Only a few people decide about funding for community builders world-wide

post by JanBrauner · 2019-10-22T20:52:38.098Z · score: 63 (48 votes) · EA · GW · 23 comments

I’m not entirely sure that there is really no other official source for local group funding. Please correct me in the comments.

It seems that by now, CEA's community building grants programme is the only source of funding for local group leaders and community builders world-wide. (The EA meta fund distributed some funding to community builders in earlier rounds, although the bulk of the money went to other targets. In the latest round, they referred community builders to the community building grants programme and they plan on continue doing so in the future.)

According to CEA’s org chart, it’s mostly Harri who is responsible for the community building grants. All funding decisions regarding community building are thus probably made by a single person. (Edit: Although Harri is leading the process, there are actually several people involved in making funding decisions. See comments.)

By comparison, e.g. AI safety research has a more diverse funding landscape within EA: OpenPhil (direct grants, PhD fellow programme), BERI, FLI, the longterm future fund, I think MIRI has/had a programme to fund career transitions, there is/was funding for individual researchers publicly announced on the 80000 hours job board, … . Each of these often has several people working on funding decisions.
Additionally, most other top cause areas can get funding from outside of EA (e.g. traditional academic funding sources for academic research) or can be tackled by working at a for-profit. These sources probably don’t exist for community builders.

Of course, community builders can raise funding from individual donors, but that involves significant coordination and vetting costs. I would guess that most funding for community builders does in fact come from CEA’s community building grants.

EA movement building is one of our top cause areas, but all funding decisions are concentrated in literally one person (Edit: Not true, see comments). That seems bad. I would much prefer there to be at least a few grant makers, view different world-views, epistemics, and networks, preferably located at different organisations.


One actionable take-away from this for private funders: In a healthier funding landscape, if you are approached by a community builder that wasn’t able to secure funding through official channels, you might think twice about funding them. After all, they were already vetted by several people at several orgs and found not worth funding. However, in the current funding situation, this intuition would be misguided: literally only one person vetted them.

23 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Michelle_Hutchinson · 2019-10-23T10:00:38.023Z · score: 61 (29 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

This doesn't seem to be quite comparing things at the right level to me. It compares 'AI safety research' as a priority cause area to 'EA movement building', which seems very reasonable, but then says that 'EA movement building' constitutes only funding local groups of a particular type (for example, it seems to be leaving out student groups run by current students, who get funding from their university for doing it; it seems to leave out work being done on thinking through how effective altruism might grow in China).

It strikes me that in the sense in which 'EA movement building' is a priority cause area like 'AI safety research' it in fact has quite a few other donors, including OpenPhil and the Meta fund. EA movement building in this sense would surely include lots of different interventions from running EA Global to the EA Facebook group to curating what news coverage EA gets to Will writing a book on the importance of longtermism. Building EA local groups seems more plausibly compared to a specific AI safety research agenda. You might well think that eg MIRI's agenda should be more widely worked on, or that it would be better if MIRI had more sources of funding. But it doesn't seem worrying that that isn't case.

comment by alexherwix · 2019-10-24T13:10:17.607Z · score: 23 (11 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

This doesn't seem to be quite comparing things at the right level to me. It compares 'AI safety research' as a priority cause area to 'EA movement building', which seems very reasonable, but then says that 'EA movement building' constitutes only funding local groups of a particular type (for example, it seems to be leaving out student groups run by current students, who get funding from their university for doing it; it seems to leave out work being done on thinking through how effective altruism might grow in China).

I think the main point of the post is not to highlight that there are no other possible ways of doing EA community building related efforts except CB grants – of course there are many things that aspiring EAs can do to support the movement. Rather it seems to highlight the fact that the institutional funding mechanisms available for a broad range of CB (be it for local groups, national groups, or smaller CB related projects) are more centralized than might be ideal. CB grants are not everything but they do cover a very broad scope where they are the only meaningful option available as other funders regularly defer to the CB grants project for funding. This makes them a very powerful force for directing the development of the EA community which may or may not be intended by the broader EA community.

From my perspective, I am, first, glad that institutional funding mechanisms like CB grants exist and appreciate the efforts that have gone (and continue to go) into the program. Second, I also see value in having a discussion about how to further improve the overall funding pipeline for EA CB. One straightforward step mentioned in the post could be that funders outside of CEA are sensitized to also consider EA CB efforts for funding (maybe even in consultation with CEA).

comment by JanBrauner · 2019-10-24T22:55:42.575Z · score: 4 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree that there is more to movement building than local groups and that the comparison to AI safety was not on the right level.

I still stand by my main point and think that it deserves consideration:

My main point is that there is a certain set of movement building efforts for which the CEA community building grant programme seems to be the only option. This set includes local groups and national EA networks but also other things. Some common characteristics might be that these efforts are oriented towards the earlier stages of the movement building funnel (compared to say, EAG) and can be conducted by independent movement builders.

Ideally, there should be more diverse "official" funding for this set of movement building efforts. As things currently are, private funders should at least be aware that only one major official funding source exists.

(If students running student groups can get funded by the university, that is another funding source that I wasn't aware of before).

comment by Jan_Kulveit · 2019-10-25T13:52:25.269Z · score: 8 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

In practice, it's almost never the inly option - e.g. CZEA was able to find some private funding even before CBG existed; several other groups were at least partially professional before CBG. In general it's more like it's better if national-level groups are funded from EA

comment by Manuel_Allgaier · 2019-10-27T17:55:53.751Z · score: 9 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)
CZEA was able to find some private funding even before CBG existed

Interesting! Up until now, my intuition was that private funding is only feasible after the group has been around for a few years, gathered sufficient evidence for their impact and some (former student) members earn enough and donate to it (at least this was the case for EA Norway, as far as I know).

Somewhat off-topic, but if you have time, I'd be curious to hear how CZEA managed to secure early private funding. How long had CZEA been active when it first received funding, what kind of donor and what do you think convinced them? (If you'd rather not share that publicly, feel free to email me at manuel.allgaier@ea-berlin.org and if you lack time to elaborate that's fine too!)

comment by Michelle_Hutchinson · 2019-10-27T20:47:50.643Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

It seems worth bearing in mind that what's essentially happening here is you're setting up a new charity which needs to fundraise, which happens pretty frequently in lots of different formats. There are often local advice groups around. Eg the one I used when we were setting up CEA was Oxfordshire Community and Voluntary Action - https://ocva.org.uk/ They give free sessions for people setting up charities to come in and ask questions - whether that's about how to write their constitution, or what groups there are around which are looking to fund new charities.

Supporting embryonic charities often feels like an exciting proposition donors / foundations, because it feels like you can have strong counterfactual impact. So there are various organisations around which look specifically for charities that are at really early stages, eg The Funding Network - https://www.thefundingnetwork.org.uk/about-us


comment by ofer · 2019-10-24T10:34:06.915Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

(unrelated to the OP)

You might well think that eg MIRI's agenda should be more widely worked on, or that it would be better if MIRI had more sources of funding. But it doesn't seem worrying that that isn't case.

This consideration seems important and I couldn't understand it (I'm talking about the general consideration, not its specific application to MIRI's agenda). I'd be happy to read more about it.

comment by Michelle_Hutchinson · 2019-10-25T09:55:19.019Z · score: 13 (7 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Sorry my example wasn't clear. I meant to be distinguishing the level of granularity of the intervention, and saying that the more specific the intervention, the less worrying it seems if there's only one funder in the space.

A clearer example might be: if the Gates foundation was the only funder of malaria interventions, that would be really bad not just because it would mean insufficient funding was going to fighting malaria, but also because they might focus on the wrong types of interventions, and because it's showing a really surprising lack of interest in funding malaria interventions by the rest of the world. On the other hand, if there's some particular malaria vaccine being researched and the funding from that is all coming from Gates, you might think that was less worrying: the optimal level of funding for such a vaccine is much lower than for the whole set of malaria interventions, and it's less surprising that something that specific is funded by just one donor so it's less likely to indicate systemic problems with the malaria-funding-space.

For similar reasons, it would seem much more worrying to me if there were only one funder for 'EA community building' than if there were just one funder for (for example) EA Global.

comment by ofer · 2019-10-25T17:05:57.965Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for this helpful explanation!

comment by JP Addison (jpaddison) · 2019-10-24T16:53:34.275Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Do you mean about the object level (MIRI in particular) or the meta-level (diversification of funding not being ideal)?

comment by ofer · 2019-10-24T18:47:22.778Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

The latter (not MIRI in particular).

comment by Harri Besceli (harri.besceli@centreforeffectivealtruism.org) · 2019-10-23T16:49:04.933Z · score: 58 (34 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hi Jan,

Thanks for flagging your concerns here. The scope of EA Community Building Grants (CBG) doesn't encompass all funding decisions regarding community building, but is limited to providing funding for people to do part-time or full-time community building with a specific EA group (i.e. at a university, city and national level). We’ve made some grants outside this category, though they account for less than 10% of the total funding we’ve granted out. Within this category of location specific EA community building, the CBG programme likely accounts for the vast majority of funding.

In terms of our process for making decisions on Community Building Grants at CEA, I am the project lead, but other staff and external stakeholders are involved in the process (both in terms of object-level work and by providing oversight). For example, in our last evaluation round:

  • I conducted the majority of the interviews for grant applicants and the rest of the interviews were conducted by other members of the groups team.
  • I reviewed the applications, solicited input from others internal and external to CEA, and wrote up decision recommendations and my reasoning for the recommendations.
  • The decision recommendations were formally reviewed by 2 people at CEA, sent to two external advisers for additional review, and finalised in consultation with CEA's executive director.

My (quick) best guess is that of the total time allocated to community building grants decision making to date, 70% has come from me, 25% from others in CEA and 5% from people external to CEA.


As Community Building Grants is still a relatively new programme, we're still experimenting with the evaluation process, and there's a chance it'll change going forward, though I expect the amount of consultation of other CEA staff and external advisers to remain relatively similar. I'd be happy to hear any ideas you have on how to to ensure that we take into account a variety of viewpoints - feel free to email me at harri.besceli@centreforeffectivealtruism.org or you can contact katie.glass@centreforeffectivealtruism.org (the head of the groups team).

comment by JanBrauner · 2019-10-24T23:04:59.885Z · score: 7 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Great to hear that several people are involved with making the grant decisions. I also want to stress that my post is not at all intended as a critique of the CBG programme.

comment by Harri Besceli (harri.besceli@centreforeffectivealtruism.org) · 2019-10-25T23:28:06.963Z · score: 38 (17 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Some additional thoughts on this:

How should the decision making on local community building funding be distributed across people and organisations?

I think it's reasonable that at the current scale of granting for local community building (~1 FTE, ~$1 million/ year, ~30 grants / year) the majority of the decision making is housed within one organisation, and that the majority of the decision work is contributed by one person. This level of specialisation and centralisation seems reasonable to me because I think that:

  1. Making good decisions requires a bunch of different components such as context on the EA community, the route to value of EA groups, how to do grantmaking etc. and these can be hard to achieve without a person / organisation specialising for this purpose.
  2. There's a possibility of funding harmful projects as per Stefan's comment. I think more decentralised decision would increase the risk of funding harmful projects.
  3. The scope of the programme is relatively narrow and homogeneous, as per Ryan's comment, which makes it easier to get gains from specialisation.
  4. A lot of the value of having different grantmaking programmes (differing worldviews, different epistemics, contact with different networks etc.) can be achieved by having a specialised decision maker who allocates a some of their time to consulting others.

Should there be more work going into decision making on local community building?

I think more capacity here would be good, though I don't think that allocating additional decision making capacity to local community building funding decisions is a strong priority relative to nearby alternatives. Within the EA Community Building Grants programme, I think that allocating more capacity to support functions is a higher priority than decision making functions. Within the EA grantmaking space, I don't feel like I have a great sense of where additional capacity could best be used, though I'd be surprised if this was EA Community Building Grants.

I also don't think the size of the current budget necessarily warrants additional FTE investment. I think the money granted/ FTE is in a similar ballpark for other small granting projects in the EA space such as EA Grants, EA Funds, though I'm unsure of this.



The above are my best guesses, though I don’t feel very confident in them. In general I think this is a valuable topic to explore, and I’m interested to learn more about grantmaking programmes with different models (like EA Funds) to see if there are improvements that can be made in how the decision making is distributed.

If there are independent funders that are interested in making grants to local community building opportunities, I’d be very happy to chat (harri.besceli@centreforeffectivealtruism.org). It’s possible that I’ll be able to provide useful input on any grants being considered, and I’m also keen to hear if there are any valuable funding opportunities we’re missing.

comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2019-10-22T21:58:56.456Z · score: 25 (10 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

It's not obvious to me what the optimal level of funding diversity is. I guess the unilateralist's curse could be a reason against funding diversity (though it depends on multiple considerations; e.g. what the level of coordination would be). I don't find it difficult to imagine how grant-givers could do more harm than good. I could also see that there should be more funding diversity in some domains than in others.

comment by Manuel_Allgaier · 2019-12-06T12:42:36.381Z · score: 23 (10 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Meta: Risk of false info spread through incorrect headline, and how we could avoid that

In a recent discussion on the EA philanthrophy landscape, one person expressed concerns about the "fact that only a single person decides on CB Grants", which is not true (as Harri explained in his comment). That person had the info from reading this forum post (don't know if she read the entire post or only the headline), but apparently she did not read Harri's comment and therefore assumed this to be true. In this case, I could correct her assumption and explain that it's actually not a single person making these decisions, but in other cases, this incorrect statement might spread further without being corrected.

This seems potentially very harmful to the community and I wonder how we could avoid these risks. One useful norm is certainly to double-check any statements before sharing them (which that person could have done), but another one might also be to approach such topics more carefully, e.g. contacting CEA before writing a post based on an incorrect assumption (though I can see how the CEA's org chart makes it seem this way) or framing posts differently (e.g. as question instead of statement). (Note that I'm still strongly in favor of discussing such topics on the EA forum and elsewhere)

Curious about your thoughts!

@Jan, please note that I do find your post important, particularly for bringing up the risks of having only one institution giving out CB grants, and I'm glad you wrote it! Please keep writing such posts! I just want to avoid risks for spreading false info.

comment by JanBrauner · 2019-12-07T21:11:51.590Z · score: 14 (8 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for bringing this to my attention, I modified the title and a respective part in the post.


I didn't have the time to check in with CEA before writing the post so I had to choose between writing the post as is or not writing it at all. That's why the first line says (in italics) "I’m not entirely sure that there is really no other official source for local group funding. Please correct me in the comments. "

I think I could have predicted that this is not enough to keep people from walking away with a false impression so I think I should have chosen a different headline.

comment by Manuel_Allgaier · 2019-12-08T17:16:46.387Z · score: 7 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for taking the time to reply and update the title! :)

Yes, I saw your disclaimer and think it's helpful, people might indeed not read it or disregard it as the former title sounded rather certain.

comment by RyanCarey · 2019-10-22T22:17:02.467Z · score: 20 (8 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Given that community groups are much more homogenous funding targets than EA projects in-general, it makes perfect sense that we allocate one CEA team to evaluating them, while we allocate a few teams to evaluating other small-scale EA projects.

comment by richard_ngo · 2019-10-23T01:56:45.558Z · score: 14 (10 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

This homogeneity might well be bad - in particular by excluding valuable but less standard types of community building. If so this problem would be mitigated by having more funding sources.

comment by SiebeRozendal · 2019-10-23T08:22:52.354Z · score: 11 (6 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

My understanding is that there is a blurry line between "community groups" and EA projects in general. And there do seem to be different approaches among groups.

comment by Holly_Elmore · 2019-10-25T21:59:07.358Z · score: 13 (9 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Don't forget that a lot of groups have other funding sources available, especially student groups. The EA groups at Harvard make use of CEA, and we wouldn't be able to do as much without money from CEA, but we have plenty of other funding sources (such as Harvard and well-off alum EAs) and many of our events cost only volunteer labor.

comment by RobBensinger · 2019-10-25T19:39:21.391Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)
I think MIRI has/had a programme to fund career transitions

Tangential to the topic, but yes, we have an AI Safety Retraining Program for people interested in reskilling for full-time AI alignment research.