Which properties does the EA movement share with deep-time organisations?

post by FJehn · 2020-08-26T10:59:18.354Z · EA · GW · 6 comments


  Concluding thoughts

by Florian Ulrich Jehn

Many problems the EA movement is currently working on have a long time horizon. Especially longtermism looks far into the future. However, to be able to shape those problems in the long term the EA movement still has to be around to work on them. So, what enables an organisation to be around for a long time?

I recently came across the article “Deep-time organizations: Learning institutional longevity from history” by Frederic Hanusch and Frank Biermann which discusses exactly this problem. Their motivation is that humanity tends to work on ever longer timescales to tackle the challenges of the Anthropocene and thus needs institutions that can work on those problems for a long time. While there has been some work on what makes institutions sustainable (e.g., work by Elinor Ostrom), there seems to be little research that focuses on already existing long lasting organisations and uses a clear framework. However, there is a wide range of organisations that have existed for a long time. Examples are the Imperial House of Japan (exists since the 4th century), Sveriges Riksbank (exists since 1668) or Freemasonry (exists since 1425). The paper use a sample of 12 long lasting organisations from a wide range of fields to explore what properties they share which enabled them to exist for such a long time.

Source: Deep-time organizations: Learning institutional longevity from history

This allowed them to identify 12 patterns of longevity and sort them into four fields: Situatedness, Relations, Management and Dissemination. The organisations were picked by the authors because they were the oldest in their field. However, there might still be sampling bias going on. Another set of old organisations might create a different set of shared properties. Still, the patterns and the explanations of why they matter seem reasonable to me. In the following I will highlight those patterns and discuss if the EA movement fulfills those criteria. This is a somewhat skewed comparison, as EA is rather a movement than an organisation, but I would guess that organisations and movements are made long-lasting by the same effects. Both movements and organisations share many properties: they are groups of people with a specific aim, they want to continue to exist to achieve their goals and attract new members that hold up their principles. Furthermore, organisations like the Freemasonry are movement like, as they have no overarching structure. I will only briefly describe the patterns (definitions from the paper highlighted in cursive), but I encourage you to take a look at the paper for a more in depth discussion. I think the paper does a good job in using comparative history to distill patterns. Those patterns might be a good starting point to think about how to make the EA movement more long-lasting. This post is here is basically a TL;DR for the paper with a bit of an added discussion on how the patterns relate to the EA movement.


Pattern 1: “Link organization’s purpose to a public purpose”. Long-lasting organisations connect their identity to a timeless public purpose that serves a common good. Examples of this are Anti-Slavery International, which fights to “to end slavery throughout the world” or Cambridge University Press, which hopes to “unlock people’s potential with the best learning and research solutions”. I think this is a pattern we can also clearly find in the EA movement, as EA aims to improve the way in which we do good.

Realization in EA: Fully

Pattern 2: “Ensure continuous support of (democratically legitimized) elites from the foundation onward”. Political, social or economic elites seem to play a crucial role in the establishment and continuity of long-lasting organisations. This is often connected to having close ties to state power and abundant resources. Examples here are Hôtel-Dieu de Paris, which was founded by a bishop and supported by Parisian elites (for example by making it easier for them to get money) or the University of Al Quaraouiyine which tightly connected to the sultans of the time. I am unsure how much this pattern is the case for the EA movement. While many people in EA come from rich countries and have a high education, they also are mostly quite young and thus probably not in positions that hold much power. However, this might change in the coming decades, as many people in EA have the explicit goal to get into positions with higher leverage. Additionally, CEA is funded by wealthy philanthropists. This might cause its own problems over the long-term, as we need to make sure that persons that get into positions of power do not experience value drift, when they mostly interact with non-EA players.

Realization in EA: Partly

Pattern 3: “Place the organization in a safe area while ensuring societal embeddedness”. Most long-lasting organisations are located in areas without major conflicts or other crises. This is highlighted by 4 of the 12 organisations being in the United Kingdom, a country that has been stable and unconquered over several centuries. I think this holds true for the EA movement as well, as most of the community is located in the USA and UK. However, there is no guarantee those countries will remain stable in the future. This might also be counteracted by having an international community without a clear center.

Realization in EA: Partly, maybe fully


Pattern 4: “Involve those who you need to fulfill your purpose”. Long-lasting organisations seem to restrict their membership and prefer to be exclusive (which does not necessarily mean that they have to be small). The degree of exclusion varies from having to do volunteer work for the organisation to be able to join (e.g., Anti-Slavery International) to birthright (Imperial House of Japan). In organisations like the Catholic Church you only need to be catholic to join. However, they might have a second step of exclusivity when it comes to positions of power (e.g., excluding women, requiring celibacy). This seems to make it easier to only have members that value the long-term objectives of the organisation. This might be partly true for the EA movement. Even though everyone can call him/herself EA, positions of influence can only be obtained by in-depth engagement with the community.

Realization in EA: Partly

Pattern 5: “Connect to the state and ensure its support in times of crisis”. Having a connection to other organisations that match their purpose and a close connection to a state (or several states). For example, the Catholic Church has influence and connection to all states that have a large catholic population. Cambridge University Press has a network of libraries and universities worldwide. It seems to me that this is not really the case for the EA movement, as I have not seen a deep connection from EA organisations to non-EA organisations. However, this might be my own limited perspective and there seems to be more cross organisational engagement on the individual level and there are at least parts of EA that pursue policy careers.

Realization in EA: Partly

Pattern 6: “Do not diversify but instead identify core places of outreach and cherish them”. Having a clear goal and keeping the focus on it. Most long-lasting organisations have a very clear purpose and places of outreach that they do not deviate from. For example, even when Cambridge University Press expanded a lot in the 1980s its focus remained on research and education and the Marylebone Cricket Club never expanded into any other sport. It is interesting that this runs counter to the strategies of many commercial organisations like Amazon or Google who get more and more diverse as they grow. Sticking to the core places of outreach holds up only partly for the EA movement. While EA has a stable meta goal of “doing good better”, it also has a shifting set of subgoals and cause areas as new evidence and ideas become available.

Realization in EA: Partly


Pattern 7: “Prominently involve the public in management”. Many of the long-lasting organisations include structures that allow the participation of public elites in the management of the organisation. For example, the Sveriges Riksbank is partly controlled by the Swedish Parliament. In relation to this pattern, the paper also highlights two other seemingly stable ways to organise management. Organisations with a strong hierarchy and without the access of the public like the Kongō Gumi or the Imperial House of Japan also seem to work well. Finally, the Freemasonry highlights a third way, with having no worldwide center or clear hierarchy on the global scale. In this comparison the EA movement seems to most resemble the Freemasonry approach (this does not mean that EA should endorse Freemason values or aim to cooperate with them, merely that there seem to be some structural resemblances).

Realization in EA: Fully? (Definition of this pattern in the paper is a bit ambiguous)

Pattern 8: “Create ownership and responsibility for the public in decision making”. This basically means having a control mechanism for your decision making. This can either be done by including the state/public (as in the Sveriges Riksbank) or by having a strict set of behavioural rules (like the Kongō Gumi). I am unsure if this is somehow implemented in the EA movement. There surely is no state involvement in EA, but I also am not aware of strict behavioural rules. However, there are guiding principles, which seem to have the overall support of the community and were emphasized at the EA events I participated in.

Realization in EA: Partly?

Pattern 9: “Outlive external events by declaring change to your core business, incorporate change evolutionary in the organisation or be recognized system-relevant”. As organisations are not isolated from their environment they have to find ways to deal with external events that influence them. The paper identifies three ways this can be achieved: 1) Having a strong support network in times of crisis: The Hamburger Feuerkasse almost went bankrupt because of a very large fire in Hamburg, but received a large loan by the government. 2) Include the external events in your business model: The Kongō Gumi basically rebuild the same castles again each time they were destroyed by a war. 3) Evolutionary adaption of the organisation: The Catholic Church changed a lot in the last 2000 years by adapting to the changes and needs of the time. It is unclear how much this is applicable to the EA movement, as it is such a young movement. However, the EA movement’s heavy emphasis on “updating” might make it more adaptable to change. In addition, when can we still speak of the same organisation? Is the Catholic Church now still the same organisation as it was 2000 years ago?

Realization in EA: Unknown


Pattern 10: “Distribute a basic human need or transcendental good”. All the organisations the paper looked at provide either a basic human need (e.g., health in the case of the Hôtel-Dieu de Paris) or a transcendental good (e.g., religion in the case of the Catholic Church). Here it is also unclear to me if EA does this, as it is so diverse. However, all of EA focuses on improving the existence of sentient beings.

Realization in EA: Fully?

Pattern 11: “Become a benevolent monopolist with direct lines of dissemination that are socio-culturally embedded”. Most of the long-lasting organisations have some kind of monopoly (e.g., there is only one Emperor in Japan) or social culturally supported dissemination (e.g., sponsorship of the Nobel Prize in Economics by the Sveriges Riksbank). This seems not to be the case for EA. EA has neither a monopoly on anything, nor social culturally supported dissemination.

Realization in EA: No

Pattern 12: “Make the people recognize the organization as a prototype delivering real-world change or stability they gain individual benefit from”. To ensure public support it is important that society see the organisation as something that improves lives. This can either be done by demonstrating that something new works (e.g., the success Hamburger Feuerkasse led to the establishment of fire insurances all over Germany), by improving the stability of a system (e.g., the Sveriges Riksbank guarantees financial stability) or direct help (e.g., the Hôtel-Dieu de Paris provides direct health services). This is something EA excels at, as it tests and improves new ideas to improve the world on a constant basis.

Realization in EA: Fully

Concluding thoughts

EA seems to fulfill four of the criteria fully, six of them partly, one of them not at all and for one it is unclear. Therefore, EA seems to be on a reasonably good path to become a long-lasting organisation. However, this is all based on my own, rough evaluation, so take it with a grain of salt and I am sure many people in EA would have evaluated this differently. Moreover, the question remains: Are all those traits desirable? For example, I think it would be highly inadvisable for EA to become an organisation with a strong hierarchy and a deep connection to a single state. We also do not know if those past patterns will work in the future or if there are other ways to maintain long time success. For example, the Kongō Gumi existed for almost 1500 years, but was dissolved a few years ago and the Catholic Church is currently struggling to adapt to modern times. What properties will an organisation need for the 21st and 22nd century? Many of the patterns that were identified are based on nation states. It is unclear if those will continue to exist in the future. In addition, a strategy that is not discussed in the paper, but seems to be common in history, is using force to suppress rival organisations. This seems to be at least partly true for the Catholic Church and the Imperial House of Japan. Maybe there are other, more unethical ways that help organisations to last (some mafia clans might be another example here)? From all the organisations considered in the paper the EA movement seems most similar to Freemasonry (again, this does not mean that EA should endorse Freemason values or cooperate with them, merely that there seem to be some structural resemblances). It might be worthwhile to dig deeper here. As you can see I have more questions than answers and look forward to having some insights about them in the discussion!

Thanks to Ruslan Krenzler, Aron Mill, Florian Zeidler, Birte Spekker, Devon Fritz, Fabian Schimpf, Frederic Hanusch and one anonymous person for giving valuable feedback on this post.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by florian-z · 2020-08-30T19:11:53.526Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for your detailed post on how to compare these kinds of organisations. I have the feeling that EA doesn't spend as much time as I would have expected (for a longtermist movement) on figuring out how to actually build a memeplex that's sticky for possibly millennia.

There is a book by John Dickie called The Craft: How the Freemasons Made the Modern World. Having only read the Economist's review (pay-walled)¹ it looks like a good starting point if somebody wants to go more in depth on how the Freemasons came to exist for so long and recruit quite a few influential people. Apparently they have around 6 million members worldwide and no central governing body.

Maybe there is also an argument to be made that their influence as a movement, and their success in spreading their values might actually be quite limited, although some of their members have a lot of influence (in some cases through the Italian mafia).

So basically: only creating a good label, that's perpetuated through rituals and associated with a lot of famous people might work well to attract conspiracy fantasies, but doesn't necessarily help improve the long term future.

1: also readable here: https://outline.com/82hYaU

comment by tamgent · 2020-08-29T15:49:26.908Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I liked the form this post took and the question it explores, thanks for writing.

comment by FJehn · 2020-08-30T19:19:24.069Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you. Glad it was of interest!

comment by meerpirat · 2020-08-28T09:41:13.747Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, I found this really informative. I like the term "deep-time organisation".

EA has neither a monopoly on anything, nor social culturally supported dissemination.

I wonder if EA orgs or the EA communities currently are the single supplier of some goods, for example

  • (relatively) cause-neutral career advice,
  • incubation of impact-focused charities,
  • careers in global priorities research,
  • being part of a utilitarian-ish community (where else would I go other than to the local EA chapter?)

But in all those cases, it seems like a big win if there would be competition from outside, right? This would happen in the path where EA ideas would become more widespread, so it wouldn't hurt if the likelihood of seizing to exist will go up due to this factor.

comment by FJehn · 2020-08-28T12:12:10.549Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for your comment. I am not aware of any organizations that supply those goods. At least in an EA like fashion. If you you make your net a bit wider you might find things that are at least somewhat related. But I agree it would be helpful if there would be somebody else also doing this, as it would bring in new perspectives that EA might miss.

Could you elaborate a bit on your last point a bit? Do you mean with your comment that it would be ok (or even good) if EA ceases to exist if the reason would be that EA ideas were widespread?

comment by meerpirat · 2020-08-28T12:28:32.642Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Do you mean with your comment that it would be ok (or even good) if EA ceases to exist if the reason would be that EA ideas were widespread?

That's what I thought. For example, we don't have democratic movements in a lot of countries because democratic values are already widespread. That's not a failure of the democracy movement, but a sign that it succeeded.