[Question] What caused EA movement growth to slow down?

Sum­mary: It ap­pears the an­nual growth rate of EA be­gan dra­mat­i­cally slow­ing as late as around 2015-16, at around the same time EA started ex­pe­rienc­ing other bot­tle­necks, such as re­ported tal­ent gaps at EA-al­igned or­ga­ni­za­tions. I ex­plore the pos­si­bil­ity of a re­la­tion­ship be­tween a po­ten­tial bot­tle­neck for growth, and other bot­tle­necks in EA, and iden­tify a po­ten­tial com­mon re­la­tion­ship be­tween them to be a lack of or­ga­ni­za­tion or co­or­di­na­tion of re­sources in EA. What spe­cific fac­tors have gen­er­ated these bot­tle­necks is the an­swer I am seek­ing.

In my last ques­tion, I glossed over the ori­gin of EA.

His­tor­i­cally, the fol­low­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions were the ear­liest to be as­so­ci­ated with what would be­come EA:
Givewell, launched in 2007
LessWrong, launched in 2009
Giv­ing What We Can, launched in 2009
80,000 Hours, launched in 2011
It’s with mul­ti­ple or­ga­ni­za­tions, and the com­mu­ni­ties that built up around them, con­nect­ing on­line that first de­vel­oped the com­mu­nity that would be­come ‘effec­tive al­tru­ism.’ This started in 2009. It was with the launch of 80,000 Hours in 2011 that com­mu­nity be­gan to grow, and the la­bel ‘effec­tive al­tru­ism’ be­gan to stick.

Go­ing with the as­sump­tion EA be­gan circa 2009, the fol­low­ing peo­ple would more or less qual­ify as part of the found­ing num­bers of the what would be­come the EA move­ment at its ear­liest stage:

  • the staff of Givewell, and Givewell’s di­rect sup­port­ers.

  • the mem­bers of com­mu­nity blog ‘LessWrong’ who were part of the bur­geon­ing EA com­mu­nity, and the sup­port­ers of the then-Sin­gu­lar­ity In­sti­tute which would go on to be­come the Ma­chine In­tel­li­gence Re­search In­sti­tute.

  • GWWC’s founders and ear­liest mem­bers.

  • the sup­port­ers of these com­mu­ni­ties in Oxford and the San Fran­cisco Bay Area, would qual­ify as as founders of EA.

If we were to es­ti­mate the num­ber of peo­ple who would have counted as ‘effec­tive al­tru­ists’ in 2009 from this list, it could eas­ily be around 100, and would prob­a­bly not ex­ceed 200. I joined the EA move­ment in 2011, so I would have been among the first sev­eral hun­dred peo­ple to join the EA com­mu­nity. In the first sev­eral years of EA, the move­ment was grow­ing ex­tremely rapidly, to the point it was nearly dou­bling in size, i.e., grow­ing by 100%, each year. Some years the growth rate would have been lower, and some years higher, but a model as­sum­ing an av­er­age an­nual growth rate of 100% tracks the growth of the EA move­ment de­cently for the first sev­eral years of the move­ment’s ex­is­tence. If we as­sumed the num­ber of peo­ple part of the EA move­ment in 2009 was 100-200, as­sum­ing EA had been dou­bling in size each year af­ter, by 2010 the num­ber would be be­tween 200 and 400, and by 2011, be­tween 400 and 800. If we plot this growth, we see how many peo­ple might be part of the EA move­ment by now.

2009 | 100-200

2010 | 200-400

2011 | 400-800

2012 | 800-1,600

2013 | 1,600-3200

2014 | 3,200-6,400

2015 | 6,400-12,800

2016 | 12,800-25,600

2017 | 25,600-51,200

2018 | 51,200-102,400

2019 | 102,400-204,800

In my last ques­tion, I also laid out what would be the peak es­ti­mate for the num­ber of peo­ple part of the EA move­ment.

The biggest count for po­ten­tial mem­ber­ship of EA is the ‘Effec­tive Altru­ism’ Face­book group, which cur­rently stands 16,482 mem­bers. So, at most, EA sits at be­tween 10k and 20k mem­bers.

Were EA to have kept dou­bling in size ev­ery year through the end of 2019, we might ex­pect to see up to ~200k peo­ple be­long­ing to the EA move­ment. By the great­est es­ti­mate, no more than ~20k peo­ple are cur­rently part of the EA move­ment. So, had EA sus­tained an an­nual av­er­age growth rate of 100% for each year of the 10 years it ex­isted, it might be up to an or­der of mag­ni­tude larger than it cur­rently is. It ap­pears EA has been grow­ing at a still sig­nifi­cant but much more mod­est rate since. As it stands, it doesn’t ap­pear ten­able to main­tain EA sus­tained dou­bling in size each year past ei­ther 2015 or 2016.

As Jon Be­har pointed out in his Frame­work for Think­ing about the EA La­bor Mar­ket, the EA com­mu­nity has in­creas­ingly been dis­cussing tal­ent gaps since 2015. One thing that has sig­nifi­cantly changed in EA since 2015 is the size of the grants made by EA-al­igned foun­da­tion Good Ven­tures, and grant­mak­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion the Open Philan­thropy Pro­ject (Open Phil). Many other char­i­ties and other non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tions the EA com­mu­nity has sup­ported, through sup­port from grants from Open Phil and other donors, are able to clear their room for more fund­ing, and even their ca­pac­ity for growth and ex­pan­sion, each year. With a glut of peo­ple, and a glut of money, one plau­si­ble story for why the growth rate of EA slowed is be­cause EA as an ecosys­tem ac­quired much greater amount of re­sources much faster than we have learned how to op­ti­mally al­lo­cate them. Ergo, growth of EA slowed as the com­mu­nity lost con­trol of driv­ing the growth rate of effec­tive al­tru­ism as a move­ment.

From one an­gle, it is nega­tive that the growth of EA has slowed. How­ever, if EA has so many re­sources, it doesn’t know how to spend them more to do the most good, it might make sense that re­sources are not wasted on ex­tra growth that won’t cur­rently be ap­plied to one or an­other cause. If there is a glut of effec­tive al­tru­ists to ei­ther donate or work, but tal­ent gaps re­main­ing to be filled, and pro­jects that don’t re­ceive suffi­cient fund­ing that de­serve it, a ma­jor prob­lem in EA is a lack of co­or­di­na­tion and or­ga­ni­za­tion of re­sources. Over­all, the ques­tion of what the main bot­tle­necks to move­ment growth for EA re­main, but it ap­pears it may have a re­la­tion­ship to other bot­tle­necks in EA.