The EA Community and Long-Term Future Funds Lack Transparency and Accountability

The Effec­tive Altru­ism Funds pub­li­cly launched Fe­bru­ary 2017. Dur­ing the first year of their op­er­a­tion, Henry Stan­ley has noted mul­ti­ple times on the Effec­tive Altru­ism Fo­rum that the EA Funds granted money and up­dates on the EA Funds web­site very in­fre­quently. Since then, the Global Health & Devel­op­ment and An­i­mal Welfare Funds have made large grants which should in­spire con­fi­dence they are be­ing at­ten­tively man­aged. Elie Hassen­feld paid out $1.5 mil­lion to the Schis­to­so­mi­a­sis Con­trol Ini­ti­a­tive in April 2018. Over the course of March and April of this year, Lewis Bol­lard paid out $750k to var­i­ous an­i­mal ad­vo­cacy and welfare or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Hav­ing been fol­low­ing the EA Funds my­self, and check­ing up with the Cen­tre for Effec­tive Altru­ism on the sta­tus of the EA Funds, I sent an email and re­ceived a re­sponse from JP Ad­di­son, as I com­mented on Henry’s post a few months ago. It was as fol­lows:

Hello. In the last few months I’ve no­ticed some EA com­mu­nity mem­bers have ex­pressed con­cern with a rel­a­tive lack of ac­tivity since the EA Funds started. Ben West posted about it here in the ‘Effec­tive Altru­ism’ Face­book group.
https://​​www.face­book.com/​​groups/​​effec­tive.al­tru­ists/​​perma­l­ink/​​1606722932717391/​​

At the time, Peter Hur­ford es­ti­mated the amount which had been al­lo­cated from each of the EA Funds in this com­ment (https://​www.face­book.com/​groups/​effec­tive.al­tru­ists/​perma­l­ink/​1606722932717391/​?com­ment_id=1607047222684962&com­ment_track­ing=%7B%22tn%22%3A%22R9%22%7D). Of course Marek Duda and Sam Deere let ev­ery­one know the EA Funds web­site had been up­dated with the amounts donated to the fund, and how they have been al­lo­cated up to the most re­cent date.

But later at the end of Jan­uary Henry Stan­ley posted about how much money re­main un­al­lo­cated from the EA Funds. Henry pointed out the An­i­mal Welfare Fund fre­quently makes many small grants (http://​effec­tive-al­tru­ism.com/​ea/​1k9/​ea_funds_hands_out_money_very_in­fre­quently_should/​). This is cor­rob­o­rated by this com­ment from Lewis Bol­lard on Ben’s post from Septem­ber.
Elie Hassen­feld, grant man­ager for the Global Devel­op­ment Fund, also pro­vided a pub­lic up­date on his cur­rent plans for al­lo­ca­tion, and re­quest for feed­back from donors on the EA Fo­rum as well (http://​effec­tive-al­tru­ism.com/​ea/​1k9/​ea_funds_hands_out_money_very_in­fre­quently_should/​d8o), on Henry’s EA Fo­rum post.

In nei­ther of these posts has there been any up­dates from Nick Beck­stead, grant man­ager for both the Long-Term Fu­ture and EA Com­mu­ni­tyFunds. From the EA Funds web­site, the lat­est up­date from each of these funds as of De­cem­ber 15, 2017 is they’ve each only made one grant.

https://​​app.effec­tivealtru­ism.org/​​funds/​​ea-com­mu­ni­ty­https://​​app.effec­tivealtru­ism.org/​​funds/​​far-fu­ture https://​​app.effec­tivealtru­ism.org/​​funds/​​far-fu­ture

While I’m not a donor to ei­ther of these or any of the EA Funds at pre­sent, as an EA com­mu­nity mem­ber I’m cu­ri­ous if:
1) There have been grants from ei­ther the Long-Term Fu­ture or EA Com­mu­nity Funds since De­cem­ber?
2) Can the EA com­mu­nity ex­pect a pub­lic up­date about al­lo­ca­tions from or fu­ture plans for ei­ther of these Funds, from Nick Beck­stead, in the near fu­ture?

Thanks for your time,
Evan

At the time, JP re­sponded no grants from ei­ther of these funds had been made since the Com­mu­nity Fund grant was com­pleted in Jan­uary. He also stated the CEA was work­ing on plans for in­creased grants, up­dates and trans­parency, which he ex­pected to be out some­time be­fore July. That was in April. As of me writ­ing this, it is 22 July 2018.

On Henry’s last post from April re­gard­ing how to im­prove the EA Funds, Marek Duda com­mented with the fol­low­ing re­sponse:

Hello, speak­ing in my ca­pac­ity as the per­son re­spon­si­ble for EA Funds at CEA:

Many of the things Henry points out seem valid, and we are work­ing on ad­dress­ing these and im­prov­ing the Funds in a num­ber ways. We are build­ing a Funds ‘dash­board’ to show bal­ances in near real time, look­ing into the best ways of not hold­ing the bal­ances in cash, and think­ing about other ways to get more value out of the plat­form.

We ex­pect to pub­lish a post with more de­tail on our ap­proach in the next cou­ple of weeks. Feel free to reach out to me per­son­ally if you wish to dis­cuss or provide in­put on the process

No such up­dates have been made. Whether it’s been pri­vately or on the Effec­tive Altru­ism Fo­rum, rang­ing from a cou­ple weeks to a few months, es­ti­mates from the CEA re­gard­ing up­dates from the EA Funds can­not be re­lied upon. Ac­cord­ing to data pub­li­cly available on the EA Funds web­site, each of the Long-Term Fu­ture and EA Com­mu­nity Funds have made a sin­gle grant: ~$14k to the Berkeley Ex­is­ten­tial Risk Ini­ti­a­tive, and ~$83k to EA Swe­den, re­spec­tively. As of April 2018, over $1 mil­lion to­tal is available for grants from the Long-Term Fu­ture Fund, and al­most $600k from the EA Com­mu­nity Fund. Here is the most re­cent up­date from both these funds from Nick Beck­stead, grant man­ager for both funds, and a Pro­gram Officer for Global Catas­trophic Risks at the Open Philan­thropy Pro­ject (Open Phil).

I am giv­ing an up­date on my grant­mak­ing with the EA Funds. I’m giv­ing it now be­cause the size of funds available has in­creased and some peo­ple have ex­pressed con­cern about in­fre­quent grant­mak­ing and up­dates.

I am cur­rently a few months be­hind the (not pub­li­cly stated) sched­ule that I origi­nally in­tended for dis­burs­ing most of the funds. How­ever, I am plan­ning to recom­mend grants that use up all available funds at my dis­posal un­der EA Funds by July 1st 2018 at the lat­est, and prob­a­bly in the next month. The grants I plan to make are cur­rently un­der con­sid­er­a­tion, but I will wait to an­nounce them pub­li­cly. I plan for these grants to go to or­ga­ni­za­tions with which I am fa­mil­iar and have sup­ported in the past.

Here are some up­dates re­gard­ing my plans for mak­ing grants with these funds and giv­ing up­dates in the fu­ture:

  • I am not re­view­ing un­so­lic­ited pro­pos­als to fund new, small pro­jects (e.g. with 1-2 peo­ple work­ing for 1-2 years) with these funds be­cause, re­gret­tably, I lack the time nec­es­sary to ad­e­quately vet them due to other re­spon­si­bil­ities I have. I be­lieve a rea­son­able de­gree of vet­ting is im­por­tant for the EA ecosys­tem. The con­cern is less that the funds will be wasted with­out such vet­ting, and more that not-prop­erly-vet­ted new pro­jects could un­der­mine suc­cess by (i) be­ing sub­op­ti­mal rep­re­sen­ta­tives of im­por­tant ideas, (ii) af­ter be­ing un­suc­cess­ful, stick­ing around too long and pre­vent­ing bet­ter pro­jects from tak­ing their places, and/​or (iii) caus­ing other forms of harm. Given these con­straints and the fact that I think grants to ex­ist­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions have good ex­pected re­turns, I rarely give sub­stan­tial con­sid­er­a­tion to un­so­lic­ited pro­pos­als that come with­out a strong recom­men­da­tion from a trusted source.
  • I am en­courag­ing those seek­ing fund­ing for small pro­jects to seek sup­port via EA Grants, rather than through Open Phil or EA Funds. EA Grants will have more time to vet such pro­jects. I be­lieve this is the most nat­u­ral di­vi­sion of la­bor given the fund­ing, re­la­tion­ships, and other pri­ori­ties that each of us has.
  • I largely ex­pect to use these funds to sup­port or­ga­ni­za­tions with which I am fa­mil­iar and have sup­ported in the past, though I may also fund new ini­ti­a­tives that I have de­ter­mined to be valuable but are not a good fit for Open Phil.
  • I ex­pect that I will use the EA Funds about once per year to make grants and up­date sup­port­ers, and that I will ei­ther (a) use a sub­stan­tial ma­jor­ity of the available funds when I do so, or (b) write an up­date say­ing that I have ex­plic­itly de­cided to hold the funds at the time. I plan to do this, rather than on a more fre­quent sched­ule, be­cause Open Phil funds most other types of grants that I recom­mend, Open Phil grant­mak­ing con­sti­tutes the vast ma­jor­ity of my over­all grant­mak­ing, and this grant­mak­ing via EA Funds also re­quires sig­nifi­cant at­ten­tion each time grants are made. I am not yet sure at what time I ex­pect to do this in 2019 (af­ter grant­ing out funds this year).

Visit­ing the EA Grants web­site, it states ap­pli­ca­tions are cur­rently closed, and there is no in­di­ca­tion of when an­other ap­pli­ca­tion or fund­ing round will be­gin. Thus, it is not clear how those seek­ing fund­ing for small pro­jects should seek sup­port from the EA Grants or the CEA. Much of the ra­tio­nale on the EA Funds web­page is based on Nick’s long track record of mak­ing grants to EA or­ga­ni­za­tions from be­fore the EA Funds ex­isted. This is not it­self a track record for ei­ther the Long-Term Fu­ture or EA Com­mu­nity Funds. On the web­page for the Long-Term Fu­ture Fund, un­der the head­ing “why might you choose not to donate to this fund?“, it states:

First, donors who pre­fer to sup­port es­tab­lished or­ga­ni­za­tions. The fund man­ager has a track record of fund­ing newer or­ga­ni­za­tions and this trend is likely to con­tinue, pro­vided that promis­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties con­tinue to ex­ist.

Se­cond, donors who are pes­simistic about the room for more fund­ing available in the area. The Open Philan­thropy Pro­ject has made global catas­trophic risk re­duc­tion a ma­jor fo­cus area and may fund many of the op­por­tu­ni­ties that the fund man­ager would find promis­ing. The fund man­ager has noted that “with Open Phil as a fun­der in this space it has been harder to find op­por­tu­ni­ties that are as promis­ing and ne­glected as we were able to find pre­vi­ously.”

From the web­page for the EA Com­mu­nity Fund, un­der the head­ing “Why donate to this fund?“, it states:

This fund sup­ports build­ing and strength­en­ing the ca­pa­bil­ities of peo­ple and or­ga­ni­za­tions try­ing to do good in a cause-neu­tral, out­come-ori­ented way — that is, the effec­tive al­tru­ism com­mu­nity (broadly con­strued). When suc­cess­ful, such in­vest­ments yield a flex­ible mul­ti­plier on the next most high-pri­or­ity cause and al­low us to build up re­sources which will hope­fully be flex­ible enough to sup­port the causes and op­por­tu­ni­ties that are later found to be the most promis­ing. Donors should keep in mind that the mul­ti­plier can be some­what de­layed and that fund­ing suc­cesses in ob­ject-level ar­eas can also yield mul­ti­pli­ers of their own.

Build­ing the com­mu­nity of peo­ple work­ing on effec­tive causes is es­pe­cially im­por­tant for those who ex­pect their opinions about the high­est-pri­or­ity ar­eas to change a great deal. If the effec­tive al­tru­ism com­mu­nity grows, that growth builds up gen­eral ca­pa­bil­ities to take the best op­por­tu­ni­ties as they are dis­cov­ered. It seems un­crowded, be­cause it’s a new cause and there ap­pear to be good op­por­tu­ni­ties available. It seems tractable be­cause there are definite ad­vo­cacy op­por­tu­ni­ties which have worked in the past and whose suc­cess can be mea­sured. Ex­am­ples in­clude: en­courag­ing peo­ple to join Giv­ing What We Can or take the Founders Pledge. More di­rect ev­i­dence for effec­tive­ness comes from the strong suc­cess to date of many of the pro­jects in the area, like GiveWell.

More­over, in the re­cent past, in­vest­ing in pro­mot­ing effec­tive al­tru­ism has re­sulted in sig­nifi­cantly more re­sources be­ing in­vested in the high­est-pri­or­ity ar­eas than would have oc­curred through di­rect dona­tions. For in­stance, for ev­ery US $1 in­vested in Giv­ing What We Can, at least $6 have been moved to high-pri­or­ity in­ter­ven­tions. Donors should note that the marginal re­turn on funds is less clear for many of these op­por­tu­ni­ties, with some fac­tors point­ing to a higher num­ber and some fac­tors point­ing to a lower num­ber. Ad­di­tion­ally, the area may be im­por­tant be­cause it’s a brand new area where there is much to learn, and we ex­pect fur­ther work to have high value of in­for­ma­tion.

Fur­ther down the page, un­der the head­ing “Why might you choose not to donate to this fund?“, it states two of the same rea­sons why some­one would opt not to donate to the Long-Term Fu­ture Fund:

First, if donors pre­fer dona­tions to es­tab­lished or­ga­ni­za­tions over dona­tions to emerg­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions, then this fund might not meet these prefer­ences. The fund man­ager has a track record of fund­ing newer or­ga­ni­za­tions, and this trend is likely to con­tinue as long as promis­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties con­tinue to ex­ist.

Se­cond, sup­port­ers of move­ment build­ing might choose not to donate through the EA Com­mu­nity Build­ing Fund if they are pes­simistic about the room for more fund­ing available in the move­ment build­ing space. The Open Philan­thropy Pro­ject re­cently an­nounced that it would start con­sid­er­ing grants in effec­tive al­tru­ism and that this effort would be lead by Nick Beck­stead, the EA Com­mu­nity Build­ing Fund man­ager. Nick has noted that fol­low­ing Open Philan­thropy’s in­volve­ment in this area, there are now fewer promis­ing but ne­glected dona­tion op­por­tu­ni­ties here. (Source)

So, the con­sid­er­a­tions the CEA gives for why one might donate to the Long-Term Fu­ture and EA Com­mu­nity Funds, to sup­port emerg­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions over ex­ist­ing ones; and be­cause they ex­pect there is much more room for fund­ing in these fo­cus ar­eas, are con­tra­dicted by the fund man­ager. Nick is seek­ing to pri­mar­ily make grants to ex­ist­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions over emerg­ing ones, and isn’t tak­ing much time to re­search grant op­por­tu­ni­ties in these fo­cus ar­eas through the EA Funds. Be­cause Nick’s grant recom­men­da­tions are usu­ally filled by the Open Philan­thropy Pro­ject, and in­ves­ti­gat­ing fur­ther grants would take sig­nifi­cant amounts of time from that work, grant­mak­ing through the EA Funds at pre­sent is not as much a pri­or­ity. No rea­son is given for the differ­ent man­age­ment styles of the Long-Term Fu­ture and EA Com­mu­nity Funds by Nick Beck­stead as an Open Phil pro­gram officer; and the re­spec­tive man­age­ment of the Global Health & Devel­op­ment, and An­i­mal Welfare Funds by Elie Hassen­feld and Lewis Bol­lard, also pro­gram officers at Open Phil. Both Elie and Lewis have been di­rectly re­spon­sive to the com­mu­nity re­gard­ing trans­parency for each of the funds they man­age here on the EA Fo­rum. They have also fol­lowed through on mak­ing grants and up­dat­ing donors to their re­spec­tive funds at least ev­ery few months. Hav­ing started in 2017, with Nick am­bigu­ously stat­ing grants may be made in 2019, the vast ma­jor­ity of the Long-Term Fu­ture and EA Com­mu­nity Funds will have been held for al­most two years with­out clear rea­sons as to why this should be the case.

When mak­ing sug­ges­tions for how to im­prove the EA Funds, Henry Stan­ley listed the fol­low­ing con­cerns:

  • The funds hand out money very in­fre­quently, and hold onto money for long pe­ri­ods of time. This erodes the value of the fund through time dis­count­ing. EA orgs have stated that they value dona­tions in a year’s time at a 12% dis­count to re­ceiv­ing them now[1], so this rep­re­sents a sub­stan­tial cost.
  • The funds hold their money as cash, for­go­ing any po­ten­tial in­ter­est the money could earn.
  • There is no sched­ule as to when the money will be handed out. This lack of trans­parency is trou­bling, and pre­vents donors mak­ing in­formed choices (e.g. to give di­rectly to char­i­ties in­stead of wait­ing).
  • (a weaker ob­jec­tion) As the funds hold onto dona­tions for so long, the chances of the fund man­ager’s and donors’ in­ten­tions drift­ing apart is high.

The email I re­ceived from the CEA re­gard­ing up­dates to the grants and trans­parency of the Long-Term Fu­ture and EA Com­mu­nity Funds is only ac­cu­rate in­so­far as the up­date has been that will be no sched­ule for grant­mak­ing, and for the in­definite fu­ture there will not be an in­crease in trans­parency. The up­dates from Nick re­gard­ing these funds is they will con­tinue to hand out money in­fre­quently, and no sched­ule will be pro­vided for when grants will be made. It ap­pears through no fault of their own, other staff at the CEA can­not to con­cerned com­mu­nity mem­bers up­dates re­gard­ing these two funds, be­cause in­ter­nally within the or­ga­ni­za­tion no up­dates have been pro­vided to them. Nonethe­less, whether it’s from the CEA or Nick Beck­stead, to ad­dress con­cerns re­gard­ing trans­parency and ac­countabil­ity of fis­cal man­age­ment in effec­tive al­tru­ism by in­di­cat­ing those funds will not be man­aged with trans­parency or ac­countabil­ity is un­ac­cept­able. That is no trans­parency or ac­countabil­ity at all. All the while, the EA Funds have been tak­ing in more dona­tions from effec­tive al­tru­ists who very likely would have coun­ter­fac­tu­ally donated to nascent EA pro­jects in need of fund­ing to get off the ground. At the time of Henry’s post in April, these were the amounts in these two funds re­main­ing un­al­lo­cated.

  • Long-Term Fu­ture: $348,167 [95%]

  • EA Com­mu­nity: $206,271 [71%]

As stated above, the Long-Term Fu­ture Fund now has over $1 mil­lion un­al­lo­cated, and the EA Com­mu­nity Fund $600k. Whether its viewed as hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars more, or an in­crease in nearly 200% in the size of funds, in the last sev­eral months, these funds have bal­looned in size while quietly go­ing back on the im­pres­sion effec­tive al­tru­ists were given on what the funds would be used for. On Henry’s first post con­cern­ing the in­fre­quent grants from (at the time, all) the EA Funds, I com­mented the fol­low­ing:

I’ve re­ceived feed­back from mul­ti­ple points in the com­mu­nity the EA Funds haven’t been as re­spon­sive in as timely or as pro­fes­sional a man­ner as some would pre­fer. It ap­pears a fac­tor for this is that the fund man­agers are all pro­gram officers at the Open Philan­thropy Pro­ject, which is a job which from the fund man­agers’ per­spec­tive is most of the time more cru­cial than any­thing that can be done with the EA Funds. Thus, do­ing a more than full-time work-equiv­a­lent(?… I don’t know how much Open Phil staff work each week) may mean man­age­ment of the EA Funds gets over­looked. Ben West also made a re­cent post in the ‘Effec­tive Altru­ism’ Face­book group ask­ing about the EA Funds, and the re­sponse from the Cen­tre for Effec­tive Altru­ism (CEA) was they hadn’t had a chance to up­date the EA Funds web­page with data on what grants had been made in re­cent months.

Given that at the cur­rent level of fund­ing, the EA Funds aren’t be­ing mis­man­aged, but rather are be­ing more ne­glected than donors and effec­tive al­tru­ists would like, I’d say it might already be time to as­sign more man­agers to the fund. Pick­ing Open Phil pro­gram officers to run the funds was the best bet for the com­mu­nity to be­gin with, as they had the best rep­u­ta­tion for acu­men go­ing in, but if in prac­tice in turns out Nick, Elie and Lewis only have enough time to man­age grants at Open Phil (most of the time), it’s only fair to donors CEA as­sign more fund man­agers to the fund. What’s more, I wouldn’t want the at­ten­tion of Open Phil pro­gram officers to be any more di­vided than it need be, as I con­sider their work more im­por­tant than the man­age­ment of the EA Funds as is.

If the ap­par­ent lack of com­mu­nity en­gage­ment re­gard­ing the EA Funds is on the part of the CEA team re­spon­si­ble to keep the web­page up­dated, as their time may also be di­vided and ded­i­cated to more im­por­tant CEA pro­jects than the EA Funds at any given point in time, that needs to be ad­dressed. I un­der­stand the pres­sures of af­ford­ing enough money to pro­ject man­age­ment it gets done very effec­tively, while as an effec­tive non-profit not want­ing to let over­head ex­pand too much and re­sult in in­effi­cient uses of donor money. I think if that’s the case for CEA staff di­vid­ing their time be­tween EA Funds and more ac­tive pro­jects, it’d be ap­pro­pri­ate for the CEA to hire a ded­i­cated com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager for the the EA Funds over­all, and/​or some­one who will up­date the web­page with greater fre­quency. This could prob­a­bly be done at 1 full-time equiv­a­lent ad­di­tional staff hire or less. If it’s not a sin­gle new po­si­tion at the CEA, a part-time equiv­a­lent CEA staffer could have their re­spon­si­bil­ities ex­tended to en­sur­ing there’s a di­rect chan­nel be­tween the EA Funds and the EA com­mu­nity.

In the scope of things, such as the money moved through EA over­all, EA Funds man­age­ment may seem a minor is­sue. Given it’s im­pact on val­ues in­te­gral to EA, like trans­parency and ac­countabil­ity, as well as en­sur­ing high-trust en­gage­ment be­tween EA donors and EA or­ga­ni­za­tions, op­tions like I’ve listed out above seem im­por­tant to im­ple­ment. If not, over­all, I’d think there’s greater need for adding ex­ter­nal over­sight to en­sure any­thing is be­ing done with the EA Funds.

It’s clear com­pared to how the Global Health & Devel­op­ment and An­i­mal Welfare Funds are be­ing manged, the Long-Term and EA Com­mu­nity Funds are be­ing se­ri­ously ne­glected. On top of this, the CEA has made clear for a long time now their cause se­lec­tion within EA is move­ment-build­ing; the long-term fu­ture; and ex­is­ten­tial risk re­duc­tion. So it should be es­pe­cially con­cern­ing to effec­tive al­tru­ists who share this cause se­lec­tion and have donated to these funds that they’are ap­par­ently un­der­min­ing the in­tegrity of the CEA’s own goals. The jux­ta­po­si­tion of the stag­nancy of the Long-Term and EA Com­mu­nity Funds, and the CEA’s stated goals, cre­ate a false im­pres­sion in and around the move­ment the CEA can be trusted to effec­tively iden­tify promis­ing pro­jects from within the com­mu­nity within these fo­cus ar­eas. Thus, to rec­tify this prob­lem, I make the fol­low­ing sug­ges­tions:

  • Nick Beck­stead or a mem­ber of the CEA’s ex­ec­u­tive team make clear a new plan and in­ten­tions for how the Long-Term and EA Com­mu­nity Funds will be more effec­tively man­aged in the fu­ture, posted to the Effec­tive Altru­ism Fo­rum.

  • The CEA con­sider hiring ad­di­tional man­agers for each of these funds, given it’s clear Nick alone doesn’t have the band­width to man­age both of them, or even one of them alone.

  • Past and cur­rent donors to these funds in­form the CEA how they would pre­fer the funds be al­lo­cated, and what kind of pro­jects they’d like to see funded, so the CEA, Nick and fund man­agers know what kind of new move­ment-build­ing and long-term fu­ture pro­jects in the com­mu­nity to search for.

  • Un­til one or more of the above sug­ges­tions comes about, effec­tive al­tru­ists re­frain from donat­ing more to the Long-Term and EA Com­mu­nity Funds.