As CEA has grown and changed as an organization, we recognize that our work has sometimes fallen short of the standards we have for ourselves. We believe we have made significant strides toward our current goals of professionalism, collaboration, and excellent implementation of our projects. But we also want to give context on some of CEA’s mistakes, both resolved and unresolved. Here are some reasons why:
- To acknowledge ways our mistakes have affected others
- To provide you with more information about problems you may have observed with our work
- To help you assess whether you think our steps to correct problems are adequate
When you evaluate us as an organization, we recommend using this page, but also looking directly at what we've produced rather than taking our word for things.
This is not an exhaustive list of every problem with CEA’s work. What’s listed here are mostly mistakes we made that affected outside stakeholders (EA community members, group organizers, donors, etc) rather than our own staff. We don’t list all the ways our projects were inefficient or suboptimal. We also don’t include any mistakes made by Giving What We Can before the 2016 merger, when it was functioning as a separate organization from CEA.
Please contact us if you know of other items that should be listed here, or other ways we could improve.
Last updated: April 2020
These are problems we believe contributed to many of our mistakes.
Between 2016 and 2019, CEA had a series of five executive directors or CEOs. Some of this was related to changes in CEA itself (in 2016, moving from a minor umbrella organization encompassing projects like Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours to a full-fledged organization with its own projects). But we then had several more executive transitions for various reasons. This meant that CEA was often in a period of transition and had frequent changes in vision for what types of projects to take on and what role to play in the effective altruism community.
The incoming leaders and the transitions themselves did not always have as much oversight or guidance from the board as we now think would have been helpful.
Current status: Max Dalton became interim executive director in January 2019. For the first time, CEA held an in-depth executive search with ongoing involvement from the board of trustees, and the trustees confirmed Max as executive director in October 2019. The board is now more actively involved than in the past. A designated trustee is responsible for writing semi-annual reviews of Max's performance (with input from other trustees), and meets with Max regularly to give feedback on CEA's work and strategy.
Since 2016, CEA has had a large number of projects for its size. For example, at the beginning of 2019, CEA had 20 staff and many projects that took significant staff time (EA Global conferences, EAGx conferences, the EA Forum, EA Funds, EA Grants, support for EA groups, Community Building Grants, community health support, Giving What We Can, and the EA Leaders Forum). We did not always identify which projects were not performing well and discontinue them. We think we should have taken on fewer new projects, set clearer expectations for them, and ended unsuccessful projects earlier.
Running this wide array of projects has sometimes resulted in a lack of organizational focus, poor execution, and a lack of follow-through. It also meant that we were staking a claim on projects that might otherwise have been taken on by other individuals or groups that could have done a better job than we were doing (for example, by funding good projects that we were slow to fund).
Current status: While we don’t want to abruptly drop any projects, we’re evaluating how to pare down projects so that we can perform excellently on the ones we do keep.
As of April 2020, EA Grants is not planning to consider new grants. We are also looking at the possibility of spinning off EA Funds and/or Giving What We Can, either separately or together, so they can better fulfil their promise under leadership that can focus on them specifically. We hope this will allow CEA to better focus on its remaining projects.
How we fell short: At times, our communication with group organizers, EAGx organizers, donors, and other community members has been slow or absent. We recognize that this lack of communication has been frustrating and demoralizing for some community members and at times has impeded their work on community projects. For example, in 2016 EAGxBerkeley organizers described unresponsiveness from our staff as a low point in their experience as event organizers.
Current status: We continue to work on improving our email practices. In some cases (like EAGx), we now have more adequate staffing for the scale of the project, enabling our staff to spend more time responding to organizers.
How we fell short: As EA Global admissions criteria have changed over time, we have not always communicated these changes adequately to the community, leading to confusion and disappointment.
In 2016, we committed to a large event size and then had problems with our email system, leading to low ticket sales. We then heavily promoted the conference to the community in an attempt to fill the event. We now think we should not have publicly committed to a particular number of attendees in the first place, and should not have tried so hard to sell a given number of tickets, because some community members found our efforts to be overly pushy. This also created confusion in later years when admission standards were much more selective.
The following year, midway through admissions for EA Global London, we decided to make the 2017 London event more selective than initially planned. This meant that some applicants who had seen initial communications about the event were surprised not to be admitted, as they met the initial criteria but not the more selective criteria. In many cases, they also remembered the strong push for ticket sales in 2016 and were confused about the change.
In the years since, there has continued to be disagreement and confusion about the admissions process, some of it based on other mistakes we’ve made.
Current status: We’ve tried to better explain the application process and criteria in our communications about the conference, on the application itself, in our emails responding to applications, in our FAQ, and in this Forum post.
How we fall short: We haven't been consistent in our communication about the level of risk involved with the EA Funds (whether a particular fund aims to recommend grants with a solid evidence base, vs. speculative grants with a low certainty of success but a chance of a high upside). This has led to some donors being surprised or unhappy with some grant recommendations.
Current status: We’ve added risk profiles to each EA Fund, to give a broad sense of how much risk their management teams will likely take on (more info). We’re also considering other ways to give donors options between supporting higher-risk and lower-risk grants.
We think CEA should have been clearer about which projects we run are meant to be broadly representative of the interests of the EA community, and which are aiming to be cause-specific or otherwise not representative of the whole community. At times, we’ve carried out projects that we presented as broadly EA that in fact overrepresented some views or cause areas that CEA favored. We should have either worked harder to make these projects genuinely representative, or have communicated that they were not representative.
How we fell short: EA Global is meant to cover a broad range of topics of interest to the effective altruism community, but in 2015 and 2016 we did not provide strong content at EA Global from the area of animal advocacy. This stemmed from having organizers who were not themselves active in animal advocacy and who did not seek out adequate advice about speakers and topics in this area. This made some community members who focus on animal advocacy feel unvalued. We think that EA Global should provide good content on a variety of causes in EA, and we failed to do so in those cases.
Current status: In 2017, we hired a consultant from the animal advocacy field to advise us on better content in that area. Since 2018, we have used a panel of experts in different cause areas to advise us on EA Global content, and we believe this has resulted in better representation of the different cause areas of interest to the EA community.
How we fell short: In 2018, we published the second edition of the Effective Altruism Handbook, which emphasized our longtermist view of cause prioritization, contained little information about why many EAs prioritize global health and animal advocacy, and focused on risks from AI to a much greater extent than any other cause. This caused some community members to feel that CEA was dismissive of the causes they valued.
We think that this project ostensibly represented EA thinking as a whole, but actually represented the views of some of CEA’s staff, which was a mistake. We think we should either have changed the content, or have presented the content in a way that made clear that these were views of CEA staff.
Current status: We consulted more broadly in the community, particularly amongst those who were critical of the 2nd edition. We are taking this into account as we work on a third edition. We also edited the 2nd edition of the Handbook to make clearer that it was a project of CEA rather than community-sourced.
How we fell short: Since 2016, we have held the EA Leaders Forum, initially intended as a space for core community members to coordinate and discuss strategy. The format and the number of attendees have changed over time, and in recent years we have invited attendees disproportionately from organizations focused on global catastrophic risks or with a longtermist worldview. While the name is less significant than the makeup of the event itself, we should not have continued calling it “EA Leaders Forum” after it was no longer a representative group / sample of EA community leaders.
Current status: We currently structure the event around a few topics and invite a rotating slate of people with expertise in different areas depending on the topics planned for discussion. We also plan to select a different name for the event that better represents the fact that it is not always representative of the broad EA community.
We don’t feel we’ve fully resolved this issue, and we are still considering changes for future versions of the event and which criteria we should use to determine attendees.
How we fell short: We view it as a mistake that after the 2016 merger of Giving What We Can with CEA we put relatively little staff time toward Giving What We Can. The main person responsible for Giving What We Can since 2017, Julia Wise, already had full-time responsibilities on community health. As the tech team’s capacity was split between several major projects, fixes to Giving What We Can tech problems sometimes took longer than we wish they had. Members received fewer communications than before, and website functionality was not what users expected. For example:
- The pledge signup form was broken for two weeks in 2017.
- After an update to the pledge platform where members recorded their donations, some functionality that had been present in the old version, such as the ability to record recurring donations, was not added to the new version for more than a year.
- The “How rich am I?” calculator was based on increasingly outdated statistics until an update in 2019.
- The pledge platform now provides all the functionality of the old donation recording platform, plus additional features like the ability to see progress both during a set time period (such as a year) and also one’s lifetime pledge overall.
- We have resumed sending a newsletter to members roughly every 2 to 3 months.
- With help from Rob Wiblin and Phil Trammell, we updated the “How rich am I?” calculator in 2019 to use more recent data.
We are looking at ways to provide staff for Giving What We Can who can help it develop and grow to a greater extent. This might involve spinning it off as a separate organization, either together with EA Funds or independently.
This post about EA Grants offers more information about the program’s problems and the steps we’ve taken to address them.
How we fell short: Poor record-keeping and slow transfers
We did not maintain well-organized records of grant applications or decisions. Our staff sometimes verbally promised grants without fully documenting the decision in our system. The lack of a proper grant administration system, along with limited operational capacity, meant we were not always able to transfer payments promptly. As a result, some grantees waited an inordinately long time for payment. We are aware of cases where this contributed to difficult financial or career situations for recipients.
Step we took to improve: We hired a full-time grantmaker on EA Grants who communicated more clearly with applicants and recipients, and who cleaned up aspects of the project that had become disorganized. By mid-2019, CEA was able to disburse EA Grants within a month of receiving recipient bank details in most cases.
Note: As of early 2020, EA Grants is not considering new grantmaking. See this short update.
How we fell short: Communication problems
When we initially opened the Grants program in 2017, we did not make most potential applicants aware until shortly before the application deadline. We were slow in communicating with applicants in 2017 about delays in processing their applications. Several times during 2018, we said we would open a Grants round at a particular time and then did not do so.
Steps we took to improve: We now try not to share specific timelines about our projects with others until we are confident that we can follow those timelines.
How we fell short: Slow grant disbursement and communication, 2017-2018
During the first 21 months after EA Funds began operating (2017-2018), some funds disbursed donations more rarely than was expected. Community members requested more transparency about how much money was in each fund and when it would likely be disbursed. In April 2018, we stated in a comment on the EA Forum that we expected to publish a post with more information in the next few weeks, but we did not actually publish more information until August 2018 (after a community member published an additional post to express their concerns).
Grant disbursement was slow in part because each fund initially had only one fund manager, with one person (Nick Beckstead) managing both the Long-Term Future Fund and the EA Infrastructure Fund (then called the EA Community Fund). Limited capacity by grantmakers meant some funds did not consider small, new projects for funding, which was originally one of the functions we hoped EA Funds would provide.
Steps we’ve taken to improve: In October 2018, we announced new management teams for most of the funds, increasing the number of people available to consider grants from those funds. At the same time, we moved to a three-times-yearly regular grantmaking schedule for three of the funds. The Global Health and Development Fund disburses when it has enough for relatively large grants, which is not always on the three-times-yearly schedule, but if it is not granting during a particular round it publishes an update to announce this.
How we fell short: Outdated Fund balances, 2016-2019
In October 2018, we implemented a new website feature which pulled data from our accounting system that indicated the current balance held for each Fund. While this was intended to be up-to-date and accurate, the delay between when payout reports were published and when these payouts were reflected in our accounting system sometimes meant that the balances were inaccurate. This specific problem has now been fixed, but we still expect that there will sometimes be accounting corrections and adjustments that cause discrepancies in the balances.
Steps we’ve taken to improve: We now enter payout information into our accounting system at the same time as we publish Fund payout reports, rather than doing an end-of-month reconciliation once all grant payments had been made, as we were doing before.
How we fell short: A post went up in 2019 listing grants that Fund managers recommended, but these recommendations had not yet been passed by CEA’s due diligence and approval process, and the Fund did not end up making all the grants listed as recommendations. This led to confusion about which grants were actually made vs. recommended.
Steps we’ve taken to improve: We now coordinate with Fund managers to ensure that we publish updates about grants only after grant recommendations have gone through our due diligence check (which involves ensuring that grants are in line with CEA’s charitable objectives) and we’ve confirmed that we will disburse the grants.
How we fell short: In 2019, some grants recommended (but not made) by the Long-Term Future Fund were outside the implicit scope of the Fund. These grants were not ultimately made, but the recommendations were communicated to the public before CEA had completed our due diligence. This was confusing to donors. Additionally, we had some disagreements with the grant team about the scope of the fund, which slowed down the approval of some grants and caused delays for potential grantees.
Steps we’ve taken to improve: We now have a more thorough and prompt internal review process for grants, with additional due diligence steps. Due diligence is now completed before grant recommendations are published, so that it’s clear to donors whether a grant will be made by the fund or not. We have also worked with Fund managers to clarify the scope of each Fund and the process we follow for assessing recommendations.
How we fell short: We have not always provided regular updates to donors informing them about how their donations have been used.
Steps we’ve taken to improve: We now send email updates to a fund’s donors each time that fund disburses grants.
How we fell short: We encouraged student groups to run pledge drives which sometimes resulted in people taking the Pledge at a young age without being encouraged to seriously think it through as a long-term commitment. Some of our communications also presented the Pledge as something to be taken quickly rather than carefully considered.
Steps we took to improve: Our website and pledge campaign materials now emphasize that the Pledge is a career-long commitment to consider carefully rather than in haste. We recommend the temporary Try Giving pledge to people who do not yet have a clear picture of their financial future.
How we fell short: Our communications about Giving What We Can did not always make some points clear (for example, whether the Pledge is completely binding regardless of personal circumstances, or whether you can end your pledge.) This resulted in confusion in the community.
How we fell short: The Pareto Fellowship was a program sponsored by CEA and run by two CEA staff, designed to deepen the EA involvement of promising students or people early in their careers. We realized during and after the program that senior management did not provide enough oversight of the program. For example, reports by some applicants indicate that the interview process was unprofessional and made them deeply uncomfortable.
Steps we took to improve: We did not continue the program after 2016. None of the staff involved in this program or overseeing this program currently work at CEA.