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.