In December, I (Nicole Ross) joined CEA to run the EA Grants program, which gives relatively small grants (usually under $60,000 per grant) to individuals and start-up projects within EA cause areas. Before joining CEA, I worked at the Open Philanthropy Project and GiveWell doing both research and grants operations.
When I joined CEA, the EA Grants program had been running since 2017. Upon my initial review, it had a mixed track record. Some grants seemed quite exciting, some seemed promising, others lacked the information I needed to make an impact judgment, and others raised some concerns.
Additionally, the program had a history of operational and strategic challenges. I've spent the majority of the last nine months working to improve the overall functioning of the program. I'm now planning the future of EA Grants, and trying to determine whether some version of the program ought to exist moving forward.
In this brief update, I’ll describe some of the program’s past challenges, a few things I’ve worked on, and some preliminary thoughts about the future of the program. I’ll also request feedback on the current EA funding landscape, and what value EA Grants might be able to add if we decide to maintain the program going forward.
Note on early 2019 EA Grants round
Last year, we publicly stated that we “expect the next round after this one to be early next year  but we want to review lessons from this round before committing to a date.” When it became clear that we would not hold a round in early 2019, we did not update the previous statement. We regret any confusion we may have caused by failing to provide a clear update on our plans.
Issues with the program
EA Grants began in 2017. From June 2017 to December 2018 (when I joined CEA), grant management was a part-time responsibility of various staff members who also had other roles. As a result, the program did not get as much strategic and evaluative attention as it needed. Additionally, CEA did not appropriately anticipate the operational systems and capacity needed to run a grantmaking operation, and we did not have the full infrastructure and capacity in place to run the program.
Because everyone involved recognized the importance of the program, CEA eventually began to take steps to resolve broader issues related to this lack of attention, including establishing the full-time Grants role for which I was hired and hiring an operations contractor to process grants. We believe it was a mistake that we didn’t act more quickly to improve the program, and that we weren’t more transparent during this process.
My first responsibility in my new role was to investigate these issues, with support from staff who had worked on the EA Grants program in the past. I am grateful for the many hours current and former staff have spent helping me get up to speed and build a consolidated picture of the EA Grants program.
Below are what I view as the most important historical challenges with the EA Grants program:
1) Lack of consolidated records and communications
We did not maintain well-organized records of individuals applying for grants, grant applications under evaluation, and records of approved or rejected applications. We sometimes verbally promised grants without full documentation in our system. As a result, it was difficult for us to keep track of outstanding commitments, and of which individuals were waiting to hear back from CEA. This resulted in us spending much longer preparing for our independent audit than would have been ideal.
2) Lack of clarification about the role EA Grants played in the funding ecosystem
While we gave information about the types of projects EA Grants would consider funding, we didn’t explicitly discuss how we saw EA Grants complementing other sources in the EA funding ecosystem (e.g. EA Funds and BERI). As a result, individuals applied who were not a good fit for EA Grants, and there was confusion about where people should apply for grants (e.g., EA Grants versus EA Funds).
3) Significant delays in payment
A lack of appropriate operational infrastructure and processes resulted in some grant payments taking longer than expected. This lack of grantmaking operational systems, combined with the lack of consolidated records, led to delays of around a year between an individual being promised a grant and receiving their payment in at least one case. We are aware of cases where this contributed to difficult financial or career situations for recipients. CEA is now in a place where we are able to disburse EA Grants with correct bank information routinely within a month, sometimes quicker, putting us solidly within the norm of the grant making industry.
4) Lack of post-grant assessment
Historically, EA Grants did not conduct consistent evaluation of grant performance. Since joining, I have developed a consistent process for evaluating grants upon completion and a process for periodically monitoring progress on grants. CEA is planning further improvements to this process next year.
5) Lack of transparency
Apart from this post, we didn’t share much information with the community about these operational and strategic issues. We provided public updates about the EA Grants program about once a year, but we likely should have done so more often.
On behalf of CEA, I am deeply sorry to people who were hurt or disappointed by the program. EA Grants caused significant harm through delays and poor communication, and I believe we’ve also left value on the table by failing to quickly address the issues I mentioned above.
I hope that any future version of the EA Grants program will be run much more smoothly, though I’m uncertain that the program will continue to exist. (I’ve provided more details on this point at the end of the post.)
How I’ve spent my time this year
Addressing historical issues
I’ve spent most of my first year at CEA addressing historical issues mentioned above: creating consolidated records of grants, working with our operations team to improve timely payment of grants, piloting evaluation and grants assessment processes, and locating documentation for our independent audit in the U.K. (August). To do this, I spent time learning about these issues by interviewing past employees, grantees, and other stakeholders, and I conducted an extensive review of documentation from the first 18 months of the program’s existence. Overall, I think we’ve made significant progress resolving these issues.
I’ve made decisions on a few time-sensitive grants, as well as some grant applications that had been pending for a long time. Since joining CEA last December, I’ve given out 11 grants totaling ~$150,000. I’m working on a writeup of the grants I’ve evaluated since I joined in December. Once I’ve finished the writeup, I will post it to the Forum and CEA’s blog, and link to it in this post.
Grantmaking ecosystem investigation
In addition to addressing historical challenges with EA Grants, one of my major focuses has been analyzing what unique role EA Grants might be able to play in the current EA funding ecosystem, specifically when funding individuals and small projects. This was driven by a desire to figure out whether EA Grants should continue to exist.
I think the areas that the EA Grants program covers or could cover, and that historically have not been covered by other EA-aligned grantmaking entities, are:
- Time-sensitive opportunities, where flexibility and very quick turnaround times are critical to capture the value of the grant.
- Developing networks outside the U.S. and U.K. This work allows us to discover and vet grantmaking opportunities that we wouldn't have otherwise known about. I did a small test of this by going to continental Europe in 2019 (the Center for Applied Rationality’s European “rEUnion” in Prague, and EAGxNordics in Stockholm) and meeting a lot of people. I believe that I wouldn't have felt confident making two of the grants I did without taking that trip and making those connections.
- Proactive and collaborative grantmaking (e.g., reaching out to talented people who might really benefit from a grant and encouraging them to apply, or helping to improve applicants’ plans during a collaborative application process). I haven’t done a lot of this, though I’ve tried a few test cases and I think there is at least some value to be gained by this method.
Ongoing and future work
Working with current grantees
As I consider the program’s future, my top priority is to ensure that we serve our current grantees reliably and continue to follow through on our existing commitments. If we limit or redirect the future scope of EA Grants, this will not impact any funding already committed.
Planning for the program’s future
I observed an overlap between individuals applying for EA Grants and individuals applying for EA Funds. As a result, I am running tests to establish whether EA Funds could continue to take on the role played by EA Grants (with a focus on whether EA Funds can process time-sensitive grants). At this stage, I think it is fairly likely that EA Grants won’t continue in its current form, and that we will instead encourage individuals to apply to EA Funds.
To be clear, I believe that EA Grants is currently having a positive impact, particularly now that we’ve resolved most of our historical issues. However, I’m skeptical that we serve enough of a unique role within the EA funding landscape to justify our existence. As mentioned, it’s pretty plausible that EA Funds can, with additional funding/capacity, cover many of the grants I’d want to make in the future.
I’m always open to feedback. Right now, I’m especially interested in getting people’s thoughts on gaps in the EA funding landscape:
- What funding options should exist that don’t?
- Which types of work are uniquely hard to find funding for?
- What bad thing(s) might happen if EA Grants shuts down or gets merged into EA Funds?
If you have time and interest, I’d really appreciate your filling out this survey.
Correction: We originally stated that grant recipients had experienced payment delays of “up to six months.” After posting this, we learned of one case where payment was delayed for around a year. It’s plausible that this occurred in other cases as well. We deeply apologize for this payment delay and the harm it caused.