EA is vetting-constrained

Re: What to do with people? and After one year of applying for EA jobs: It is really, really hard to get hired by an EA organisation

Epistemic status: just my personal impression. Please prove me wrong.

So we know that:

1) In aggregate, there are billions of dollars in EA

2) There are lots of surplus talented people looking for EA work, that can’t get it

and I would like to add:

3) I estimate that there are at least 10-20 budding organisations that would love to use this money to get these people to work, and scale beyond their current size, and properly tackle the problem they aim to solve. I know at least 5 founders like that personally.

So with all the ingredients in place for amazing movement growth, why isn’t the magic happening?

Knowing who to delegate to

I agree with the idea that if you want to solve problems, you need to organise your system in a hierarchy, with some kind of divide-and-conquer strategy where a principal figures out the subproblems of a problem and delegates them to some agents, and recurse.

One problem here is that, even if the agent is aligned, the principal needs some way to tell that the agent is capable of carrying out a problem to a certain standard.

Different systems solve this problem in different ways. A company might have some standards for hiring and structurally review the performance of their employees. Academia relies on prestige and some metrics that are proxies of quality. The market gives the most money to those that sell the most popular products. Communities kick out members that cross boundaries, and deprive uninteresting people of attention.

EA, by which I mean the established organisations of EA, does this kind of thing in two ways: by hiring directly, and by vetting projects. For the latter there are grantmakers. As professionals that have thought a lot about what projects need to happen, they take a long hard look at an application by a startup founder, and if they expect it to work out well, they fund it. Simple enough.

The state of vetting in EA

I want to clarify that none of the following is meant to be accusatory. Grantmaking sounds like one of the hardest jobs in the world, and projects are by no means entitled to EA money just because they call themselves EA. I hope that this post keeps a spirit of high trust, which I think is very important.

So why aren’t we seeing more new EA organisations getting funding? Two hypotheses come to mind:

  • The“high standards” hypothesis. Grantmakers think that these new organisations just aren’t up to standard, and they would therefore cause damage. Perhaps their model is that EA should retain a very high standard to make sure that the prestige of the movement stays intact. After all that’s what the movement might need to influence big institutions like academia and government.

  • The “vetting bottleneck” hypothesis. Grantmaking organisations are just way understaffed. It’s not that they’re sure that these organisations don’t meet the bar, it’s just that they can’t verify that in time, so the safest option is to hold off on funding, or fund a more established organisation instead.

In reality, it is probably a combination of both of these. Some anecdotal evidence:

  • When one startup got rejected by a grantmaking organisation, and they pressed for feedback, there were told that “We do not possess the domain expertise to evaluate scalable existential risk reduction projects in the way that [other org] would be better placed to do.” And “as such, we rely more on the strength and quality of references when modeling out the potential impact of projects.” This was after they were invited to the interview stage. It suggests that grantmakers fall back on prestige because they don’t always have the resources to properly evaluate ideas.

  • Another startup contacted at least 4 grantmaking organisations. Three of them deferred to the fourth. This organisation would inform them of their decision in November, then postponed to December, then postponed to “after the holidays”, but they haven’t responded yet. They once mentioned to the startup that “we believe that we don’t currently have the capacity to review your application sufficiently”.

  • Quote 80k: “One reason why these donors don’t give more is a lack of concrete “shovel-ready” opportunities. This is partly due to a lack of qualified leaders able to run projects in the top problem areas (especially to found non-profits working on research, policy and community building). But another reason is a lack of grantmakers able to vet these opportunities or start new projects themselves.”

  • If you look at where, for example, EA Funds spends their money, it seems like most of the funds are just going to safe bets that don’t need much vetting.

So what does all of this suggest?

What kind of standards grantmakers should have, is up for debate. I’m personally under the impression that the stardards are too high. There are a lot of startups out there that would increase total direct value. In you believe the prestige of EA (through the average quality of its projects) is more important than its total direct value, consider that prestige is a negative-sum game. but that’s just my 2 low-effort cents and it’s off-topic.

Regardless of the bar that we think an EA startup should meet, I don’t think the current pattern of payouts reflects the set of organisations that meet that bar. I’d be very surprised if exactly all of the established orgs are doing better work per marginal dollar than exactly all of the new ones.

This especially because established organisations are precisely the ones that aren’t funding constrained. Even the rationale of the EA Funds payout mentions “a sense that their work is otherwise much less funding constrained than it used to be”. The grantmaker suggests spending the money on child care and upgrading electronics. He doesn’t seem to be aware of any good funding constrained organisations (This was in August, and it looks like they’ve moved to smaller projects now).

So scale up the vetting! Then fund more orgs! And all of those amazingly competent people will eventually find a job in one of them, and who knows, net utility of EA might end up orders of magnitude larger.

Again, just my impression. Please prove me wrong.