CEA is discontinuing its focus university programming, passing funding to Open Philanthropy

post by JoanGass · 2022-04-13T11:25:32.247Z · EA · GW · 2 comments


  So why is CEA making this change? 
  Lessons learned as I reflect on the last year:  

I’m writing this in my official capacity as the Head of the CEA Groups Team. Thanks to Asya Bergal, Claire Zabel, Aaron Gertler, Max Dalton, Alex Holness Tofts, Will Payne, Huw Thomas, Julia Wise, Will Fenning, and Ollie Base for their input on this draft. All opinions expressed are my own. 

CEA is discontinuing its focus university [1] programming – this includes its Campus Specialist program and Campus Specialist Internship program (formerly known as the community-building grants program for focus universities).

CEA will be redirecting university organizers who would like to be funded for their work to Open Philanthropy’s two new fellowships, which were launched in part to replace the funding aspects of the Campus Specialist and Campus Specialist Internship programs: 

As before, all group organizers can also apply for group expenses from CEA’s Group Support Funding, and organizer funding and groups expenses from EA Infrastructure Fund. A detailed breakdown of potential funding options for organizers can be found here

CEA will continue to support early stage university groups via the University Group Accelerator Program and city and national groups in key locations via the Community Building Grants Program. 

The following post covers two sections: 

  1. Why we made this shift
  2. Lessons learned

I want to emphasise that this is a tactical shift about where funding for EA community building is coming from – not a signal about impact. CEA, Open Phil, and EAIF are just as excited about field-building work at focus universities as we were before – and we all still think advanced-stage university field building can be a very high impact opportunity. [EA · GW


So why is CEA making this change? 

Ultimately, this was a decision related to organisational focus. I think that the CEA groups team will be more successful if we’re more focused. Over the last year we tried to cover three massive areas: focus university groups, early-stage university groups, and key city and national groups. It was challenging to provide excellent support to group leaders, who had different needs, in all of these areas simultaneously. We think we were more successful in early stage university groups and key city and national groups than focus university groups, who reported getting more value out of support and funding provided by other organisations. We want to encourage others who may be better-placed to provide focus university support to do so, and we worry that we may implicitly discourage this if it seems like we “own” the entire groups space. 

When choosing where to focus across early-stage university groups, late stage university groups, and city/national groups, we looked at our track record and the number of other organisations working in a given space. 




Lessons learned as I reflect on the last year:  

  1. I think I tried to provide services for too many different types of group leaders at the same time: focus university groups, early stage university groups, and city/national groups. While I’m proud that we identified these different clusters of groups  (as I do think they have different needs), trying to serve all of them at the same time meant that I was spending a significant amount of time hiring. This meant that I didn’t spend as much on-the-ground time at focus universities as I think was needed to develop excellent products. I’ve updated on the importance of providing great services to one set of group leaders before expanding to additional group leaders.
  2. I didn’t generate enough slack for our team for experimentation. Demand for basic support services at focus universities more than tripled over the last year (e.g. funding applications, calls, number of organizers wanting to attend retreats). This meant that our team was growing just to keep up with services that group leaders expected to receive from us, stretching our team to capacity. This left little time for reflection, experimentation, and pivoting. I think CEA’s brand makes it difficult to drop things – which is in part why I’m proud of the decision we’re sharing in this announcement. In the future I think it will be important to create more slack for the team to experiment and pivot.
  3. Finally, I think we tried to build services for group leaders that had long feedback loops (e.g. hiring for Campus Centres is a 6 month process, developing and designing metrics for groups involves at least a semester to see if the metric is helpful + lots of time communicating). We could have tested these services faster, conducted group leader interviews to shorten these feedback loops, and potentially even chosen to provide services that even had quicker feedback. Since the start of this year we’ve done a user sprint together as a group, incorporated more “minimum viable product” development, and user interviews in our work process. I’ve also enjoyed reading some resources that focus on this approach – such as Inspired and Sprint.


Throughout the process, I’ve been very grateful for the CEA focus university groups team. While I think we made mistakes, I think we also learned a significant amount and delivered a lot of value. For example, we helped to seed EA groups at several focus universities and supported other universities during critical leadership transitions. In the last ~half of 2021 we evaluated over 50 funding applications, responded to 200 requests for calls, and had 125 attendees at our retreats. We think we were counterfactually responsible for at least 10 new organizers working part-time at top universities. We helped make Campus Centres a real career option, and set out a framework for the focus university groups that a bunch of people use.

I’m particularly grateful for the hard work and thoughtfulness of the CEA focus uni groups team - Huw, Will, Alex, and Kuhan -  in evaluating this transition. I think the process of deciding to hand off part of the space embodies some CEA cultural values that I deeply admire: alliance mentality (wanting to see the work done well, not necessarily getting credit for it ourselves), perpetual beta (updating based on evidence), and purpose first (putting what’s best for the EA community above our own personal interests). 

If you’re an organizer and have questions about what this change means for you, we encourage you to check out our updated Groups Support page here, email us here (groups@centreforeffectivealtruism.org), or ask us questions below. 


  1. ^

    Brown University, California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Columbia University, Georgetown University, Harvard University, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Oxford University, Princeton University, Stanford University, Swarthmore College, University of California, Berkeley, University of Cambridge, University of Chicago, University of Hong Kong, University of Pennsylvania, Yale University, These focus universities were chosen primarily based on their track records of having highly influential graduates (e.g. Nobel prize winners, politicians, major philanthropists). We also place some weight on university rankings, universities in regions with rapidly-growing global influence, the track record of its group, and the quality of the group’s current plans.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by JoanGass · 2022-04-13T11:26:52.914Z · EA(p) · GW(p)


Jan 2022 survey of Oxford/Cambridge/Stanford organizers 

We surveyed some full-time group organizers on how valuable they’d found various aspects of CEA support, versus support from non-CEA people (GCP, Lightcone, Buck Shlegeris – EAIF, Claire Zabel – Open Phil, EAIF, Stanford residencies). We gave them the option to be anonymous.

We split this up into 13 types of CEA support (UK group leaders retreat, US retreat, calls, etc.), and 8 types of non-CEA support. They rated things on a 1-7 scale, based on how useful they found them. 

Ignoring N/As, CEA activities got an average score of 4.2/7. Non-CEA activities got an average score of 5.1/7. Summing up scores (which doesn’t have a clean interpretation), CEA totaled 246 points and non-CEA people (GCP, Icecone (a winter retreat hosted by Lightcone), Stanford team, Cambridge’s online course) totaled 201 points.** This maybe indicates that CEA is providing a wider breadth of less intensely valued services. On the other hand, we asked more detailed questions about CEA’s services so the whole ‘total number’ could be biased upwards. 

Looking in more detail at scores, it seems that support calls with CEA staff members were less useful than support calls from non-CEA staff members, retreats were generally more useful, and various forms of funding were quite useful. Different leaders found quite different things useful.

Some more direct comparisons:

  • 1:1s: 
    • CEA 1:1s were rated 3.8/7
    • CEA in person campus visits 4.3/7
    • GCP 1:1s were rated 4.7/7
    • 1:1s with others (e.g. Claire, Buck) were rated 5/7
  • Retreats/events:
    • CEA’s summer retreat and EAG London retreats averaged 4.3/7
    • Icecone averaged 4.9/7
    • GCP’s summer residency averaged 5.0/7
    • Stanford’s residencies were 5.5/7
  • Funding:
    • CEA’s revised expense policy/Soldo cards were rated 4.1/7
    • CEA’s Funding for Campus Specialist Interns was rated 5.0/7
    • EAIF funding was 5.8/7
  • Other resources:
    • CEA’s remote community building fellowship was 3.0/7
    • GCP’s handbook was rated 4.3/7
    • (CEA) Lifelabs management calls were 4.4/7
    • GCP’s advice on how to do 1:1s was rated 4.5/7
    • Cambridge’s online cause specific programs were rated 6.0/7


Overall, this suggests that others provided more targeted, useful support. I think they suggest that CEA did provide some meaningful value to these group leaders, but that it might be better to cede this space to others if others have interest and capacity to take it on. 

** Notes on interpreting this: I think we split CEA activities up in a more fine-grained way, which may biased scores for individual activities downwards. I also think that some of these activities (e.g. UK/US retreats) were not aimed at these organizers, but at getting less involved organizers more excited. Also, it might be fine to have low averages, with a lot of things, e.g. if the things you’re providing are really useful to some organizers but useless (and easy to ignore) for other organizers.



Summary: CEA support for earlier stage focus unis group organizers 

We surveyed attendees of our January Groups Coordination Summit, both on that particular event, and also on what support had been more generally useful to them.

Key figures:

Participant retreat average /10


% saying their plans for the next 6 months are better


CEA support average (overall) /10






Ignoring N/As, a similar gap remains. CEA activities got an average score of 4.8/7. Non-CEA activities got an average score of 5.4/7. The average scores are overall higher – this indicates that earlier stage groups can be more intensively helped by outside support. 

Summing-up scores (which doesn’t have a clean interpretation), CEA totaled 297 points and non-CEA people (GCP, Icecone, Stanford team, Cambridge’s online course) totaled 345 points. 

Some more direct comparisons:

  • 1:1s: 
    • CEA 1:1s were rated 4.0/7
    • GCP 1:1s were rated 5.0/7
    • Calls with others (e.g. Claire, Buck) were rated 5.0/7
  • Retreats/events:
    • CEA’s summer retreats and EAG London retreats average 4.9/7
    • Icecone average 5.7/7
    • Stanford’s residencies were 6.0/7
    • GCP’s summer residency averaged 6.3/7
  • Funding:
    • CEA’s revised expense policy/Soldo cards were rated 5.1/7
    • CEA’s Funding for Campus Specialist Interns was rated 4.8/7
    • EAIF funding was 5.9/7
  • Various forms of Resources:
    • GCP’s handbook was rated 4.4/7
    • GCP’s advice on how to do 1:1s was rated 4.8/7
    • (CEA) Lifelabs management calls were 5.0/7
    • CEA’s remote community building fellowship was 5.3/7
    • (CEA) University Group Accelerator Program (UGAP) was rated 5.3/7
    • Cambridge’s online cause specific programs were rated 5.8/7

For this group, retreats/events seem better when longer and/or focused on a narrow project (Icecone, Summer residency, Stanford residency) compared to our shorter retreats.

Replies from: Niel_Bowerman
comment by Niel_Bowerman · 2022-04-14T00:50:49.502Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for sharing this data.  Would it be possible to share the wording of a sample question, e.g. for 1:1s, and how the scoring scale was introduced?