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Announcing Effective Altruism Ventures

Today we’re launching Effective Altruism Ventures, a project of CEA’s Effective Altruism Outreach initiative. The goal of Effective Altruism Ventures is to test the theory that we can stimulate the creation of new high impact organizations by simply signaling that funding is available.

 

GiveWell has argued in multiple blog posts that interesting projects often do not appear until a major funder signals an interest in funding a project. This aligns with my experience running the Technology and Innovation department at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and with YCombinator’s recently announced Requests for Startups. We designed Effective Altruism Ventures to provide this signal for EA-aligned projects.

 

For Projects

New projects can apply and go through a systematic evaluation process (the details of which are available here). We will introduce projects that pass the evaluation to our network of individual and institutional funders and help find new funders if needed. We also provide strategic guidance, recruiting help and more. We are both cause-neutral and neutral on organization type (e.g. nonprofit, for-profit, benefit corporation etc.) Applications are rolling, but we devote more time to evaluations at set intervals throughout the year. The next evaluation sprint will be May 1, so interested projects should apply by then.

To get a better sense of our evaluation process and of Effective Altruism Ventures itself, we completed an evaluation of ourselves using the EA Ventures evaluation framework. You can read the evaluation here. The results of our evaluation indicate that there is insufficient evidence to recommend making donations directly to Effective Altruism Ventures at this time. This is consistent with our current plan of running the project on a volunteer basis for 3-6 months before fundraising to support operational costs.

For Funders

For funders Effective Altruism Ventures is a risk-free way of gaining access to higher quality projects. We will learn about your funding priorities and then introduce you to vetted projects that meet your priorities. If you don’t like a project you are free to decline to fund it. We simply ask that you provide us with your reasons so we can improve our evaluation procedure.


We also help improve funder coordination for new projects. This helps funders get a clearer sense of whether their funding is fungible with that of other EA funders.


Want to get involved?

If you’re interested in getting involved in Effective Altruism Ventures, we’re looking for the following:

  • Projects, especially those that are working in areas that are important, tractable and uncrowded.

  • Funders who are ideologically aligned with EA and are interested in seeing our deal flow.

  • Experts in fields of interest that are willing to help us evaluate projects.

  • Entrepreneurs without their own project, but who are interested in working on one of the projects we recommend.

  • Partners who have strong networks and want to work closely with us to evaluation projects, find funders and source new projects.

 

If you fall into one of the above groups and would like to chat more about Effective Altruism Ventures, feel free to schedule time to chat here or email me at kerry@eaventures.org.


Comments (38)

Comment author: Owen_Cotton-Barratt 27 February 2015 11:07:00PM 4 points [-]

I think there is an important (and contrary to your evaluation, not so crowded) opportunity here, and I'm glad EA Ventures is getting going.

Here's something which confuses me about your model. Perhaps you can clarify.

Your evaluation procedure seems to estimate how good projects are, and then reduce this to a binary fund / don't fund. How do you decide where this threshold is? For VC recommendations there's a natural threshold at things with expected returns better than market returns. Are you picking a baseline, so that you suggest funding precisely the things that you think are better uses of funds (in expectation) than common donation targets such as e.g. AMF? Or are you making a guess about the amount of funding you will attract, and choosing a threshold based on that? If the latter, wouldn't it be more helpful to just provide a ranked list?

Comment author: Owen_Cotton-Barratt 27 February 2015 11:10:08PM 3 points [-]

A related question:

When you recommend funding a project, will you recommend a funding level? Presumably many projects will at many points have diminishing expected returns on extra funding. Will EA Ventures be aiming to make judgements about this curve in its recommendations?

Comment author: Kerry_Vaughan 27 February 2015 11:26:21PM *  2 points [-]

Our threshold for funding is set at GiveWell-recommended charities. Namely, if we don't think a project is plausibly better than e.g. AMF we plan to not recommend the project.

This is because a pernicious failure mode for the project is that we move money away from good proven projects and towards bad, unproved projects. By only recommending projects that could (in expectation) be better than AMF, we can mitigate the pernicious failure mode.

In terms of funding level, we ask how much money the projects need and what they plan to do with it in the application. We also plan to ask about this in the future. The goal is to ensure that the projects have room for more funding. We don't plan to recommend specific funding levels, but I can see us doing this if donors would find it valuable.

Also, to clarify on the crowdedness of the project, I could see our uncrowdedness ranking improving as we learn more about the funding space. It's certainly plausible that the project will turn out to be uncrowded.

Comment author: Owen_Cotton-Barratt 28 February 2015 12:16:52AM 2 points [-]

Thanks. To be sure I'm reading that right: you mean projects that you think are better in expectation than AMF, or that you think someone might reasonably think is better in expectation than AMF?

I expect that if most/all of your recommendations get funded, it would be useful to have recommendations for the amount of funding until they are in expectation worse than AMF at the margin. If not all your recommendations get funded, it would be useful to have extra ranking between them. It may be that donors are happy making these judgements, but just as you are likely to have comparative advantage identifying the projects, you'll probably also be well placed to identify funding requirements or trade-offs between your recommendations.

Comment author: Kerry_Vaughan 28 February 2015 12:30:08AM 0 points [-]

Projects that the EAV team and expert evaluators think might be better in expectation than AMF. I used the other phrasing because we do two stages of evaluation. At the first, we discard projects that "are not plausible better in expectation than AMF" where that means that it is not plausible that further evidence will show the project to be more worth funding.

We should talk on Skype about how to accurately model the crossover point between when a project is better than AMF and worse than AMF given certain amounts of funding. I agree that this would be valuable, but I don't yet know how to determine this.

Comment author: tomstocker 05 March 2015 03:03:39PM 1 point [-]

This is a great initiative, and a helpful write - up. Thanks Kerry.

So you want to find ventures that are expected to be better than the most effective charity (or thereabouts) in the world?

I'm a bit worried that you will rule out many fantastically valuable ventures that may be discouraged or not stimulated from happening otherwise.

If these ventures were to use only EA funds or mainly EA funds, then that would be right.

However, if the ventures have a (lets say 10% chance) of growing out of the EA world and getting funding that wouldn't otherwise be attracted, and are only 1/5 as effective as AMF, but when they do they last for 40 years and wouldn't be done otherwise, then it could still be worth giving them?

Further, the learning from the process might be worth something significant if its a necessary barrier to becoming an uber-effectiveness incubator?

Obviously you want to take the highest expected value anyway so this might be an academic discussion.

Comment author: tomstocker 11 March 2015 01:09:47PM 1 point [-]

Haha, had a look at the people behind this - forget what I said - I'm sure that between all the funders/backers you've got more than enough learning to identify projects that are better than AMF. Good luck!

Comment author: RyanCarey 27 February 2015 10:35:49PM *  4 points [-]

I think you're selling yourself short by saying that EA Ventures is in a crowded area, and by saying that it does not deserve funding - to me, given the kinds of funds you could expect to move, it seems non-crazy to spend funds on EAV directly. And presumably this is already happening, with people like yourself and Tyler working for CEA while spending time on this project - something that should be supported and perhaps upscaled.

Comment author: Kerry_Vaughan 27 February 2015 11:30:43PM 1 point [-]

Thanks for the vote of confidence :-)

To be clear, I think it's entirely possible that it will make sense to ask for funds for EAV in the future. Right now, I think a) the evidence isn't strong enough and b) we can gain the evidence we need without spending donor money.

Comment author: Owen_Cotton-Barratt 28 February 2015 12:00:43AM 0 points [-]

Does this mean that you wouldn't recommend funding another project at a similar stage to EA Ventures, with a similarly robust case? It seems to me that it would be appropriate to fund it a small amount, in a similar way that you are in effect funding EA Ventures a small amount (with your time) to learn more. Are you planning to avoid funding at that scale?

Comment author: Kerry_Vaughan 28 February 2015 12:31:32AM 1 point [-]

I agree. If it didn't seem that EA Ventures could gather the evidence it needed absent money then I would probably be in favor of a small amount of funding to launch the project and gather data. Since the members of the founding team have funding elsewhere this wasn't necessary and no further funding seemed necessary.

Comment author: RyanCarey 27 February 2015 11:55:29PM 0 points [-]

Still, I wonder if funds could speed up EAV's growth and learning.

Comment author: Kerry_Vaughan 28 February 2015 12:32:55AM 1 point [-]

This may be the case if the number of applications we get exceeds our expectation and we need to pay people to help us evaluate them.

Comment author: Ben_Kuhn 27 February 2015 08:41:28PM 3 points [-]

GiveWell has argued in multiple blog posts that interesting projects often do not appear until a major funder signals an interest in funding a project. This aligns with my experience running the Technology and Innovation department at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and with YCombinator’s recently announced Requests for Startups. We designed Effective Altruism Ventures to provide this signal for EA-aligned projects.

...

Entrepreneurs without their own project, but who are interested in working on one of the projects we recommend.

Where are these recommendations? Do you have YC-style Request For Startups somewhere or something? I can't find them. "EA-aligned projects" doesn't seem like a very concrete signal (the suggestion "start an EA-aligned project" is a lot less actionable than e.g. "replace email" or whatever the new RFSs are).

Comment author: Kerry_Vaughan 27 February 2015 09:40:25PM 1 point [-]

We have a list of these projects that we've been circulating to interested people privately. After we've had a chance to add any additional funders on the basis of this blog post, we'll add the list projects we think are interesting and the list of projects funders think are interesting to the website.

Comment author: Ben_Kuhn 28 February 2015 03:00:10AM 0 points [-]

Cool, I look forward to seeing it.

Comment author: Ben_Kuhn 27 February 2015 08:39:46PM 3 points [-]

Congrats on launching! This is super interesting so I have a bunch of questions. I've split them up into multiple comments for ease of threading.

First, from your website:

We merge expert judgment with statistical models of project success. We used our expertise and the expertise of our advisers to determine a set of variables that is likely to be positively correlated with project success. We then utilize a multi-criteria decision analysis framework which provides context-sensitive weightings to several predictive variables. Our framework adjusts the weighting of variables to fit the context of the projects and adjusts the importance of feedback from different evaluators to fit their expertise.

How are the weights actually computed? How was the model fit? On what dataset? How does the score influence your recommendations?

Comment author: Kerry_Vaughan 27 February 2015 09:36:48PM 1 point [-]

I'm going to be posting the full equation on the website in the near future. It'll be easier to answer in-depth questions about the process after that has been posted.

The evaluation process includes an assessment of the importance of each characteristic to the project at hand which determines the weightings. So, if our raters assess persuasion as being particularly important to the project at hand, the weighting of persuasion in the overall score will be greater. This allows our weightings to be adaptable to the details of the project at hand. We also weight the assessment of the importance of a variable to the project by the expertise of the evaluater.

Right now, a good score in the evaluation process is necessary but not sufficient for a project to be funded. This is because I expect to significantly update the details of the evaluation process as we review our inaugural round of applicants.

Comment author: RyanCarey 28 February 2015 12:12:37AM *  2 points [-]

I imagine Ben would give robust criticism for this before or after it is posted. Presumably it's better for that to happen before?

I'm picturing a simple linear model that is based on arbitrary weights. I've not read the literature here but if this can improve decision-making (like fitted models, which certainly can) then it would be an impressive fact.

Comment author: Larks 28 February 2015 12:44:08AM 3 points [-]

We use simple linear models all the time in investment; they are actually quite good. Best of all they are robust. Like Owen I would love to discuss this.

Comment author: Larks 07 March 2015 04:23:38AM 2 points [-]

For example, today I was trying to predict some property of companies. I came up with 5 signals I can easily calculate which all capture some information about the underlying property, turned them into 5 binary indicators, and just added them together for a composite signal. No attempt at producing weights, but for various reasons I'm pretty happy with this approach, and I'm confident my boss would endorse it too if we went into details.

Comment author: RyanCarey 07 March 2015 10:31:02AM 0 points [-]

It looks like there's evidence for using them to predict continuous variables using continuous inputs, which might be your case. Also, if you're using it to supplement your personal decision-making, then on the face of it, that's more likely to work well than using it as a substitute.

http://effective-altruism.com/ea/fo/announcing_effective_altruism_ventures/2te

Comment author: Owen_Cotton-Barratt 28 February 2015 12:20:42AM 1 point [-]

I'd love to be a part of the discussion of this equation. I was just going to wait patiently but am speaking up in case it's taken to email. :)

Comment author: Kerry_Vaughan 28 February 2015 12:26:08AM 0 points [-]

If it's taken to email I'll include you on the list :-)

Comment author: Ben_Kuhn 28 February 2015 03:12:59AM 1 point [-]

I think it would be great to discuss it on the EA forum, both from the point of view of transparency, and because it's a much better medium for multi-threaded discussion. (But I understand if you'd rather keep it private if it's not very refined right now.)

Comment author: Kerry_Vaughan 28 February 2015 12:25:12AM 0 points [-]

The book linked to in the evaluation process page on the website suggests that a linear model where the sign is determined and the weights are random beats expert judgment.

Comment author: RyanCarey 28 February 2015 12:33:33AM *  0 points [-]

I can't get to the book. Is there any more information about the experiment?

Comment author: Kerry_Vaughan 28 February 2015 12:39:00AM 0 points [-]

You can read it here. The money pages are 63-64.

Comment author: RyanCarey 28 February 2015 01:12:37AM *  2 points [-]

Thanks. Looks like the original experiment is here.

Just looking at the abstract, it seems like the article is describing a situation where you have numerical inputs, which doesn't map perfectly to EA Ventures: "This article presents evidence that even such improper linear models are superior to clinical intuition when predicting a numerical criterion from numerical predictors."

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 28 February 2015 08:05:29AM *  1 point [-]

As someone who hasn't even yet completed an undergraduate degree, and hasn't been superb at networking opportunities, I'm not confident my network is great. Still, though, from getting involved in effective altruism and other intellectual circles, I've met an eclectic bunch of people. I'll suggest contacting EA Ventures, or submitting an application, to those running projects, and others I know. I intend to make suggestions at my own discretion of who I believe might be effective. I've read in full both the evaluation process EA Ventures will be using, and also it's own self-evaluation. So, I think I have a mental grasp on what heuristic criteria you're using, and I'll try thinking along those lines when pondering the potential of others I know. Honestly, I think I'll screen off most people in my network by the time I'm finished. Beyond that, I'm assuming EA Ventures will itself be able to determine whether someone I put in touch with it is a good fit for working with the organization in some capacity.

Questions

What would you qualify as expertise? And, what are your "fields of interest?"

Are you interested in existing projects which could produce value for a flourishing world, and do a lot more of it if they received funding from EA Ventures?

In finding entrepreneurs to work with, is EA Ventures looking for any particular qualities, interests, or aptitudes?

Are there any geographical limitations for whom EA Ventures can fund at this point?

Comment author: Kerry_Vaughan 01 March 2015 09:48:08PM 1 point [-]

What would you qualify as expertise? And, what are your "fields of interest?"

I don't know how to qualify experience. I think I'll know it when I see it. Fields of interest are anything important, uncrowded and tractable. Areas that we find particularly promising are animal rights, far future/existential risk projects and global poverty.

Are you interested in existing projects which could produce value for a flourishing world, and do a lot more of it if they received funding from EA Ventures?

Yes, but we focus on new projects or projects with only a little bit of traction. Established projects have their own funding mechanisms and networks, so we don't have as much value to add there.

In finding entrepreneurs to work with, is EA Ventures looking for any particular qualities, interests, or aptitudes?

We're looking for people who have outstanding skills along the attributes we mention in our team composition model. I would guess that the EA community is most scarce on persuasion but that's just a guess.

Are there any geographical limitations for whom EA Ventures can fund at this point?

No as such. Some funders may only be able to fund certain projects for tax reasons, but I think our network is vast enough to transcendent nationality.

Comment author: Ben_Kuhn 27 February 2015 08:49:55PM 1 point [-]

The results of our evaluation indicate that there is insufficient evidence to recommend making donations directly to Effective Altruism Ventures at this time. This is consistent with our current plan of running the project on a volunteer basis for 3-6 months before fundraising to support operational costs.

It seems to me that for many of the organizations you fund, if they wouldn't otherwise be funded by other people, a verdict of "wait for more evidence" will have approximately the same impact as a verdict of "do not fund." EAV seems somewhat special in that its founders' funders are aligned with their goals enough to be fine with them spending substantial time on the project. I hope you take this into account when making recommendations for other organizations.

Comment author: Kerry_Vaughan 27 February 2015 09:48:27PM 1 point [-]

I agree.

In cases where a project is promising but not yet ready to receive funding, we can define the conditions under which we might fund the project. For example, if a project lacks the necessary technical talent, but is otherwise promising we might provide this feedback in the evaluation. I think this kind of conditional feedback might make it significantly easier for the project to acquire the necessary talent because it comes with a strong likelihood of funding associated with it.

Over time we can also gain the necessary expertise to positively impact the plans of the entrepreneurs. In the way that 80K measures career plan changes, we might measure venture plan changes as an additional success metric.

Comment author: RyanCarey 27 February 2015 10:34:03PM *  3 points [-]

You need to specify how and when you're going to get the evidence. It's like if a doctor said "Wait for evidence of diabetes" and just left it at that. Instead, they specify whether they're going to a) do a test b) watch and wait, with scheduled follow-up c) do nothing. And that seems right for EA Ventures too. For startups, you can't really not reject them, not do a test and not follow-up.

Comment author: Kerry_Vaughan 27 February 2015 11:23:19PM 1 point [-]

I completely agree and this is basically our plan with respect to feedback for entrepreneurs.

Comment author: Ben_Kuhn 27 February 2015 08:41:35PM 0 points [-]

From the site:

We collaborate with value-aligned networks and funding bodies to source and syndicate proposals

What's the nature of your collaboration with YC and Full Circle?

Comment author: Kerry_Vaughan 27 February 2015 09:44:28PM 0 points [-]

In both cases we expect project sourcing to be the primary benefit of the collaboration. We plan to pass interesting projects along to YC and FC and vice-versa.

Comment author: Ben_Kuhn 28 February 2015 02:59:48AM 4 points [-]

What does it mean for YC to pass "interesting" projects on to you? Like, you guys are a row in their database of funders that they give to their portfolio companies? They refer nonprofits to you if they don't think they're a good fit for YC? Something in-between?