MaxDalton

Executive Director @ Centre for Effective Altruism
Working (6-15 years of experience)
3043Oxford, UKJoined Sep 2015

Bio

I lead the Centre for Effective Altruism, an organization that is trying to support the EA community in order to create a radically better world. I set our overall strategy, hire people to further in our work, and manage and empower the leadership team.

I used to be a moderator here, and helped to launch the new version of the Forum in 2018. Before that I studied economics, did some mediocre global priorities research, and helped to set up an early version of EA Funds.

Feel free to reach out if you think I might be able to help you. Follow the links to give (anonymous) feedback to me or CEA.

How others can help me

How I can help others

  • I might be able to help you talk through issues you're facing relating to management, and I can point you towards some good resources if you're new to management.
  • I might be able to fix issues you see in CEA's work.

Sequences
1

CEA Updates (Q3 2021)

Comments
229

Topic Contributions
10

  1. Sure, it's currently Claire Zabel, but it was Nick Beckstead until July.
  2. We don't plan to do this in the next 3 months. If a volunteer did a good initial draft, I think there's an 80% chance that we use that in some way.

Ah cool, yeah agree that democracy is pretty strongly designed around responsibilities to the community, so it's probably better than an unelected board on that dimension.

The final paragraph in the comment I just linked to is about one-meta-level-up. The penultimate and antipenultimate paragraphs are just about the ideal governance structure. Sorry, that's maybe a bit unclear.

Thanks, and to clarify, by decision-makers, do you mean mostly the board or mostly staff? And do you want them to be representative on particular dimensions? Or maybe chosen by a representative process like elections? I expect that we disagree on what the right structure is, but still interested to understand your view.

Would you trust a governing body on the basis of someone you don't even personally know saying that their sense is that it's alright?
 

 Probably not - I understand if this doesn't update you much. I would suggest that you look at public records on what our board members do/have done, and see if you think that suggests that they would hold us accountable for this sort of thing. I admit that's a costly thing to do. I would also suggest that you look at what CEA has done, especially during the most recent (most relevant) periods - this post highlights most of our key mistakes, and this sequence might give you a sense of positive things we achieved. You could also look at comments/posts I've written in order to get a sense of whether you can trust me. 

I hope that helps a bit!

Only for a limited time period - elected officials have to stand for re-election, and separation and balance of powers help keep them in check in the meantime. Changes in the community are also reflected by new elections.

My point is that the electorate  (not the elected representatives) can leave/new people can join the community. Also their opinions can change. So I don't think it's a very robust mechanism for the specific thing of making sure an organization follows through on things it said it would do. I think you're right that your third point does apply though.

Could you please point to that 'elsewhere'? I don't think I've encountered your views on the matter.

I don't literally argue for that position, but I think that the last section of this comment touches on my views.


 

Coming back to this, I'm not sure that I have tonnes to add here: I think you're right that saying that would probably deter people.  I think generally in such cases we'd drop the second clause (just say "we're not currently working on that", without the "but we might in the future"), to decrease this effect.

I am also aware of some post-2019 instances where we put off people from working in an area. I think that this was mostly inadvertent, but still a significant mistake.  If you're open to DMing me about the instance you're thinking of, I'd be interested in that. One of our core values is alliance mentality - we want to work with others to improve the world rather than trying to grab territory.  So I think we're trying to do this well. If we're ever deterring people from doing work, I'm keen to hear this (including anonymously), and I'll try to make sure that we get out of the way as much as possible.

I strongly encourage people to compete with CEA and ask us about our plans.

My sense is that the board is likely to remain fairly stable, and fairly consistently interested in this. 

I also don't really see why democracy is better on the front of "checking that an org consistently follows through on what it says it's going to do": all of your arguments about board members would also seem like they could apply to any electorate. There might be other benefts of a democracy, of course (though I personally think that community democracy would be the wrong governance structure for CEA, for reasons stated elsewhere).

On 1), there is a specific board member assigned to assessing CEA's performance (which would include this). I agree that 2) is somewhat missing.

I'm not aware of a policy on term limits for the Effective Ventures board, and can't speak for them. 

Coming back to pay off this IOU.

Some points:

  • The quote above is about who should decide how CEA is governed (note - it's not even about who should govern CEA, it's about who should decide the right governance structure). I still think that the board is best placed to do this, and it is their legal prerogative. I think that they should probably decide that there is more community governance/a slightly broader set of perspectives on CEA's governance (but I also think that the perspective of the current board is very helpful, and I don't think I would change it massively, and I'd regret losing the input of everyone on the current board).
  • Conor draws out of this the implication that a small elite group can judge impact better than the community. I agree with some versions of this and not others. 
    • I don't think that CEA staff have all of the answers here. We frequently ask other community members for their advice and input on many questions here. 
    • I do think that there are some community members (at CEA, but also at other organizations) whose judgement I trust significantly more than the average forum user on questions about assessing our impact. This is usually at least in part because they have thought seriously about such questions for a long while. They're not infallible.
    • I am coming around to the view that we should now be investing more in evaluations, including sharing more publicly. I don't think that was the right call for the last ~2 years, but I think we might be at a stage where we should focus on it more. I expect that if we share more public evaluations, the community will share useful perspectives.
    • We are really keen to hear feedback from the community about our programs, and feed that into our understanding. E.g. we do surveys at the end of each EAG, review all of the answers, and have that directly feed into our plans for subsequent events.
  • Then we move onto (paraphrasing very slightly) "CEA clearly aren't trying to be representative of the movement". I think that "representative" could mean lots of things here, and again I agree with some versions but not others:
    • It could be something like "CEA is not doing EAG admissions so as to be a representative cross section of everyone in the movement". If you take this interpretation, there's then a question of who is "in the movement".
      • If you take a broad view - e.g. everyone who's heard of EA or who has identified with it on some level - I think it's true that we're not trying to be representative in this way.
      • If you take a more narrow view - e.g. people who have thought really carefully about EA ideas and are taking significant action on that basis - I think that we end up being reasonably representative (and are in part aiming to be representative (alongside goals like admitting people who would benefit from the event, and thinking about who will contribute to the event)).
    • Another thing that this often refers to is cause area representativeness. For EAG content and admissions, and EA.org content, and all other CEA programs, I do want us to accurately represent what the EA community is. I hope to share more on what this means to us soon. (I think there's a lot to be unpacked about what exactly it means to accurately represent EA.)
    • Probably some other interpretations that I'm missing.
  • I do think that it's a good attitude to view being rejected from EAG as "rejection by one specific organisation", or maybe even as "one organisation saying that they don't think you're a good fit for this event right now" (when we might still think you're a good fit for EAGx or whatever, or might be a good fit later).

Thanks for sharing your reasons here! I definitely don't think that this problem fully fixes this problem, and it's helpful to hear how it's falling short. Some reactions to your points:

  1. Yeah, this makes sense. 
  2. Totally makes sense. I haven't reflected deeply about whether I should offer to keep information shared in the form with other staff (currently I'm not offering this). On the one hand, this might help me to get more data. On the other hand, it seems good to be able to communicate transparently within the team, and I might be left wanting to act on information but unable to do so due to a confidentiality agreement. Maybe I should think about this more.
  3. Again, totally makes sense.
  4. Ditto.
  5. I'm not so sure that it is better to discuss issues publicly - I think that it can make the discussion feel more high stakes in ways that make it harder to resolve. If you're skeptical that we'll act without public pressure, that seems like a reason to go public though (though I think maybe you should be less skeptical, see below).
  6. I can see why you'd have this worry, and I think that outside-view we're probably under-reacting to criticism a bit. FWIW, I did a quick, very rough categorization of the 18 responses I've got to the form so far. 
    1. I think that 2 were gibberish/spam (didn't seem to refer to CEA or EA at all). 
    2. One was about an issue that had already been resolved by the time it was submitted.
    3. One was generic positive feedback
    4. Four were several-paragraph long comments sharing some takes on EA culture/extra projects we might take on. I think that these fed into my model of what's important in various ways, and I have taken some actions as a result, but I don't think I can confidently say "we acted on this" or "it's resolved".
    5. Eight were reasonably specific bits of feedback (e.g. on particular bits of text on our websites, or saying that we were focusing too much on a program for reasons). Of these:
      1. I think that we've straightforwardly resolved 6 of these (like they suggested we change some text, and the text is now different in the way that they suggested).
      2. One is a bigger issue (mental health support for EAs): we've been working on this but I wouldn't say it's resolved.
      3. One was based on a premise that I disagree with (and which they didn't really argue for), so I didn't make any change.
    6. Two were a bit of a mix between d) and e), and said in part that they didn't trust CEA to do certain things/about certain topics. My take is that we are doing the things that these people don't trust us to do, but they probably still disagree.  I don't expect that I've resolved the trust issue that these people raise.
    7. Meta:
      1. Obviously I might be biased in my assessment of the above, you might not trust me.
      2. My summary is that we're probably pretty likely to fix specific feedback, but it's harder to say whetheer we'll respond effectively to more general feedback.
      3. This all makes me think that maybe I should publicly respond to submissions (but also that could be a lot of work).

Thanks for the idea about writing comments that help people share their thoughts without getting into details.

I'm busy with EAG prep, so I can't respond properly right now, but I wanted to note that I think the comment thread above (Guy's original comment + Joshua's) doesn't quite capture how I'm thinking about CEA's relationship to the community or to representativeness, though I can see why you're taking these things from what I wrote.

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