The purpose of this post is to provide some insight into why the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA) is prioritising certain projects over others, the assumptions we are making, and our concrete plans for the year.
This post provides also some background context which may be helpful for understanding CEA’s focus areas and quarterly goals. We will share further updates on our goals on this blog moving forward and review our progress towards those goals in our monthly updates. Please click here if you would like to receive our monthly updates via email.
If anything in this post is unclear, please get in touch via communications[at]centreforeffectivealtruism[dot]org so that we can add clarifications.
The "too long, didn’t read"-style summary of this post is that we at CEA are ultimately striving to help create an optimal world. We do this by focusing on important, neglected and tractable problems, using the framework of effective altruism to choose our focus areas.
We currently believe that building and strengthening the effective altruism community is one of the best ways we can both build our understanding of how to do the most good, and grow the total amount of concrete progress we make towards those goals as a community.
With the ever-changing nature of the world and there being a lot to learn about what works best, it is easy to spend a lot of resources heading in the wrong direction. On the other hand, it is easy to get stuck in a cycle of ‘analysis paralysis’. We want to ensure we remain open to changing direction as new evidence surfaces, and as our understanding of the landscape improves but we also believe one of the best ways to learn is to put ideas into practice. Thus, CEA has decided to try a quarterly review cycle, choosing projects and priorities at the beginning of every quarter that look best placed to help us test our hypotheses and ensure our activities are in support of our ultimate goals. This blog post sets the scene for that quarterly review process and summarises our Q2 objectives.
Below is a brief summary of the history of CEA. Soon we’ll be sharing a post with a more detailed history to celebrate our successes over the years and clear up some of the lingering confusion over the different projects that are now part of CEA.
Our past, the organisations we’ve helped found, the projects we’ve worked on and the people that make up our team help shape where we are today.
- Giving What We Can (GWWC), a community of people pledging 10% of their income to effective charities, is founded.
- 80,000 Hours(80K) founded to help people lead high-impact careers.
- Soon after the Centre for Effective Altruism is created as an umbrella organisation for GWWC and 80K.
- GWWC incubates The Life You Can Save and 80k incubates Animal Charity Evaluators both of which later become separate organisations.
- Global Priorities Project (GPP) is formed as a collaboration between CEA and the Future of Humanity Institute (FHI).
- CEA’s special projects team starts Effective Altruism Outreach (EAO) as a way to promote Doing Good Better and build EA community infrastructure.
- CEA trials EA Ventures to fund experimental projects, begins hosting the EA Global conference series and Doing Good Better is published.
- CEA helps local organisers run the first EA Global X (EAGx) community conferences.
- CEA restructures to bring together the GWWC, EAO and GPP teams and projects together in one organisation. GPP is discontinued and their research alongside other research is divided across a CEA research team and FHI.
- Work begins on the Institute for Effective Altruism
- A subteam from CEA participates in Y Combinator startup accelerator and launches Effective Altruism Funds
- We discontinue CEA's philanthropic advisory research and policy research. The fundamentals research team continues, working as part of the Oxford-based research community that includes the Institute for Effective Altruism and FHI.
The changes at CEA over the last 12 months have helped us narrow our focus to projects where we feel we can add the most value. Today we are focused on building a community that can figure out what an optimal world looks like, and take action to get there.
Our vision is to create an optimal world. This means that we need to simultaneously solve some of the most pressing causes of suffering while also learning more about how the world works and how it can be improved. Because we are indifferent between improvements that come directly from our activities and improvements caused by other groups, we choose to focus on the areas we think are most neglected, and where we have a comparative advantage.
There are some things which we think are robustly good, such as ending death from malaria or abolishing factory farming, and other areas where we are highly uncertain. For this reason, we want to see effective altruism do for the pursuit of good what the Scientific Revolution did for the pursuit of truth; we want to see effective altruism become one of the dominant intellectual movements of this century.
We aim to achieve this by building a community focused on figuring out what this optimal world looks like, and taking action to get there.
Because we expect to learn more about the nature of an optimal world over time, in the near-term, CEA focuses on building robust capacity for doing good in the future.
In particular, we believe we need three main resources as a community:
- groundbreaking ideas,
- talented, motivated people
- the money required to put the best ideas into practice.
In the past, we’ve talked a lot about whether we’re bottlenecked by ideas, talent or money, but we’ve realised in absolute terms, we need vastly more of all of these resources. We no longer believe it is helpful to think in terms of bottlenecks, but rather to think about the marginal impact we could generate by focusing on any one of these three key resources. As a result, we expect to update which resource we focus on regularly, as the world around us changes, as we learn more and as our comparative advantage shifts over time.
Earlier this year, we shared CEA's Guiding Principles which were endorsed by many organisations in the EA community. You can read them in full in the post. Broadly speaking, we support the following principles:
- A commitment to others: taking the well-being of others very seriously.
- A Scientific Mindset: using the best available evidence and reasoning and seeking out alternative viewpoints to help us better understand how the world works in order to improve it.
- Openness: being open to any and all methods of best helping others and being willing to change our minds.
- Integrity: we strive, to be honest, and trustworthy because trust, cooperation, and accurate information are essential to doing good and having a thriving community. We also value the reputation of effective altruism and recognise that our actions reflect on it.
- Collaborative Spirit: we want a wide range of ideas to flourish and be evaluated on merit and so strive to build a friendly, open, and welcoming environment that encourages cooperation and collaboration between people with widely varying circumstances and ways of thinking.
Additionally, CEA aspires for a team culture that is ambitious, motivated and highly focused.
We’ve written more in this post about why we think CEA is a great place to work.
Historically we’ve often focused particularly on metrics like counterfactual money moved to effective organisations and number of pledges, especially since effective donations are the primary focus of Giving What We Can.
Given that "optimal world" is a moving target and because we are primarily focusing on building long-term capacity, it can be difficult to establish clear metrics of success for CEA. Even our Y Combinator partners struggled to help us with this one.
Our current best guess is something akin to 80,000 Hours’ significant plan changes but broadened out to include the many ways the effective altruism community adds value including direct work, donations, pledges and other activities. We evaluate our activities based on whether they move people from knowing little or nothing about effective altruism to the point where they make significant commitments to doing good with their lives. At the early interest end of the scale are proxies like signing up for the Effective Altruism Newsletter or interacting with effective altruism posts on social media. At the other end might be people who are donating significant amounts of money to effective organisations, contributing groundbreaking new research or are working at some of the most effective organisations.
There is expected value at every stage of engagement either because of the volume of people taking action or because of the high value of the actions. We compare the various activities we could focus on roughly by thinking of them in terms of “pledge equivalents”. Some examples:
- How many people would we need to sign up to the EA Newsletter for the conversion rate of our emails to lead to the equivalent of an average pledge in donations?
- What other activities can lead to the same amount of value for a similar cost?
At this point, we don’t have this comparison nailed down enough to use precise, numeric figures, but we find it a useful heuristic for thinking about the comparative value of different projects.
We aim to focus on the projects where we can add the most value to the effective altruism community.
Following on from Y Combinator, we are setting up a planning process whereby every quarter we review how the previous quarter has gone and decide what we should prioritise for the next 90 days.
We look at what projects are most important, timely and fit our comparative advantage. There are a wealth of really valuable projects that the effective altruism community could be working on, but not all of them will be the comparative advantage specifically of CEA.
For example, as a movement-building organisation, we aim to facilitate the generation of new ideas that will take the movement forward through activities like improving online discussion and collaboration at events. Generating these ideas is not our comparative advantage, but developing better ways to spread and collate them is. This is why we’ve chosen to focus on building better community infrastructure during Q2. When it comes to formulating new ideas and producing research summaries, we leave that to the many brilliant people within the community, including the researchers we sponsor in Oxford, and the Institute for Effective Altruism.
Similarly, we decided not to continue research into effective global health charities because GiveWell has a comparative advantage in this area. This doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be valuable to have any other organisations also conducting this kind of research, it’s just not the priority given the multitude of useful things we could be working on, and the specific skill sets we currently have on the team.
On the flip side, we chose to focus on EA Funds because we knew we had the skills and capacity to build a donation product that would directly benefit the EA community. In addition, there had been a lot of recent demand from the community for options that allow individuals to donate effectively while reducing the time required. This might be by deferring their decision to a trusted expert (Nick Beckstead’s EA Giving Group) or randomising who allocates a group’s total donations (Carl Shulman and Paul Christiano’s donation lottery). We prioritised it at the beginning of the year because Y Combinator was a particularly good environment in which to work on building a tech product, aimed at reducing the friction involved in donating to effective charities. We thought that the YC partners would be able to give us much more useful advice on building a product than they could on building a thriving research community.
We hope by making our focus more transparent that we can empower members of the effective altruism community to take on other projects that seem high value. There are lots of worthwhile activities that may not be our current comparative advantage but could be yours.
This quarter we are focusing on:
- Improving our external communications with the wider effective altruism community
- Strengthening and developing the EA community
- Consolidating internally
More on each of these goals below.
There are a few reasons why this seems particularly important. The first is that we’ve had feedback from the community that we are not transparent enough. It has not always been clear what we were prioritising or why, and it has been hard to externally evaluate our actions without knowing our assumptions. A commitment to increased transparency is costly, mainly because of the additional time and attention this takes away from our core focus areas. However, given the extent to which our work impacts the entire community, we have underinvested in this in the past. We have decided to dedicate significantly more resources to external communications this quarter, in order to test whether this does, in fact, improve our longer term hiring, fundraising and feedback mechanisms.
Similarly, we often get requests or questions about why we are or are not focusing on particular projects. We hope that by sharing our current thinking can empower the community to either challenge our assumptions and encourage us to change our focus, or to take up the projects that we cannot themselves.
Finally, if we want to support the effective altruism community in working towards improving the world, then we need open communication in order to understand both the needs of the community and the ways in which we can improve and be more effective.
In practice we aim to share our thinking more often, via our Facebook page, this blog and the Giving What We Can blog (where our updates pertain particularly to Giving What We Can members). We’ve written up some ideas about movement building and this blog post is the second in a series blog posts we have planned for this quarter. We’re also actively encouraging anyone who is interested in what we are working on and why to sign up for our monthly email updates and get in touch via communications[at]centreforeffectivealtruism[dot]org with any feedback. Given the vastness of the community, unfortunately, we cannot respond to everything we see online, and the best way to influence CEA’s direction is to get in touch with us personally with action-oriented feedback and ideas.
Acting as a springboard for the effective altruism community is our core mission, we need a big, healthy community in order to tackle the world’s most pressing problems. While most people find out about effective altruism online, or through their friends, we’ve found that the people who go on to have the biggest positive impact almost always do so after continued engagement with the in-person community over many years. We want to build a better onboarding process for newer members so that we have a steady stream of aligned, talented people engaging with the core community, rather than a sudden influx. This quarter we want to focus on getting some essential building blocks in place so that we can ensure a steady, safe growth trajectory later on, and multiply the effects of future general outreach activities.
This means activities like:
- adding new introductory content to effectivealtruism.org
- improving the online signup process for Giving What We Can members
- finding new ways to support local groups and link up their members with the wider effective altruism community (such as having one signup process for group members and a dashboard for group leaders on effectivealtruism.org).
- and of course the successful planning and execution of a range of events including EA Global Boston, EA Global San Francisco, as well as smaller local events and a gathering for leaders in the EA community.
Just was we expect the infrastructure we’re working on for the effective altruism community to bring large benefits, we believe CEA’s infrastructure is also important to improve. You may be aware that we have gone through a lot of change, especially within the last year. Now that we have a clearer sense of what we are prioritising, we need to make sure we have the internal infrastructure to carry out these projects to the best of our ability.
Broadly speaking we need to finalise a lot of internal processes. This quarter we aim to publish our 2017 and draft 2018 budgets and start conducting a six-month review.
To improve our efficiency in managing donations, we intend to, where possible, move as many donations as we can from the Giving What We Can Trust to the EA Funds infrastructure (more on that in this update) and finalise our process for making EA Funds grants.
We are also improving our hiring and HR processes ahead of a hiring round this quarter where we hope to expand our capacity to work on promising projects by adding great people to our team. While we’ve had to make some tough choices about what to focus on at the beginning of 2017, we hope that by expanding our team we’ll be able to make much quicker progress on improving and strengthening the community. If you’re excited by our vision, mission and team culture and think you have something to add, please get in touch via recruitment[at]centreforeffectivealtruism[dot]org.
Just because these are our priorities, this doesn’t mean our other work stops. We are committed to things like sharing ideas via the EA newsletter, supporting donors, Giving What We Can members and local groups all year round because this kind of work cannot be carried out sporadically. We try to organise our work such that 30-50% of our time is spent on core growth and improvement priorities, with the remainder of our time spent on general activities.
We’re still working on the EA Funds, the setup of which was our focus in the first quarter. As part of the general theme of consolidation this quarter, we’re working to improve the website and process for donors in light of all of the feedback we’ve had. The first grants have been decided (see this update and the individual fund pages) and we are finalising the method for awarding these grants. This quarter we are also starting to think about in what ways we should consider expanding the funds. We are now confident that the project should continue, so we want to take some time to consult the community before we add lots of new funds, fund managers and advertise the funds widely to new donors. We’ve heard many people in the community express concern about having a small number of fund managers, and we take these concerns seriously too. We remain committed to our original aim of having less than 50% of the funds managed by OpenPhil program officers longer term, yet we don’t want to compromise on the quality of fund managers, nor to offer funds that we can’t stake our values on. For example, during YC, we received a lot of pressure to add a US politics fund while we were at Y Combinator but did not go ahead, despite promises of large amounts of funding. We did not think we could find a suitable fund manager at that time, and we worried offering such a fund might dilute the overall effectiveness of donations moved through the platform. We're still open to a fund like this in the future but it is an important decision we do not want to rush. We'd very much like to hear thoughts from the community about this and other funds we should consider adding.
We have recorded our Q2 goals in a management tracking system called 15Five which encourages every member of the team to report on how they have worked towards our objectives in their area each week and to track the percentage completion of the goal.
We plan to begin each quarter spending around two weeks reviewing our past progress and discussing what our organisation wide and individual priorities should be for the next 90 days.
This enables us to regularly share our goals and the progress we are making towards them. We intend to publish quarterly updates but want to ensure that the process of doing so is fruitful and beneficial to our work, rather than adding an extra burden with little useful feedback. We will experiment with different ways to keep the community updated on our progress over the next quarter.
We hope this transparency of goals, assumptions, and progress will allow members of the effective altruism community to both hold us to account and work with us to achieve our aims.
As mentioned previously, where you think we are prioritising the wrong thing we want to hear your reasoning to convince us if you believe we should change our focus. While we would love to be able to concentrate on solving every problem in the community all at once, we have to make hard tradeoffs too, and some significant problems will nevertheless be outside the scope of our goals for any one period. Where you agree with our prioritisation but have another promising project you think should be pursued, we hope you will feel empowered to take on that project and run with it. Even if it is not something we can fit into our work, we are always happy to connect individuals with ideas we find promising to members of the community who may be able to help.
I hope this post has given you the context and reasoning behind our current priorities and our planning process. If you have any comments, questions or feedback, please get in touch.