Annual Review 2017
Last year was a very successful one: we collected around 5 million U.S. dollars for effective charities; kicked off a campaign for a national ballot initiative in Switzerland; spun off two projects, namely Sentience Politics and the Sentience Institute; launched a research project on wild-animal suffering; published a position paper on evidence-based development cooperation; held numerous workshops, seminars, and a major conference; and published several research papers.
In this annual review, we present our greatest achievements from 2017. We also take a critical look at our biggest mistakes and the lessons they taught us. This helps strengthen our learning process here at EAF and gives our supporters a transparent insight into our work. If you have any feedback or questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Strategic Focus and Vision
Following our change in executive management at the end of 2016, we announced in our outlook for 2017 that we would critically evaluate our current strategy and make any necessary adjustments. In this evaluation, we came to the conclusion that we had grown too fast without adequate long-term planning in some areas. We corrected this disorganized expansion course over the past year: While in 2016, we increased from around 12.5 to 25 full-time equivalents, we are now back at 18.5. Half of the decline in full-time equivalents is due to the spin-off of Sentience Politics (more on this below). For the coming year we have planned 14-19 full-time positions (see Our Plans for 2018), i. e. a slight reduction is to be expected again.
Despite the reduction in full-time equivalents, we were able to achieve results of a similar magnitude as in the previous year, as a smaller team has made it possible to coordinate and communicate more efficiently. The projects are also less scattered and focus more strongly on their main objectives. Moreover, since the change in executive management, our projects have been subject to less centralized control, making them much more agile than before. Decisions can now be made faster, which frees up additional resources.
Within the framework of this evaluation process, we have also decided to no longer see ourselves as a ‘think tank’, but rather as a ‘project incubator’—that is, we launch and run various projects that contribute to EAF’s vision. We may continue to draft policy papers if there are good opportunities to do so, but we do not expect many such opportunities to arise.
In connection with this, we have sharpened and reformulated our vision as follows:
EAF strives towards a world without extreme suffering—one that offers a fulfilling life for all sentient beings. We place special attention on steering the future away from dystopian outcomes (s-risks).
We have divided the activities that previously went under our “Outreach” label into two separate projects: Community and Philanthropy.
- effektiveraltruismus.de: This summer, we closed a gap in the German EA sphere by publishing a website dedicated to providing German introductions to the core concepts of Effective Altruism. Until then, there had been no such website apart from EAF’s home page. The new site consists of an easy-to-understand introduction with links to further resources. In addition to information for EA local groups and an introduction to ethical career choice, the site also offers the opportunity to donate to over 30 EA organizations, tax-free.
- EAGxBerlin: In October, we organized EAGxBerlin—the largest EA conference in continental Europe—for the second time in a row. 350 EAs and EA-interested parties attended the two-day conference. Compared to the previous year, we were able to significantly improve the quality of the event. Accordingly, we also received more positive feedback.
- Local groups support
- Introductory talks: We have offered all local groups in Germany to book and pay speakers for introductory EA talks during the current winter semester. Nearly a dozen local groups have so far taken advantage of this offer.
- Resources: We asked local groups what resources and support they were looking for, and then revised our website accordingly.
- Meetings: In May and October (lasting one and two days, with 40 and 25 participants, respectively), we organized EA group leader meetups with input talks and workshop sessions to discuss the goals and strategies for local EA groups. These meetings also helped establish better networking opportunities and communication channels between us and local groups and among groups.
- Cooperation with other EA organizations: We have strengthened our collaboration with the Center for Effective Altruism (CEA) and the Local Effective Altruism Network (LEAN) and announced it in the EA Forum.
- Further events
- Study foundation seminar: Stefan Torges, Max Daniel, and Jonas Vollmer conducted workshops at the ‘Effective Altruism’ seminar of the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes, Germany’s most prestigious scholarship for university students, with more than 120 participants. Alfredo Parra co-organized the event.
- TEDx talk: Stefan Torges gave a TEDx talk in Frankfurt about effective altruism. The official video will be available online soon.
- WRAI 2017: EAF supported MIRIxZürich’s workshop on Reliable Artificial Intelligence 2017, both financially and in terms of content.
- Media: In 2017 we continued to provide information about effective altruism in the largest and most renowned national media (Deutschlandfunk Kultur, SRF 2 Kultur, SRF 1, Spiegel Online).
Philanthropy (incl. Raising for Effective Giving)
The Philanthropy project includes all of our fundraising activities, including Raising for Effective Giving (REG), our tax-exempt donation service, and advice for major donors.
- Advice for major donors: Over the past year, we held numerous consultations that are expected to result in donations of around $10-20 million to effective charities in 2018.
Raising for Effective Giving
- Fundraising: We have thus far raised just over a million US dollars through REG in 2017. At the time of writing, there is also a Matching Challenge taking place which may as much as triple that figure. Stay tuned for more updates on this!
- Liv Boeree and Igor Kurganov WSOP Tag Team Event: The two REG co-founders won a team tournament as a pair at this year’s World Series of Poker (WSOP) and donated half of the $273,964 prize.
- Ben Pollak WSOP Final Table: Since its founding in 2014, REG has been represented by at least one player at the WSOP Final Table every year. This year, as in 2014, there were even two players with the REG patch at the table: Ben Pollak and Jack Sinclair. Sinclair finished the World Championship in 8th place, while Pollak finished 3rd and donated $105,000 of his prize money.
- Partnerships with the two largest online poker sites
- PokerStars: As part of a cooperation with REG at the two largest PokerStars online events (SCOOP & WCOOP), PokerStars donated approximately $230,000 to MIRI and FHI. In January we will be organizing a charity tournament with PokerStars in the Bahamas.
- 888poker: At its largest online events this year, 888poker donated a total of $90,000 to organizations recommended by GiveWell.
- REG ambassadors: We were able to win ten big names in the poker scene as official REG ambassadors.
- New website: The REG website received a makeover in mid-2017.
- Tax-exempt donations to international EA organizations: EAF provides tax-exempt donations to EA organizations in five countries: Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and the USA. In 2017, in addition to fundraising with REG, we were able to free more than a million US dollars in effective donations from taxes – more than ever before. Roughly 90% of these donations went to charities in the area of poverty reduction, about 5 percent to animal and environmental protection charities, and about 5 percent to research institutes in the area of AI security and meta-aid projects. We suspect that these tax savings have led to additional donations of more than $100,000 in 2017.
Foundational Research Institute
- S-risks: Last year we developed and introduced the concept of ‘Suffering Risks’, or S-Risks, as a class of dystopian future scenarios that involve vast amounts of suffering. We argue that preventing these risks should be given ethical priority, particularly in the area of emerging future technologies. Following a presentation by Max Daniel at the EAG conference in Boston, the topic received considerable attention within the EA movement, and s-risks and their potential implications have since been taken up by other organisations. The newly founded Global Priorities Institute at the University of Oxford recently included questions about the value of the long-term future and the risk of very undesirable futures in their research agenda and cited our work on the topic.
- Closer cooperation with other organizations and improved visibility: last year we intensified exchanges with organizations working on similar topics. Among other things, we visited the FHI and presented and discussed various research results. We also presented the results of our work in the Intelligent Agent Foundations Forum to make them available to other researchers and to obtain critical feedback.
- Existential risk workshop in Gothenburg: Kaj Sotala represented FRI in a workshop on existential risk organized by the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, and presented our findings to numerous researchers.
- MIRIx-Workshop in Zurich: Max Daniel attended the MIRIx-Workshop on Reliable AI 2017 and gave a lecture on the AI Safety Landscape.
- Other presentations: In addition to the S-Risk lecture by Max Daniel, Caspar Oesterheld and Johannes Treutlein gave talks at EAG and EAGx conferences on problems in decision theory and their relevance for EA research. Max Daniel also took part in a panel discussion with economist Robin Hanson on how progress in AI technology will change the world.
- Rapid AGI development: Kaj Sotala’s article How feasible is the rapid development of artificial superintelligence? was published in the journal Physica Scripta. It was soon thereafter named “Paper of the week” by the journal.
- Disjunctive Scenarios of Catastrophic AI Risk: Kaj Sotala authored a chapter for the book AI Safety and Security, edited by Roman Yampolskiy, due to be published in 2018.
- Tranquilism: Lukas Gloor published an article on the ethical value of subjective experiences and why reducing suffering should take precedence over creating happiness. The article is meant to serve as a foundation for future academic publications.
- Superrationality: Caspar Oesterheld published an extensive article on Multiverse-Wide Cooperation via Correlated Decision Making (AKA Multiverse-wide Superrationality or MSR). Lukas Gloor also published an introduction to the idea on the FRI blog and in the EA forum.
- Personal websites: Various FRI researchers have also regularly published shorter articles (that are not yet suitable for essay or article format) on their personal websites (Tobias Baumann on prioritization and S-Risk, Caspar Oesterheld and Johannes Treutlein on decision theory, Brian Tomasik on reducing suffering) and the newly launched FRI blog.
Sentience Politics, Sentience Institute, and Wild-Animal Suffering Research
Sentience Politics and Sentience Institute spin-offs
Early last year, we decided to abandon the internationalization of Sentience Politics that had begun in the second half of 2016. This meant a sharpened focus on the two core activities and strengths of the project—political initiatives and campaigns in Switzerland on the one hand, and strategic research for successful animal rights activism on the other. Consequently, we announced in June last year that Sentience Politics would be continued as two independent and autonomous projects:
Sentience Politics: Sentience Politics (SP) was launched as an EAF project in 2014 with the slogan ‘Politics for all sentient beings’. Over the subsequent three years, we launched two campaigns and five initiatives in the area of animal advocacy and anti-speciesism. A ballot initiative aimed at changing Switzerland’s constitution—considered a long-term goal since the project’s inception—was eventually achieved last year with the launch of SP’s initiative to abolish factory farming (Massentierhaltungsinitiative). Upon reaching this milestone, it became clear that the project’s political activities in Switzerland would have a greater chance of success if it were independent of SP’s animal advocacy research division, prompting a spin-off. Jonas Vollmer and Tobias Pulver continue to serve on the SP Board of Directors on a voluntary basis, and EAF also supports SP in administration, fundraising and legal matters.
In November of this year, as the project carried out a campaign for the vegan initiative in Zurich, it recorded its first major vote success: 60% of the voters were in favour of promoting environmentally friendly (and therefore animal-friendly) food by the city of Zurich. The collection of signatures for the factory farming initiative will begin in the spring of 2018.
Sentience Institute: The international branch of Sentience Politics, dedicated to research in the field of ‘Effective Animal Advocacy’, was continued as an independent organisation under the name of Sentience Institute (SI) by Kelly Witwicki and Jacy Reese. In order to guarantee a successful start, EAF has supported the SI with a grant of 60,000 US dollars. Among other things, the SI has since published a survey of views among leaders of effective animal rights organizations, a detailed survey of the US population’s attitudes to factory farming and meat alternatives, and a case study of lessons learned from the British anti-slavery movement.
Wild-Animal Suffering Research (WASR)
- Background: Until last year’s spin-off, research on wild-animal suffering was carried out under Sentience Politics. Since we considered this one of EAF’s strongest research niches, we decided to continue it as a side project under its own banner. The WASR project has had its own website since this summer and operates very independently within EAF compared to the other projects, both in terms of planning and financing.
- Objective: The WASR team conducts multidisciplinary research in the fields of ecology, biology and economics. The aim of this research is to identify policy proposals that reduce animal suffering in natural habitats.
- Publications: In the last six months, five papers have been published, research agendas have been compiled, and a blog with project updates and articles on important concepts has been launched.
- Outreach: Persis Eskander spoke at EAG London and EAGxBerlin about building a movement around wildlife suffering and presented her report Assessing Humanity’s Impact on Wild-Animal Suffering (WAS) through Human Appropriation of Net Primary Productivity (HANPP) at EAG London. In addition, Ozy Brennan participated in the 2017 Research Workshop on Effective Animal Advocacy organized by Animal Charity Evaluators.
- Publication of a policy paper on development cooperation: Our policy paper on evidence-based development cooperation was read by managers of development agencies in Germany and Switzerland and initiated an exchange with managers of the largest Swiss aid organisations, which receive a large part of Switzerland’s bilateral aid funds.
- Vision and strategy: With the help of workshops, strategy plans, and team retreats, we were able to achieve a more detailed common understanding of our goals and priorities within the EAF team, enabling all team members to act more autonomously and assume more responsibility.
Last year’s mistakes and lessons learned
All nonprofits make mistakes, but few of them are transparent, and most do not communicate openly about their mistakes and learning processes. EAF strives to be at the forefront here by talking openly about strengths and weaknesses in order to learn from our mistakes and help others avoid them. This also includes publicly acknowledging and communicating the mistakes made. The following is a summary of the most important errors and solutions we identified over the past year.
- Strategic planning: A first attempt at strategic planning in early 2017 failed in large parts. This was in large part due to the chosen approach being too comprehensive and rigid, and the responsible team members having retrospectively unrealistic and insufficiently pragmatic expectations. At the same time, too few meetings were organized to clarify key strategic issues. Based on this experience, we started a second, iterative process in late 2017, with smaller intermediate goals and more brainstorming and discussion meetings. This process is still running and thus far looks more promising than the previous round.
- Spin-off of Sentience Politics: Although we are very satisfied with the outcome—spinning one successful project into two successful new ones—the process itself had much room for improvement. The spin-off came about only after long periods of great uncertainty for both sides, and the talks were unnecessarily time-consuming and strenuous for everyone involved. In the future, we will more clearly define responsibilities and objectives well in advance, so that the discussions can be completed more efficiently.
- Communicating EAF’s strategy: Last year, we did not actively communicate EAF’s strategy, priorities, and ongoing projects to a sufficient degree. For example, although we completed an Outreach strategy plan in July and linked to it via our Transparency page, we failed to properly communicate this document to our supporters. At EAG conferences, we also discovered that many people were unaware of what projects belonged to EAF and why. We will increasingly communicate our strategic thinking next year, starting with this year’s review and a detailed article on our plans for 2018, which will also be shared on the EA Forum to gather critical feedback from the international EA community. In addition, we plan to publish further EA forum contributions and strategic plans, as well as using our regular updates to inform our supporters of not only activities and plans, but also their underlying considerations and priorities.
- Policy paper on development cooperation: Initially meant to be released in 2016, our poverty aid position paper was later announced (in December 2016) to be released in Q1 of 2017. The paper was eventually published in the second quarter of 2017. From this, we have learned to tackle fewer such side projects that do not fit clearly into the strategy of existing projects—even if these opportunities are particularly promising.
- REG strategy: We concluded in 2017 that the original REG poker model is difficult to apply to other industries, which prompted us to instead focus on new ideas. In hindsight, we think that there were actually enough data points available for us to have reached this conclusion a few months before the actual decision was made.
- FRI survey: In the first half of the year, we conducted a survey among FRI researchers on fundamental strategic issues, meant to help inform EAF’s prioritization. This survey was very extensive and required a great deal of time, and in retrospect, it’s not clear whether the benefits were proportionate to the costs. Nevertheless, the results were useful and the FRI expects to carry out further, less extensive surveys in the future.
- Internships: In the first half of the year, we hired several interns who we could not adequately supervise due to a lack of management resources. As a result, we offered significantly fewer internships in the second half of the year and concentrated more on the further development of our core activities. We will continue to pursue this approach in 2018.
- Financial planning: Due to the high complexity of our finances (four different currencies, tax exemption in five countries, large donations, and high support contributions to other EA organizations), EAF’s own funds were overestimated in July 2017, leading to overly optimistic financial planning. We corrected the mistake in August and have now permanently improved our planning systems.
- IT self-solution: In the fall of 2016, we commissioned an IT self-solution for a customer relationship management (CRM) system which we eventually rejected in the spring of 2017. We have since realized that we placed too much emphasis on some idiosyncratic functionalities in our initial evaluation of various options, causing us to decide against existing solutions and thereby costing us valuable time and money. Since then, we have adopted an existing solution in Pipedrive that meets our needs well.
- New office space: We initially considered what turned out to be an overly expensive proposal for the interior design of our new office. Despite having already sunk time and money into the plan, we eventually discarded it after other team members weighed in. We instead settled on a more frugal solution that has so far proved adequate for our needs.
We have discussed each of the mistakes we made last year in detail with the people involved and have taken concrete measures to avoid them in the future. In addition to the solutions already listed, we have developed and implemented new decision guidelines, redistributed some roles and responsibilities, and developed an evaluation process that will be implemented for the first time in 2018.
We hope this review provided some helpful insight into our progress, achievements, mistakes, and lessons learned over the past year. As always, we are grateful for all suggestions and critical feedback that might help improve our work. If you have any such inputs—including anonymously—please don’t hesitate to get in touch!
What’s next? Check out EAF’s plans for 2018.