Some unfun lessons I learned as a junior grantmaker

I’ve been a part-time grantmaker since January 15th or so, first (and currently) as a guest manager on the Long-Term Future Fund, and more recently did non-trivial other grantmaking as well.

In doing so, I learned a number of useful but not fun lessons, some of which may be useful to others on this forum. I mostly learned these lessons through consulting more senior grantmakers and other advisors, and secondarily from thinking through these problems abstractly, rather than independently learning them the hard way from contact with reality with my own grants.

Standard disclaimers apply: all views are my own. I do not speak for any of the people who advised me on grantmaking. I do not speak for the Long-Term Future Fund, other grantmakers, or my full-time employer (Rethink Priorities).

I believe my points are more true for the longtermist and meta spaces (I have zero experience with animal or global health grantmaking), and more true for longtermism than meta (in particular, I think the points about feedback especially are directionally true for meta but less so than in longtermist grantmaking). Most of my actual grants have been in forecasting, but I actually do not believe my points below are more true for forecasting grants than for other subfields of longtermist grantmaking.

In this article, I tried my best to convey knowledge that is both true and at least somewhat novel to me/​this Forum. In doing so, I may say things that are systematically not-yet-said because others believe that these messages are difficult to hear and convey publicly with the appropriate level of care and nuance. I tried my best to be both honest and kind, but I likely still screwed up the balance at various parts. I ask for your patience.


Important lessons

  1. (Refresher) The top grants are much much better than the marginal grants, even ex ante.

  2. All of the grantmakers are extremely busy

  3. Most (within-scope) projects are usually rejected for personal factors or person-project fit reasons

  4. Some of your most impactful work in grantmaking won’t look like evaluating grants

  5. Most grantmakers don’t (and shouldn’t) spend a lot of time on evaluating any given grant.

  6. It’s rarely worth your time to give detailed feedback

Less Important Lessons

  1. The value of time for people in EA is incredibly high

  2. The direct counterfactual impact of grant evaluation is lower than I initially would have guessed

  3. People are often grateful to you for granting them money. This is a mistake.

  4. Conflicts of Interests are unavoidable if you want to maximize impact as a grantmaker in EA.

  5. Acceptance/​Rejection rates can easily be extremely misleading

(Refresher) The top grants are much much better than the marginal grants, even ex ante.

I think it’s well understood in EA that for most important values of X in the EA space (charitable interventions, organizations, careers, etc,), the best X are much more impactful than the marginal X.

I think I have internalized this more after I started grantmaking than before. In particular, I now understood that (from the perspective of many grantmakers), their top grants are ex ante much more impactful than their marginal grants. This lesson has publicly been discussed by other grantmakers, see e.g.

I think the top decile is at least an order of magnitude more impactful (per dollar) than the bottom decile grantmaking that we’re doing


I think that more than half of the impact I have via my EAIF grantmaking is through the top 25% of the grants I make. And I am able to spend more time on making those best grants go better, by working on active grantmaking or by advising grantees in various ways.


In practice, this often means that your highest impact actions as a grantmaker is to figure out ways to make more excellent high-impact grants, and make sure those grants go well. (rather than e.g., make more grants overall, or marginally improve marginal rejects to be marginal acceptances, or make marginal acceptances into median grants).

Internalizing this dynamic well drives many of the choices that might be surprising to readers of the forum, some of which I’ll cover below.

All of the grantmakers are extremely busy

As a refresher, all grantmakers at the Long-Term Future Fund (and I think all the other EA Funds grantmakers as well) are part-time. What may not be obvious is that they’re usually very part-time. I believe my colleagues at LTFF work many hours in their day jobs (counting meetings and other shallow work) as a norm rather than the exception, and the LTFF grantmaking is on top of that.

(I personally do not, for personal psychological reasons. Unfortunately this still does not leave me with ample productive high-energy time for grantmaking).

I don’t have a good sense of how much full-time grantmakers at places like Open Phil and Future Fund work, but I will not be surprised if they have similarly packed schedules as well, due to the sheer volume of grants.

Understanding and internalizing this well drives some of my other lessons here, including the extremely high value-of-time for people doing EA work.

Most (within-scope) projects are usually rejected for personal factors or person-project fit reasons

“Within-scope” is an important disclaimer here: I would not be surprised if more than half of LTFF grants are desk-rejected because they have no plausible story for tractably improving the long-term future.

But of the projects you are seriously considering at all, most of the time, if you reject projects, it is because you don’t think the person(s) applying have a good fit for the role. This could be due to general competence, bad project-specific competence and fit, or poor vetting on our end.

Unfortunately, even if the problem is solely due to project-specific competence and fit, there aren’t many tractable and high-EV levers for grantmakers to pull. If somebody applies with a poorly scoped research project, they may well be an amazing operations hire or entrepreneur but unfortunately a) the grantmaking process is not set up to evaluate this well, and b) we are specialized in evaluating grants, not in giving open-ended career advice.

(This makes feedback on projects pretty hard as well as awkward, which I’ll discuss later as well).

I think this is a major misconception in the EA community. Many times, I hear on the grapevine that the LTFF doesn’t do “grants in X cause area, or Y location.” This is rarely correct unless “X” means “traditional neartermism charities” or “something covered very well by another EA grantmaker.” Instead, it’s much more likely that we did not think any of the grantseekers (so far) in X cause area were a good fit for this work. (Additionally, sometimes nobody applies to us with grants in that area, and we sometimes make grants in a specific area but none of the grantees want to be public)

The flip side here is that from a grantseeker perspective, you shouldn’t hesitate to apply for grants from EA funders just because other grantseekers in your cause area were rejected!

Some of your most impactful work in grantmaking won’t look like evaluating grants

One naive way to model opportunity cost of evaluating X grant is to think whether the time spent here is wiser or less wise than spending more time on evaluating Y grant. But this is narrowing your options too far. Recall that your job as a grantmaker is ultimately to make the world better as much as possible by your actions, and more proximally to make more extremely impactful projects exist and be really good.

Much of your impact can come from finding impactful new people and projects or making them happen in the first place. For example, you can do this via being a relative expert in a space, and spotting new opportunities (in my case this will be in forecasting), or by knowing talented EA-adjacent folks and convincing them to explore or start new EA projects.

More broadly, instead of evaluating other grants, your opportunity costs could instead look like:

  1. Designing structures to make it easier for the best grants to be funded

    1. If the most impactful projects are much more impactful than other projects, reducing time costs, attentional costs, and stress of your top grantees is just extremely important

  2. Advising the very best applicants and grantees

  3. Coming up with novel funding mechanisms, advertising, broader solicitations, etc., such that top grantseekers who otherwise wouldn’t apply to you would now do so.

    1. Example 1: Future Fund’s attempts at various different solicitations (open call, regranting program, whatever their next thing is, etc)

    2. Example 2: Open Phil’s various targeted Requests for Proposals to get a specific slice of novel proposals that they believe can be high impact

  4. Active grantmaking

    1. That is, personally coming up with the projects that you want to see in the world, and then persuading other people (through a combination of your judgment and your pool of cash) to implement your projects

  5. Building a “brand” as a grantmaker that’s a) generally positive and b) helps your best grantseekers self-select in.

    1. (my personal hot takes, here and below. I didn’t check with others about what they think the brands should be, or what others think they are, I’m just saying what I think they are) For example, LTFF’s brand (built before I joined) is roughly “be very willing to fund weird things that the grantmakers’ inside views believe are really impactful for the long-term future.”

      1. LTFF specifically, and EA Funds in general, also have had a brand of extreme transparency and willingness to publicly document as much of their decisions as possible, but due in part to intentional prioritization choices, I think this brand is going away.

    2. Open Phil’s brand is roughly “classic EA: we are careful thinkers who thought really hard about what the best opportunities are, and we genuinely believe after careful consideration that these are the best giving opportunities. We are not afraid of taking risks with hits-based giving, but these risks are careful and measured. ”

    3. Future Fund’s brand is roughly “be bold, be daring. Be willing to throw lots of money on really big and high-impact things.”

    4. (I’m less sure about the brands of places like Longview and SFF).

      1. Though SFF has some cool decision-making, etc innovations going on like the S-Process.

  6. Understanding the world better and building a deep worldview so you can spot stellar grant opportunities that otherwise would not be on your radar

    1. I think of Worldview investigations, and a lot of Holden’s writings as like this.

  7. Other creative ways to get the highest impact grants out

    1. ??? Ideas welcome: the sky’s the limit

  8. Spend less of your time on grantmaking and more on direct work

Most grantmakers don’t (and shouldn’t) spend a lot of time on evaluating any given grant.

A common mistake most junior grantmakers make (myself included) is to spend a lot of time agonizing over specific grants. Because of the previously noted lessons, this is rarely the correct course of action.

To spell it out in detail: there are good grants, bad grants, and marginal grants. You shouldn’t spend too much time on good grants, because they likely should be funded anyway. You shouldn’t spend too much time on bad grants, because they likely shouldn’t be funded anyway. So this leaves you with marginal grants. Marginal grants are marginal because of one of two possibilities:

  1. They are either really high positive impact or really high negative impact, and you’re not sure which.

  2. They are just not very high impact overall, and after further investigation, you’d come to the conclusion that they’re either just above or just below your threshold.

#1 is a good reason to spend a lot of time investigating in detail. #2 is not. Unfortunately most grants look like #2 than #1.

Actually it’s worse than this: an additional assumption behind the value of investigating marginal grants in the #1 bucket is that you can improve decision clarity with further investigation. And the vast majority of grants just don’t look like this.

Note that at least 3 of the above 4 lessons are necessary for the strength of this conclusion:

  1. If the top grants aren’t very far away (ex ante) from the marginal grant, then there’s more value in separating out “worth funding” vs “not worth funding” grants

  2. If the grantmakers aren’t extremely busy, then marginal cost of further investigation time is lower

  3. If your opportunity cost with grant evaluation is just within evaluating other grants, then your grant evaluation time can stretch to fill your (limited) grantmaking time. But unfortunately, they trade off indirectly against other things you can do to solicit the best grants. For example, the indirect opportunity cost of (not) spending time being creative with (e.g.) grant solicitations can be quite large.

I’m not happy about this set of choices. I consider this one of the most “unfun” lessons here. My own org has had trouble getting funding in the past, though my guess is that more consideration would not have helped their funding case much. At some level, I feel quite sad that there’s all those people trying hard to improve the long-term future, and we’re not giving them the careful and serious due consideration that they in some sense rightfully deserve. However, my best guess is that more time delving into specific grants will only rarely actually change the final funding decision in practice.

And ultimately, nobody said that (consequentialist) morality had to be easy, or fair. It’s the moral patients that ultimately matter, not the feelings of the grantseekers or grantmakers. And if I sacrifice foregone opportunities to make highly impactful grants for the sake of a vague sense of procedural justice, or fairness, then I would be acting wrongly. (A caveat here is that of course procedural justice or fairness can globally make sense if some applicants strongly prefer grantmakers who care immensely about procedural justice or fairness, so it may make sense for some grantmakers or grantmaking agencies to honestly and publicly specialize in this).

It’s rarely worth your time to give detailed feedback

I’m personally very pro-feedback, even compared to most people in EA. I try my best to give lots of feedback as a manager. In the past, I’ve been pretty outspoken about the value to the movement of giving feedback to near-rejects for EA org jobs.

But from a grantmaking perspective, detailed feedback is rarely worthwhile, especially to rejected applicants. The basic argument goes like this: it’s very hard to accurately change someone’s plans based on quick feedback (and it’s also quite easy to do harm if people overupdate on your takes too fast just because you’re a source of funding). Often, to change someone’s plans enough, it requires careful attention and understanding, multiple followup calls, etc. And this time investment is rarely enough for you to change a rejected (or even marginal) grant to a future top grant. Meanwhile, the opportunity cost is again massive.

Similarly, giving useful feedback to accepted grants can often be valuable, but it just isn’t high impact enough compared to a) making more grants, b) making grants more quickly, and c) soliciting creative ways to get more highest-impact grants out. (An exception here may be giving advice and feedback to the top accepted grants).

I’m pretty sad about this. I really enjoy giving (especially positive) feedback to people. I don’t love the power dynamic inherent in the grantmaking relationship, but otherwise giving feedback is fun, I learn a lot in doing so, and also it feels like a basic sign of respect to acknowledge someone’s work and provide some opinions on how I subjectively think things can go better.

But ultimately, I have to be honest with myself: for any given grantee, most of the value I provide as a grantmaker is by recommending grants. As much as both they and I like to imagine that my feedback is valuable, ultimately they’re here for the money, and it’ll be a dereliction of duty to sacrifice making more grants in order to provide more feedback.

Caveat 1: This assumes that you don’t suck as a grantmaker

A major complication with the narrative above is that it assumes you don’t suck as a grantmaker. Unfortunately, even if you do suck as a grantmaker, there aren’t a lot of divergences in the actions you ought to take from the above. For example, if you suck as a grantmaker, you don’t suck much less by spending a lot more time per grant, nor do you get much information about how much you suck. Instead, you get updates on the quality of your grantmaking via:

  1. Feedback from more senior grantmakers

  2. Feedback from others in the community

  3. Careful retrospective analysis about the impact of past grants

Similarly, there is not much value for you to provide feedback to (would-be) grantees, since having poor judgment on which grants are good likely correlates with having poor judgment on how to give advice to grantees.

Caveat 2: This assumes that your organization, movement, etc, isn’t awfully wrong at a high-level

Unfortunately, this is again not something you can improve by looking at specific grants. Instead, this is best improved by understanding the world better, forming worldview investigations, conducting your own or contracting out cause prioritization research, careful empirical retrospective analysis again, etc.

Some less important/​salient lessons:

  1. The value of time for people in EA is incredibly high

    1. Oftentimes in EA grantmaking, there are decisions where an hour of extra work can get you better decision quality for the allocation of thousands of dollars, but it’s still (rationally) not worth it to investigate further.

    2. I think the proper update is that this is not because the grants aren’t valuable, but because your other actions are even more valuable, whether in grantmaking or other EA work.

  2. The direct counterfactual impact of grant evaluation is lower than I initially would have naively guessed

    1. This is because if you don’t approve the best grants, it is likely that some other grantmaker would have.

    2. But this is (mostly) salvaged by the impact of saving the time of more impactful people (including both grantmakers and grantseekers).

      1. So in the end, the naive calculation is closer to the true “impact equity” than measuring impact by direct counterfactualness.

    3. However, you can potentially have direct counterfactual impact with active grantmaking, for example by giving license for unusually competent people with the relevant skillsets on the peripheries of the EA community to do EA work.

  3. People are often grateful to you for granting them money. This is a mistake.

    1. Most saliently, this is not my money.

    2. More subtly (but more importantly), we really don’t want to move to a culture of patronage and favors. Grantmakers should be understood as people who try their best to use all of the information resources at their disposal (including networks) to make the correct allocation of limited resources for the greater good, not people who reciprocate (selfishly) other actions with money.

      1. I think even if I were to be donating my own money, the attitude I’d like to have (and in fact the one I did have when e.g. doing my own relatively small Giving What We Can donations) is something like “I should view myself as one of the stewards of this capital. It’s pooled up around us right now, but it belongs to the world.” But I feel this is even more true given that I was not the person to earn this money to begin with.

  4. Conflicts of Interests are unavoidable if you want to maximize impact as a grantmaker in EA.

    1. In tension with the above point, the EA community is just really small, and the subcommunities of fields within it (AI safety, or forecasting, or local community building) are even smaller.

    2. Having a CoI often correlates strongly with having enough local knowledge to make an informed decision, so (e.g) if the grantmakers with the most CoIs in a committee always recuse themselves, a) you make worse decisions, and b) the other grantmakers have to burn more time to be more caught up to speed with what you know.

    3. I started off with a policy of recusing myself from even small CoIs. But these days, I mostly accord with (what I think is) the equilibrium: a) definite recusal for romantic relationships, b) very likely recusal for employment or housing relationships, c) probable recusal for close friends, d) disclosure but no self-recusal by default for other relationships.

    4. To avoid issues with #3, I’ve also made a conscious effort to do more recusals in reverse: that is, I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid being too friendly with grantees.

  5. Acceptance/​Rejection rates can easily be extremely misleading

    1. The denominator of who applies to different funding agencies, and for different cause areas, and from different localities, can just vary massively in terms of person-specific and person-project fit factors.


The above is a list of unfun lessons I’ve learned as a junior grantmaker, which might be helpful for plugging a few gaps within the current public understanding of EAs about what the current funding landscape looks like. It’s meant to be an epistemic contribution rather than a motivational contribution. However, if I were to guess at reasonable calls-to-action that some readers ought to extrapolate from the above, potential moves include:

  • All the grantmakers are extremely busy, and there is a lot of value to making better grants. Some people here may wish to skill up in grantmaking, and test their fit for this work, for example by a) identifying great projects in the world that can be done, b) finding and convincing great people to do such projects, and c) linking the projects and founders with the relevant EA funders.

  • Many people believe that the best grants (projects) are much better than marginal grants (projects), even within effective altruism or longtermism. So from the perspective of a would-be grantee, your goal should not be to “do a good enough job to get funding,” but instead to “aim really high and do a really fantastic job.” Maximize expected impact, don’t satisfice it.


Thanks to EA Funds for building a grantmaking infrastructure and allowing me to test my fit and interests in grantmaking. Thanks also to the senior grantmakers and other advisors for helping me think through these questions. Very few of the ideas here are original to me. Thanks also to Asya Bergal, Caleb Parikh, Max Daniel, and other reviewers of this piece. I do not speak for anyone other than myself. Most mistakes are my own. Thanks to the funders who made this possible. And of course, thanks especially to all of the applicants of EA funding more broadly, who took a chance in pursuit of building something altruistic and great.