This is a cross-post from 80,000 Hours. See part 2 on the allocation across cause areas. See a short update as of Aug 2022.
In 2015, I argued that funding for effective altruism – especially within meta and longtermist areas – had grown faster than the number of people interested in it, and that this was likely to continue. As a result, there would be a funding ‘overhang’, creating skill bottlenecks for the roles needed to deploy this funding.
A couple of years ago, I wondered if this trend was starting to reverse. There hadn’t been any new donors on the scale of Good Ventures (the main partner of Open Philanthropy), which meant that total committed funds were growing slowly, giving the number of people a chance to catch up.
However, the spectacular asset returns of the last few years and the creation of FTX, seem to have shifted the balance back towards funding. Now the funding overhang seems even larger in both proportional and absolute terms than 2015.
In the rest of this post, I make some rough guesses at total committed funds compared to the number of interested people, to see how the balance of funding vs. talent might have changed over time.
This will also serve as an update on whether effective altruism is growing – with a focus on what I think are the two most important metrics: the stock of total committed funds, and of committed people.
This analysis also made me make a small update in favour of giving now vs. investing to give later.
Here’s a summary of what’s coming up:
- How much funding is committed to effective altruism (going forward)? Around $46 billion.
- How quickly have these funds grown? About 37% per year since 2015, with much of the growth concentrated in 2020–2021.
- How much is being donated each year? Around $420 million, which is just over 1% of committed capital, and has grown maybe about 21% per year since 2015.
- How many committed community members are there? About 7,400 active members and 2,600 ‘committed’ members, growing 10–20% per year 2018–2020, and growing faster than that 2015–2017.
- Has the funding overhang grown or shrunk? Funding seems to have grown faster than the number of people, so the overhang has grown in both proportional and absolute terms.
- What might be the implications for career choice? Skill bottlenecks have probably increased for people able to think of ways to spend lots of funding effectively, run big projects, and evaluate grants.
To caveat, all of these figures are extremely rough, and are mainly estimated off the top of my head. I haven’t checked them with the relevant donors, so they might not endorse these estimates. However, I think they’re better than what exists currently, and thought it was important to try to give some kind of rough update on how my thinking has changed. There are likely some significant mistakes; I’d be keen to see a more thorough version of this analysis. Overall, please treat this more like notes from a podcast than a carefully researched article.
Which growth metrics matter?
Broadly, the future impact of effective altruism depends on the total stock of:
- The quantity of committed funds
- The number of committed people (adjusted for skills and influence)
- The quality of our ideas (which determine how effectively funding and labour can be turned into impact)
(In economic growth models, this would be capital, labour, and productivity.)
You could consider other resources like political capital, reputation, or public support as well, though we can also think of these as being a special type of labour.
In this post, I’m going to focus on funding and labour. (To do an equivalent analysis for ideas, which could easily matter more, we could try to estimate whether the expected return of our best way of using resources is going up or down, with some kind of adjustment for diminishing returns.)
For both funding and labour, we can look at the growth of the stock of that resource, or the growth of how much of that resource is deployed (i.e. spent on valuable projects) each year.
If we want to estimate how quickly effective altruism is growing, then I think the stock is most relevant, since that determines how many resources will be deployed in the long term.
It’s true there’s no point having a big stock of resources if it’s not being deployed – so we should also want to see growth in deployed resources – however there can be good reasons to delay deployment while the stock is still growing, such as (i) to gain better information about how to spend it, (ii) to build up grantmaking capacity, or (iii) to accumulate investment returns and career capital. So, if forced to choose between stock and deployment, I’d choose the stock as the best measure of growth.
Both the stock of resources and the amount deployed each year are also more important than ‘top-of-funnel’ metrics (like Google search volume for ‘effective altruism’) though we should watch the top-of-funnel metrics carefully – especially insofar as they correlate with future changes in the stock.
Finally, I think it’s very important to try to make an overall estimate of the total stock of resources. It’s possible to come up with a long list of EA growth metrics, but different metrics typically vary by one or two orders of magnitude in how important they are. Typically most growth is driven by one or two big sources, so many metrics can be stagnant or falling while the total resources available are exploding.
How many funds are committed to effective altruism?
Here are some very, very rough figures:
I’ve tried to focus on funds that are already ‘committed’. I mostly haven’t adjusted them for the chance the person gives up on EA (except for GWWC), but I’ve also ignored the net present value of likely commitments from new future donors.
I’m aware of at least one new donor who is pushing ahead with plans to donate to longtermist issues at around $100 million per year, with perhaps a net present value in the tens of billions.
There are several other billionaires who seem sympathetic to EA (e.g. Reid Hoffman has donated to GPI) – these are ignored.
I’m also ignoring people like Bill Gates who donate to things that EAs would often endorse.
Bear in mind that these figures are extremely volatile – e.g. the value of FTX could easily fall 80% in a market crash, or if a competitor displaces it. Many of the stakes that the wealth comes from are also fairly illiquid – if the owners tried to sell a significant fraction, it could crash the price.
Side note for EA investors
As an individual EA who’s fairly value-aligned with other EA donors, you should invest in order to bring the overall EA portfolio in line with the ideal EA portfolio, and to prefer assets that are uncorrelated with other EAs. The current EA portfolio is highly tilted towards Facebook and FTX, and more broadly towards Ethereum/decentralised finance and big U.S. tech companies. This overweight is much more significant if we risk-weight rather than capital-weight. For instance, Ethereum and FTX equity are probably about 5x more volatile and risky than Facebook stock, and so account for the majority of our risk allocation. This means you should only hold assets highly correlated to these if you think this overweight should be increased even further. It seems likelier to me that most EAs should underweight these assets in order to diversify the portfolio.
How quickly have committed funds grown?
The committed funds are dominated by Good Ventures and FTX, so to estimate total growth, we mainly need to estimate how much they’ve grown:
In 2015, Forbes estimated Moskovitz’s net worth was $8 billion, so it has grown by 2.6x since then (about 20% per year). This is probably due to (i) Facebook stock price appreciation and (ii) the Asana IPO.
FTX didn’t exist in 2015.
The impact of these two sources alone is growth of $33 billion since 2015. The new total of $39 billion from both is about five-fold growth compared to $8 billion in 2015.
The other sources make up a minority of the funds, but my rough estimate is they have grown around 2.5x since 2015.
For instance, GiveWell donors (excluding Open Phil) were giving $80 million per year in 2019, up from about $40 million in 2015. We don’t yet have the finalised figures for 2020, but it seems to be significantly higher – perhaps $120 million (see below).
Many of the sources have grown faster. As one example, in 2015 David Goldberg estimated the value of pledges made by Founders Pledge members at $64 million, compared to over $3 billion today.
In total, I’d guess that committed funds in 2015 were about $10 billion, so have grown 4.6x. This is 37% per year over five years.
You might worry that most of this growth was concentrated in the earlier years, and that recent growth has been slow. My guess is that if anything the opposite is the case – growth has been concentrated in the last 1–2 years, in line with the recent boom in technology stocks and cryptocurrencies, and the creation of FTX.
The situation for each cause could be different. My impression is that the funds available for longtermist and meta grantmaking have grown faster than those for global health.
How much funding is being deployed each year?
In early 2020, I estimated that the EA community was deploying about $420 million per year.
Around 60% was through Open Philanthropy, 20% through other GiveWell donors, and 20% from everyone else. The Open Phil grants were based on an average of their giving 2017–2019, which helps to smooth out big multi-year grants.
$420 million per year would be just over 1% of committed capital.
Even those who are relatively into patient philanthropy think we should aim to donate over 1% per year, and at the 2020 EA Leaders Forum, the median estimate was that we should aim to donate 3% of capital per year.
So, if we’re now at 1% per year, that’s one argument that we should aim to tilt the balance towards giving now rather than investing to give later. In contrast, in early 2020, I thought that longtermist donors were giving more like 3% of capital per year, so it wasn’t obvious whether this was too low or too high. (This argument is fairly weak by itself – the quality of the particular opportunities and our ability to make good grants are also big factors.)
How quickly have deployed funds grown?
Since 60% comes via Open Philanthropy, we can mainly look to their grants.
Around 2014–2015, Open Philanthropy was only making grants of around $30 million per year, which rapidly grew to a new plateau of $200–$300 million by 2017.
At that point, they decided to hold deployed funds constant for several years, in order to evaluate their progress and build staff capacity before trying to scale further.
Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna have said they want to donate everything within their lifetimes. This will require hitting around $1 billion deployed per year fairly soon, which I expect to happen. The Metaculus community agrees, forecasting donations of over $1 billion per year by 2030 in a median scenario.
Note that the grants are very lumpy year-to-year. One reason for this is that Open Philanthropy sometimes makes three- or five-year commitments which all accrue to the first year. For instance, I think 2017 is unusually high due to the grants to OpenAI and malaria gene drives. Open Philanthropy has also reduced how much they donate to GiveWell-recommended charities since 2017 (see the next chart below), which was due to deciding to allocate more to their longtermist bucket, which is distributing more slowly than global health. You’ll get a more accurate impression from taking a three-year (or five-year) moving average, which currently stands at ~$240 million. (The chart below is from Applied Divinity Studies.)
FTX is new, so the founders have only been giving millions per year. Their money is not yet highly liquid, and they haven’t created a foundation, so we should expect it to remain low for a while, but eventually increase to hundreds of millions.
Money moved by GiveWell (excluding Open Philanthropy) hit a flat period from 2015–2017, but seems to have started growing again in 2018, by over 30% per year. I believe the 2020 figures are on track to be even better than 2019, but aren’t shown on this chart (or included in my deployed funds estimate).
My impression from the data I’ve seen is that funds donated by GWWC members, EA Funds, Founders Pledge members, Longview Philanthropy, SFF, etc. have all grown significantly (i.e. more than doubling) in the last five years.
Overall, I estimate the community would have been deploying perhaps $160 million per year in 2015, so in total this has grown 2.6-fold, or 21% per year over five years – somewhat slower than the growth of the stock of committed capital, but roughly in line with the number of people.
Looking forward, my best guess is that this rate of growth continues for the next 5-10 years.
How many engaged community members are there?
The best estimate I’m aware of is by Rethink Priorities using data from the 2019 EA Survey:
We estimate there are around 2,315 highly engaged EAs and 6,500 (90% CI: 4,700–10,000) active EAs in the community overall.
‘Highly engaged’ is defined as those who answered 4 or 5 out of 5 for engagement in the survey, and ‘active’ is those who answered 3, 4 or 5.
A 4 on this scale is a fairly high bar for engagement — e.g. many people who’ve made career changes we’ve tracked at 80,000 Hours only report ‘4’ on this scale).
In 2020, I estimate about 14% net growth (see the next section), bringing the total number of active EAs to 7,400.
You can see some more statistics on what these people are like in the EA Survey.
If we were to consider the number of people interested in effective altruism, it would be much higher. For instance, at 80,000 Hours we have about 150,000 people on our newsletter, and over 100,000 people have bought a copy of Doing Good Better.
How quickly has the number of engaged community members grown?
Unfortunately, it’s still very hard to estimate the growth rate in the number of committed people, since the data are plagued with selection effects and lag effects.
For instance, the data I’ve seen shows that it often takes several years for someone to go from having first heard about EA to filling out the EA Survey, and from there to reporting themselves as ‘4’ or ‘5’ for engagement. This means that many of the new members from the last few years are not yet identified – so most ways of measuring this growth will undercount it.
In mid 2020, I made 6 estimates for the annual growth rate of committed members, which fell in the range of 0-30% in the last 1–2 years. My central estimate was around 20% (+900 per year at ‘4’ or ‘5’ on the engagement scale in the survey).
More recently, we were able to re-use the method Rethink Priorities used in the analysis above, but with data from the 2020 EA Survey rather than 2019. This analysis found the total number of engaged EAs has grown about 14% in the last year, so would now be 7,400.
This is fairly uncertain, and there’s a reasonable chance the number of people didn’t grow in 2020.
The percentage growth rate would have been a lot higher in 2015–2017, since the base of members was much smaller, and I also think those were unusually good years for getting new people into EA.
Around 2017, there was a shift in strategy from reaching new people to getting those who were already interested into high-impact jobs. This meant that ‘top-line’ metrics — such as web reach and media impressions — slowed down.
My take is that this shift in strategy was at least partially successful, insofar as the number of committed EAs and their influence has continued to grow, despite flattish top-line metrics. (Though there’s a reasonable chance EA could have grown even faster if the top-line growth had continued.)
Going forward, we’ll eventually need to get the top-of-funnel metrics growing again, or the stock of ‘medium’ engaged people will run out, and the number of ‘highly’ engaged people will stop growing. It seems like several groups are prioritising outreach to new people more highly going forward.
What about the skill level of the people involved?
This is a big uncertainty because one influential member (e.g. in a senior position at the White House) can achieve what it might take thousands of others to achieve.
My sense is that the typical influence and skill level of members has grown a lot, partly just because people have grown older and advanced their careers. For example, there are now a number of interested people in senior government positions in the U.K. and U.S. who weren’t there in 2015. The average age of community members is several years higher.
In terms of the level of ‘talent’ of new members, we don’t have great data. Impressions seem to be split between the level being similar to the past and being a bit lower. So if we averaged the two, in expectation there would be a small decrease.
How much labour is being deployed?
It’s hard to estimate how much labour is being ‘deployed’. People can at most deploy one year per year if they focus on impact, but a proper estimate should account for:
What fraction of people are focused on impact compared to career capital. According to the 2020 EA Survey, around two community members are prioritising career capital per person prioritising immediate impact.
Increasing productivity over time. The mean age in the community is 29, but most people only hit peak productivity around age 40–60 (though most of the increase happens by the early 30s).
Discounting the value of future years, especially for ‘drop out’, though potentially including the labour of future recruits.
Overall, my guess is that we’re only deploying 1–2% of the net present value of the labour of the current membership. This could be an argument for shifting the balance a bit more towards immediate impact rather than career capital – though this is a really complicated question. Young people often have great opportunities to build career capital, and if those opportunities increase their lifetime impact, they should take them, no matter what others in the community are doing.
How quickly has deployed labour increased?
If the percentage of people focused on career capital vs. impact is similar over time, then it should track the stock – so we can try to track that going forward.
To claw together some rough data, according to the 2019 EA Survey, about 260 people said they’re working at ‘an EA org’ (which includes object-level charities). With an estimated 40% response rate, that would imply 650 people in total, which seems a lot higher than what I would have guessed in 2015.
My impression is that most of the most central EA orgs have also grown headcount ~20% per year (e.g. CEA, MIRI, 80K), roughly doubling since 2015, and keeping pace with growth in the number of people.
Working at an EA org is only one option, and a better estimate would aim to track the number of people ‘deployed’ in research, policy, earning to give, etc. as well.
Changes in the overhang: how quickly has funding grown compared to people?
In 2015, I argued there was a funding overhang within meta and longtermist causes. (Though note it’s less obvious there’s a funding overhang within global health, and to a lesser extent animal welfare.) How has this likely evolved?
During 2017–2019, I thought the number of people might have been catching up, but in 2020, it seemed like the growth of each had been roughly similar. A similar rate of proportional growth would mean the absolute size of the overhang was increasing.
As of July 2021 and the latest FTX deal, I now think the amount of funding has grown faster than people, making the growth of the overhang even larger.
Here are some semi-made-up numbers to illustrate the idea:
Suppose that, in 2015:
- There was $10 billion
- There were 2,500 people
- 30% of people are to be employed by EA donors
- The average cost of employing someone is $100,000
In that case, it would take $75 million per year to employ them. But $10 billion can generate perpetual income of $200 million, so the overhang is $125 million per year.
Suppose that in 2021:
- There is $50 billion
- There are 7,500 people.
Then, it would take $225 million to employ 30% of them, but you can generate $1,000 million of income with that capital, so the overhang is $775 million per year.
Another way to try to quantify the overhang is to try to estimate the financial value of the labour, and compare is to the committed funding. My rough estimate is that the labour is worth $50k to $500k per year. If, after accounting for drop out, the average career has 20 years remaining, that would be $1m – $10m per person. (If this seems high, note that it's driven largely by outliers.) If there are 7,400 people, that would be $7.4bn - $74bn in total (central around $20bn). In comparison, I estimated there is almost $50bn of committed capital, so the value of the labour is most likely lower. In contrast, in the economy as a whole, I think human capital is normally thought to be worth more than physical capital, so the situation in effective altruism is most likely the reverse of the norm.
Note that if there’s an overhang, the money can be invested to deploy later, or spent employing people outside of the community (e.g. funding academic research), so it’s not that the money is wasted – it’s more that we’ll end up missing some especially great opportunities that could have been taken otherwise. These will especially be opportunities that are best tackled by people who deeply share the EA mindset. I’ll talk more about the implications later.
What about the future of the balance of funding vs. people?
Financial investment returns
A major driver of the stock of capital will be the investment returns of Facebook, Asana, FTX, and Ethereum.
If there’s a crash in tech stocks and cryptocurrencies (which seems fairly likely in the short term), the balance could move somewhat back towards people.
In the longer term, I’ll leave it to the reader to forecast the future returns of a portfolio like the above.
Personally, I feel uneasy projecting that U.S. tech stocks will return more than 1–5% per year, due to their high valuations. I expect cryptocurrencies will return more, but with much higher risk.
New donors vs. new members
If we assume that effective altruism will keep growing, and won’t collapse, and that key existing donors will remain supporters, does it seem harder to grow the number of donors or the number of members who aren’t donors?
As noted above, I think it’s more likely than not that another $100 million per year/$20 billion NPV donor enters the community within the coming years. This would be roughly ~40% growth in the total stock, compared to 15% per year growth in people, which would shift the balance even more towards funding.
The Metaculus community also estimates there’s a 50% chance of another Good Ventures-scale donor within five years.
After this, I expect it’ll become harder to grow the pool of committed funds at current rates.
Going from $60 billion to $120 billion would require convincing a 100+ billionaire like Jeff Bezos to give a large fraction of their net worth to EA-aligned causes, or might require convincing around 10 ‘regular’ billionaires.
That said, it seems possible. For instance, the total pledged by all members of the Giving Pledge is around $600 billion, so if 20% of them were into EA, that would be $120 billion; four-fold growth from today.
The total U.S. philanthropic sector is $400 billion per year, so if 1% of that was EA aligned, that would be $4 billion per year, which is 10-fold growth from today, and three-fold growth from where I expect us to be in 5–10 years.
Expanding the number of committed community members from around 5,000 to around 50,000 seems somewhat more achievable given enough time.
Only about 10% of U.S. college graduates have even heard of EA, let alone seriously considered its ideas, and it's even less well known in non-English-speaking countries.
A recent survey of Oxford students found that they believed the most effective global health charity was only ~1.5x better than the average — in line with what the average American thinks — while EAs and global health experts estimated the ratio is ~100x. This suggests that even among Oxford students, where a lot of outreach has been done, the most central message of EA is not yet widely known.
If it seems easier to grow the number of people 10-fold than to grow the committed funds 10-fold, then I expect the size of the overhang will eventually decrease, but this could easily take 20 years, and I expect the overhang is going to be with us for at least the next five years.
A big uncertainty here is what fraction of people will ever be interested in EA in the long term – it’s possible its appeal is very narrow, but happens to include an unusually large fraction of wealthy people. In that case, the overhang could persist much longer.
Human capital investment returns
One other complicating factor is that, as noted, people’s productivity tends to increase with age, and many community members are focused on growing their career capital.
For instance, if someone goes from a masters student to a senior government official, then their influence has maybe increased by a factor of 1,000. This could enable the community to achieve far more, and to deploy far more funds, even if the number of people doesn’t grow that much.
Implications for career choice
Here are some very rough thoughts on what this might mean for people who want high-impact careers and feel aligned with the current effective altruism community. I’m going to focus on longtermist and meta causes, since they’re what I know the best and where the biggest overhang exists.
Which roles are most needed?
The existence of a funding overhang within meta and longtermist causes created a bottleneck for the skills needed to deploy EA funds, especially in ways that are hard for people who don’t deeply identify with the mindset.
We could break down some of the key leadership positions needed to deploy these funds as follows:
- Researchers able to come up with ideas for big projects, new cause areas, or other new ways to spend funds on a big scale
- EA entrepreneurs/managers/research leads able to run these projects and hire lots of people
- Grantmakers able to evaluate these projects
These correspond to bottlenecks in ideas, management, and vetting, respectively.
Given that many of the most promising projects involve research and policy, I’d say there’s a special need to have these skills within those sectors, as well as within the causes longtermists are most focused on, such as AI and biosecurity (e.g. someone who can lead an AI research lab; the kind of person who can found CSET). That said, I hope that longtermists expand into a wider range of causes, and there are opportunities in other sectors too.
Putting the funding overhang aside, the skill sets listed above would still be valuable: as an illustration, these skills also seem very valuable within global health – and typically more valuable than earning to give – though there’s less obviously an overhang there.
But the presence of the overhang makes them even more valuable. Finding an extra grantmaker or entrepreneur can easily unlock millions of dollars of grants that would otherwise be left invested.
I’ve thought these roles were some of the most needed in the community since 2015, and now that the overhang seems even bigger — and seems likely to remain big for 10 years — I think they’re even more valuable than I did back then.
Personally, if given the choice between finding an extra person for one of these roles who’s a good fit or someone donating $X million per year, to think the two options were similarly valuable, X would typically need to be over three, and often over 10 (where this hugely depends on fit and the circumstances).
This would also mean that if you have a 10% chance of succeeding, then the expected value of the path is $300,000–$2 million per year (and the value of information will be very high if you can determine your fit within a couple of years).
The funding overhang also created bottlenecks for people able to staff projects, and to work in supporting roles. For each person in a leadership role, there’s typically a need for at least several people in the more junior versions of these roles or supporting positions — e.g. research assistants, operations specialists, marketers, ML engineers, people executing on whatever projects are being done, etc.
I’d typically prefer someone in these roles to an additional person donating $400,000–$4 million per year (again, with huge variance depending on fit).
The bottleneck for supporting roles has, however, been a bit smaller than you might expect, because the number of these roles was limited by the number of people in leadership positions able to create these positions.
I think for the more junior and supporting roles there was also a vetting bottleneck. I’m unsure if there were infrastructure or coordination bottlenecks beyond the factors mentioned, but it seems plausible.
How should individuals respond to these needs?
If you might be able to help fill one of these key bottlenecks, there’s a good chance it’ll be the highest impact thing you can do.
Ideally, you can shoot for the tail outcome of a leadership role within one of these categories (e.g. becoming a grantmaker, manager, or someone who finds a new cause area). Aiming for a leadership position also sets you up to go into a highly valuable supporting or more junior equivalent role (e.g. being a researcher for a grantmaker, or being an operations specialist working under a manager).
Your next step will likely involve trying to gain career capital that will accelerate you in this path. Depending on what career capital you focus on, there could be many other strong options you could switch to otherwise (e.g. government jobs).
Be aware that the leadership-style roles are very challenging – besides being smart and hardworking, you need to be self-motivated, independently minded, and maybe creative. They also typically require deep knowledge of effective altruism, and a lot of trust from — and a good reputation within — the community. It’s difficult to become trusted with millions of dollars or a team of tens of people.
So, no one should assume they’ll succeed, and everyone should have a backup plan.
The ‘supporting’ roles are also more challenging than you might expect. Besides also requiring a significant amount of skill and trust (though less than the leadership roles), there’s a lack of mentorship capacity, and their creation is limited by the number of people in leadership roles.
On our job board, I made a quick count of 40 roles like these within our top recommended problem areas posted within the last two months, so there are perhaps 240 per year.
This compares to about 7,400 engaged community members, of which perhaps about 1,000 are early career and looking to start these kinds of jobs.
So there are a significant number of opportunities, and given their impact I think many people should pursue them, but it’s important to know there’s a reasonable chance it doesn’t work out.
If you’re unsure of your chances of eventually being able to land a supporting role, then build career capital towards those roles, but focus on ways of gaining career capital that also take you towards 1–2 other longer-term roles you find attractive.
I want to be honest about the challenges of these roles so that people know what they’re in for, but I’m also very concerned about being too discouraging.
We meet many people who are under-confident in their abilities, and especially their potential to grow over the years.
I think it’s generally better to aim a bit high than too low. If you succeed, you’ll have a big impact. If it doesn’t work out, you can switch to your plan B instead.
Trying to fill the most pressing skill bottlenecks in the world’s most pressing problems is not easy, and I respect anyone who tries.
What does this mean for earning to give?
The success of FTX is arguably a huge vindication of the idea of earning to give, and so in that sense it’s a positive update.
On balance, however, I think the increase in funding compared to people is an update against the value of earning to give at the margin.
This doesn’t mean earning to give has no value:
- Medium-sized donors can often find opportunities that aren’t practical for the largest donors to exploit – the ecosystem needs a mixture of ‘angel’ donors to compliment the ‘VCs’ like Open Philanthropy. Open Philanthropy isn’t covering many of the problem areas listed here and often can’t pursue small individual grants.
- You can save money, invest it, and spend when the funding overhang has decreased, or in order to practice patient philanthropy more generally.
- You could support causes that seem more funding constrained, like global health.
But I do think the relative value of earning to give has fallen over time, as the overhang has increased.
Overall, I would encourage people early in their career to very seriously consider options besides earning to give first.
If you’re already earning to give — and especially if you don’t seem to have a chance of tail outcomes (e.g. startup exit) — I’d encourage you to seriously consider whether you could switch.
That said, there are definitely people for whom earning to give remains their overall top option, especially if they have personal constraints, can’t find another role that’s a good fit, have unusually high earnings, or are learning a lot from their job (and might switch out later).
I’ve focused on earning to give and jobs working ‘directly’ to deploy EA funds, but I definitely don’t want to give the impression these are the only impactful jobs.
I continue to think that jobs in government, academia, other philanthropic institutions and relevant for-profit companies (e.g. working on biotech) can be very high impact and great for career capital.
For instance, it would be possible for the community to have an absolutely massive impact via improving government policy around existential risks, and this doesn’t require anyone to get a job ‘in EA’.
I don’t discuss them more here because they don’t require EA funding to pursue, so their expected impact isn’t especially affected by the size of the funding overhang. I’d still encourage readers to consider them.
What does the growth of effective altruism imply about our priorities and level of ambition?
If you think you might be able to help deal with one of the key bottlenecks mentioned, or are interested in switching out of earning to give, we’ve recently ended the waitlist for our one-on-one advice, and would encourage you to apply.
You might also be interested in:
What the effective altruism community most needs. A conversation between me and Arden Koehler, covering talent vs. funding gaps in more depth.
Why do some organisations say their recent hires are worth so much?
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Looking backwards, the main thing we care about is actual impact. Personally I think the EA community has had a lot of success doing things like turning AI safety into an accepted field, funding malaria prevention, scaling up cage-free campaigns etc., though this is a matter of judgement. ↩︎
I assume a perpetual withdrawal rate of 2%. Studies of the market in the past often find that it's possible to withdraw 2–3% from a portfolio that’s mainly equities and not decrease your capital in real terms. 2% is also in line with the current dividend yield of global stocks – the capital should roughly track global nominal GDP, so the 2% represents what can be withdrawn each year. This 2% figure could be very conservative – if EA donors can earn higher returns than say an 80% equity portfolio, as they have historically, then it’ll be possible to withdraw a lot more. This would make the funding overhang a lot larger. I’ve also compared a perpetual withdrawal rate with the current stock of people, but the typical career of a member will only last 30 years, so it might have been better to assume we also want to spend down the capital over 30 years. In that case, you could likely withdraw 3–4% (a typical retirement safe withdrawal rate for a 30-year retirement), which would up to double the available income. ↩︎
For instance, there’s a pre-existing community doing conventional biosecurity, which made it easier to turn money into progress on biosecurity despite a lack of EA community members working in the area. In contrast, there was no existing AI safety community, which has meant it has taken longer to deploy funds there. ↩︎
The more reason for urgency, the bigger these bottlenecks. If you’d like to see more patient philanthropy, then it might be fine just to keep all the funding invested to spend later. ↩︎
One comment regarding:
But the presence of the overhang makes them even more valuable. Finding an extra grantmaker or entrepreneur can easily unlock millions of dollars of grants that would otherwise be left invested.
If we really think that this is the case for EA / charity entrepreneurs I think we should consider the following:
We spend too little effort on recruiting entrepreneurial types in the movement. Being relatively new in the movement (coming in as an entrepreneur), I think we should foster a more entrepreneurial culture than we currently do. I know some fellow entrepreneurs that dropped out of / didn’t enter the movement because they felt EA is an intellectual endeavour with too little focus on actually doing something.
Adjacent to this argument I think that we should spend more resources on upskilling entrepreneurial EAs. Charity Entrepreneurship is doing a great job with their incubation program, but their current capacity is limited and there is definitely room for growth given the large interest in the program. In addition to this we should also encourage cheap tests of EA entrepreneurship within national / local chapters. Currently the focus is mainly on community ... (read more)
I agree - people able to run big EA projects seem like one of our key bottlenecks right now. That was one of my motivations for writing this post, and this mini profile.
I'm especially excited about finding people who could run $100m+ per year 'megaprojects', as opposed to more non-profits in the $1-$10m per year range, though I agree this might require building a bigger pipeline of smaller projects.
I also agree it seems plausible that the culture of the movement is a bit biased against entrepreneurship, so we're not attracting as many people with this skillset as we could given our current reach. I'd be keen to do more celebrating of people who have tried to start new things.
This said, it might be even more pressing simply to reach 2x as many people, and then we'll find a bunch of founders among them.
I'd also want to be cautious about using the term 'entrepreneur' to describe what we're looking for, since I think that tends to bring to mind a particular silicon valley type, which is often pretty different from the people who have succeeded running big projects in EA. E.g. classic entrepreneurship is often about quickly testing lots of things, whereas many EA projects require reall... (read more)
Do you think it is useful to speculate about what these orgs could be, in any sense (cause area, purpose, etc.)?
Maybe this speculation could be useful to give some sense/hint/structure to how these orgs can be fostered (as opposed to directly encouraging someone to create such an org). For example, it may guide focus on certain smaller orgs or promoting some kind of cultural change.
To try to be helpful, here’s a sample of some founders from orgs who received the 3 largest Open Phil grants.
CSET - Jason Matheny - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jason_Gaverick_Matheny
OpenAI - Sam Altman - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Altman
Malaria Consortium - Sylvia Meek - https://www.malariaconsortium.org/sylvia-meek/dr-sylvia-meek-1954-2016.htm... (read more)
As someone who's spent a fair amount of time with the SV startup scene (have cofounded multiple companies) and the EA scene, I'd flag that the cultures of at least these two are quite different and often difficult to bridge.
Most of the large EA-style projects I'd be excited about are ones that would require a fair amount of buy-in and trust from the senior EA community. For example, if you're making a new org to investigate AGI safety, bio safety, or expand EA, senior EAs would care a lot about the leadership having really strong epistemics and understand of existing EA thinking on the topic.
One problem is that entrepreneurship culture can present a few challenges:
1) There's often a lot of overconfidence and weird epistemics
2) Often there's not much spare time to learn about EA concepts
3) Leaders often seem to grow egos
The key thing, to me, seems to be some combination of humility and willingness to begin at the bottom for a while. I think that becoming well versed in EA/longtermism enough to found something important, can often require beginning in a low-level research role or similar.
One strategy some people give is something like, "I don't care about buy-in from the ... (read more)
A lot of this rings true to me.
I feel like these conversations often get confusing because people mean different things by the term "entrepreneur", so I wonder if you could define what you mean by "entrepreneur" and what you think they would do in EA?
Even with very commercializable EA projects like cellular agriculture, my experience is that the best founders are closer to scientists than traditional CEOs, and once you get to things like disentanglement research the best founders have almost no skills in common with e.g. tech company founders, despite them both technically being "entrepreneurs" in some sense.
edit: no longer relevant since OP has been edited since. (Thanks!)
Just to clarify, that's the EV of the path per year, right?
I assume this is also per year?
Clarifying because I think numbers like this are likely to be quoted/vaguely remembered in the future, and it's easy to miss the per year part.
Yes, they're all per year. I'll add them.
Short update on the situation: https://twitter.com/ben_j_todd/status/1561100678654672896
Thanks for this great post, I think a must read for everyone working in the EA meta space.
Some thoughts on the following:
"I continue to think that jobs in government, academia, other philanthropic institutions and relevant for-profit companies (e.g. working on biotech) can be very high impact and great for career capital."
I think we sometimes forget that these jobs in developing countries usually pay quite well. I wouldn't see earning to give and working in these institutions as opposites. There are jobs that give career capital with earning to give ... (read more)
David Goldberg adds on linkedin that FP pledge value is now $5.7bn, rather than $3.1bn in the table (I was using an old figure).
If we use the 25% to EA-aligned charities figure, that would be $1.4bn NPV rather than $0.8bn.
That 25% figure is also especially uncertain for FP. It perhaps be 2.5% to 50%.
An extra thought is that this seems like a positive update on the cost-effectiveness of past meta work.
Here's a rough and probably overoptimistic back of the envelope to illustrate the idea:
I'd guess that maybe $50m was spent on formal movement building efforts in 2020. This is intended to include things like OP & GiveWell's spending on staff, most of FHI and MIRI, plus all of the explicit movement building orgs like CEA and 80k. If that started at 0 in 2010, then it might add up to $250m over the decade (assuming straight line growth).
If the average cost of employing someone was $50k, that would imply about 5000 person-years of work were invested.
Let's assume that formal movement building efforts receive 1/3 of the credit for resources raised (with the other 2/3 going to informal efforts like personal connections and to the original founders).
Then, the formal efforts have 'raised' $15bn and 146,000 person-years (assuming 20yr per person & growth of 7300 people).
So that's an average return of 60 dollars per 1 dollar in, and 29 person years per 1 year in. You also get a lot of research thrown in for free.
Individual projects will vary a lot, but that's a nice base rate!
For reference, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the second largest charitable foundation in the world, holding $49.8 billion in assets.
Though also note that most of Gates' and Buffet's wealth hasn't yet been put into the foundation.
Thanks, this data is really helpful -- and it also is reassuring to know that people in the EA community are on top of this stuff. I would be disappointed if no one was.
I'm curious as to how the 3% per year number could be justified (via models, rather than by aggregating survey answers). It seems to me that it should be substantially higher.
Suppose you have my timelines (median 2030). Then, intuitively, I feel like we should be spending something like 10% per year. If you have 2055 as your median, then maybe 3% per year makes sense...
EXCEPT that this does... (read more)
It's a very difficult question. 3% was just the median. IIRC the upper quartile was more like 7%, and some went for 10%.
The people who gave higher figures usually either: (i) had short AI timelines - like you suggest (ii) believe there will be lots of future EA donors - so current donors should give more now and hope future donors can fill in for them.
For the counterargument, I'd suggest our podcast with Phil Trammel and Will on whether we're at the hinge of history. Skepticism about the importance of AI safety and short AI timelines could also be an important part of the case (e.g. see our podcast with Ben Garfinkel).
One quick thing is that I think high interest rates are overall an argument for giving later rather than sooner!
I think it's implausible that the optimal giving rate today could be 0%. This is because many giving opportunities function as a form of investment, and we're pretty sure that the best of those outperform the financial market. (I wrote more about ~this in this post: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/Eh7c9NhGynF4EiX3u/patient-vs-urgent-longtermism-has-little-direct-bearing-on )
I think that that question would count Sam Bankman-Fried starting to give at the scale Good Ventures is giving as a positive resolution, and that some forecasters have that as a key consideration for their forecast (e.g., Peter Wildeford's comment suggests that). Whereas I think you're using this as evidence that there'll be another donor at that scale, in addition to both Good Ventures and the FTX team people? So this might be double-counting... (read more)
Thanks a lot for the thorough post! I found it really helpful how you put rough numbers on everything, and made things concrete, and I feel like I have clearer intuitions for these questions now.
My understanding is that these considerations only apply to longtermists, and that for people who prioritise global health and well-being or animal welfare this is all much less clear, would you agree with that? My read is that those cause areas have much more high quality work by non EAs and high quality, shovel ready interventions.
I think that nuance can often get lost in discussions like this, and I imagine a good chunk of 80K readers are not longtermists, so if this only applies to longtermists I think that would be good to make clear in a prominent place.
And do you have any idea how the numbers for total funding break down into different cause areas? That seems important for reasoning about this.
Hey, I agree the situation is more unclear outside of longtermism and meta (I flag that a couple of times). It's also pretty complicated, so I didn't want to put it in the post and hold up publication.
Here are some quick thoughts:
The money available to global health and animal welfare has grown a lot as well (perhaps 2-3x) - e.g. see the comment below about Moskovitz, but it's not just that - so a similar dynamic could apply.
Focusing on global health, there is a funding gap for GiveWell-recommended charities more effective than GiveDirectly, though this gap seems more filled than in the past. If you look at the RFMF estimates, additional donations now mostly go towards operations in ~3 years time rather than the next 1-2 years. And you'd want to think about things like Vitalik's recent$54m donation.
My guess is that for interventions more cost-effective than current GiveWell-recommended charities (excluding GiveDirectly), there is a big funding overhang (in the sense that GiveWell/OP would happily fund a lot more of this stuff asap if it existed).
For interventions similar to the GiveWell top charities, it's fairly balanced.
And then if you're OK to drop cost-effectiveness by 10-20x... (read more)
(For context I work in an org where currently >50% of researchers do subcause prioritization within animal welfare, though I'm not an animal welfare researcher myself. Speaking only for myself, just one person's take, etc, etc)
Some quick personal thoughts on animal welfare funding vs talent constraints:
Naively I would guess that the median research hire in animal welfare for RP would contribute >$1 million/year of counterfactual value solely in terms of improving the quality and quantity of grantmaker decisions within animal welfare. For example, I would naively ascribe somewhat higher numbers for Neil's EU work, or if quality of the moral weights work is improved by the equivalent of additional thinking of a median researcher-year.
(Note that this is fairly BOTEC and there are obvious biases for someone to think that their work and that of their coworkers is especially important).
I think this is wrong or at least may be easy to misinterpret for the typical reader. The biggest bottleneck I see for clean meat is strategic clarit... (read more)
I think I often hear longtermists discuss funding in EA and use the 22 Bil number from OpenPhilanthropy. And I think people often make some implicit mental move thinking that's also the money dedicated to longtermism- even though my understanding is very much that that's not all available to longtermism.
In the recent podcast with Alexander Berger, he estimates it'll be split roughly 50:50 longtermism vs. global health and wellbeing.
This means that the funding available to global health and wellbeing has also grown a lot too, since Dustin Moskovitz's net worth has gone from $8bn to $25bn.
If this is true, why not spend way more on recruiting and wages? It's surprising to me that the upper bound could be so much larger than equivalent salary in the for-profit sector.
I might be missing something, but it seems to me the basic implication of the funding overhang is that EA should convert more of its money into 'talent' (via Meta spending or just paying more).
This kind of ambivalent view of salary-increases is quite mainstream within EA, but as far as I can tell, a more optimistic view is warranted.
If 90% of engaged EAs were wholly unmotivated by money in the range of $50k-200k/yr, you'd expect >90% of EA software engineers, industry researchers, and consultants to be giving >50%, but much fewer do. You'd expect EAs to be nearly indifferent toward pay in job choice, but they're not. You'd expect that when you increase EAs' salaries, they'd just donate a large portion on to great tax-deductible charities, so >75% of the salary increase would be refunded on to other effective orgs. But when you say that the spending would be only a tenth as effective (rather than ~four-tenths), clearly you don't.
Although some EAs are insensitive to money in this way, 90% seems too high. Rather, with doubled pay, I think you'd see some quality improvements from an increased applicant pool, and some improved workforce size (>10%) and retention. Some would buy themselves some productivity and happiness. And yes, some would donate. I don't think you'd draw too many hard-to-detect "fake EAs" - we haven't seen many so far. Rather, it seems more like... (read more)
[Predictable disclaimers, although in my defence, I've been banging this drum long before I had (or anticipated to have) a conflict of interest.]
I also find the reluctance to wholeheartedly endorse the 'econ-101' story (i.e. if you want more labour, try offering more money for people to sell labour to you) perplexing:
... (read more)
- EA-land tends sympathetic using 'econ-101' accounts reflexively on basically everything else in creation. I thought the received wisdom these approaches are reasonable at least for first-pass analysis, and we'd need persuading to depart greatly from them.
- Considerations why 'econ-101' won't (significantly) apply here don't seem to extend to closely analogous cases: we don't fret (and typically argue against others fretting) about other charity's paying their staff too much, we don't think (cf. reversal test) that google could improve its human capital by cutting pay - keeping the 'truly committed googlers', generally sympathetic to public servants getting paid more if they add much more social value (and don't presume these people are insensitive to compensation beyond some limit), prefer simple market mechs over more elaborate tacit transfer system (e.g. just giv
Agree that we shouldn't expect large productivity/wellbeing changes. Perhaps a ~0.1SD improvement in wellbeing, and a single-digit improvement in productivity - small relative to effects on recruitment and retention.
I agree that it's been good overall for EA to appear extremely charitable. It's also had costs though: it sometimes encouraged self-neglect, portrayed EA as 'holier than thou', EA orgs as less productive, and EA roles as worse career moves than the private sector. Over time, as the movement has aged, professionalised, and solidified its funding base, it's been beneficial to de-emphasise sacrifice, in order to place more emphasis on effectiveness. It better reflects what we're currently doing, who we want to recruit, too. So long as we take care to project an image that is coherent, and not hypocritical, I don't see a problem with accelerating the pivot. My hunch is that even apart from salaries, it would be good, and I'd be surprised if it was bad enough to be decisive for salaries.
I think there are a few other considerations that may point in the direction of slightly higher salaries (or at least, avoiding very low salaries). EA skews young in age as a movement, but this is changing as people grow up 'with it' or older people join. I think this is good. It's important to avoid making it more difficult for people to join/remain involved who have other financial obligations that come in a little later in life, e.g.
- supporting elderly parents
Relatedly, lower salaries can be easier to accept for longer for people who come from wealthier backgrounds and have better-off social support networks or expectations of inheritance etc (it can feel very risky if one is only in a position to save minimally, and not be able to build up rainy day funds for unexpected financial needs otherwise).
I made a mistake in counting the number of committed community members.
I thought the Rethink estimate of the number of ~7,000 'active' members was for people who answered 4 or 5 out of 5 on the engagement scale in the EA survey, but actually it was for people who answered 3, 4 or 5.
The number of people who answered 4 or 5 is only ~2,300.
I've now added both figures to the post.
I'm a bit confused about the claim that the bottleneck is ways to deploy funding rather than funding itself.
In global poverty and health cause areas for example, there are highly scalable EA-endorsed interventions like insecticide treated bed nets, deworming and cash transfers, and there are still plenty of people with malaria, children to deworm, and folks below the poverty line who could receive cash transfers. As far as I'm aware, AMF, Deworm the World / SCI and GiveDirectly could deploy more funds, and to the extent that they needed to hire more people to do so, I hypothesise they would be able to easily given that, as I understand it, there is a lot of competition to get jobs at organisations like these. What am I missing?
Thanks in advance!
We can take my estimates of the drop out rate to make an estimate of the equilibrium size of the movement.
If ~3% of the more engaged people drop out each year, and the flow of new members stays constant at ~300 per year (14% of 2300), then the number of highly engaged members will tend towards 10,000, which is 4-fold growth from today.
If the ratios stay the same, the number of people at the slightly broader definition of membership will tend towards 30,000.
This process will take ~25 years.
We'll hopefully be able to grow the flow of people entering in that time(!). If we double the rate of new people entering each year, then we'll double the long-term equilibrium size.
This also assumes that the drop out rate doesn't change, but large changes are likely depending on fashion. I've also seen evidence that drop out rates tend to decline as people have been involved for longer, though on the other hand, eventually people will start to retire, increasing the drop out rate.
(Maybe you already think so, but...) it probably also depends a lot on the identity of that "someone" who is donating the $X (even if we restrict the discussion to, say, potential donors who are longtermism-aligned). Some people may have a comparat... (read more)
I doubt this is literally true fwiw. If Bostrom, a very high-status figure within longtermist EA, has really good donation opportunities to the tune of 1 million, I doubt it'd be unfunded. I also feel like there are similar analogous experiments made in the past where relatively low oversight grantmaking power was given to certain high-prestige longtermist EA figures( eg here and here). You can judge for yourself whether impact "several orders of magnitude higher" sounds right, personally I very much doubt it.
I meant "should" as a normative claim, not an empirical claim. Sorry if I miscommunicated.
Some evidence in this direction: Eliezer Yudkowsky recently wrote on a Facebook post:
This implies that all the really good funding opportunities Eliezer is aware of have already been funded, and any that appear can get funded quickly. Eliezer is not Nick Bostrom, but they're in similar positions.
(Note: Eliezer's Facebook post is publicly viewable, so I think reposting this quote here is ok from a privacy standpoint.)
Do you think this growth rate applies to the "Highly-Engaged EAs" classification as well, of which there were estimated to be 2,315 in the 2019 Rethink Priorities analysis?
Is this an estimate for the "Active EAs" at the end of 2020, or as of July 2021?
(Caveat to others that if you look at these estimates in Rethink Priorities initial 2019 report, you'll find that while they are well-informed, they are quite rough, so precise estimates have limited value.)
Readers might be interested this twitter thread on megaprojects, and forum discussion of ideas.
This comment is a generic, low information poke at the excellent article:
One of the takeaways of this article is that there has been a dramatic expansion in EA funding, increasing the overhang of “money” (over “talent”).
I think this reasonably creates the impression that EA funding is now very abundant.
I'm interested or worried about the unintended side effects of this impression:
For an analogy, imagine making a statement about the EA movement needing more “skill in biology”. In response, this updates conscientious, strong EAs who change careers. However, what was actually needed was world class leaders in biology whose stellar careers involve special initial conditions. Unfortunately, this means that the efforts made by even very strong EAs were wasted.
I think such misperceptions can occur unintentionally. This motivates this comment.
With this motivation, it might be useful to interrogate these statements to try to get at the “qualia" or less tangible character behind the impression given of the new funding.
I’m not sure how to do this interrogation well. I’ve written speculative and likely unfairly aggressive scenarios about side effects from this impression of funding:
... (read more)
- It undermin
Agree it's good to think about these things. Our past messaging wasn't nuanced enough - I tried to correct for those issues in the main post, but there are probably going to be new messaging issues.
One quick comment is that I'm pretty worried about issues in the opposite direction e.g. that people aren't being ambitious enough:
Most EA orgs are designed to use at most tens of millions of dollars per year of funding, but we should be trying to think of projects that could deploy $100m+ per year.
This reminded me of the following post, which may be of interest to some readers: Risk-neutral donors should plan to make bets at the margin at least as well as giga-donors in expectation
Really liked this post, thanks.
Minor comment, wanted to flag that I think "Open Philanthropy has also reduced how much they donate to GiveWell-recommended charities since 2017." was true through 2019, but not in 2020, and we're expecting more growth for the GW recs (along with other areas) in the future.
Those looking to work at the intersection of academia, biorisk, biotech, global health/infectious disease, and philanthropic institutions may wish to look at roles at leading academic medical centers. A few years at Charité; Cleveland Clinic; one of the Harvard affiliates (e.g., the Brigham or MGH); JHU; Mayo Clinic; Toronto General; &... (read more)
I find this sort of posts very useful and interesting. Thanks for writing it.
It would be great to have a similarly detailed and well-judged post on the growth of AI safety (including AI governance, etc). Seb Farquhar published a good post on that topic in 2017, demonstrating very rapid growth, but I haven't seen anything similar since (please correct me if I'm wrong).
The EA Forum podcast has recorded an audio version of this post here: https://anchor.fm/ea-forum-podcast/episodes/Is-effective-altruism-growing--An-update-on-the-stock-of-funding-vs--people-e158mta
The article proposes that the two main ways to be engaged in EA are either a job or donating - but doesn’t mention community building. I think this could be a fundamental flaw in thinking across the EA community and 80,000 Hours (sorry if calling it a flaw hurts anyone’s feelings, but I get the impression people reading this will be okay thinking objectively about whether it’s a flaw). Community building can’t happen because of single individuals, it takes a lot of individuals working together, so I find it striking it’s not mentioned in the article since ... (read more)
Thanks for this really interesting post!
Overall I think all the core claims and implications sound right to me, but I'll raise a few nit-picks in comments.
I agree with all that, but think that that's a so... (read more)