Jason

Working (6-15 years of experience)
4457Joined Nov 2022

Bio

I am an attorney in a public-sector position not associated with EA, although I cannot provide legal advice to anyone. My involvement with EA so far has been mostly limited so far to writing checks to GiveWell and other effective charities in the Global Health space, as well as some independent reading. I have occasionally read the forum and was looking for ideas for year-end giving when the whole FTX business exploded . . . 

How I can help others

As someone who isn't deep in EA culture (at least at the time of writing), I may be able to offer a perspective on how the broader group of people with sympathies toward EA ideas might react to certain things. I'll probably make some errors that would be obvious to other people, but sometimes a fresh set of eyes can help bring a different perspective.

Comments
454

Epistemic status: somewhat angry

Preliminary notes: To control length, I'm going to refer generically to misconduct and survivors, although I recognize that there is a wide range of problematic sexual/relational behavior and that the appropriate responses will vary based on the specific behavior in question. Also, this is a EA Forum comment, not a concrete proposal, so should be taken at a fairly high level of generality. I haven't done any real legal vetting on any of these thoughts, and some do carry a degree of legal risk.

I'm more focused on senior EAs here, not because I have any reason to think there is more misconduct among that group, but because I'm particularly upset about the abuse-of-power angle, and some of my comments are directed specifically toward that angle. For more junior EAs, the decentralized elements of the EA movement create somewhat different challenges. My comments about senior EAs are not intended to imply a position either way on how possible misconduct by non-senior EAs should be addressed.  I haven't attempted to define "senior EA," and consider the possibility that some people might be "limited-purpose senior EAs" -- for instance, someone might be a "senior EA" in regard to people in the AI security community but not those in the animal-advocacy community.

1. I'd be interested in hearing more about what has been done and could be done to address this problem proactively, in addition to reactively. Should grants include a requirement that an organization have an acceptable anti-misconduct policy and provide approved anti-misconduct training to employees at certain intervals? Should there be a pot of money designated for organizations, community groups, and individuals to apply for grants to combat misconduct? Do senior EAs receive training that is targeted to their role (with a special focus on questions of power dynamics associated with that role?) I'm sure other people have better ideas than I do on this one.

2. (ready for the downvotes on this one) There are certain roles in society that come with restrictions on one's sexual and relational liberties, like being a judge, a professor/teacher, or a psychiatrist. These roles create a power dynamic with a particular class of people (lawyers/litigants in the judge's court, students, patients) that make it wildly inappropriate to be romantically or sexually involved. Sometimes there are ways to address a power imbalance and ensure the less-powerful person does not feel pressured . . . but sometimes there are not. 

I submit that being a senior EA may create a power dynamic that justifies bright-line restrictions on sex or romantic relationships with EA/EA-adjacent students and junior staff. I don't know to what extent those rules should include categorical prohibitions, but there should be very clear rules of some sort rather than just assuming everyone will conduct themselves in an appropriate manner. It's clear from the comments in this thread that trusting people to have good judgment isn't working that great. To take one example, it looks like there needs to be a rule that senior EAs (like the "influential figure in EA whose role included picking out promising students and funneling them towards highly coveted jobs" in the article) should not be doing things like hosting students in their homes overnight!

3. At least for complaints against senior EAs, a pathway independent of CEA community health (and staffed by non-EAs) should exist for EA and EA-adjacent survivors who would prefer that route. I am not entirely sure what that should look like, and don't mean any disrespect to the community health team. But if a survivor would prefer an external pathway, their preference should be honored.

4. Financial and legal support should be available for those against whom a senior EA has committed misconduct, where the senior EA implicitly used their power and influence to commit the misconduct and/or used their power and influence to retaliate in any way.[1]

5. I don't know the literature about restorative justice approaches in cases of misconduct, so I won't say anything about whether this is a good idea or not. But conditional on it being appropriate in some cases, the provider needs to be both appropriately trained (with credentials recognized outside of EA) and from outside the EA community.

6. I expect the decentralized aspects of EA make it difficult to take certain stronger actions against perpetrators. At least at the senior level, if there is sufficiently proven misconduct as determined by an independent process which provides appropriate due process (cf. point 3), and the organization refuses to take appropriate action, then at that point it is on the funders to decide whether they want to support an organization that enables misconduct. To be clear, in some cases the only appropriate action may be the EA Death Penalty (i.e., refusal to fund any organization that knowingly chooses to be affiliated with the perpetrator).

  1. ^

    In most cases, I would presume that the power-and-influence criterion was met if the misconduct was against an EA or EA-adjacent person. In these cases, the misconduct was committed by an individual, and that individual was presumably acting outside the scope of their employment. But when the misconduct was enabled by significant influence or power granted by an EA organization, I think that organization bears some degree of moral responsibility for supporting the survivor -- even if the misconduct was committed at an off-work party against a non-employee, and not under circumstances where the organization has liability under anti-discrimination laws.

Definitely agree that my expectations are higher for a funder that solicits support from the general public.

However, I don't think meeting the objectives in Holden's blog post ordinarily require this level of secrecy. There are a number of possible intermediate points between "full public disclosure" and "not providing for any meaningful external assessment at all." For example, if OP wanted to, it could presumably gather a panel of respected (and trusted) community members, have them sign an NDA (with two exceptions), and give them the justification for a sufficiently challenged grant. The two exceptions to the NDA would allow panelists to rate on a 1-to-7 scale "Is the amount of transparency appropriate under the circumstances?" and "In light of all the information, how reasonable was the grantmaking decision?", and disclose the trimmed mean.

Of course, it is OP's prerogative not to take an intermediate approach, and it would incur some costs. But how many six-figure-plus grants are they making that look this iffy from the external perspective?

I think there are sound practical reasons for OP to be more open-by-default than other foundations. In my view, OP (in conjunction with its financial backers) is the most central animating organization in EA. There are a lot of people who sacrifice a lot for the goals OP is pursuing, and I think having the most central animating organization  keep its decisions unnecessarily shrouded in mystery probably hurts community cohesion. But that's not the reason I think people are entitled to criticize OP here -- I think accepting criticism is simply part of the deal when a charity accepts tax-advantaged status.

Another angle, I think, is that the public information on Helena appears to make awarding the grant inconsistent with OP's stated principles. For instance, if you had a foundation whose stated purpose was to improve the welfare of children, most people would probably look at it funny if it announced a grant to a senior center. Maybe the grant actually serves the foundation's purposes, but many people wouldn't be impressed if the hypothetical foundation suggested it was part of a hits-based approach to child welfare with hardly any substantive supporting detail. Given OP's stated emphasis on effectiveness, and given that Helena appears to be an unusually ineffective charity, that scenario seems somewhat analogous here.

I don't think anyone has actually treated this as a scandal. There have been fair questions and criticisms, but I don't think anyone has suggested improper conduct by Open Phil.

Can you confirm this is true specifically for biosecurity grants made to 501(c)(3)s like Helena? I know a lot of the biosecurity funding needs to be channeled through for-profit channels because of who the recipients are (or because the transaction is actually an investment vs. a pure grant), but it's not clear to me why you wouldn't run a pure grant to a 501(c)(3) through tax-advantaged channels.

That's their preogative, sure. It is also individuals' preogative to critique them for that lack of transparency, and to judge the grant on the basis of publicly available information if they wish. (I think when an organization accepts the implied public subsidy that tax-advantaged status provides, it opens itself up to a considerably broader range of scrutiny and criticism than would be fair game without that status.)   

I think most people realize there may be grant-specific reasons for a low-transparency approach. There are doubtless cases in which very little information should be disclosed, although I think one could safely disclose more information than this in the vast majority of cases.  I think Robert's bottom-line conclusion that there isn't much in the response to update with (unless you started with concerns about due dilligence) makes sense. So I think one ultimately has to judge this grant on a combination of publicly available information and one's priors about OP's grantmaking skills.

At least on the first point, I do not feel you adequately researched this issue before making a public accusation. Although it wouldn't be reasonable to hold you to the standards of a lawyer, it should have been pretty clear that charities do sometimes engage in transactions that result in some financial benefit to trustees. After all, some trustees are organizational employees. That should have triggered further research on your part and/or caused you to tone down your post from an accusation to a genuine question.

At least in the US, these rules are reasonable and exist for a reason -- see my top-level post for an explanation of how non-EA organizations have done shady stuff with buying an insider's books. Although I don't like the tone of the original post, I also don't think it is appropriate to imply that rules against private gain for charitable trustees are "obscure and arbitrary" -- material on that topic is, or at least should be, in Being a Trustee/Director 101.

On the first point -- at least in the US, there are rules about organizations engaging in transactions where a trustee/director has a financial interest. Generally, the involved trustee/director needs to recuse, and the remainder of the board needs to make certain findings. Not sure how this works when the decision to make a purchase is delegated to staff. There's nothing in the first point that makes me concerned. 

However, there have been shady book purchases by other (non-EA) non-profits -- so it's not an unreasonable thing to ask questions about book purchasing (although making accusations out of the gate is too strong). For instance, I've heard of US churches buying up a ton of their lead pastor's book in the first week of release to make it hit the US best-seller lists for a week; the specific way in which the books were purchased was inefficient/costly and designed to evade rules on bulk purchases not unduly affecting the best-seller lists. In that case, the church's action created an improper private benefit in my opinion (with a possible exception if the royalties for the book went to the church rather than the pastor). Again, I don't see any reason to think EVF or anyone else in EA has engaged in this sort of behavior.

Partial agree on this. I am hesitant to put the burden of paying for legal consultation on someone with a concern. However, at least on the first point, I think the poster would have discovered more specific guidance for transactions that affect trustee/director financial interests had they conducted sufficient research. Also, I think contacting the organization using a burner e-mail and giving them a few weeks for a response would have been appropriate for someone who didn't want to incur legal fees on a concern that is not time-sensitive.

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