Seriously. Someone should make a movie!
Very strongly agree, based on watching the career trajectory of lots of EAs over the past 10 years. I think focusing on what broad kinds of activities you are good at and enjoy, and what skills you have or are well-positioned to obtain (within limits: e.g. "being a really clear and fast writer" is probably helpful in most cause areas, "being a great salsa dancer" maybe less so), then thinking about how to apply them in the cause area you think is most important, is generally much more productive than trying to entangle that exploration with personal cause prio exercises.
Our impression when we started to explore different options was that one can’t place a trustee on a leave of absence; it would conflict with their duties and responsibilities to the org, and so wasn’t a viable route.
Chiming in from the EV UK side of things: First, +1 to Nicole’s thanks :)
As you and Nicole noted, Nick and Will have been recused from all FTX-related decision-making. And, Nicole mentioned the independent investigation we commissioned into that.
Like the EV US board, the EV UK board is also looking into adding more board members (though I think we are slightly behind the US board), and plans to do so soon. The board has been somewhat underwater with all the things happening (speaking for myself, it’s particularly difficult because a lot of these things affect my main job at Open Phil too, so there’s more urgent action needed on multiple fronts simultaneously).
(The board was actually planning and hoping to add additional board members even before the fall of FTX, but unfortunately those initial plans had to be somewhat delayed while we’ve been trying to address the most time-sensitive and important issues, even though having more board capacity would indeed help in responding to issues that crop up; it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg dynamic we need to push through.)
Hope this is helpful!
My favorite is probably the movie Colossus: the Forbin Project. For this, would also weakly recommend the first section of Life 3.0.
Hey Jack, this comment might help answer your question.
That’s correct. It’s common for large funders of organizations to serve on the boards of organizations they support, and I joined the EVF board partly because we foresaw synergies between the roles (including for me acting as grant investigator on EVF grants). Leadership at both organizations are aware I am in both roles.
Also, though you didn’t ask: I don’t receive any compensation for my work as an EVF board member.
Hey, I wanted to clarify that Open Phil gave most of the funding for the purchase of Wytham Abbey (a small part of the costs were also committed by Owen and his wife, as a signal of “skin in the game”). I run the Longtermist EA Community Growth program at Open Phil (we recently launched a parallel program for EA community growth for global health and wellbeing, which I don’t run) and I was the grant investigator for this grant, so I probably have the most context on it from the side of the donor. I’m also on the board of the Effective Ventures Foundation (EVF).
Why did we make the grant? There are two things I’d like to discuss about this, the process we used/context we were in, and our take on the case for the grant. I’ll start with the former.
Process and context: At the time we committed the funding (November 2021, though the purchase wasn’t completed until April 2022), there was a lot more apparent funding available than there is today, both from Open Phil and from the Future Fund. Existential risk reduction and related efforts seemed to us to have a funding overhang, and we were actively looking for more ways to spend money to support more good work, especially by encouraging more people to dedicate their careers to addressing the associated risks. Also, given the large amounts of funding available at the time, and relatively lower number of grantmakers, we wanted to experiment with decentralizing some influence over funding to other people with experience in the space who understood our long-run priorities but had visions for how to use the funding that were somewhat different from our grantmakers’.
So, we were experimenting with more defaulting to saying “yes” to shovel-ready grant requests that seemed aimed at our core priorities, especially when they didn’t require enormous amounts of funding. (As others have noted and as I’ll explain below, we modeled the amount of funding at stake here as being in the low millions of dollars, rather than the higher sticker price, since it was to purchase a durable asset that can be resold.)
What did we think about this grant? In the abstract, we thought the idea of buying real estate to use for events was a reasonable one.
When evaluating a grant, my team tends to focus on the question “to what extent (per dollar) will this grant result in more promising people focusing their careers on doing as much good as possible in our longtermist focus areas?” (Other Open Philanthropy programs use different criteria.) I and other people on my team have invested a fair amount in collecting data and developing metrics for evaluating the value-for-money of grants aimed at this goal, though also it’s still a work in progress in many ways.
When we surveyed ~200 people involved or interested in longtermist work, we found that many had been strongly influenced by in-person events they’d attended, particularly ones where people relatively new to a topic came into contact with relatively experienced people working full-time in that area. (Some other data and our general experiences in the space are largely supportive of this too). Overall, we feel fairly confident in-person events like workshops, learning retreats, and conferences can be very impactful for people considering big career changes, and have historically often been good value-for-money via helping people interested in our longtermist focus areas make professional connections and deepen their understanding about these topics.
We support projects that cumulatively run dozens of events per year (disproportionately in the Bay Area and UK), and we saw several reasons a venue purchase could be valuable for both increasing the number and quality of impactful events, and potentially saving some money:
The fact that the funding was going to be used to purchase a durable asset means that for the purposes of our cost-effectiveness analysis, we modeled the financial stakes as being somewhere in the low millions (rather than the meaningfully higher sticker price of the property). Our grantees also stood to potentially save money through the investment, since they wouldn’t end up paying rental costs to run their events. We still wouldn’t have been surprised if the investment turned out net negative from a financial perspective, but losing most of the investment seemed unlikely. Given this model of the costs, we thought it was consistent with our overall experiment in lowering barriers to longtermist funding to “default to yes” for a shovel-ready grant.
We discussed Owen’s reasoning behind selecting this kind of venue, and we thought it broadly made sense. The main goal was to have a venue relatively near Oxford with sufficient capacity for the types of events we thought could be highly impactful.
Despite the points above, we were relatively uncertain about this specific opportunity, and there was some internal debate over the amount and structure of our funding; we also expressed our uncertainty to Owen.
We were mainly uncertain about:
Internally at OP (including with our communications team), we discussed how this would reflect on us somewhat, but mostly from the perspective of us as a funder, rather than the wider ecosystem as a whole. I think that it was a mistake on my part that the funding conversations didn’t focus more on that broader question, and I regret it, though I think we should have a high bar to rejecting otherwise solid-seeming grants on optics grounds because that kind of approach can be hard to limit and then can end up being surprisingly costly to impact. (My recollection is that we thought of it mainly as a longtermist/existential risk reduction field resource and didn’t think enough about how what was then called CEA providing fiscal sponsorship might make it sound more like an EA project.)
We also told Owen that we would want to check in about venue usage and think about the value it was generating in terms of the community growth metrics we generally use, and discuss selling the property if it didn’t seem like things were going well. (Proceeds from a sale would be used as general funding within EVF, and that funding would replace some of our and other funders’ future grants to EVF.)
Where do I stand on this grant now? With the huge decline in available funds since November 2021, I don’t know whether we’d make this grant again today. I still think it could turn out to be importantly effort-saving and event-increasing-and-improving relative to regularly renting one-off event venues, and it could also lead to a higher number of impactful events being run. But it’s currently too soon to say whether the usage will justify the investment. If we were considering a similar grant now, we’d want to get more into the details of modeling the effective financial cost (incorporating the resale possibility), hammering out plans and predictions for future operations and usage, etc. but I think we might consider it to be good enough value-for-money that we’d want to go forward with some possible projects in this vein.
Why isn’t there a published grant page right now? (This isn’t my domain but) we typically aim to publish grants within three months of when we make our initial payment, but we're currently working through a backlog of older grants. Wytham is one of many grants in that category.
This is also great, thank you!
Not the intended audience, but as a US person who lives in the Bay Area, I enjoyed reading this really detailed list of what's often unusual or confusing to people from a specific different cultural context