Epistemic status: Personal experience and anecdotes have led me to this bundle of weakly-held views, and I’m wondering what other people think. My experience is heavily biased towards the existential risk subculture of EA, so it’s possible that my criticism applies much less (or not at all) outside of that subculture.
I think the EA community is too reliant on personal connections in a number of ways. I think that many individuals and organizations would benefit (by their own lights) from taking steps to be less reliant on personal connections, and that such steps would also increase overall impact by supporting better ideas, increasing community health, and improving the community’s reputation among outsiders.
Evidence that EA is very reliant on personal connections
Many large donors (and donation advisors) do not take general applications. This includes Open Philanthropy (“In general, we expect to identify most giving opportunities via proactive searching and networking”), Longview, REG, CERR,
CLR, and the new Longtermism Fund. The 80,000 Hours job board does not take applications, saying, “Due to resource constraints, we are currently unable to process unsolicited requests to list vacancies on this board.” (Edit: It looks like they recently started taking applications.)
Compared to other communities, I think EA organizations and grantees are more likely to get funding from one of a small group of funders. Historical EA funding data is dominated by Open Philanthropy, Givewell, and (starting in 2022) FTX. Effective Altruism Data suggests that Founders Pledge might also be in this small dominant group. I don’t know how to compare this to other communities or research fields so I can’t really back up my claim with data, but I’d be interested if anyone has thoughts on this.
Compared to other communities, EA grantees and grantors share a higher number of personal and professional connections. I can’t figure out how to operationalize this and don’t have any sources, but it seems obvious to me. How many physicists live in a group house with their NSF grant evaluator? How many physicists have a part-time job making grants to their colleagues? Both of these things are common among employees of organizations in the EA community.
As a counterexample to my claim about the lack of applications, it’s important to note that some large EA-affiliated funders do take applications. For example, EA Funds, SFF, CLR, ACE, and FTX (though only once, and they “do not currently have any plans to resume accepting applications and do not know if or when we will do so”). Also, Givewell takes applications “for organizations [to] apply for a recommendation without receiving an invitation from GiveWell.”
Finally, 80k’s job board includes lots of jobs at organizations that don’t normally consider themselves part of the EA community, and also recently(?) started taking applications. I see both of these facts as evidence against EA overreliance on personal connections.
Why is overreliance on personal connections a problem?
The more reliant we are on personal connections to achieve our altruistic goals, the more we entangle the EA community with the EA project. Having an EA community is good, but the community is not identical to the project. Communities enforce certain norms and styles (any community that does not do so loses out on many of the benefits of being a community), and so necessarily exclude people who don’t want to follow those norms or who dislike that style. Furthermore, identifying the community with the project risks making people feel like once they leave the community, they might as well stop pursuing the project as well. Put another way, “I don’t feel like I belong in this community, so I guess I’m not meant to do [job/project/skill set that EAs consider impactful].” Other people have written about this; one example is If you're unhappy, consider leaving.
Close connections discourage criticism. Criticism of EA Criticism Contest addresses this in a few ways, especially the comments on The Judging Panel. I would add that (1) it’s harder to notice problems with the views of people you know and like, and (2) once you notice the problems it’s harder to express them because of social pressure to not be a jerk. (NegativeNuno is an admirable attempt to fix (2) by explicitly presenting an entirely new persona. I think the account’s existence supports my point.)
Overreliance on personal connections contributes to the EA community’s existing lack of diversity in terms of:
- Language: English as a dominant language in the movement: challenges and solutions
- Geography: Geographic diversity in EA, The most important century and the representativeness of EA, EA Survey 2020: Geography
- Race and ethnicity: Racial Demographics at Longtermist Organizations, 2019 Ethnic Diversity Community Survey
- Skills: EA needs outsiders with a greater diversity of skills (which also argues for the value of “outsiders” more generally)
The linked posts describe a huge variety of problems that are caused or exacerbated by this lack of diversity. There have also been posts discussing the strengths of diversity in general, for example: EA Diversity: Unpacking Pandora's Box, In diversity lies epistemic strength, and Why & How to Make Progress on Diversity & Inclusion in EA.
Overreliance on personal connections is not good preparation for scaling. At some point EA is going to be too big for personal connections to cover a significant portion of the movement, and leveraging personal connections will become less and less useful. As this happens, either (1) individuals relying on personal connections will become less and less effective, and/or (2) the community will fragment into subgroups small enough to be built on personal connections. I think both of these phenomena will be difficult to recognize from the individual’s point of view. Since the EA community is currently growing rapidly, we might already be experiencing these problems.
When we build our systems entirely out of personal trust, we are more vulnerable to having that trust taken advantage of. Several recent posts (I like this one) have addressed the potential for specifically the grantor-grantee trust relationship to be compromised by increasing the amount of money that is flowing. But grantor-grantee is not the only trust relationship that plays an important role in the EA community. Other important trust relationships include:
- Employer-employee: If I hire someone with whom I have a first- or second-degree personal connection, I can more quickly trust them to share my values, especially when it comes to high-stakes decisions with slow feedback loops. If employers get used to this, and build this assumption into how their organization is run, bad things can happen when someone without those values joins the organization. We can either suffer the problems with scaling I addressed in the previous paragraph, or we can build organizations that are able to succeed without the assumption of personal trust.
- Leader-member: I claim (with no evidence and based entirely on vibe) that, compared to leaders in other communities, people with high EA-community status are fewer degrees of separation away from the average EA community member. If I know [EA leader] personally, or know someone who knows [EA leader] personally, I am more likely to trust them to share my values when it comes to strategic decisions that affect my community (e.g. the Coordination Forum / Leaders Forum). Consequently the success and legitimacy of these leaders is overly reliant on personal connections. As the community grows, more people will lack personal connections with EA leaders. If we don’t have a system for establishing their legitimacy and authority that doesn’t rely so heavily on personal connections, the community will weaken as it grows.
Overreliance on personal connections can affect the EA community’s reputation in the outside world. People outside the movement look at EA, accurately see that it’s isolated and that they don’t know anyone in the community, and decide that EA must be flawed in some important way. I think “EA is a weird cult” is closely related to this. More on that in How EA is perceived is crucial to its future trajectory.
Grantmakers should take more open applications for funding, and publicize those applications in more places and to more (non-EA) communities.
For Hiring Managers
Hiring managers should post jobs in more places, and be less dismissive of “non-EA” applicants. To be clear, it’s OK to value “belief in the mission” in candidates. All non-profits (and many for-profits) want this! I’m not saying that we should stop caring about whether candidates and employees understand and care about their organization’s mission. The mistake is assuming that the only people who understand and believe in my organization’s mission are members of the effective altruism community. EA ideas don’t have to come in a complete package. People can believe that one organization’s mission is really valuable and important, for different reasons, coming from totally different values, and without also believing that a bunch of other EA organizations are similarly valuable. A great example of this can be found at A subjective account of what it's like to join an EA-aligned org without previous EA knowledge.
And a personal example: When I started working at BERI, I was not part of the EA community, but I did identify with EA values. In retrospect, I’d say I was part of the EA project but not part of the EA community. Now I’m part of both.
For Community Builders
As a community, we should try to build connections with other communities. Different segments of EA share values and interests with many other communities (e.g. development economics, public health, artificial intelligence, epidemiology, animal welfare) but I have a sense that EA ideas and efforts exist at the margins of each of those communities and are often not taken seriously. Community builders could actively work to bridge these social gaps. But instead of building community by wholly converting one person at a time into a card-carrying EA, build community one level up, by making connections between the EA community and other communities that partially overlap with us in terms of values and/or interests.
One more concrete idea here is to co-host events with other communities. And I don’t just mean EA Stanford co-hosting with EA Berkeley. Find communities that share some (but not all) of your values, interests, or goals, and co-host an event with them. Some good ideas at A Guide to Early Stage EA Group-Building at Liberal Arts Colleges.
You should have friends and professional connections outside of the EA community. Most of the problems I’ve described above only appear when members of the community tend to have very similar networks. Leaning on personal connections is a natural human tendency; if we diversify our connections, we can mitigate some of the problems that it can cause.
It’s OK for you to take a break from EA or to leave the community altogether. If you think this might be happening to you now or might happen to you in the future, I recommend Leaning into EA Disillusionment and the abovementioned If you're unhappy, consider leaving.
Summary, confidence levels, and conclusion
In this post, I tried to show that the EA community’s overreliance on personal connections is a problem.
I started by giving some evidence that EA is very reliant on personal connections. Ultimately this is the part of the post I’m least confident about, mainly because I don’t know how to easily compare with other communities.
Next I addressed why I think overreliance on personal connections is a problem: it discourages criticism, decreases diversity, prevents scaling, harms the community’s reputation, makes us more vulnerable to being taken advantage of, and wrongly identifies the community with the project. This is the section I’m most confident about: There exists a level of reliance on personal connections that is harmful, and these are some of the harms. I don’t know exactly where that level is or if this community has exceeded it.
Finally I talked about some solutions: ways that grantmakers, hiring managers, community builders, and other individuals can decrease the reliance on personal connections by themselves and by the community as a whole. These actions seem good to me, but I’m pretty sure they’re not the best solutions, and most of them could have negative impacts (on metrics unrelated to this post) which should be considered before acting.
None of this is unique to EA. While I think EA is particularly guilty of some of these issues, in general I could aim this criticism in any direction and hit someone guilty of it. But “everyone else does it” is not in and of itself a reason to accept it. We claim to be doing something really difficult and important, so we should try to be as good as possible.
Also, I think personal connections are great and we should continue to use them in pursuit of altruistic goals. EA is more fun when you do it with friends, and there are tons of reasons to think that use of personal connections will make us more successful as a project and as a community. I just think maybe we’re too far in that direction and we could benefit from toning it down a bit.
Throughout the post, I linked to many other Forum posts. Please don’t feel like you have to read 20 other posts before engaging; you can definitely just tell me why you think I’m wrong without following the links. I included the links because many parts of this post have been written in different ways elsewhere, and I wanted to recognize and point out those contributions.
This post is based heavily on personal experience, so I’m very interested in hearing about your experience with these topics. Thanks for reading.
Edited 2022-09-02: I originally include CLR on my list of grantmakers who do not take applications. This was incorrect: CLR takes general applications to the CLR Fund and would love to get more of them.
Edited 2022-09-09: I originally said that the 80,000 Job Board does not take applications for new job listings. This appears to have changed.
Thanks to Kyle Scott and Sofia Davis-Fogel for helpful discussion and review.
Per Chi's comment, CLR takes general applications to the CLR Fund and would love to get more of them! This was a mistake on my part.
And I think that claiming these are identical is close to claiming that everything EAs do is more effective than anything non-EAs do, which I think is very wrong.
Keeping in mind the excellent points from Let's not have a separate "community building" camp
This is important for other reasons too.