What is meta Effective Altruism?
Edited 02.06.2021: Minor edits to the “Tentative Defintion” section for clarity.
A Tentative Definition
Meta Effective Altruism is one of the main focus areas of the Effective Altruism movement. It can include research to help direct efforts (Global Priorities Research) and efforts to build or support the EA movement and its members (EA Movement Building). Some meta EA projects can also be focused on specific cause areas, professions or more (Within-Cause Meta). Typically, meta effective altruism is at least one step removed from direct impact.
This post aims to clarify the different kinds of work that is counted as “meta effective altruism”. Examples are non-exhaustive, and many are listed under multiple categories of movement building because the categories defined are not mutually exhaustive.
Map of meta Effective Altruism
This diagram was not made for this post, but I found it somewhat useful to get a broad overview of the elements I’m describing. To save time I chose not to update the image with the terminology that I’ve used in the post.
Global priorities research (GPR) is concerned with the question ‘If our aim is to do the most good possible, from a totally impartial perspective, with limited resources, how can we do the most good?’ (Slightly altered from Source)
Foundational Global Priorities Research
“Macrostrategy” or “foundational” research that would inform cause prioritization in a less direct way (e.g., research into the Fermi paradox or whether we’re living at the hinge of history). (From the Forum tag)
Examples include: Global Priorities Institute
Applied Global Priorities Research
Applied global priorities research is most commonly done for object-level causes, however, it can also include research on meta considerations.
Cause prioritization refers to efforts to find the most important causes to work on and compare possible resource allocation between different causes.
There is often overlap between Cause Prioritization and Intervention Evaluation since the availability of promising interventions can change the way we prioritise a given cause. I’ve separated them because they can be distinct projects.
A subset of applied global priorities research that is narrowed to a specific geographic region (a locale). This is a cross-cutting area that overlaps with cause prioritization and career advice research.
Examples include: Region-specific career advice
Any work to build, grow or develop the EA movement. Movement building does not need to involve using or spreading the Effective Altruism brand or name. The types of movement building are described below.
Developing groups or subcommunities (local & online) organised by geography, shared interests, careers, causes and more; events and conferences; career advice and more which spread and educate people about the ideas and principles of the EA movement and encourage people to take actions based on them.
The development of community-wide products and services that help intra community coordination. Examples include building tools or websites such as wikis, forums, tools, platforms; offering cross-cutting services like shared services to EA organizations; and offline events such as conferences, community houses, and regional networks.
Some community infrastructure may be limited to certain subgroups, such as events and services for leaders but still provide benefits to the wider community.
Developing new or influencing existing academic disciplines or fields through the creation of new organisations, advocacy or funding academics to work in this field.
Closely related to Professionalization.
Examples include: Scholarships and teaching buyouts (e.g. Forethought Foundation, several grantmakers), Charity Entrepreneurship’s Incubation Program, Future of Humanity Institute’s Research Scholars’ Program, Conferences (such as EA Global)
Raising money to help achieve movement goals.
Distributing movement resources towards where they need to go. This includes charity evaluators, foundations and individual donors who are making donation decisions.
Developing the EA network to include non-EA actors, organisations and communities. See Community vs Network by David Nash.
Often overlaps with Community Building.
Examples include: Effective Altruism Consulting Network, High Impact Athletes, Raising for Effective Giving, All-Party Parliamentary Group for Future Generations (London), promoting positive values (e.g. EA for non-EA People: External Movement Building by Danny Lipsitz), EA Asia, and more.
Spreading the ideas and principles of the EA movement and encouraging people to take actions based on them. Outreach can be general or targeted to specific groups. Outreach often involves content creation.
Giving an occupation, activity, or group professional qualities. This can be done by creating a career out of, increasing the status of, raising the qualifications required for, or improving the training given for an occupation, activity or group.
Closely related to Field Building.
Movement research is research done to help determine what kind of movement building to do, which interventions to conduct and which
A subset of EA movement building that is cross-cutting is research specific to the allocation of talent. Other effective uses of one’s time could be included within this such as volunteering, although this has not historically been a focus of this kind of research.
There are three main types of carer advice research:
Movement-level career advice research: “Which career paths are especially impactful, overall, for people to join?”
This research identifies bottlenecks in top causes and makes recommendations on how to address those bottlenecks, such as specific actions (e.g. career paths, jobs) movement actors can take to pursue them.
Individual-level research: “How can a given person find an impactful career that is a good fit for them?”
This research identifies best practices, frameworks and tips on how to have a successful, fulfilling career. It could help people find a career that is the right choice for them: that is aligned with their values, that they can excel at, and that they are motivated to stay in in the long-term.
Career advice intervention research: “What can we do to help more people find impactful careers?”
This research identifies specific interventions (e.g. career 1-1s, articles, events, headhunting) which can help achieve 1) and 2).
Examples: Animal Advocacy Careers pre-registering a study of their career 1-1 calls, Research on the effectiveness of coaching.
Some meta-EA work is done at the level of individual causes, rather than the movement as a whole. Intervention Evaluation and Impact Assessment can also apply to meta EA as a cause itself (for example, conducting a study to see if conferences positively influence altruistic behaviour).
See the categories listed above, but applied to different causes rather than EA.
Intervention evaluation is the comparison of different interventions, normally within a given cause area. However, some organizations may compare interventions across cause areas to decide where to give.
This may fall outside the scope of meta and more within certain cause areas. Some organisations listed below evaluate interventions across a number of causes, but many of the employees may be specializing in a particular area.
Impact assessment measures “the effectiveness of organisational activities and judging the significance of changes brought about by those activities” (source), as well as cost-effectiveness analysis and cost-benefit analysis, which compare impacts and costs. The activities and interventions need not be tied to any specific organization. (from Forum wiki)
There is often overlap between Impact Assessment and Intervention Evaluation because charity evaluators will first identify the most effective interventions and then evaluate charities that implement them.
This intervention may not be meta effective altruism for the most part, but the development of frameworks for charity evaluation or encouraging evaluation more broadly could be considered meta effective altruism.
Thanks to many, many reviewers for providing valuable inputs on this post. I decided to publish because I felt a lot of the categorizations and definitions I offer haven’t really been discussed that much and it wouldn’t make sense to try to create a “perfect” version of this post. I hope this can be a living document, so please feel free to suggest edits, corrections and additions in the comments.