Update on CEA’s EA Grants Program

In De­cem­ber, I (Ni­cole Ross) joined CEA to run the EA Grants pro­gram, which gives rel­a­tively small grants (usu­ally un­der $60,000 per grant) to in­di­vi­d­u­als and start-up pro­jects within EA cause ar­eas. Be­fore join­ing CEA, I worked at the Open Philan­thropy Pro­ject and GiveWell do­ing both re­search and grants op­er­a­tions.

When I joined CEA, the EA Grants pro­gram had been run­ning since 2017. Upon my ini­tial re­view, it had a mixed track record. Some grants seemed quite ex­cit­ing, some seemed promis­ing, oth­ers lacked the in­for­ma­tion I needed to make an im­pact judg­ment, and oth­ers raised some con­cerns.

Ad­di­tion­ally, the pro­gram had a his­tory of op­er­a­tional and strate­gic challenges. I’ve spent the ma­jor­ity of the last nine months work­ing to im­prove the over­all func­tion­ing of the pro­gram. I’m now plan­ning the fu­ture of EA Grants, and try­ing to de­ter­mine whether some ver­sion of the pro­gram ought to ex­ist mov­ing for­ward.

In this brief up­date, I’ll de­scribe some of the pro­gram’s past challenges, a few things I’ve worked on, and some pre­limi­nary thoughts about the fu­ture of the pro­gram. I’ll also re­quest feed­back on the cur­rent EA fund­ing land­scape, and what value EA Grants might be able to add if we de­cide to main­tain the pro­gram go­ing for­ward.


Note on early 2019 EA Grants round

Last year, we pub­li­cly stated that we “ex­pect the next round af­ter this one to be early next year [2019] but we want to re­view les­sons from this round be­fore com­mit­ting to a date.” When it be­came clear that we would not hold a round in early 2019, we did not up­date the pre­vi­ous state­ment. We re­gret any con­fu­sion we may have caused by failing to provide a clear up­date on our plans.


Is­sues with the program

EA Grants be­gan in 2017. From June 2017 to De­cem­ber 2018 (when I joined CEA), grant man­age­ment was a part-time re­spon­si­bil­ity of var­i­ous staff mem­bers who also had other roles. As a re­sult, the pro­gram did not get as much strate­gic and eval­u­a­tive at­ten­tion as it needed. Ad­di­tion­ally, CEA did not ap­pro­pri­ately an­ti­ci­pate the op­er­a­tional sys­tems and ca­pac­ity needed to run a grant­mak­ing op­er­a­tion, and we did not have the full in­fras­truc­ture and ca­pac­ity in place to run the pro­gram.

Be­cause ev­ery­one in­volved rec­og­nized the im­por­tance of the pro­gram, CEA even­tu­ally be­gan to take steps to re­solve broader is­sues re­lated to this lack of at­ten­tion, in­clud­ing es­tab­lish­ing the full-time Grants role for which I was hired and hiring an op­er­a­tions con­trac­tor to pro­cess grants. We be­lieve it was a mis­take that we didn’t act more quickly to im­prove the pro­gram, and that we weren’t more trans­par­ent dur­ing this pro­cess.

My first re­spon­si­bil­ity in my new role was to in­ves­ti­gate these is­sues, with sup­port from staff who had worked on the EA Grants pro­gram in the past. I am grate­ful for the many hours cur­rent and former staff have spent helping me get up to speed and build a con­soli­dated pic­ture of the EA Grants pro­gram.


Below are what I view as the most im­por­tant his­tor­i­cal challenges with the EA Grants pro­gram:

1) Lack of con­soli­dated records and communications

We did not main­tain well-or­ga­nized records of in­di­vi­d­u­als ap­ply­ing for grants, grant ap­pli­ca­tions un­der eval­u­a­tion, and records of ap­proved or re­jected ap­pli­ca­tions. We some­times ver­bally promised grants with­out full doc­u­men­ta­tion in our sys­tem. As a re­sult, it was difficult for us to keep track of out­stand­ing com­mit­ments, and of which in­di­vi­d­u­als were wait­ing to hear back from CEA. This re­sulted in us spend­ing much longer prepar­ing for our in­de­pen­dent au­dit than would have been ideal.

2) Lack of clar­ifi­ca­tion about the role EA Grants played in the fund­ing ecosys­tem

While we gave in­for­ma­tion about the types of pro­jects EA Grants would con­sider fund­ing, we didn’t ex­plic­itly dis­cuss how we saw EA Grants com­ple­ment­ing other sources in the EA fund­ing ecosys­tem (e.g. EA Funds and BERI). As a re­sult, in­di­vi­d­u­als ap­plied who were not a good fit for EA Grants, and there was con­fu­sion about where peo­ple should ap­ply for grants (e.g., EA Grants ver­sus EA Funds).

3) Sig­nifi­cant de­lays in pay­ment

A lack of ap­pro­pri­ate op­er­a­tional in­fras­truc­ture and pro­cesses re­sulted in some grant pay­ments tak­ing longer than ex­pected. This lack of grant­mak­ing op­er­a­tional sys­tems, com­bined with the lack of con­soli­dated records, led to de­lays of around a year be­tween an in­di­vi­d­ual be­ing promised a grant and re­ceiv­ing their pay­ment in at least one case. We are aware of cases where this con­tributed to difficult fi­nan­cial or ca­reer situ­a­tions for re­cip­i­ents. CEA is now in a place where we are able to dis­burse EA Grants with cor­rect bank in­for­ma­tion rou­tinely within a month, some­times quicker, putting us solidly within the norm of the grant mak­ing in­dus­try.

4) Lack of post-grant assessment

His­tor­i­cally, EA Grants did not con­duct con­sis­tent eval­u­a­tion of grant perfor­mance. Since join­ing, I have de­vel­oped a con­sis­tent pro­cess for eval­u­at­ing grants upon com­ple­tion and a pro­cess for pe­ri­od­i­cally mon­i­tor­ing progress on grants. CEA is plan­ning fur­ther im­prove­ments to this pro­cess next year.

5) Lack of transparency

Apart from this post, we didn’t share much in­for­ma­tion with the com­mu­nity about these op­er­a­tional and strate­gic is­sues. We pro­vided pub­lic up­dates about the EA Grants pro­gram about once a year, but we likely should have done so more of­ten.


On be­half of CEA, I am deeply sorry to peo­ple who were hurt or dis­ap­pointed by the pro­gram. EA Grants caused sig­nifi­cant harm through de­lays and poor com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and I be­lieve we’ve also left value on the table by failing to quickly ad­dress the is­sues I men­tioned above.

I hope that any fu­ture ver­sion of the EA Grants pro­gram will be run much more smoothly, though I’m un­cer­tain that the pro­gram will con­tinue to ex­ist. (I’ve pro­vided more de­tails on this point at the end of the post.)


How I’ve spent my time this year

Ad­dress­ing his­tor­i­cal issues

I’ve spent most of my first year at CEA ad­dress­ing his­tor­i­cal is­sues men­tioned above: cre­at­ing con­soli­dated records of grants, work­ing with our op­er­a­tions team to im­prove timely pay­ment of grants, pi­lot­ing eval­u­a­tion and grants as­sess­ment pro­cesses, and lo­cat­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion for our in­de­pen­dent au­dit in the U.K. (Au­gust). To do this, I spent time learn­ing about these is­sues by in­ter­view­ing past em­ploy­ees, grantees, and other stake­hold­ers, and I con­ducted an ex­ten­sive re­view of doc­u­men­ta­tion from the first 18 months of the pro­gram’s ex­is­tence. Over­all, I think we’ve made sig­nifi­cant progress re­solv­ing these is­sues.

Grantmaking

I’ve made de­ci­sions on a few time-sen­si­tive grants, as well as some grant ap­pli­ca­tions that had been pend­ing for a long time. Since join­ing CEA last De­cem­ber, I’ve given out 11 grants to­tal­ing ~$150,000. I’m work­ing on a writeup of the grants I’ve eval­u­ated since I joined in De­cem­ber. Once I’ve finished the writeup, I will post it to the Fo­rum and CEA’s blog, and link to it in this post.

Grant­mak­ing ecosys­tem investigation

In ad­di­tion to ad­dress­ing his­tor­i­cal challenges with EA Grants, one of my ma­jor fo­cuses has been an­a­lyz­ing what unique role EA Grants might be able to play in the cur­rent EA fund­ing ecosys­tem, speci­fi­cally when fund­ing in­di­vi­d­u­als and small pro­jects. This was driven by a de­sire to figure out whether EA Grants should con­tinue to ex­ist.

I think the ar­eas that the EA Grants pro­gram cov­ers or could cover, and that his­tor­i­cally have not been cov­ered by other EA-al­igned grant­mak­ing en­tities, are:

  • Time-sen­si­tive op­por­tu­ni­ties, where flex­i­bil­ity and very quick turnaround times are crit­i­cal to cap­ture the value of the grant.

  • Devel­op­ing net­works out­side the U.S. and U.K. This work al­lows us to dis­cover and vet grant­mak­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties that we wouldn’t have oth­er­wise known about. I did a small test of this by go­ing to con­ti­nen­tal Europe in 2019 (the Cen­ter for Ap­plied Ra­tion­al­ity’s Euro­pean “rEUnion” in Prague, and EAGxNordics in Stock­holm) and meet­ing a lot of peo­ple. I be­lieve that I wouldn’t have felt con­fi­dent mak­ing two of the grants I did with­out tak­ing that trip and mak­ing those con­nec­tions.

  • Proac­tive and col­lab­o­ra­tive grant­mak­ing (e.g., reach­ing out to tal­ented peo­ple who might re­ally benefit from a grant and en­courag­ing them to ap­ply, or helping to im­prove ap­pli­cants’ plans dur­ing a col­lab­o­ra­tive ap­pli­ca­tion pro­cess). I haven’t done a lot of this, though I’ve tried a few test cases and I think there is at least some value to be gained by this method.


On­go­ing and fu­ture work

Work­ing with cur­rent grantees

As I con­sider the pro­gram’s fu­ture, my top pri­or­ity is to en­sure that we serve our cur­rent grantees re­li­ably and con­tinue to fol­low through on our ex­ist­ing com­mit­ments. If we limit or redi­rect the fu­ture scope of EA Grants, this will not im­pact any fund­ing already com­mit­ted.

Plan­ning for the pro­gram’s future

I ob­served an over­lap be­tween in­di­vi­d­u­als ap­ply­ing for EA Grants and in­di­vi­d­u­als ap­ply­ing for EA Funds. As a re­sult, I am run­ning tests to es­tab­lish whether EA Funds could con­tinue to take on the role played by EA Grants (with a fo­cus on whether EA Funds can pro­cess time-sen­si­tive grants). At this stage, I think it is fairly likely that EA Grants won’t con­tinue in its cur­rent form, and that we will in­stead en­courage in­di­vi­d­u­als to ap­ply to EA Funds.

To be clear, I be­lieve that EA Grants is cur­rently hav­ing a pos­i­tive im­pact, par­tic­u­larly now that we’ve re­solved most of our his­tor­i­cal is­sues. How­ever, I’m skep­ti­cal that we serve enough of a unique role within the EA fund­ing land­scape to jus­tify our ex­is­tence. As men­tioned, it’s pretty plau­si­ble that EA Funds can, with ad­di­tional fund­ing/​ca­pac­ity, cover many of the grants I’d want to make in the fu­ture.

While we don’t think it’s likely that we’ll open a new round for EA Grants, you can sign up here to be alerted if we do. And as always, if you have spe­cific ques­tions, feel free to email me.


Feedback

I’m always open to feed­back. Right now, I’m es­pe­cially in­ter­ested in get­ting peo­ple’s thoughts on gaps in the EA fund­ing land­scape:

  • What fund­ing op­tions should ex­ist that don’t?

  • Which types of work are uniquely hard to find fund­ing for?

  • What bad thing(s) might hap­pen if EA Grants shuts down or gets merged into EA Funds?

If you have time and in­ter­est, I’d re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate your filling out this sur­vey.



Cor­rec­tion: We origi­nally stated that grant re­cip­i­ents had ex­pe­rienced pay­ment de­lays of “up to six months.” After post­ing this, we learned of one case where pay­ment was de­layed for around a year. It’s plau­si­ble that this oc­curred in other cases as well. We deeply apol­o­gize for this pay­ment de­lay and the harm it caused.