How I Recommend University Groups Approach the Funding Situation

Thanks to Emma Abele, Harry Taussig, Jemima Jones, George Rosenfeld, James Aung, Emma Williamson and Matt Burtrell for all their helpful feedback and comments.

I. Introduction

Over the past few months, there’s been a lot of discussion about the funding situation in EA and how it’ll change the community’s culture, epistemics, and public reputation. Like most sub-areas in the community, the funding situation will affect university groups and pose new challenges (and create new opportunities) for community-builders.

I’m writing this post to address how the increase in funding uniquely affects university groups and propose how community-builders should mitigate potential risks. While I’m largely optimistic about the trajectory of university groups, I also have a number of community-health concerns which I outline below. Especially if some of the problems outlined in this post are true, we want to create healthy norms and cultures within EA groups before scaling them. I expect this post will be most useful for anyone who currently runs a university EA group.

TLDR:

The increase of funding for community groups is great overall, however, there are a few ways it’ll uniquely negatively affect groups:

  1. Degrade group epistemics, especially because young people are more impressionable and drawn to potential employers offering them free stuff

  2. Expand the neartermist-longtermist divide within EA groups, which might be bad for multiple reasons

  3. Increase rent-seeking behavior (e.g. students who want funding and free trips to EA conferences)

Groups can mitigate these concerns in the following ways:

  1. Ask for help when sensitive situations arise

  2. Communicate carefully about money in EA and why certain opportunities are free for students

  3. Create healthy group norms around spending, such as avoiding buying extravagant things

  4. Maintain altruistic signals such as buying vegan food, promoting effective giving, and talking candidly about why you got involved in EA

The last section of the post also has an FAQ with questions that community-builders commonly get asked and sample responses.

If you’re a community-builder who’s had problems with the issues I’ve detailed in this post, especially with problematic individuals in your group, I strongly encourage you to reach out to the community-health team for support. You can fill out this form to contact them or email Catherine Low directly (catherine@centreforeffectivealtruism.org).

II. How the funding situation uniquely affects university groups

Funding will create a lot of new opportunities for groups and their members. However, it’ll also change group cultures, expand the opportunity gap between working on neartermist vs. longtermist causes, and attract people who are more rent-seeking than altruistically inclined.

This section focuses on outlining increased funding’s positive/​negative effects on groups. You can skip to this section if you want to read my proposals for what groups should do.

Degrading Epistemics

I pretty much agree with everything that this post says in terms of money being an epistemic problem for groups, and this is my biggest concern.

“Consider the case of a college freshman. You read your free copy of Doing Good Better and become intrigued. You explore how you can get involved. You find out that if you build a longtermist group in your university, EA orgs will pay you for your time, fly you to conferences and hubs around the world and give you all the resources you could possibly make use of. This is basically the best deal that any student society can currently offer. Given this, how much time are you going to spend critically evaluating the core claims of longtermism? And how likely are you to walk away if you’re not quite sure? Anecdotally, I’ve spoken to several organisers who aren’t convinced of longtermism but default to following the money nevertheless. I’ve even heard (joking?) conversations about whether it’s worth ‘pretending’ to be EA for the free trip.“

I also want to point out that young people are very impressionable. When I think back to when I first got involved with EA, I was much more likely to defer to other people’s judgement and follow their career advice. When you’re an 18 year-old who wants to make a difference but doesn’t have a clue what they should do with their career, it’s very tempting to do whatever 80k or [insert high-status person] says, especially if that person is offering you funding and free stuff.

I’m also concerned that the influx of money into community-building will exacerbate existing problems in group epistemics. I don’t think funding currently incentives community-builders to create healthy epistemic environments; it’s up to good community-builders to solve these problems. It’s easy to apply and get funding to run an intro fellowship and intro talks, but it’s harder to develop high-fidelity models of community-building that focus on helping young EAs reason clearly and skill-build.

(Caveat: Funding isn’t necessarily the main problem here. We probably need better models of community-building and more experimentation.)

Expanding the Neartermist-Longtermist Divide

While community-building over the past couple years, I’ve at times felt sad that I couldn’t offer more support to people in my group who are interested in global health & development, animal welfare, or other neartermist causes. Not everyone is cut out (or motivated) to work on reducing existential risks, but due to the talent bottlenecks in longtermism, there are more early career opportunities and funding for university students interested in movement-building or x-risk reduction compared to early-career opportunities in animal welfare/​global poverty. Compounded with the fact that nearly all highly-engaged community-builders I’ve met are either sympathetic to or focused on reducing existential risks, this complicates group dynamics.

When the majority of dedicated people in your EA group are all working on reducing existential risks and nearly all early career opportunities in EA are longtermist-focused, we’ll likely expand the division between neartermists and longtermists. Especially since status in EA now correlates more to doing “high-impact longtermist work,” we risk creating environments where people working on animal welfare or global health & development don’t feel as welcome or respected in their EA group. And the prospect of this makes me really sad—I don’t want anyone working on reducing the suffering of a billion people in extreme poverty and trillions of factory-farmed animals to feel belittled or ostracized. Even if it may be true, it’s difficult to tell people “hey, if you care about extreme poverty and animal welfare, you should just earn to give.”

I expect these effects to only grow larger as the number of longtermist opportunities increase and longtermist careers become much sexier than neartermist careers. (For example, paying higher salaries, offering personal assistants, having really nice office spaces, etc.)

There are a number of reasons why expanding this divide could be bad. First, EA as a movement encourages people to reason for themselves about how to do the most good and pushing group members to adopt strong philosophical worldviews goes against this. Second, you might want EA to still practice worldview diversification, or take actions that are more robust to different moral frameworks. Third, there might be negative community-health effects from expanding this divide. I’ve heard people in Brown EA say that they felt “baited and switched by EA about longtermism,” and I’ve seen plenty of cases where neartermists feel out of place in EA discussions.

Even if you are a longtermist, lots of people get into longtermism through global health & development or animal welfare (myself included). It also seems like if you accept the belief that we should prioritize longtermist work to the extent of all else, then you should run a community-group focused on longtermism or existential risk reduction. (I’m not making claims about whether longtermism/​neartermism is more true, but it seems suboptimal for both communities to constantly be in tension with each other.)

Attracting rent-seekers

Another side effect of increasing funding for university groups is that it will attract people who are more rent-seeking than altruistic. While I’ve only really heard about a few edge cases of students going to EA conferences for deceptive or selfishly-motivated reasons, I wonder how this will change in the coming years. When I hear of a university group sending 40 students to an EA conference, I’m skeptical that all of those people should really be there. While being able to send students to conferences is great and offers them a transformative experience, I’ve seen cases where people seem more motivated by the free flight than the conference itself. (It also makes the conference worse for the rest of the attendees.)

Creating New Opportunities

I want to finish by reiterating that there are a lot of positive effects from increasing funding for EA groups. In discussions about funding and university groups, I find that most people gravitate towards talking about the negative effects and don’t give enough weight to all of the new opportunities resulting from EA groups having more funding. While the majority of this post has a somewhat critical or wary tone, I also want to say that I’m really excited about what university groups could accomplish with more funding. This is probably redundant for most people, but I still think it’s worth capturing how far groups have come.

Less than ten years ago, EA groups barely existed at universities. Now, there are over ten conferences in 2022 that members of the community can attend. University groups regularly run retreats helping their group members connect and think critically about how they want to use their careers for the social good. Community-builders receive funding for their work, allowing them to significantly increase the quality of their group (ocasionally even working on their group full-time) and make fewer time-money tradeoffs. Groups themselves have funding to host weekly dinners, invite speakers, travel to conferences, rent office spaces, and buy high-quality advertising materials. Opportunities available for young people—including the Open Philanthropy’s Century Fellowship and Biosecurity Scholarships, various funding sources, and paid internships at EA orgs—allow young EAs to skill-up and be more ambitious.

All of these opportunities should significantly increase the number of altruistically-inclined young people who learn about EA, get involved in the community, and make the commitment to use their career to tackle the world’s most pressing problems. We just need to remain cognizant of how funding changes the community and its incentive structures.

III. What we can do

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

I hope most university group organizers already know this, but the community health team is available to help you address sensitive situations within your group. Please have a low barrier for reaching out to them.

For example, if you know of people in your university group applying to attend an EA conference just because they want a free trip and don’t feel comfortable addressing them, you can flag these individual(s) to the community-health team. (Caveat: there are times where this is clear, and there are times where it’s borderline. If it’s not clear why an individual is applying for an EAG conference, I’d talk to them directly before flagging them to the comm-health team.)

How to communicate about the increase in funding

(See the FAQ below for sample responses to specific questions that a community-builder might get asked.)

Free stuff is not actually free

When university students get offered free stuff, they usually don’t think about where that free stuff came from. If one of your group members seems particularly keen on stuff being “free” in EA, I recommend conveying to them that “no, everything isn’t actually free”. Grantmakers in the EA community think funding [local EA groups/​travel to conferences/​etc] is high value, and therefore chose to fund [local EA groups/​travel to conferences/​etc] over other valuable causes.” (I rarely need to tell people this, but it occasionally comes up. I also try to preemptively say stuff along these lines when I’m around newer group members.)

Ultimately, I want my group members to understand the counterfactual value of money. I’d hope they understand that it’s possible to spare the life of a factory-farmed animal for a few dollars or save the life of a person for ~$5,000. EA doesn’t fund people to attend conferences because they’re fun and free; there are serious problems in the world and we want to empower young people to figure out how they can tackle them.

Don’t widely advertise that “EA has money”

It’s a good norm to not spread the meme that “EA has tons of money” to people who are new to your group. I’d tell them instead about specific opportunities/​funding sources that are available to them. And if you want to talk about money in EA, I would avoid having these discussions at large group events and instead have them in smaller groups with more seasoned members of your group.

Be careful how you advertise EAG conferences

When encouraging your group members to attend an upcoming EA conference, be careful with your language and phrasing. For example, instead of writing that “you can get a free trip to London/​Prague,” I’d write, “we don’t want financial barriers to prohibit students from attending the conference, so students can request to have their housing and travel costs covered.” I’d also consider adding another line that says something along the lines of “we recommend that you attend the conference only if you want to seriously engage with the EA community.

Establish healthy groups norms around money

Develop spending heuristics

In university-group organizing, it’s difficult to get good feedback loops on your decisions. I find it more useful to develop heuristics for how you spend money than to try and model the cost-effectiveness of your actions (although that could be a useful group exercise). For example, here are some heuristics I use to determine how we spend money for Brown EA:

  • Buy food that student groups normally offer (e.g. like pizza or trays of food from medium-price places)

  • Fund a group member’s travels only if they’ve done the intro fellowship or have prior knowledge of EA

  • If there’s a cheaper version of a thing that’s equally good, buy it instead of the more expensive thing. (For example, if you can host a picnic in the park instead of paying for an escape room, I’d host the picnic. Or if you’re buying hoodies, I’d buy a generic hoodie instead of a more expensive brand-name hoodie.)

***I recommend reading CEA’s Common Group Expenses Guidelines document

Buy the cheaper version of things (or don’t spend extravagantly)

One easy way to encourage a degree of frugality in your group is to buy the cheaper version of things. For example, if you have the option between spending $10 per person on a weekly dinner versus $20, I’d buy the cheaper food (at least until everyone gets sick of eating pizza!) Or, if you’re running a retreat, I wouldn’t stay at a luxury retreat center.

One thing to note is that people’s impressions of extravagance often doesn’t reflect the cost of what you’re buying. If you buy a really expensive dinner for your group that costs $500 instead of $200, people might perceive that as more wasteful than the $3000 retreat you ran at a run-down summer camp.

Consider reintroducing (or maintaining) other altruistic signals

Have conversations about why you care

Personal narratives go a long way in representing what the EA movement is and why you got involved. I think talking about your emotional motivations for joining EA can indirectly counter funding criticisms and the notion that all EAs do are multiply numbers and argue about cost-effectiveness.

Buy vegan food

Most EA groups do this anyways, but I’d recommend buying vegan food for events or dinners. It’s an easy way to show that you care about animal suffering and opens up opportunities to educate your group members about factory-farming.

Emphasize effective giving

This is somewhat controversial in community-building, but I’d still encourage people to talk about effective giving and effective charities. GWWC doesn’t need to be people’s first introduction to EA, but you can still encourage your group members to think about the marginal value of money. Talking candidly about why you took the GWWC pledge (or a variation of it) can help convey that you take helping people seriously and are willing to make personal sacrifices in order to do so.

IV. FAQ: Talking to group members about money in EA

Why does EA have so much money?

Several large scale donors—Dustin Moskovitz, Cari Tuna, and Sam Bankman Fried—have committed the majority of their wealth to effective altruist causes, which is why there is significantly more funding in EA now. Open Philanthropy, which is largely funded by Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna, plans to give out $800 million in grants in 2022. The FTX Future Fund, founded by Sam Bankman Fried, also plans to give out between $100 million and $1 billion this year. It’s worth noting, however, that this is still a very small amount of money relative to other philanthropic efforts. For example, the US government alone aims to invest $44.9 billion in 2023 towards tackling climate change.

Why do longtermism and existential risk reduction have so much money compared to global health & development and animal welfare?

This is a common misconception about EA. In 2019, the two largest recipients of funding in EA were global health & development (44%) and farm animal welfare (13%), followed by biosecurity (10%) and AI safety (10%). While longtermist funding in EA has expanded since 2019, particularly with the foundation of the FTX Future Fund, longtermist causes receive a minority of funding. What’s true, however, is that longtermism and x-risk reduction have a larger funding overhang, meaning that there’s more money dedicated to longtermist causes than there are people and projects able to absorb the funding.

If longtermism has a larger funding overhang, why doesn’t EA fund [insert cause] instead?

First, most money in EA isn’t transferrable across cause areas. If Open Philanthropy has $100 million allocated for grantmaking aimed at improving the long-run future, their grantmakers can’t use that money to fund policies aimed at, for example, improving farmed chicken welfare. Second, although it’s currently harder to fund good longtermist projects and people, this won’t always be the case. Over time, grantmakers will likely find effective ways to distribute funding and the funding overhang will disappear. Lastly, taking a more patient approach to philanthropy allows the community to maximize its impact over the long-run. If we only funded problems with easy funding opportunities, we wouldn’t make progress on the thornier/​hard-to-fund but equally important problems.

Where does the money for EA groups come from?

Most EA groups receive funding from Open Philanthropy, CEA’s University Group Accelerator Program (UGAP), or the EA Infrastructure Fund (EAIF). Each organization has its own unique application process and bar for funding.

Why is EA funding students to go to conferences?

The EA Events Team offers financial support for students to attend conferences because they want to make sure that money doesn’t prohibit anyone from attending a conference. Conferences can be really valuable because they allow students to make personal and professional connections, learn about early career opportunities within the EA community, and get feedback on their career plans. Students also frequently cite conferences as one of their most transformative experiences!

Why are students getting funding to community build? Is community-building a ponzi scheme?

Community-building is a uniquely high-impact opportunity for students because of its multiplier effect. For example, imagine that you have two options. (1) You could pursue a high-impact career yourself or (2) you could start an EA group at your university and get five other people to pursue equally impactful careers. By working on community-building, you’ve 5x your impact! First, grantmakers fund students to run their local EA groups because of the value of community-building. Second, students often have large financial burdens and opportunity costs, and funders don’t want community-builders to have to choose between running their group or taking a paid on-campus job.

People commonly critique community-building arguing that it’s a ponzi scheme. If a community-builder finds five more community-builders, and those five community-builders find more community-builders, then nobody is actually making an impact! However, in practice, this isn’t the case. A minority of students in university groups work on community-building or plan to do community-building full-time after graduation. (Although it’s debated how much community-building university groups should do.)

V. Resources