EA Meta Fund AMA: 20th Dec 2018

post by agdfoster · 2018-12-19T18:06:02.484Z · score: 21 (11 votes) · EA · GW · 31 comments

Hi, we’re the new management team for the EA Meta Fund . We’re here to answer any questions about our grant making.

We recently made this set of grants, and are planning another set in February 2019. We are keen to hear from donors and potential donors about what kind of grant making you are excited about us doing, what concerns you may have, and anything in between.

Please feel free to start posting your questions from now and we (mostly me, but I'll pull in other team members when I'm missing info) will be available here and actively answering questions between 10am and 6pm UK time on 20th December (tomorrow).

Happy to answer questions about (but not limited to):

• Methodology.

• Our planned time spend.

• Reasons, motivations.

• Considerations for evaluation (suggestions welcome).

• Challenges we face / expect.

• Team backgrounds / experience.

• Decision-making / team structure / governance.

• Improvements to write-ups (suggestions welcome, bear in mind write-ups are public and we are a small part-time team).

• Using this fund for fundraising.

• Specific meta orgs, where appropriate, please be thoughtful.

We will try to use "I" where the view is our own and "we" where we believe we can represent the team's view.

31 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by alexherwix · 2018-12-20T09:42:21.159Z · score: 21 (11 votes) · EA · GW

Hey,

as a person working on meta-projects I would be interested if there are any plans to broaden the amount of projects that you are considering for funding?

Your grants demonstrate that you seem to only fund very much established players and focus on "very safe" bets – probably due to time limitations. Have you considered pitching opportunities for project proposals, putting out requests for proposals regarding specific challenges, or topping up EA Grants so that more proposal have the chance of being considered and funded?

My concerns is that right now it is still pretty difficult to get funding if you are not an established player and I don't really see any path for new players to emerge other than by personal connections which is strongly dependent on serendipity or physical location. Something like EA Grants is by far not a perfect solution (e.g., it's too open which leads to unclear criteria and there is no feedback at all which disallows iterative improvements and learning) but at least more projects are even considered for funding.

comment by Denise_Melchin · 2018-12-20T13:47:22.256Z · score: 9 (7 votes) · EA · GW

Hello Alex,

We are interested in funding new projects (see also Alex Foster's response above).

I am also concerned about the difficulty of promising new projects to be discovered. Personally, I am happy to invest some time into evaluating new projects. This is why we have a grant consideration form you can fill out to be considered for receiving a grant. That said, we are time capacity constrained and would not be able to handle 100 applications per month in our current setup.

I have personally considered putting out proposals like you are suggesting, but am concerned about the time investment. First I would like to see how much interest we can gather in different ways.

comment by agdfoster · 2018-12-20T20:59:07.235Z · score: 6 (5 votes) · EA · GW

The challenges of funding small early stage orgs deserves a whole piece to itself but I can say that this topic has come up internally quite a few times and we will continue to try to address it.

We did make a few small grants to smaller orgs this time around as we wanted to signal that we supported those projects.

One potential future is that we decide to give a much larger proportion of the grant allocation to smaller orgs. That would require either for the larger orgs to more easily fill their room for funding (one clear signal of this would be those orgs no longer needing capital from flexible donors that might have funded smaller projects in the alternative) or for some strong arguments for increasing our prioritisation of smaller orgs. Right now the benefit of experimenting by funding small orgs is traded-off against the increased uncertainty.

Some of the larger orgs are also only large because they are performing incredibly well. It's worth pointing out that they were previously smaller orgs themselves and that the benefit of experimenting with earlier stage orgs isn't realised unless they can be scaled up once they've proven their approach.

This is also how I currently feel about EA grants. I'd love to see them work out how to scale up their operation. It's a project that is more bottlenecked on talent than funding and early stage re-granting is really hard. An obvious retort would be for them to lower their standards and give out more grants with less analysis (in venture capital this technique is distastefully referred to 'spray and pray'). This isn't particularly feasible at present I don't think. Any re-granting program has its own donors and there aren't any major donors that I have heard of that are willing to have their funds distributed in this manner. It's also not clear that this would be a good thing given the risk of bad orgs with seed funding doing significant damage through PR risks, dilution effects or similar. Maybe the benefits outweigh the risks but either way, this is another effect that puts off donors from giving to a re-granting program that uses this approach.

My best guess, is that EA Grants' (or similar group's) best approach is to take their time to work out how to deploy early stage capital in a systematic and professional manner that can attract funding from larger foundations like Open Phil that usually don't have capacity to handle much early stage funding.

For now, and I don't speak for the whole team here, my best estimates are that very early-stage funding in most cases is lower impact than filing the funding gaps of growing orgs and for an impact-maximising fund such as ourselves we should only be putting smaller checks into particularly promising early stage orgs that we want to signal confidence in.

I'm very open to having my mind changed on this and have enjoyed taking the time to put thought to paper in this AMA today (as is hopefully apparent from the volume of text for any of those still reading).

Also to clarify: while I don't currently think it's highest impact for this fund to be making lots of early stage grants due to the points raised above and others, I do think that a systematic team of full-time staff putting all necessary processes in place, attracting the right talent would be able to raise and deploy lots of early stage funding in a way that is highly valuable. I'm very much hoping that this what EA Grants manage to achieve.

This is also not a closed topic for us and it's not that unlikely that, come next granting round and having discussed this further, the EA Meta Fund team decide to devote more of our allocation to earlier stage groups.

comment by lukeprog · 2018-12-20T13:59:15.656Z · score: 16 (6 votes) · EA · GW

Roughly how much time per month/year does each of the fund managers currently expect to spend on investigating, discussing, and deciding on grant opportunities?

comment by agdfoster · 2018-12-20T17:26:30.410Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Two of the team members already spend a significant portion of their day job investigating and evaluating meta groups (Luke and myself). For Luke this is about 50% of his time for his own philanthropy and I spend maybe 10-20% of my time depending on what other projects I have on the go. In general, a core criterion for choosing us for the team was (I believe) that we all spend quite a bit of our non-day job thinking about or evaluating meta orgs. Matt and Denise have been very active, and strategic, donors in the space for many years and Tara whilst only making a switch to earning-to-give last year, thought very hard about this while she was on the other side of the table as COO and CEO of CEA. I also find her views on how to evaluate community efforts are particularly valuable. We all come across a variety of opportunities from our existing activities and expect anything we miss to come our way once we open up public applications (coming soon).

Re time spent discussing: we are trying to minimise the amount of time we spend on group calls, probably only 3-6 a year as they are generally less efficient than a-synchronous communication. We have internal email threads and a private forum that we are using for collaborating on research and swapping arguments / opinions.

Roughly, our process is that someone from the team looks into a funding opportunity, they then put it to the rest of the team in an email thread or in the forum with their research / arguments and the rest of the team then reply with their comments, questions, opinions. Then, ahead of a granting period, we come together to discuss the various proposals and over the next week or two each decide in a Google Sheet how we would want to split the available funds. There is a simple algorithm that averages and rounds, obeys our general rules for grant minimums etc., and we discuss / negotiate each other's decisions and change our allocations until we all agree the outcome looks like a) a sensible outcome and b) represents the group's views.

During the calls we have someone taking minutes and the offline discussions are all in text form, someone takes the initial proposals, minutes and offline discussion texts and turns those into write-ups. We each then give a round or two of feedback on the write-ups before submitting the decision and writeups to CEA for execution.

Exactly how much time this takes up for each of us is currently unclear as we all seem to be thinking about and replying to threads both inside and outside our day jobs.

comment by Tee · 2018-12-20T16:26:29.522Z · score: 14 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Will things like Donation Data trends [EA · GW] play into the committees decision-making?

(e.g. CEA received ~4x the donations of any other charity due to an individual donor, yet they received a sizable grant from this group. I realize that this fact doesn't automatically disqualify them as a valuable donation target.)

Manifold reasons for full disclosure - I contract for CEA, run a meta org that is a candidate for funding from the fund, have received funding from some individual members of the committee, biased toward resourcing valuable smaller projects etc.

comment by agdfoster · 2018-12-20T19:25:58.464Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA · GW

I've forwarded this data to the team - thanks for sharing it, I missed it when it went up on the forum.

How to take data like this into account is an interesting and tricky question. I can have a go at a few points that seem relevant:

  • I'd rather see opportunities as projects and funding gaps rather than asking 'who received what funding already?'. Point made only to clarify, I realise this isn't what you were suggesting.
  • EA Meta as a cause area does have a larger requirement for funding than is currently available. The only two donors to meta orgs I know of that are not already donating at their own full capacity are my employer and Open Phil. However, both are deploying capital as fast as they can limited by other restrictions (risk, talent, appetite of principal etc). Certain key groups have performed particularly well and fundraised well so they are making decisions based not on maximising their 'impact per dollar donated' but on maximising their absolute impact given some other bottleneck/s. It does not necessarily follow that an org in the latter category is lower impact per dollar donated than an org that isn't. I think some more simply expressed version of the above would be more useful than discussing whether orgs / cause areas are funding constrained (outside of evaluating counterfactuals when making career decisions).
  • The operations of some orgs are also far more scalable than others and in general I want to reward this. While we mostly speak about relative returns (impact per dollar) we should also keep in mind absolute returns. In particular, it's worth nothing that reaching a certain size and scale of operation opens an org up to large grants from large foundations, accessing capital that otherwise wouldn't have gone into the cause area. An adage used in venture capital is that it "takes founders just as long to raise $100k as it takes to raise $1m". This does seem to hold true for non-profits as well so long as there is enough mid-stage and late-stage capital available.
  • The general approach I take is to only challenge an orgs declared room for funding if it seems surprisingly large, small or poorly justified. Potentially, given that in many cases funds one org receives come at the cost of those same funds going to another org, room for funding and budget declarations should be more heavily scrutinised. i.e., It's OK to stretch a high return business model slightly into it's diminishing returns so long as it remains more effective than smaller marginal groups whose funding they might be restricting. In other words: we should probably be encouraging EA meta orgs to avoid being wasteful with their resources.
  • This said, funding is only zero sum for some donor segments. Some donors are restricted by , for example, Open Phil's rough 50% rule or a donor's limited time and confidence requirements causing them to prioritise larger capital deployments.
  • I have seen at least two examples of larger orgs directly taking into account the flexibility of donor capital that they receive and spending some time trying to replace that donor with someone less flexible with lower opportunity cost. To me this seems highly commendable.
  • How a group have used previous funding plays an important role in evaluating their likelihood of using new funding well.
  • Some orgs are a cluster of valuable projects that could just as easily be evaluated project-by-project and we wouldn't want to be guilty of something akin to gerrymandering.
  • It seems like where orgs are a collection of projects, ideally we would be able to evaluate each of those projects individually, as well as evaluating the group as a whole. It would be helpful if these cluster orgs were better able to track the progress of their projects individually. 80k are particularly good at this.
comment by Tee · 2018-12-19T23:18:39.803Z · score: 13 (7 votes) · EA · GW

Hey Alex, as I wrote to Jamie with the AWF AMA, I don't have a directed question but I deeply appreciate this level of transparency and hope it exerts pressure to raise the water level on grant making transparency more broadly

comment by agdfoster · 2018-12-20T16:58:29.903Z · score: 7 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks for the kind words Tee! Agreed and hopeful. I do also think that it's very valuable for some pots of funding to not be very public as there are some bad incentives and restrictions caused by public work.

E.g., I'm (currently) quite happy currently that EA Grants doesn't have to justify each grant publicly. This allows them to take gut-calls on early stage projects and to fund lots of small things without having to hire a large number of staff.

Whatever level of transparency each grant making body decides is appropriate for their strategy, in general I think more of the benefits of grant making (and research in general) compound when done publicly and transparently. I'm just glad that there are some pots of capital coming together that can make quick decisions and back lots of early stage projects.

This said, I'm of course not all that confident in this view.

comment by Tee · 2018-12-20T18:33:23.908Z · score: 7 (2 votes) · EA · GW
I do also think that it's very valuable for some pots of funding to not be very public as there are some bad incentives and restrictions caused by public work.

Yep, I think that's right. We (entities within the community) can improve from historical examples of simply not declaring anything on this front or the reasoning behind it.

E.g., I'm (currently) quite happy currently that EA Grants doesn't have to justify each grant publicly.

+1 though our post-decision feedback could be better in some ways.

comment by Peter_Hurford · 2018-12-19T21:44:52.879Z · score: 12 (7 votes) · EA · GW

What are your thoughts on funding smaller "start-up" organizations (e.g., LetsFund) versus larger "established" organizations (e.g., 80K)?

comment by agdfoster · 2018-12-20T12:17:27.775Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

I would say that current thinking is primarily to contribute towards our best estimates of the highest value funding gaps, with some adjustment for fungibility and how time expensive it will be for senior management to fill their funding gap.

However, the team are also keen to fund a variety of things each round and we have agreed to aim to have some spread each round between larger orgs and smaller orgs.

I would expect that we continue a trend of larger checks to larger orgs and smaller checks to smaller orgs.

comment by Peter_Hurford · 2018-12-19T21:44:05.811Z · score: 12 (7 votes) · EA · GW

What generally is your criteria for evaluating opportunities?

comment by agdfoster · 2018-12-20T12:26:49.393Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

We do not have any specific general set of criteria for evaluating opportunities. I'd say we're probably all agreed that we are trying to use the best reasoning, evidence available and relying on intuitions more, or less, depending on the level of confidence that we are able to have in our opinions.

Different team members also have some specific techniques they use for different types of meta orgs. E.g., I have a simple model I use to help me evaluate money-mover (improving capital) type orgs.

Quantitative analysis doesn't currently look worth it for evaluating GPR or talent-focused groups (an exception is 80k's own metrics which are really impressive, but there aren't really any similar groups to compare those metrics with).

comment by Peter_Hurford · 2018-12-19T21:43:36.196Z · score: 11 (6 votes) · EA · GW

What generally is your plan to find good funding opportunities?

comment by agdfoster · 2018-12-20T17:50:16.240Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Three main sources:

1) Via the application form: This is [hopefully] coming soon. The plan is for two of us to monitor the applications and then send proposals to the group same as the process for anything that comes from intro's (see reply to the comment above from @lukeprog). I must note that reviewing applications can be very time consuming and I've personally found it generally requires much less energy to review projects that come in via intros than what comes in via open application forms.

2) Via intros. From my time in early stage businesses I felt this model was adopted by almost all venture capital orgs for good reasons and I have some trust in the method. I'll put a little more on my own view on this in a separate comment.

3) Existing knowledge. Between us we made quite a long list of opportunities we already knew of in our first meeting. Even just the funding gaps on that list would be enough to absorb the whole fund for some time to come, however it does seem prudent to keep looking for even more promising projects.

comment by Peter_Hurford · 2018-12-19T21:43:52.086Z · score: 10 (5 votes) · EA · GW

What do you consider to be "meta"? What do you consider to not be "meta"?

comment by Matt_Wage · 2018-12-20T12:44:29.227Z · score: 10 (6 votes) · EA · GW

We mean “EA meta” in the sense of EA organizations that aren’t directly attacking the object level problems (Global Poverty, Animal Welfare, GCRs, etc) but are instead attacking them in a more indirect (and hopefully more leveraged) way. Some broad categories that would count as “meta” are:

· Organizations focused on improving or growing the EA community (e.g. CEA, 80k)

· Organizations fundraising for effective causes (e.g. Founders Pledge)

· Organizations doing priorities research (e.g. GPI)

The way the EA funds partition the EA space (into Poverty/Animals/Far-Future/Meta) has actually been around for a while (for example here [EA · GW]).

comment by agdfoster · 2018-12-20T18:28:40.211Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

I also quite like:

Upstream orgs that improve the quantity and quality of available talent, capital and insight.

It's snappy, easy to remember and gets to the heart of the cause area.

I don't think it's as clear what it means though and perhaps shouldn't be used by itself without further explanation.

comment by Risto_Uuk · 2018-12-20T13:53:44.529Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

This might be slightly off-topic, but you may have some insight into it. If a donor donates money to, for example, global health s/he can find pretty concrete numbers about impact based on GiveWell's estimates or information from specific organizations such as AMF. How can someone donating money to Meta justify those donations quantitatively and via concrete indicators?

comment by Peter_Hurford · 2018-12-19T21:46:12.395Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

What new research would be helpful to finding and/or evaluating opportunities?

comment by agdfoster · 2018-12-20T19:38:12.148Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA · GW
  • I'd be interested to read some thorough thinking on how to trade-off between funding early orgs and later orgs. I'd have a bunch of considerations I would want to make sure made it in there but I don't currently have any piece of work where I've tried to do a general collection of these considerations and weight them. I generally feel like I make better decisions when I can apply my intuitions to a series of smaller decisions that come together in some way.
comment by agdfoster · 2018-12-20T19:31:28.393Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW
  • A question I have that I would like to learn more about at some point (I currently assume it's not very relevant for some time to come) is how to think about competitive dynamics in small donor funded markets. In large profit-driven markets it seems well accepted by economists that more competition is generally a good thing for the consumer. In smaller donor-driven markets it seems like a less closed case. If choosing between funding an established player or another org doing the same thing, how should we think about that? Presumably at some point the cost of duplicated effort, talent and capital requirements are overridden by the benefits of competition. My current working assumption is that that point is quite far along, especially given second mover advantage. If this is incorrect then perhaps we should be funding more early stage clones of existing orgs.
comment by agdfoster · 2018-12-20T19:30:55.239Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW
  • Better frameworks for thinking about fungibility. See my points from above reply to Tee. The reasoning used for these currently is pretty ad-hoc and potentially it's better that way, but it does seem like it could be important enough to warrant further research. I think I saw a while back that it was on GPI's research agenda.
comment by agdfoster · 2018-12-20T19:30:46.815Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW
  • Better frameworks for evaluating community building or spreading important ideas. It's really hard and involves a number of highly sensitive input assumptions. Whilst this is of course very relevant for CEA-type groups and prioritisation research groups, it's also relevant for groups like Founders Pledge. In poverty charity evaluation one question has been whether long-term flow through effects actually dominate the equation. Similarly, it might be the case that for money moving groups that the community building or important-idea-spreading functions might dominate the equation. This would be an important realisation for funders but potentially more so for those orgs themselves. A big issue is that it might be too case dependent to generalise. I don't think a model would be very helpful, but a well thought through list of considerations to evaluate with some estimates on how much to weight each one could potentially be very useful.
comment by agdfoster · 2018-12-20T21:01:34.568Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Final post for the day as it's late. Posting this question myself as I think it's a useful one to have addressed:

Why have you chosen to spread your grants across a number of orgs and not given most of it to just the one or two org/s you thought were the most pressing?

comment by agdfoster · 2018-12-20T21:10:52.094Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Some part of the large potential upside of this fund, and the reason why some of the team are excited to put so much of their time into it, is that if we do a really good job it could grow and attract significant additional capital into the meta cause areas.

Whilst a relatively small cause area, in a more efficient market for non-profits, I would expect that the space was funded to the brim due to the outsized returns available within it. I see moving additional capital into this space as highly valuable and I think it's often a smaller, easier jump for many donors than some of the more exotic super-high-impact cause areas.

My intuition is that I think that the fund would not be particularly attractive to new donors or have that much potential for growth if we only funded one project at a time and given that there are a number of projects available with similarly high expected value, spreading over a number of orgs (and including some early stage orgs) seems like a valuable thing to do.

I think this sentiment is shared across the team but may also include other reasons.

comment by Jonas Vollmer · 2019-02-16T13:13:47.457Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

are planning another set in February 2019

Will this be an open round, and if so, where can I direct people with promising applications?

comment by Jon_Behar · 2018-12-23T20:12:05.412Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

When weighing opportunities to improve talent, capital, and insight, how (if at all) do you consider the priorities of other major funders in the space? For instance, since Open Phil “does not fund organizations focused primarily on raising money for effective charities” in its EA Focus Area but devotes significant resources to improving talent and insight, would the Fund managers consider prioritizing grants that improve capital to fill this gap?

Disclosure: I work for TLYCS, an organization that works to move money to EA charities working on global health and development.

Also: thanks so much for answering all these questions- very helpful in understanding how the fund will be managed!

comment by rafa_fanboy · 2018-12-19T18:57:37.929Z · score: -21 (9 votes) · EA · GW

why dont u guys help fhi

comment by Tee · 2018-12-19T21:52:35.224Z · score: 9 (4 votes) · EA · GW

I would imagine this should play into it: "£13.3m boost for Future of Humanity Institute" https://www.fhi.ox.ac.uk/grant-announcement/