3784 karmaJoined Oct 2019www.chanamessinger.com



I work at CEA on the Community Health team as deputy head of the team.(Opinions here my own by default though will sometimes speak in a professional capacity).

Personal website: www.chanamessinger.com


Topic Contributions

Effective giving quick take for giving season

This is quite half-baked because I think my social circle contains not very many E2G folks, but I have a feeling that when EA suddenly came into a lot more funding and the word on the street was that we were “talent constrained, not funding constrained”, some people earning to give ended up pretty jerked around, or at least feeling that way. They may have picked jobs and life plans based on the earn to give model, where it would be years before the plans came to fruition, and in the middle, they lost status and attention from their community. There might have been an additional dynamic where people who took the advice the most seriously ended up deeply embedded in other professional communities, so heard about the switch later or found it harder to reconnect with the community and the new priorities.

I really don’t have an overall view on how bad all of this was, or if anyone should have done anything differently, but I do have a sense that EA has a bit of a feature of jerking people around like this, where priorities and advice change faster than the advice can be fully acted on. The world and the right priorities really do change, though; I’m not sure what should be done except to be clearer about all this, but I suspect it’s hard to properly convey “this seems like the absolute best thing in the world to do, also next year my view could be that it’s basically useless” even if you use those exact words. And maybe people have done this, or maybe it’s worth trying harder. Another approach would be something like insurance.

A frame I’ve been more interested in lately (definitely not original to me) is that earning to give is a kind of resilience / robustness-add for EA, where more donors just means better ability to withstand crazy events, even if in most worlds the small donors aren’t adding much in the way of impact. Not clear that that nets out, but “good in case of tail risk” seems like an important aspect.

A more out-there idea, sort of cobbled together from a me-idea and Ben West-understanding is that, among the many thinking and working styles of EAs, one axis of difference might be “willing to pivot quickly, change their mind and their life plan intensely and often” vs “not as subject to changing EA winds” (not necessarily in tension, but illustrative). Staying with E2G over many years might be related to having being closer to the latter; this might be an under-rated virtue and worth leveraging.


Am I understanding right that the main win you see here would have been protecting people from risks they took on the basis that Sam was reasonably trustworthy? 

I also feel pretty unsure but curious about whether a vibe of "don't trust Sam / don't trust the money coming through him" would have helped discover or prevent the fraud - if you have a story for how it could have happened (e.g. via as you say people feeling more empowered to say no to him - maybe it would have via been his staff making fewer crazy moves on his behalf / standing up to him more?), I'd be interested. 

Curious if you have examples of this being done well in communities you've been aware of? I might have asked you this before.

I've been part of an EA group where some emotionally honest conversations were had, and I think they were helpful but weren't a big fix. I think a similar group later did a more explicit and formal version and they found it helpful.

Really intrigued by this model of thinking from Predictable Updating about AI Risk.

Now, you could argue that either your expectations about this volatility should be compatible with the basic Bayesianism above (such that, e.g., if you think it reasonably like that you’ll have lots of >50% days in future, you should be pretty wary of saying 1% now), or you’re probably messing up. And maybe so. But I wonder about alternative models, too. For example, Katja Grace suggested to me a model where you’re only able to hold some subset of the evidence in your mind at once, to produce your number-noise, and different considerations are salient at different times. And if we use this model, I wonder if how we think about volatility should change.


I’m Chana, a manager on the Community Health team. This comment is meant to address some of the things Ben says in the post above as well as things other commenters have mentioned, though very likely I won’t have answered all the questions or concerns. 

High level

I agree with some of those commenters that our role is not always clear, and I’m sorry for the difficulties that this causes. Some of this ambiguity is intrinsic to our work, but some is not, and I would like people to have a better sense of what to expect from us, especially as our strategy develops. I'd like to give some thoughts here that hopefully give some clarity, and we might communicate more about how we see our role in the future.

For a high level description of our work: We aim to address problems that could prevent the effective altruism community from fulfilling its potential for impact. That looks like: taking seriously problems with the culture, and problems from individuals or organizations; hearing and addressing concerns about interpersonal or organizational issues (primarily done by our community liaisons); thinking about community-wide problems and gaps and occasionally trying to fill those; and advising various actors in the EA space based on the information and expertise we have. This work allows us to address specific problems, be aware of concerning actors, and give advice to help the community do its best work. 

Context on our responses

Sometimes we have significant constraints on what we can do and say that result in us being unable to share our complete perspective (or any perspective at all). Sometimes that is because people have requested that we keep some or all information about them confidential, including what actions our team has taken. Sometimes it is because us weighing in will increase public discussion that could be harmful to some or all of the people involved. This information asymmetry can be particularly tricky when someone else in the community shares some information about a situation that we think is inaccurate or is only a small part of the picture, but we’re not in a position to correct it. I’m sorry for how frustrating this can be.

I imagine this might end up being relevant to responses to this comment (and which and how and when we respond to them), so I think it’s useful to highlight. 

I’ll also flag that many of our staff are at events for the next two weeks, so it might be an especially slow time for Community Health responses.

About what to expect

  1. I think some of the disagreements here come from different understanding of what the Community Health team’s mission is or should be. We want to hear and (where possible) address problems in the community, at the interpersonal, organizational, and community levels. But we often won’t resolve a situation to the satisfaction of everyone involved, or do everything that would be helpful for individuals who were harmed. Ben mentions people “hoping that it [Community Health] will pursue justice for them.” I want to be totally upfront that we don’t see pursuing justice as our mission (and I don’t think we’ve claimed to). In the same vein, protecting people from bullies is sometimes a part of our work, and something we’d always like to be able to do, but it’s not our primary goal and sadly, we won’t always be able to do it.
  2. We don’t want people to have a false impression of what they can expect from talking to us.
    • Sometimes people come to us with a picture of what they’d like to happen, but we won’t always take the steps they hope we’ll take, either because 1) we don’t agree that those steps are the right call, 2) we’re not willing to take the steps based on the information we have (for example if we don’t have their permission to ask for the other person’s side of the story), or 3) the costs (time, legal risk etc) are too great. We generally explain our considerations to the people involved, but could probably communicate better about this publicly, and as we continue thinking about strategic changes, we’ll want to give people an accurate picture of what to expect. 
    • (At other times people come to us without specific steps they’d like us to take. Sometimes they think something should be done, but don’t know what is feasible, other times they share information as “I don’t think this is very bad and don’t want much to be done, but I thought you should know and be able to look for patterns”, which can be quite helpful.)
    • We talk about confidentiality and what actions we might be able to take by default in calls. Typically this results in people deciding to go forward with working with us, but some people might decide that what we’re likely to be able to provide isn’t a good match for their situation.
  3. I don't think the downside of a false sense of security people might get from our team's existence is strong enough to counteract the benefits.
  4. It’s true that we rarely write up our findings publicly. I don’t take that as damning since I don’t think that is or should be the default expectation. I think public writeups can be a valuable tool in some cases, but often there are good reasons to use other tools instead. 
    • One main reason is the large amount of time they take — Ben pointed out that he didn’t necessarily endorse how much time this project took him, but that it was really hard to do less.
  5. I agree with Ben that we aren’t the EA police. We have some levers we can pull related to advising on a number of decisions, and we do our best to use these to address problems and concerns. I think describing occasions that we use the information we have as “rare” is very much not reflective of the reality of our day-to-day work.  
  6. I’m sad to read in some comments that we didn’t satisfy people’s needs or wants in those situations. I’m very open to receiving feedback, concerns or complaints in my capacity as a manager on the team - feel free to message me on the forum or email me (including anonymously). I recognize someone not wanting to talk to the Community Health team might not want to share feedback with that same team, but I want the offer available for anyone who might. You can also send feedback to CEA interim CEO Ben West here
    • I also think not feeling satisfied with our actions is plausibly a normal outcome even if everything is going well - sometimes the best available choice won’t make everyone (or anyone) happy. I definitely want people to come in expecting that they might not end up happy with our choices (though I think in many cases they are). 
    • Again, if people think we’re making wrong calls, I’m interested to hear about it. Under some circumstances we can also re-review cases.

Regarding trust

  1. We're aware that some people might feel hesitant to talk to us (and of course, it’s entirely up to them). There are many understandable reasons for this (even if our team was flawless). Our team isn’t flawless, though, which means there are likely additional cases where people don’t want to talk to us, which I’m sad about. I don’t know how much of a problem this is.
  2. In particular, we are worried to hear that some people didn’t feel that they’d be treated with respect (I can’t tell if they mean by our team or the general institutional network we’re a part of, or something else). In this case, it sounds like potentially they aren’t confident we’d handle their information well or treat them respectfully. If that is what they meant, that sounds like a bad (and potentially stressful) situation and I’m really sorry to hear about it. I could imagine there being a concerning pattern around this that we should prioritize learning about and working on. If at any point people wanted to share information on the reasons they wouldn’t talk to us, I’m interested (including anonymously - here for the community liaisonshere for me personally and here for Ben West, interim CEO of CEA).
  3. People might also worry that we’d negatively update our perception of them if they were implicated in something. (This is one of the reasons people might not want to speak to us that might be implied by this post, though I am not at all sure this is what was meant). I don’t currently think we should have a strict policy of amnesty for any concerning information people provide about themselves, though we in fact try hard to not make people regret talking to us. (Strict amnesty of that kind would probably result in less of us doing things about issues we hear about and make Ben’s concerns worse rather than better, though I haven’t gone and researched this question.)
  4. In general, we care a lot about not making people regret speaking to us and not pressuring people to do or share more than they're comfortable with. These are big elements of why we sometimes do less than we’d like, since we don’t want to take actions they’re not comfortable with, or push them to stay involved in a situation they’d like to be done with, or to do anything that would cause them to be worried we might inadvertently deanonymize them.
  5. My general sense (though of course there are selection effects here) is that people who talk to our team in person or on calls about our decision making often end up happier and finding us largely reasonable. I haven’t figured out how to do that at scale e.g. in public writing.

Thanks all for your thoughts and feedback.

Hi KnitKnack - I’m really sorry to hear you had a bad experience with the CH team, and that it contributed to some especially bad moments in your life. I totally endorse that people should have accurate expectations, which means that they should not expect we’ll always be able to resolve each issue to everyone’s satisfaction. I think that even in worlds where we did everything quote-unquote “right” (in terms of fair treatment of each of the people involved, and the overall safety and functioning of the community), some people would be disappointed in how much we acted or what we did, and all the more so in worlds where we made mistakes. If you’d like to talk about the situation you were in, feel free to contact me as the manager of the team members handling situations like this; I’d be interested to hear your feedback (happy to do this anonymously, such as through the forum). Entirely understandable if you’d rather not, though, and I wish you all the best.

we had a stronger community health team with a broad mandate for managing risks, rather than mostly social disputes and PR? Maybe, but CH already had a broad mandate on paper. Given EVF’s current situation, it might be a tall task. And if VCs and accountancies didn’t see FTX’s problems, then a beefed-up CH might not either. Maybe a CH team could do this better independently of CEA

(Context - I was the interim head of the Community Health team for most of this year)

For what it’s worth, as as a team we've been thinking along similar lines (and having similar concerns) about how we could best use the team’s capacity to address the most important problems, while being realistic about our areas of strength. We’re aiming to get to a good balance. 

Thanks for writing up your views here! I think it might be quite valuable to have more open conversations about what norms there's consensus on and which ones there aren't, which this helps spark.

Thanks for noticing something you thought should happen (or having it flagged to you) and making it happen!

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