(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 
- 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,. 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
(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)
“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...
- Running EA Global conferences and supporting community-organized EAGx conferences.
- Funding and advising hundreds of local effective altruism groups.
- Building and moderating the EA Forum, an online hub for discussing the ideas of effective altruism.
- Supporting community members through our community health team.”
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. 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.)
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.
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 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? 
- 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.
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.
- 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.
Not super urgently - I think this is probably a fine thing for a new ED to decide once one has been found.
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.
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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?”.
Except that one time. (this one
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.
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).