Hide table of contents

(alternate title: CEA shouldn’t be the C of EA). 

A very short summary: 

  • Issue 1: CEA’s name is bad and leads to lots of confusion and frustration
    • Suggestion: CEA should change its name  [1]
  • Issue2 :‘The ‘community health team’ is part of CEA, which is something which might reduce the community’s trust in the community health team
    • Suggestion: ‘The community health team’ should not be part of CEA

 

A reasonable Summary:

  • The name “The Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA)” causes some people in the community to misunderstand what CEA is/does, and for them to misattribute responsibility to CEA that CEA itself doesn’t think belongs to it.
  • In addition, the community health team, which tries to serve the whole community, is part of CEA. This may further the confusion about CEA’s role in the movement, and might be hampering the community health team’s effectiveness and trustworthiness. 
  • By renaming/rebranding, CEA can resolve and prevent many ongoing communications and PR issues within the movement.
  • And by spinning-off into an independent organization, the community health team can improve on having an impartial and inscrutable reputation and record in the community. 


 

Epistemic status: Of my observations - quite sure,[2]. Of my two main suggestions, also quite sure. I find it difficult to write things to the point where I feel comfortable posting them on the forum, but I also know It’d probably be better for me to post more ok-ish posts than to sit on a pile of never-read drafts which might have some useful ideas in them. So yeah - I know this isn’t *great* 


 

On Issue 1: Changing CEA’s name[3]

(I was going to post this *before* CEA posted their post in which they claim that they’re open to changing their name. I think it's still worth posting, hopefully to be a place where the topic can be more thoroughly argued in the comments).

 

 

One of the things that I like about the EA community is that it is decentralized, meaning there is no single person or entity who sets the direction of, or represents, the community (It’s like Sunni Islam in that way, rather than being like the Catholic Church, which is centrally controlled by the Vatican and the Pope). I think other people in the community like it too - it helps the community house a wide variety of (often competing) views, and for people to form organizations with different strategies or goals based on differently-weighed cause-prioritization without facing as much institutional resistance than they would if we were all playing to the tune of one organization and their plan. Of course, cases have also been made for more centralization, in certain ways.

 

The EA community has grown significantly over the past couple of years. Whereas ~10 years ago it might have been known by nearly everyone in the EA community what each of the few organizations were working on, today there is a much larger number of organizations/projects and many more members in the community, which means that it is more likely that there are members of the EA community who don’t know what some organizations, such as CEA, actually do. This is likely to be even more true of people who are new to the community and are trying to figure out what the ecosystem looks like and remembering what all the weird initialized org names are.  

 

This usually wouldn't be an issue - if one were to list all the organizations associated with EA, you wouldn’t/shouldn't expect anyone to know what each and every one of them does (at least not in detail - but you might know all their cause areas). However, when someone looks through that list, looking for one organization which might be the authority in the movement, “The Centre For Effective Altruism” has a sense of authority and officiality to it that others do not. Even though this misconception seems most likely to be held by someone outside of the EA community, (anecdotally) I still find that many people in the community, even people who I’d regard as quite involved/interest in “meta-EA” still think that CEA has some type of authority when it comes to starting/running university or national groups, or that CEA is in charge of most of the apparatus of the EA community - which isn't true even if you replace CEA with EV here.


CEA, however, doesn’t appear to think of itself as the leader of the EA community. For instance in 2022 Max Dalton (then Executive Director) wrote: 

We do not think of ourselves as having or wanting control over the EA community. We believe that a wide range of ideas and approaches are consistent with the core principles underpinning EA, and encourage others to identify and experiment with filling gaps left by our work." (emphasis mine)

and

“CEA (The Centre for Effective Altruism) is dedicated to nurturing a community of people who are thinking carefully about the world’s biggest problems and taking impactful action to solve them. We hope that this community can help to build a radically better world: so far it has helped to save over 150,000 lives, reduced the suffering of millions of farmed animals, and begun to address some of the biggest risks to humanity’s future.

We do this by helping people to consider their ideas, values and options for and about helping, connecting them to advisors and experts in relevant domains, and facilitating high-quality discussion spaces. Our hope is that this helps people find an effective way to contribute that is a good fit for their skills and inclinations.

We do this by...

and  when Joan Gass was Managing director of CEA, she wrote:

“ I view CEA as one organization helping to grow and support the EA community, not the sole organization which determines the community’s future”


Further, CEA’s website describes its main activities as hosting conferences and events; supporting EA groups; running the EA forum; facilitating the community health team; writing and distributing the EA newsletter; and researching the EA community.[4] They also say that they aim to communicate, educate, connect, and streamline information flow. In 2021 CEA posted a list of things that they’re not working on - which I think would be a valuable blog post to update, as it is the kind of information which helps correctly shape the community’s understanding of what CEA is and does. 

(I started writing some of the ways in which this mismatch between what some people in the community think CEA does, and what CEA thinks it does could/has maybe caused a problem to demonstrate why the change would be useful, but decided that it was becoming rambly and wasn't needed. What was written up until that point is footnoted here.)[5] 

Changing CEA’s name should happen in conjunction with CEA being more forthright/explicit about what its role is in the community, and where its bounds are with regards to its responsibilities and its access to information. 
 

On Issue 2: Improving trust in the community health team 


The community health team has a pretty broad remit. They write:

 “When we refer to community health, we’re referring to the state of the community’s ability to achieve its potential for positive impact. For example, the community’s health might be at risk if people who would make great contributions to the community are repelled by its culture, or if leaders don’t get important feedback about effects of their work. 

They work on a wide range of projects including “Reducing risks related to sensitive projects, like work in policy and politics”, “Supporting community members who are dealing with personal or interpersonal problems”, “Fostering better norms and practices in the community”, and “Finding specialists to work on specific problems, for example, improving public communications around EA or risk-reduction in areas with high geopolitical risk”. 

The past nine months have obviously been extremely difficult for the community, and perhaps for none more so than the community health team (thank you very very very much for the work you do). In the context of recent events and controversies, the community health team has played a crucial role in addressing concerns and providing support. 


During each of the FTX, TIME, and Bostrom debacles, the community health team was the main point of contact for basically *the entire EA community* when it came to raising concerns about internal or external anecdotal information about these issues, reaching out for help or advice around interpersonal conflicts or mental health issues, and working with CEA’s communications department and external media seeking answers to questions. This is in addition to the highly sensitive and delicate work they regularly have to engage with when it comes to interpersonal conflict in the community, which is appropriately dealt with in a confidential manner.[6]


However over the past year, members of the community have raised various questions and concerns about the community health team and the way which they go about their work. I’m not here to address the merits of these claims, but mostly to make the point that one of the most important things about the community health team should be that they are trusted (that they operate in a way which earns the community’s trust) and respected (that the community engages with mutual good faith and acknowledgement of the importance of having a well functioning community health team). 

 

Here are some ideas I had which might help improve the situation: 

  • Form a volunteer advisory board of random opt-in members of the community which rotates every 6-12 months. The advisory board would be responsible for providing broad and non-specific reports back to the community about their satisfaction with the team’s work
  • The community health team could provide more regular updates to the community about the initiatives and anonymised/generalized updates about work they’ve done.
  • Conduct periodic reviews of the community health team and their work by professional EA-external consultants.
  • Collect better data about the community’s perceptions of and attitudes towards the community health team, publish the findings, solicit feedback about the results, and use community suggestions to implement reforms. 

 

I think the suggestions above may be good ideas, although there are probably also good reasons not to do them.  However, in keeping with the spirit of Issue 1 (that some people are suspicious of CEA or are unsure what CEA does or how influential they are), I’d like to point to the community health team’s affiliation with CEA, and how that raises legitimate questions about impartiality and trustworthiness. I think being part of CEA might also just make the community health team’s job harder/more complicated, as the types of issues I’m thinking about are probably the types of things they’re concerned about too. 

 

Some concerns which people might have [7]about the community health team being part of CEA might be: 

  • Conflicts of interest: e.g. when the community health team is a part of CEA, there could be concerns that its actions and decisions might be influenced by CEA's affiliations, priorities, or interests.
    • Eg. where the community health team might be in possession of damaging information about a member of CEA or EV, leading to the situation being handled differently than if the information pertained to a non–CEA member of the community. 
    • E.g. The community health team prioritizes issues of members of CEA or EV over other members’ of the community because they’re colleagues or they feel that they have a duty to insure the wellbeing of CEA as an org before other members of the community
    • E.g. People might suspect that the community health team was simultaneously receiving concerning information from members of the community about CEA or EV as well as aiding the communication team in CEA/EV’s PR damage control attempts.
    • E.g people might think that the community health team is only interested in the aspects of ‘community health’ which are important to CEA and their goals, and might not consider wider issues, or give appropriate weighting to issues which seems unimportant to CEA but might be important to a substantial part of the community at large
  • Accessibility: Members of the community who don’t like CEA or have had negative interactions with one aspect of CEA (maybe they had a spat with the events team or the groups team or the forum moderators) might feel that they wouldn't be treated fairly or kindly by the community health team. 
    • People might also be less likely to bring forward issues involving CEA employees because they think the issue won’t be handled fairly. 
  • Privacy: People might have more reason to think that sensitive personal information or confidential information might be transferred between the community health team and other members of CEA, e.g. when assessing hiring applications, when deciding conference admittance, when being consulted on a grant decision. 
    • Whereas maybe if they were independent and CEA wanted/needed this information, there would have to be some type of formal request for information from the community health team, and maybe the person in question has a right to have certain information not disclosed. And it might be easier to not do all of this if you can just do it over slack or in passing in the office or something. 
    • Whereas people might think suspect that the community health team can’t simultaneously be part of EV and be compliant with whatever legal obligations EV has and professionalize in the direction of having strict policies or measures in place with regards to protecting confidential information in a more standard way (such as legal standards for privacy when dealing with mental health counselors). 
      • Like if the community health team wanted to hire therapists or counselors, is it possible/easy for CEA or EV in its existing non-profit form to comply with whatever professional ethical standards would be required? [8]

In addition: 

  • Over-centralisation: People might worry that the community health team being part of CEA leads to CEA being overly influential within the community (I think these lead to some of the ‘democratize EA’ arguments which have been made within discussions of transparency, accountability, and oversight in EA recently). Examples of this could be: 
    • CEA deciding what the norms and culture of the community should be 
    • CEA deciding how sensitive policy project should be handled, and potentially deciding which projects to support or not support based on CEA’s own worldview

 

As a way to work towards lessening this concern, and strengthening trust in the community health team, I suggested that the community health team become an independent organization.

 

I think the ideal version of this would be an organization totally independent of Effective Ventures, but that is quite a difficult and expensive thing to set up. So a more realistic version of this is the community health team becoming a fiscally sponsored project of EV or RP, with the goal of building strength and infrastructure to eventually spin-out.
 

Reasons to become independent: 

  • Increased trustworthiness due to independence and removal of COIs
  • Likely increase in fairness and impartiality by reducing the influence of ingroup (CEA) vs outgroup (non-CEA) unconscious bias 
  • Reduced intra organizational conflicts of interest between community health team members and other EV employees when there is an issue to investigate or intervene in involving an EV employee.
  • Lessening potential worries that CEA (or EV)  is over-influential by being in control of the EA community’s mediation and reporting mechanism.  
  • Lessening the worries that CEA’s priorities and worldview dictate how the community health team decides what to work on or what is important for community health. 

Costs to becoming independent: 

  • Loss of Ops support (if not fiscally sponsored) - would require a lot of hiring to regain full functionality.
  • Would create the need for Independent fundraising
  • Decreased coordination and knowledge sharing between CEA and the community health team: leading to inefficiencies or disjointed strategies or goals. 
  • Branding/recognition: the community health team leverages CEA’s brand within EA to establish legitimacy and standing. Becoming independent would mean they’d have to start over. 
  • It's costly and hard to build a new org and would require lots of hiring and importing of leadership skills which might not be already found in the community health team. 
  • There might end up being duplication of certain functions by the community health team and CEA when it comes to helping university, city, and national groups. 


 

Other notes: 

This is pretty anecdotal and subjective: 

  • I haven’t done any research or tried to quantify anything in here - these two issues are based on conversations I’ve had, things I’ve read, and things I’ve thought about by myself. I’ll reach out to CEA and the community health team to get their perspective on these issues, and try to integrate them in the final post if possible. There are also bound to be many in the community who don’t think what I’ve described is true, which is also valuable and I’d be happy to hear why. 

Assumptions about trust:

  • There are LOTS of factors which affect how much someone trusts an institution, such as track record, transparency, accountability and oversight etc. My suggestion to become independent only partially solves one aspect of the problem, but my hope is that it is also a positive step to empowering the team to fix the rest of them.

On Issue 1 : 

  • My personal feeling is that CEA seems to be trying to have the best of world worlds when it comes to ‘not being responsible for/representative of the whole EA community’ and ‘seeming to be the authority of coordination, especially of groups, in the EA community’. Charitably, they might be having the best of both worlds by not prioritizing this issue, rather than doing it intentionally. I haven’t felt that they’ve done enough explicit communication that they’re just a project of EVF and have a narrow and defined set of goals, especially throughout the FTX, TIME, and Bostrom sagas (although they have in other places, as I quote in the body of the post). This is the type of misunderstanding which is probably only rectified by repeatedly setting the record straight, and so I hope they start doing that regularly. 

On the name change: 

  • I hope people don’t take away from this post that I think all CEA’s problems would be solved by changing their name - I think it would help fix one pretty common misconception which is on the smorgasbord of issues CEA is dealing with.
  • From what I can tell, ‘CEA’ was never meant to be the name of anything substantial ( William MacAskill reports that it was just meant to be the unassuming name of the umbrella organization which 80k and GWWC wanted to form back in the day) - and I think it feels right (in a poetic/nostalgic way) that the community finally moves on from it to something better. (I see this name change as the next step in the journey which started by disambiguating CEA from CEA - although maybe that was more pragmatic than poetic). 
  • It's easy to say this should have been done ages ago, but I think there’d be a lot of hindsight bias driving that sentiment. However, given that these problems are only likely to get worse as EA gets bigger and draws more attention to itself, the change should happen as soon as possible. Given the recent change in management, the ongoing search for a new ED, and increased legal scruples being applied to Effective Ventures Foundation USA and Effective Ventures Foundation UK - it's probably unlikely that this change would be wise until  final determinations are made. That said, I’m setting a reminder to myself to return to this issue in one year, so that the enquiries aren’t an excuse not to address the issue. 

Thanks: 

  • To those who encouraged me to write this, and those who reviewed it. 

    Important Disclaimer: These are my own views as a member of the EA community, and not the views of my employer - EvOps, or of the Effective Ventures Foundation USA or UK. I have previously worked as a contractor for CEA on the groups and events teams. 

     
  1. ^

    Not super urgently - I think this is probably a fine thing for a new ED to decide once one has been found. 

  2. ^

    I’m talking about The Centre of Effective Altruism, the project which was led by Max Dalton and is now led by Ben West, and is part of Effective Ventures Foundation. I’m not writing about The Centre for Effective Altruism, which now exists as Effective Ventures Foundation UK and Effective Ventures Foundation USA, with Howie Lampel and Zach Robinson as CEOs, respectively. It is possible that when people talk about CEA, they’re actually referring to what is now EV. Thank goodness for that name change.   

  3. ^
  4. ^

    They also run EA Virtual Programs

  5. ^

    Over the past year, the EA community has been in the eye of the storm, multiple times. During each of the FTX, Bostrom, and TIME crises the EA community, and the public at large, looked to *someone* in the EA community for comment. Many looked to The Centre for Effective Altruism for guidance - and CEA put out statements after the FTX and Bostrom incidents. There are a couple of noteworthy points here: a) people felt irritated by CEA’s statement on Bostrom’s email for a number of reasons, I think many of them could be placed in the category of “CEA doesn't represent me or the community, and this statement doesn’t reflect my views”, b) “CEA doesn’t have a standard way of addressing things which makes it feel like they take some things more seriously/are willing to be more visible on certain issues than others, which makes it seem like CEA thinks some of these issues are more important to them, whereas they’re all bad.” (E.g. Max posted this on CEA’s blog after the FTX thing, Julia Wise was quoted directly in the TIME article when CEA was sent questions by TIME, but CEA didn’t post a similar statement on their blog or on the forum (although the community health team did leave comments on related posts and Catherine posted this), and Shakeel Hashim (communications) posted CEA’s statement following the Bostrom incident on the forum. And c) “most/all other EA organizations did not make any public statements following these events, so why is CEA?”.  

  6. ^

     Except that one time. (this one 

  7. ^

     I gave CEA advanced sight of this post for comments etc and someone pointed out that this would be much more persuasive if I could show how many people actually hold these views. I totally agree. 

  8. ^

    During the period of time before publishing when CEA could make comments on my draft, someone pointed out that other institutions hire professionals with differing levels of legal obligation or ethical codes than a regular employee might have, and it doesn't seem to be an issue (Companies have lawyers, universities employ doctors and counselors, hospitals employ chaplains etc). I think this does sound like a reason to think that this concern isn’t a good one with respect to compliance causing an issue. But I do think it does still call into question the neutrality/impartiality of those employees in a way that might dissuade someone from engaging with them (you’d assume a company’s lawyer is going to favor their client over a non-client - and lawyers actually usually recuse themselves when two clients are in legal dispute. Students at universities tend to be wary of university employed mental health practitioners because they worry that their diagnosis might be used against them in future proceedings etc). 

Comments24
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:45 PM
[anonymous]1y38
16
1

I wish all criticism on the EA Forum was like this.

Edit: To elaborate...

  1. Excellent structure
    1. Very concise summary
    2. Concise summary
    3. Epistemic status
    4. The problem
    5. Ideas for solutions
    6. Genuine attempt to consider the costs and appropriate timing of proposed solutions and suggesting more practical medium-term fix
    7. More details
  2. Charitable explanations for why things are as they are and why people want change, rather than assumptions of incompetence or selfishness
    1. "Now that the EA ecosystem is much bigger and more complex, it's understandable that the community is somewhat confused about and distrustful of CEA" rather than "CEA is untrustworthy" or "No-one trusts each other any more"
    2. "You've had a lot of challenges recently and it looks like this set-up is making your lives more difficult too" rather than "CEA is undemocratic and rationalizing its privilege"
  3. But also direct about the problems and not assuming completely charitable explanations either
  4. Genuine appreciation of good work
  5. Discussing the post with the criticized party in advance

Also I'm personally a huge fan of people a) recognizing hindsight bias and b) injecting a bit of personality into posts.

[anonymous]1y11
5
2

Also,

From what I can tell, ‘CEA’ was never meant to be the name of anything substantial ( William MacAskill reports that it was just meant to be the unassuming name of the umbrella organization which 80k and GWWC wanted to form back in the day) - and I think it feels right (in a poetic/nostalgic way) that the community finally moves on from it to something better.

Loving these 'It is time' vibes.

I feel it's becoming increasingly hard for EA orgs/leaders to feel good about learning, growing and adapting, because before they've had a chance to really process a problem, dozens of EAs have publicly and unforgivingly called them out on it. It's been looking less like a collaborative effort to make progress and more like a fight, where disagreement is 'unwillingness to be criticized' and agreement is surrender.

(I think I should basically just accept that this is what happens as communities become larger, but I'm very appreciative of attempts to hold on to the more collaborative spirit.)

Thanks for writing this Kaleem! On the name change bit: I feel pretty hesitant to make this kind of change without having a permanent ED. I expect that a new ED would be fairly likely to have a vision for the organization which would influence what name we should have, so I (in my role as Interim Managing Director) don’t want to make a change only for it to have to be changed a few months later when we get an ED.

(I’m not sure you disagree with this prioritization, just stating for transparency why I don’t expect to prioritize this.)

Hi Kaleem! (For people who don't know, I'm the interim head of the Community Health team). Thanks for caring about and raising these issues.

I’ll give the short version here and aim to respond to myself with wider ranging, more in the weeds thinking another day. Basically, we have been independently thinking about whether to spin out or be more independent, and think this post is correctly pointing out a bunch of considerations that point to and away from that being the right call, with a lot of overlap in the things we’ve been tracking. At the moment the decision doesn’t feel obvious, for basically the reasons you list. I’ll add just a few things:

  • [This one might be obvious, but just going to say] Spinning out of CEA or EV doesn’t by itself solve COI issues, since we’ll still have a board and an executive director, and require funding.
  • One thing I want to add to the coordination and knowledge sharing points: if it's low cost to pass on concerns we have means we can be more free with pointing to issues we see, even if there isn’t something concrete we can yet point to. 
  • Lastly, there’s a lot of maybe implicit focus on casework in this post, and I want to reiterate that that is one part of what we do, but not all of it, and different aspects of what we do requires buy-in from different stakeholders.

Some more in-the-weeds thinking that also may be less precise.

Trust

It’s absolutely true that the trust we have with the community matters to doing parts of our work well (for other parts, it’s more dependent on trust with specific stakeholders), and the topic is definitely on my mind. I’ll say I don’t have any direct evidence that overall trust has gone down, though I see it as an extremely reasonable prior. I say this only because I think it’s the kind of thing that would be easy to have an information cascade about, where “everyone knows” that “everyone knows” that trust is being lost. Sometimes there’s surprising results, like that the “overall affect scores [to EA as a brand] haven't noticeably changed post FTX collapse.” There are some possibilities we’re considering about tracking this more directly.  

For me, I’m trying to balance trust being important with knowing that it’s normal to get some amount of criticism and trying not to be overreactive to that. For instance, in preparation for a specific project we might run, we did some temperature checking and getting takes on how people felt about our plan. 

I do want people to have a sense of what we actually do, what our work looks like, and how we think and approach things so that they can make informed decisions about how to update on what we say and do. We have some ideas for conveying those things, and are thinking about how to prioritize those ideas against putting our heads down and doing good work directly.
 

Thoughts on the suggestions for improving trust 

To say a bit about the ideas raised in light of things I’ve learned and thought about recently.
 

External people

Conscientious EAs are often keen to get external reviews from consultants on various parts of EA, which I really get and I think comes from an important place about not reinventing the wheel or thinking we’re oh so special. There are many situations in which that makes sense and would be helpful; I recently recommended an HR consultant to a group thinking of doing something HR-related. But my experience has been that it’s surprisingly hard to find professionals who can give advice about the set of things we’re trying to do, since they’re often mostly optimizing for one thing (like minimizing legal risk to a company, etc.) or just don’t have experience with what we’re trying to do. 

In the conversations I’ve had with HR consultants, ombudspeople, and an employment lawyer, I continually have it pointed out that what the Community Health team does doesn’t fall into any of those categories (because unlike HR, we work with organizations outside of CEA and also put more emphasis on protecting confidentiality, and unlike ombudspeople, we try more to act on the information we have). 

When I explain the difference, the external people I talk to extremely frequently say “oh, that sounds complicated" or "wow, that sounds hard”. So I just want to flag that getting external perspectives (something I’ve been working a bunch on recently) is harder than it might seem. There just isn’t much in the way of direct analogues of our work where there are already known best practices. A good version according to me might look more like talking to different people and trying to apply their thinking to an out-of-distribution situation, as well as being able to admit that we might be doing an unusual thing and the outside perspectives aren’t as helpful as I’d hope. 

If people have suggestions for external people it would be useful to talk to, feel free to let me know!

More updates

Appreciate the point about updating the community more often - this definitely seems really plausible. We were already planning some upcoming updates, so look out for those. Just to say something that it’s easy to lose track of, it’s often much easier to talk or answer questions 1:1 or in groups than publicly. Figuring out how to talk to many audiences at once takes a lot more thought and care. For example, readers of the Forum include established community members, new community members, journalists, and people who are none of the above. While conversations here can still be important, this isn’t the only venue for productive conversation, and it’s not always the best one. I want to empower people to feel free to chat with us about their questions, thoughts or perspectives on the team, for instance at conferences. This is part of why I set up two different office hours at the most recent EAG Bay Area.

It’s also worth saying that we have multiple stakeholders in addition to the community at large [for instance when we think about things like the AI space and whether there’s more we could be doing there, or epistemics work, or work with specific organizations and people where a community health lens is especially important], and a lot of important conversations happen with those stakeholders directly (or if not, that’s a different mistake we’re making), which won’t always be outwardly visible.

The other suggestions
Don’t have strong takes or thoughts to share right now, but thanks for the suggestions!

For what it’s worth, I’m interested in talking to community members about their perspective on the team [modulo time availability]. This already happens to some extent informally (and people are welcome to pass on feedback to me (directly or by form) or to the team (including anonymously)). When I went looking for people to talk to (somewhat casually/informally) to get feedback from people who had lost trust, I ended up getting relatively few responses, even anonymously. I don’t know if that’s because people felt uncomfortable or scared or upset, or just didn’t have the time or something else. So I want to reiterate that I’m interested in this.

Privacy

I wanted to say here that we’ve said for a while that we share information (that we get consent to share) about people with other organizations and parts of CEA [not saying you disagree, just wanted to clarify]. While I agree one could have concerns, overall I think this is a huge upside to our work. If it was hard to act on the information we have, we would be much more like therapists or ombudspeople, and my guess is that would hugely curtail the impact we could have. [This may not engage with the specifics you brought up, but I thought it might be good to convey my model].

Independence / spinning out

Just to add to my point about there still being a board, a director and funders in a world where we spin out, I’ll note that there are other potential creative solutions to gaining independence e.g. getting diverse funding, getting funding promises for more time in advance (like an endowment), and clever legal approaches such as those an ombudsperson I interviewed said they had. We haven’t yet looked into any of those in depth.

For what it’s worth, I think on the whole we’ve been able to act quite independently of CEA, but I acknowledge that that wouldn’t be legible from the outside. 

 In the conversations I’ve had with HR consultants, ombudspeople, and an employment lawyer, I continually have it pointed out that what the Community Health team does doesn’t fall into any of those categories (because unlike HR, we work with organizations outside of CEA and also put more emphasis on protecting confidentiality, and unlike ombudspeople, we try more to act on the information we have).

When I explain the difference, the external people I talk to extremely frequently say “oh, that sounds complicated" or "wow, that sounds hard”

I wonder if the external reaction suggests that CH may be asked to wear too many hats in a way that makes it more challenging to wear them with excellence. Learning that CH is sui generis --or at least very atypical when compared to other movements -- potentially suggests that other movements may have learned (through trial and error, most likely) that certain functions are better off separated than merged into one group of people. 

For instance, in the discussion of privacy, you suggest that a role "much more like therapists or ombudspeople" would "hugely curtail the impact we could have." I'm sure that is true for many aspects of CH's work, but it's not clear to me why it would be true for all aspects. As a society, we've decided that it is net positive for people to be able to receive certain kinds of help with very robust confidentiality protections -- hence we have priests, psychologists, and lawyers among others. With pretty limited exceptions, we have decided that when it comes to supporting people "who are dealing with personal or interpersonal problems," those support providers should not be able to use the information obtained for any other purpose. (In many but not all circumstances, the person seeking support can consent to other uses of the information.) 

As a practical matter, it's hard for people to fully "unhear" what they have heard. Whether in recognition of that practical reality, or to reassure people considering seeking help, we normally avoid putting people in both a role of help-provider and a role that would potentially require them to somehow evaluate the help-seeker, or put information they learned as a help-provider out of mind.

One usual approach for providing support in the broader community is to have an independent contractor providing Employee Assistance Program services, where nothing that the care-seeker said (or even their invocation of EAP assistance) can make its way back to the people who could even potentially take adverse action based on that information. I think that's probably the right track for some portion of CH's work -- it would be helpful to give people coming to CH for help with their own personal or interpersonal problems the option to receive support from someone who is strongly sealed off from any non-support-providing roles and functions.

I really appreciate this article. I think it's good to continually evaluate the structure and flows of things. But here's my problem, and probably it's because I don't have enough of a sense of how things flow amongst CEA and EV and other entities, maybe you could write more of how you see the energy flowing overall in EA and where these entities exist in that. People more aware probably find this article more helpful than me. 

From what I do know, here's how I see the flow; it appears that EA has a series of "funnels" or "channels" where people come in; the forum, university groups, virtual programs, EAG's, books, PR outreach, etc. and so these people flow in to EA through these various channels and then they decide to commit to giving money or to seek an EA job or 80K recommended job or charity job and become more an actual part of EA. 

So it seems to me that all the expansion of EA goes on beyond the funnels...more org's start, more org's expand and create more jobs and research contributions, more charities start...that expansion can go on forever, that's where the growth is...but the funnel remains the same. I think CEA is the funnel, they organize all the local groups, the Virtual Programs, the regional gatherings, the forum...that funnel will slowly grow and expand and adjust itself while the bigger EA world beyond the funnel continues to expand even more wildly. I think the Centre for Effective Altruism is a great name for the funnel. 

Of course the funnel doesn't control all the wild expansion of org's and charities, those each have their own visions and energies. The funnel just provides a stable front entrance anyone can easily find before they enter and go off in a million different directions. And for certain issues, like having a nurse station for EA's mind boo-boo's, or a principal's office to interdict bullies, it's good to have those by the front door, easy to find.

The issue with CEA "representing" EA in some way goes far deeper than the name. They curate and run: a conference called EA Global (the only major EA conference), effectivealtruism.org (including this forum), and other projects branded as Effective Altruism (not as the Centre for Effective Altruism).

In my opinion, this is fundamentally at tension with the stated position that "CEA, however, doesn’t appear to think of itself as the leader of the EA community". Unless they cede control of these major parts of EA infrastructure (which could include them continuing to own them but having some kind of democratic governance) then they will continue to be the de facto leaders of the movement.

I think there are a couple of things you're pointing out which are different issues than the one I'm trying to suggest a resolution to, or I disagree with.

1) I don't think CEA *is* 'the de facto leader' of the EA movement. So I find it problematic that branding/communication issues are leading to people in the community thinking that it is the case. 

2) I don't have an issue per se with CEA solely running EA Global or the forum, or doing other things - it's just that there needs to be a clearer understanding (through reiteration and visibility) within the community of what CEA is and is not. Sure, CEA may be disproportionately prominent (mostly through being visible) but at most that makes them one of leading organisations in the EA movement, not the leader. (also I assume when you mean the movement, you're talking about meta-EA or community building stuff, as I don't think you'd really endorse the idea that CEA is in charge of all of this?)

3) I think 

"Unless they cede control of these major parts of EA infrastructure then they will continue to be the de facto leaders of the movement". 

raises an interesting question/points to a weird way you think about leadership? I wouldn't consider the richest Americans/the Americans who own the most stuff to be the leaders of America. Maybe you're suggesting they control the movement or dictate what EA does, but I would suggest EA's main/only substantive funder, and the 5-20 individuals who decide where its money goes, fills that role, not CEA. 

I don't think I'm on board with all the 'democratise EA' cries which have been made over the past year, but I think I'm sentimentally in agreement with you about centralised control - and that it's not great that decision making, through funding, is currently monopolised.  

What I mean is that they have control over most of the things that get to define what EA means and what it contains. Eg: who attends and speaks at EAG, what content is on effectivealtruism.com, moderation policies on the forum.

The problem isn't branding or communication, CEA objectively have a large amount of power over the movement. I accept that "leader" might not be the correct choice of words, and that they're not exclusive in this role (as you observe, Open Phil similarly have a lot of power).

I'm also unconvinced that democratising is the way forward. But I think CEA either needs to take steps in this direction or stop making statements such as "we do not think of ourselves as having or wanting control over the EA community".

Hi Joshua, I think you're pointing at something important about CEA representing EA through programs like EAG and the Forum, and I want to acknowledge that that is something we do and that it's a responsibility we take seriously. (I work in the Exec Office at CEA.)

These two posts give more detail about our approach:

  1. Core EA Principles
  2. Moderation and Content Curation

My view is that our approach is consistent with not having or wanting control over the community, or being its de facto leader. Quite possibly you already agree with this based on your most recent comment above, but I wanted to share these resources in case you or other readers were not aware of them.

Thank you for those links. The decisions explained in the moderation and content curation policies are, in my view, extremely important and determine where a lot of EA discourse is. This happens either directly (eg: EAG speaking slots) or indirectly (eg: who gets filtered out when following EA intro materials). I do not think taking those decisions is compatiable with the idea that "we [CEA] do not think of ourselves as having or wanting control over the EA community".

I appreciate the transparency of those policies being written down. However, they are still policies that are largely dictated to the community (eg: relying on experts determined by CEA more heavily than EA surveys).

I wouldn't consider the richest Americans/the Americans who own the most stuff to be the leaders of America

The US federal government controls most US infrastructure, either directly or indirectly through regulation, and is generally considered to be leading America.

The US federal government controls most US infrastructure, either directly or indirectly through regulation, and is generally considered to be leading America.

Okay yes that's true, the government owns a lot of stuff. But aren't they considered 'the leader' because they were/ it was democratically elected to lead? 

I guess I should have more accurately said "I wouldn't consider the richest Americans/the Americans who own the most stuff to be the leaders of America solely because they own the most stuff". 

The Chinese government wasn't democratically elected, but they still are the leader of China, because they own/control most of the infrastructure. Elections are only important for becoming leader if they give you control over key infrastructure.

I agree that the richest individual Americans are not therefore the leaders of America, but that's because their power/control over key infrastructure is very small compared to the federal government.

They curate and run a conference called EA Global, effectivealtruism.org (including this forum)... Unless they cede control of these major parts of EA infrastructure... then they will continue to be the de facto leaders of the movement.

I don't think this is true, necessarily. They can run this infrastructure without leading the movement; for example, the website could be descriptive rather than prescriptive, and they could run the conferences just by renting event spaces and then inviting speakers from whichever orgs are the current thought leaders.

I agree in the abstract. However, I think in practice this is pretty hard to do, because there's a lot of subjective judgement in deciding how to describe a movement or who the current thought leaders are.

I'd be curious to hear your impression on where the Forum team is on the scale of "just running infrastructure" or "leading the movement."

I'd say more towards the former (unless there's a lot of moderation going on that I'm unaware of). The forum is largely self-regulating by the use of up/downvoting, which isn't possible in other avenues. There are obviously, and necessarily, some exceptions to this (eg: seperating out the community tag, the digest has a lot more curation).

Interesting note: we're about to get a new ED.[1] There’s a mandate for that new ED to come in with their own vision of what CEA should be. I have argued (weakly held) that CEA should either get a vision under the new ED of trying to do more coordination and leadership in the EA community, or should change its name.

One of the things that I like about the EA community is that it is decentralized, meaning there is no single person or entity who sets the direction of, or represents, the community (It’s like Sunni Islam in that way, rather than being like the Catholic Church, which is centrally controlled by the Vatican and the Pope).

Agreed.

Caveat: definitely not speaking for CEA.

  1. ^

    It looks like you’ve noticed. And I had forgotten that that post even references explicitly the possibility of changing CEA’s name.

Thanks for writing this, I've thought the same points several times, so glad it's summarized somewhere.

I like both these suggestions a lot. I just wonder if anyone can chime in if the CH Team might struggle to get NGO status without being part of CEA. I wonder what their altruistic mission statement would be summarized as?

Perhaps this is a silly question and NGO status is easier to get than I think.

The US at least is not too rigorous on the ends that a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt non-profit can pursue. To give you a sense of that: the National Football League used to be a 501(c) tax-exempt non-profit, albeit under 501(c)(6), until there was enough public outcry.

EVF's existing charitable purpose would presumably work for community health, maybe with some mild tweaks. It's not always correct to assume that a non-profit that runs programs A, B, C, and D could spin any of them off into their own non-profits. But it's generally so -- if A, B, C, and D weren't being run for a permissible tax-exempt charitable purpose, then the existing nonprofit probably had no legal basis to run them. 

I don't see any red flags for community health as a standalone entity. By red flags, I mean things that would be a problem if they constituted more than a minimal fraction of a non-profit's overall activities (like political lobbying), things that benefitted a very small number of people, or things that heavily benefitted corporate insiders, etc. 

It's plausible to me that the cost/benefit analysis might be different for different workloads in community health. Of course, splitting off some but not all CH workloads into another organization would be operationally challenging.

In response to footnote 8, I don't see the upside to any therapists or counselors being part of CEA, EVF, or an independent community health team. As a lawyer, there are rules I have to follow about who the client is to whom I owe loyalty (and I'm required to clearly communicate that if a non-client might think I may be representing them). I'm sure the same applies to other professionals as well.

 However, independent practice is common by therapists (i.e., the ops burden is not that high), it'd be inadvisible for the community health organization to bear malpractice risk that it could not effectively monitor, and community health / therapist entanglement could complicate some revenue streams (if the person receiving services has good insurance in the US, might as well bill that first).

More from Kaleem
Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities