Jack Lewars

Executive Director @ One for the World
Working (6-15 years of experience)

Bio

Participation
2

Executive Director at One for the World; chair of trustees at High Impact Athletes.

Comments
107

Thanks for writing this! I especially appreciated the line "so I looked up studies until I got tired", in context.

Did I understand right that when you said "links are affiliate", this means you earn money if someone clicks on them and buys something? If so, I feel quite strongly that this disclaimer should come before any links, and ideally that affiliate links should be starred.

Hi Shakeel,

Thanks for this. I agree with your post and upvoted it.

However, I do also wonder if they are following what seems to be a common theme in EA crisis comms recently, which is to say as little as possible (presumably on the basis of legal advice). You wrote about this here: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/Et7oPMu6czhEd8ExW/why-you-re-not-hearing-as-much-from-ea-orgs-as-you-d-like

I agree with you that just about any comment or explanation from FLI would seem to help, and that passing the email exchange with Max over to Denton's seems to make the situation worse (slower responses, less full responses, bad optics etc.).

As an outsider (i.e. with no access to the legal advice or internal discussions at any of these orgs), I wonder how the legal risk is being weighed against the reputational risk in EA crisis comms at the moment. It seems like there is almost no communication coming out from EA orgs and leaders, which presumably is very legally safe but can have very damaging reputational consequences.

I expect you're constrained in what you can say in response to this but, candidly, I think it's important to note that CEA itself is choosing public silence, albeit about a different issue. Accordingly, I was surprised to see you posting (in a personal capacity) about another org needing to give a full explanation and you not understanding why they haven't, and especially in such strong terms. CEA's example probably influences a lot of other orgs within EA.

Is there something I am missing on this? Maybe that the FTX situation is sui generis?

Hi Elizabeth,

Thanks for this. Interestingly, I wasn't especially concerned about the things you list, although I do think they are all risks. I agree that they are possible, but also agree that they are unlikely to be material. Indeed, I feel bad for focusing mainly on Claire and this transaction, because I have no reason to think they are anything but a great trustee and great program officer.

My concern is broader than this - unfortunately, I see this transaction as one fairly prominent example of a pattern.

EA orgs tolerate an unusually large number of conflicts of interest. A relatively small group of people sit on multiple Boards and orgs; it is not unusual for people to sit on both sides of very large transactions; sometimes the biggest recipients of funding are organizations where the grantor's trustees work, or where they are trustees, or similar; etc. We saw this in particular with FTX but it is true across the EA ecosystem.

This is contrary to just about any accepted governance norms. Many of these conflicts could be managed fairly easily, for example by using conflicted people as advisors rather than trustees; by asking disinterested people to assess grant bids and interested people to recuse themselves; etc. However, this rarely seems to happen, even in cases where there is an incredibly strong prima facie case for doing so, like this one. So I think the pattern is that EA orgs/leaders are less bothered by conflicts than I/people familiar with governance would expect; and that they tend to just acknowledge the conflict and then assume everyone will both a) act in good faith (largely true, I expect) and b) make the best decisions possible (trickier).

I think this matters for three reasons:

  1. It meaningfully increases the risk of intentional malpractice, as happened with FTX.
  2. It meaningfully increases the risk of people acting in good faith but not making the best decisions, because they are conflicted.
  3. It reinforces negative impressions of EA, e.g. that it is an 'immature' movement, that it is prone to self-dealing etc. (Notably, conflicts of interest policies always talk about both actual and perceived conflicts, and there are numerous examples of the perception of a conflict causing huge reputational harm in the public eye.)

So that means that there is risk of actual material harm, and a risk of reputational harm. 

To go back to my original comment, I am still genuinely amazed that there either wasn't a perceived conflict, or that the conflict was ignored, in this particular case, because it seems like a textbook example of something where your conflict of interest policy would kick in and where it would be worth taking extra steps to manage both the conflict and the perception of a conflict. That is, it's a materially large transaction (>£10m), with a person in a potentially conflicted position, on a potentially controversial grant.

I notice that most of my comments here are getting pretty bad karma and agreement, so it may be that the community isn't with me on this - but, honestly, I think this might be an example of EA thinking the normal rules don't apply to it because [insert reason here]. 

My view is that there are reasons that governance norms and procedures for managing conflicts of interest exist, and I think EA orgs/leaders will learn those reasons the hard way if they don't take them seriously now. And this seems particularly pertinent as we literally just saw the consequences of bad governance/controls in the most devastating, harmful way possible with FTX (who are now on the record as thinking that they were too smart for things like basic accounting practices).

Just finally, this has rather migrated from a discussion about the Wytham Abbey grant into 'Jack's concerns about EA governance', which is pretty unfair to people involved in the original issue. So I just want to emphasise that I'm absolutely not accusing Claire of any of the 'theoretical 'issues here, like malpractice or acting in bad faith or getting the grant decision obviously wrong. I'm just explaining why I find this transaction and process concerning.

Thanks for this Jason - very helpful and illuminating.

I wasn't aware that Claire specifically joined CEA's Board at OP's request. Where did you find this?

I also agree with your point 3 that LaPierre clearly had the opportunity to influence the decision not to consider the CoI material in a corrupt way, which Claire didn't; and that Claire didn't gain personally from this grant.

To be clear, my assumption is that no one acted in bad faith. However, I'm still very uncomfortable with someone sitting on both sides of a £10m transaction. This meets my materiality threshold for taking significant extra steps to avoid even the appearance of a CoI. I guess this whole OP and thread demonstrates why this might be worth doing, as the grant itself is contentious.

I see your point Jason, and don't dispute that Open Phil has chosen to waive any CoI, or that they may have felt that the advantages outweighed the conflict.

But I'm not sure that is really the relevant question (or at least, not the only relevant question), because any org can choose to waive a CoI - it doesn't necessarily mean it should have. Or, to put it another way, it's possible for an organisation to overlook a CoI but for the CoI still to exist and to be material.

For example, a common CoI is that someone on the Board offers paid services to the charity (or a business or person connected to that Board member offers paid services).

There are then guidelines for how the Board should assess this against the market, and (which is relevant in this case) exclude the conflicted Board member from discussions. They can then accept the offer and pay for the services.

However, despite all this, imagine it came to light that my wife had offered services to One for the World, and had been accepted, and then had made, say, $300k doing this in the last 3 years. And imagine we followed the relevant procedure in her winning this business. I am still very sceptical that it would be sufficient to say "well OFTW waived the conflict of interest" and expect this to past muster. Certainly I doubt that would pass our audit.

For a relevant real life example, this actually happened recently with the NRA, who commissioned millions of dollars of services from Wayne LaPierre and his wife, and are now being sued for corruption and have their charitable registration under threat. Clearly it wasn't considered sufficient for them to say 'we waived the conflict of interest' here.

To be clear, I'm obviously not suggesting at all that this Open Phil situation is analogous to the NRA - I'm just saying that 'we looked at the conflict of interest and decided it was ok' isn't the end of the discussion (and isn't a conclusive defence).

And, as I keep coming back to, I think there was a really simple way to negate this entire discussion and the appearance of a conflict, simply by having literally anyone else at Open Phil do the grant investigation (although I acknowledge that this grant will have gone through multiple levels of sign off and review).

Hi Larks,

Yes indeed - I do know of many examples of this. But I don't know of any in the charitable sector. Do you? Every time I have asked people for an example of this, they have used the same example you have from the private sector.

I think this is worth investigating for two reasons. First, I think it may be one of those things that everybody knows is true, except it isn't. I've worked in nonprofits for 12 years and have submitted at least 200 funding bids and won funding from at least 50 unique grantmakers and I have never come across this. (Btw, if it exists, I think it may be a US thing, where most of my experience with grantors has been in the UK.)

Second, I think it would be useful to see how the inherent conflict of interest is handled when this happens (if it does happen). Because, for example, it seems a very simple way to negate the conflict of interest would be for one person from the grantmaker to sit on the Board, and another to assess that charity's future grant applications. I wonder if that is common, or if it more common to have someone sit on both sides of the transaction, because their extra understanding outweighs the CoI.

Hi Claire,

Thanks for coming back to this comment.

I have heard it said that large funders often ask for a seat on the Board of charities they fund. I've never actually heard of a concrete example of this, but I'm happy to take it on faith.

What I'm more surprised about is that the funder would appoint someone to the Board who then assesses grant applications from that nonprofit. This is surely an unavoidable conflict of interest - the Board member has a direct interest in gaining the grant for the nonprofit, even if it's not in the grantor's best interests to award it. Is there any way this could not be considered a conflict of interest?

It also seems easy to defuse this conflict, by having other staff at the grantor assess the grant application. Surely someone else at Open Phil could have assessed this application?

Candidly, I'm astounded that someone can assess a £10m+ grant application on behalf of their employer, when they sit on the Board of the applicant.

Hi Claire - thanks for the extra info here, which is very helpful.

Can you say whether you/Open Phil considered anything here to be a conflict of interest and if so how you managed that?

At a first glance, a trustee of EVF recommending a grant of £10m+ to EVF on behalf of their employer seems like a CoI.

I am really torn on this purchase, but just to add some info/one data point - OFTW ran its first conference in a while this year in Philadelphia and I was genuinely shocked at the costs. Hotel plus professional conference venue plus locking you in to caterers that charge a premium... It came out at $1000/head for 1.25 days (although this also included travel, which was average $500/head). And I really truly think we couldn't have held that conference in a cleared out office space.

That said, it is possible that something equally functional was available for cheaper, and with better optics.

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