no track record of participating in EA settings. Participating in transparency and holding your grantmaking to account meaningfully are two different things. This all leads to several questions about the grant:
- How did OP justify this grant? What are the activities covered, the case investigation details, how is this grant partitioned from the for-profit side of Helena, and the usual due diligence…there is currently zero practical transparency on what is a large grant
- Assuming there is an important, tractable, and neglected grant underpinning this, how does Helena qualify as the most appropriate recipient?
- Is Helena even qualified for the work? At the time of the grant award, Helena does not appear to have the track record or expertise to work on health security policy issues, and the 990 forms show little detail on program activities related to biosecurity policy. Prof Mark Dybul is listed on the website, but they have a history of listing people who have no tangible relationship with Helena. Having notable experts in a subject area as affiliates is also different from having the proven systems, processes, and staff with which to do the legwork of program implementation
- If they are qualified, are they the best-placed recipient organization? Best-placed being THE most appropriate, suitable, and acceptable - and where sometimes doing nothing is better than choosing a less appropriate intervention method even if it generates benefit. As noted above, they don’t have a tangible track record of doing anything apart from funding a semi-academic sociology event and acting as a rogue PPE procurement agency during COVID (for which there are global health critiques of such actions). There are several other worthy US-based organizations with proven track records working on and advocating for health security policy development
- How did this grant evolve? Did Helena approach OP or the other way around? What personal relationships or conflicts of interest are there between the two organizations?
- Given the clear issues apparent across publicly available information, why did OP decide to award a grant of significant size to the recipient organization without providing key clarifying information?
Two articles from when Helena was launched:
Form 990 submissions and 501(c)3 inforion:
Edited for clarity. The nepotism I refer to is the nature of the organization and not the grant
I chose to write this semi-anonymously here, and accept criticisms of posting in this way. It would not be hard to figure out who I am, but I chose this method for convenience and also because I will continue to work in the same field as Open Philanthropy
I completely accept that these points are very much my subjective and critical views based on what is available publicly of Henry Elkus and Helena, both of which I have no direct knowledge of or experience working with
As an aside, it is a peculiar quirk that the 990 forms list the two officers of Helena as working 60 hours a week on the 501(c)3 side of things when they are also engaged in the work of the for-profit Helena Special Investments. It seems like a pointless and obvious misrepresentation
The 990 forms across the years do not show much relevant programmatic work for the org. It is just lots of money in, some small grants out (not including expenses from funding the America in One Room event), and a lot of internal staff overhead (none of which is broken out in the highly paid staff section beyond the two officers). Internal expenses for staff pretty much take up whatever Helena 501(c)3 brings in, with none of the payments to contractors or vendors you would expect from an organization doing a bunch of work. I think this differs from an org like OP where the relationship between the non-profit and for-profit sides has been publicly outlined, and the for-profit side has a visible, distinct, and clear scope of work
If the grant was aimed at engaging experts like Prof Dybul on this work, would it not make more sense for it to be through a more traditional and direct affiliation (i.e., Georgetown)
See the Gawker and Page Six articles
The COVID PPE procurement activities also do not appear to reconcile in the financials section of the Helena Group Foundation's 2020 990 form. The accomplishments line item 'COVID RESPONSE' describes three separate activities, one of which is $20m being 'deployed' for PPE procurement. Total accruals across the three activities for that line item are expenses of $925,044 against $50,000 in grants received by Helena and revenue of $0. Is this due to a reporting quirk of the 990 forms? could those activities have been 'deployed' external to Helena 501(c)3 and/or out of the VC for-profit side of things, with the 501(c)3 providing coordination and advice? or maybe the reconciliation will make sense once the 2021 990 forms are filed with IRS?
For clarity, I refer to how any relevant relationships may have influenced the grant development and approval process
Also, given Holden's recent post: We're no longer "pausing most new longtermist funding commitments" - EA Forum (effectivealtruism.org), would this grant have cleared the reevaluated bar for giving?