Center for Applied Rationality — General Support (2020)

Image taken from a 2016 workshop. (Photo courtesy of CFAR.)

Grant investigator: Claire Zabel

This page was reviewed but not written by the grant investigator. CFAR staff also reviewed this page prior to publication.


Open Philanthropy recommended a grant of $375,000 to the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR) for general support.

CFAR is an adult education nonprofit that seeks to find and develop cognitive tools and to deliver these tools to promising individuals, groups, organizations, and networks focused on solving large and pressing problems. Our primary interest in these workshops is that we believe they introduce people to and/or strengthen their connections with the effective altruism (EA) community and way of thinking, which we hope results in people with outstanding potential pursuing more impactful career trajectories. CFAR is particularly interested in growing the talent pipeline for work on potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence (AI). More on our interest in supporting work along these lines is here.

This follows our January 2018 support and represents an “exit grant” that will provide CFAR with approximately one year of operating support.

Center for Applied Rationality — General Support (2018)

CFAR alumnus Kenzi Amodei addresses participants at a CFAR workshop. (Photo courtesy of CFAR)

Grant investigator: Nick Beckstead

This page was reviewed but not written by the grant investigator. CFAR staff also reviewed this page prior to publication.

The Open Philanthropy Project recommended a renewal grant of $1,000,000 over two years to the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR) for general support.

CFAR is an adult education nonprofit that seeks to find and develop cognitive tools and to deliver these tools to promising individuals, groups, organizations, and networks focused on solving large and pressing problems. Our primary interest in these workshops is that we believe they introduce people to and/or strengthen their connections with the effective altruism (EA) community and way of thinking, which we hope results in people with outstanding potential pursuing more impactful career trajectories. CFAR is particularly interested in growing the talent pipeline for work on potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence (AI). More on our interest in supporting work along these lines is here.

Since our 2016 funding recommendation, CFAR has largely met its milestones for organizational improvement. CFAR’s performance on this grant will be judged primarily in terms of whether it provides adequate evidence of its programs resulting in improved career trajectories of the sort described above.

Center for Applied Rationality — SPARC (2018)

Students at the Summer Program on Applied Rationality and Cognition in 2014. (Photo courtesy of SPARC)
Grant investigators: Nick Beckstead and Nicole Ross

This page was reviewed but not written by the grant investigators. CFAR staff also reviewed this page prior to publication.

The Open Philanthropy Project recommended a renewal grant of $560,000 over two years to the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR) to support the Summer Program on Applied Rationality and Cognition (SPARC). SPARC is a two-week summer program for top high school students to further develop skills related to applied reasoning, with a broad-ranging curriculum. We expect that this program will expand the horizons of some students with extremely high potential and, hopefully, increase their positive impact on the world. We are especially interested in the possibility that participation in SPARC leads to greater awareness of effective altruism and issues important to the effective altruism community.

To learn more about the SPARC program and our reasons for supporting it, see our 2016 grant page to CFAR.

Center for Applied Rationality — European Summer Program on Rationality

Grant investigator: Nick Beckstead
This page was reviewed but not written by the grant investigator. Center for Applied Rationality staff also reviewed this page prior to publication.

The Open Philanthropy Project recommended a grant of $340,000 over two years to the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR) to support its European Summer Program on Rationality (ESPR), a two-week summer workshop for about 40 mathematically gifted students aged 16-19. ESPR is partly modeled after CFAR’s Summer Program on Applied Rationality and Cognition (SPARC), which we have previously funded. The program teaches a curriculum that includes a variety of topics, usually connected to science, technology, engineering, and/or math. We are excited about this grant because we expect that ESPR will orient participants to problems that we believe to be high impact, and may lead them to increase their positive impact on the world.

Center for Applied Rationality — General Support

CFAR staff member Kenzi Amodei addresses participants at a CFAR workshop. (Photo courtesy of CFAR)

We decided to write about this grant in order to share our thinking about this grantee, as many of our supporters are familiar with the organization. This page is a summary of the reasoning behind our decision to recommend the grant; it was not written by the grant investigator(s).

Center for Applied Rationality staff reviewed this page prior to publication.


The Open Philanthropy Project recommended a grant of $1,035,000 over two years to the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR).

CFAR is an organization that runs workshops aimed at helping participants avoid known cognitive biases, form better mental habits, and thereby make better decisions. Our primary interest in these workshops is that we believe they introduce people to and/or strengthen their connections with the effective altruism (EA) community. CFAR is particularly interested in growing the talent pipeline for work on potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence (AI). More on our interest in supporting work along these lines is here.

$915,000 of this grant will support CFAR workshops and organizational improvements. $120,000 of this grant will fund a pilot version of EuroSPARC, an eight-day summer program in Europe run by CFAR for mathematically gifted high school students, modeled on the San Francisco-based Summer Program in Applied Rationality and Cognition (SPARC), which CFAR has helped run for the past three years. The Open Philanthropy Project previously made a separate grant to support SPARC’s operations in the U.S.

Based on discussions with CFAR staff and others connected to the organization, our impression is that CFAR’s management and operations are below the standards that we normally expect from our grantees. Despite that, we decided to make this grant primarily on the following grounds:

  • We see CFAR’s values and goals and broadly aligned with our own.
  • We believe CFAR has already had some success attracting and cultivating talented people to work on causes prioritized by the EA community, particularly potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence, which is one of our focus areas within the category of global catastrophic risks.
  • Creating more of this kind of successful pipeline-building seems to us to be a valuable goal.
  • Our understanding is also that funding is a substantial constraint for the organization at present, and that it believes it could use additional funding to address its organizational weaknesses.
  • We therefore hope that this grant will allow CFAR to become a better-run and more professional organization that can more effectively carry out its mission.

1. Background

This grant is one of a small number of grants we are making in 2016 to support organizations focused on expanding and supporting the effective altruism (EA) community. More on our interest in this space here.

2. About the grant

2.1 Proposed activities

The bulk of this grant is intended to allow CFAR to fund a variety of things related to organizational development, specifically:

  • Increasing salaries for existing staff, including implementing a variable pay scale
  • Hiring an executive assistant
  • Hiring a staff member dedicated to operations
  • Freeing up senior staff time by reducing the amount of time they spend on sales
  • Outsourcing accounting and other organizational services

CFAR also plans to use part of this grant to fund workshops aimed at introducing participants to EA, CFAR’s approaches to making better decisions, and the associated communities, with the goal that some participants will make career plan changes in order to increase the chance that they can have a large positive impact on the world. This could include deciding to work at organizations that focus on global catastrophic risk reduction, work for EA organizations, or work on other projects, for example as scientists or entrepreneurs.

We believe that this kind of pipeline-building work has the potential to be very beneficial, and we believe it is plausible that CFAR’s workshops are effective at it. Some examples of cases which we believe plausibly demonstrate this:

  • Conversations with CFAR and comments by Max Tegmark1 suggest to us that CFAR’s workshops played a significant role in the founding of the Future of Life Institute (which we have supported in 2015 and 2016).
  • CFAR’s MIRI Summer Fellows Program2 last summer appears to have been successful in recruiting researchers for the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI). At the time this grant decision was made, we found it difficult to evaluate the value of MIRI’s being able to recruit additional researchers, and guessed that it might be quite valuable. Having now completed an evaluation of MIRI, we now have a substantially lower estimate of the value of this activity, but are still quite unsure.
  • The founder of Wave3 (a startup that reduces the fees paid on remittances) describes CFAR as influential in the company’s success.4

The EuroSPARC portion of this grant will be used to cover program and travel expenses for 10 instructors and roughly 20 students for the eight-day EuroSPARC program this summer. The program will be free for participants and provide need-based travel support. Funds will also be used to compensate instructors for their time (including planning and preparation), and a portion of the budget is set aside to cover unanticipated expenses or otherwise go towards general support for CFAR.

2.2 Budget and room for more funding

CFAR plans to spend our two-year grant roughly as follows:

First year

  • $360,000 for organizational improvements
  • $100,000 for scholarships for CFAR workshops
  • $120,000 for EuroSPARC 2016
  • $47,500 for half the salary and benefits of a new staff member, whom CFAR expects to work half-time on support for CFAR’s operations and half-time on logistics for SPARC (the other half of the funding for this staff member will come from our separate, previous grant to SPARC)

Second year

  • $360,000 for organizational improvements
  • $47,500 for half the salary and benefits of a new staff member (see above)

Our understanding is that CFAR is unlikely to receive funding at this scale to implement organizational improvements from other donors, and that EuroSPARC would be unlikely to go ahead this year without our support.

Our impression is that CFAR has been relatively poorly funded in comparison with many other organizations in the EA community; for example, its 2015 winter fundraiser went relatively poorly and left it with a very small amount of reserves.

2.3 Risks and reservations

Our primary reservations about this grant are around CFAR’s strength as an organization. We have some doubts about CFAR’s management and operations, and we see CFAR as having made only limited improvements over the last two years, with the possible exception of running the MIRI Summer Fellows Program5 in 2015, which we understand to have been relatively successful at recruiting staff for MIRI.

We see a need for more people with experience in AI or machine learning to become involved with work on potential risks from advanced AI. However, we believe there is some risk that CFAR might end up mainly attracting people without such a background, and we are highly uncertain about the value of this.

2.4 Goals for the grant

By the end of the first year of this grant, we hope to observe:

  • Substantial improvements in CFAR’s organizational effectiveness.
  • CFAR alumni (who attribute some aspects of their decision-making, planning, or success to CFAR’s influence) engaged in highly impactful work.

In deciding whether to renew our grant at that point, we plan to assess whether CFAR has achieved a number of milestones that it set out,6 including:

  1. Publishing metrics of its impact (especially on significant plan changes by CFAR alumni).
  2. Improving its accounting and financial reports.
  3. Issuing quarterly updates to its supporters, quarterly financial reports to its board, and annual reviews and plans on its website.
  4. Improving its fundraising by, e.g., improving its donor database, cultivating relationships with top donors, and holding open house events for donors.

If CFAR has improved in these ways, we are likely to renew our grant for additional years and would consider supporting CFAR to scale up its operations.

We may also decide to continue our support if, alternatively, CFAR has other unanticipated achievements that we see as highly impactful.

2.5 Key questions for follow-up

  • Did CFAR effectively document plan changes attributable to CFAR among its alumni?
  • How many plan changes were there? Which were the most significant?
  • How impressive do we find the recipients of CFAR’s workshop scholarships? How likely would they have been to attend CFAR without the scholarships?
  • Did EuroSPARC attract a good group of students? Did the students enjoy the program? Do SPARC instructors believe that EuroSPARC was successful overall?
  • Did the MIRI Summer Fellows program and other efforts focused on potential risks from advanced AI lead to new hires at MIRI?
  • Do groups working on potential risks from advanced AI report hiring any new staff or finding new donors that were influenced by CFAR’s programs?

3. Our process

While investigating this grant, we had several conversations with Anna Salamon, as well as with various other contacts of ours in the EA community. Nick Beckstead was the primary investigator for this grant.

We are currently considering grants to some other organizations focused on effective altruism (more). The order and amounts of grants we make in this area will depend on a number of factors, including the order in which grants are considered and the timelines by which potential grantees need funding decisions. So we would encourage readers not to use our decision to make this grant (in isolation) to draw strong conclusions about the Open Philanthropy Project’s views and priorities regarding other organizations working in the area.

4. Sources

DOCUMENT SOURCE
CFAR 2015 fundraising page Source (archive)
CFAR Proposal (Redacted) Source
MIRI Summer Fellows program 2015 Source (archive)
Wave website Source (archive)
Wiblin 2016 Source (archive)

Center for Applied Rationality — SPARC

Students at the Summer Program on Applied Rationality and Cognition in 2014. (Photo courtesy of SPARC)

SPARC staff reviewed this page prior to publication.


The Open Philanthropy Project recommended a grant of $304,000 over two years ($137,000 in 2016 and $167,000 in 2017) to the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR) to support the Summer Program on Applied Rationality and Cognition (SPARC).

SPARC is a two-week summer program for high school students. Students selected to participate in the program typically show exceptional ability in mathematics, with many scoring highly among US participants in national or international math competitions.

Our decision to recommend this grant is based in large part on our positive opinions of several SPARC instructors, and on our positive impression of the program as a whole. We expect that this program will expand the horizons of some students with extremely high potential and, hopefully, increase their positive impact on the world. We are especially interested in the possibility that participation in SPARC leads to greater awareness of effective altruism and issues important to the effective altruism community, including potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence. We also expect that this grant will allow the people who currently attend to SPARC’s logistical needs – several of whom we believe do important other work – to spend more time on other projects.

1. Background

1.1 The cause

This is one of a small number of grants that we expect to make in 2016 to support organizations within the effective altruism (EA) community, as we wrote in our plan for 2016.

1.2 The organization

The Summer Program in Applied Rationality and Cognition (SPARC) is fiscally sponsored by the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR). SPARC has existed for three years and currently has no full-time dedicated staff. Key people involved in running the program include:

  • Paul Christiano – SPARC Program Manager and PhD candidate in computer science at UC Berkeley
  • Andrew Critch – Curriculum Consultant and Cofounder, CFAR; Research Fellow, Machine Intelligence Research Institute
  • Anna Salamon – Executive Director and Cofounder, CFAR
  • Jacob Steinhardt – Graduate student in artificial intelligence at Stanford University
  • Yan Zhang – Curriculum Consultant, CFAR; Morrey Visiting Assistant Professor of Mathematics at UC Berkeley

With the exception of Anna Salamon, none of these individuals are compensated for their work on SPARC. Ms. Salamon’s primary responsibility is CFAR rather than SPARC in particular, and our understanding is that she does not spend much more time on SPARC than the other instructors, who serve on a volunteer basis.

2. About the grant

2.1 Budget and room for more funding

SPARC’s total budget was approximately $90,000 in 2015.1 This grant will allow it to cover alumni events, travel reimbursement, unexpected contingencies, and some of the expenses associated with hiring a full-time logistics manager, as well as half of the salary and benefits for the new logistics manager, with the other half paid out of CFAR’s general budget. Our understanding is that the two years of support provided by this grant will be sufficient to enable SPARC to hire the new logistics manager and that a third year of support would not materially affect SPARC’s planning.

SPARC currently does not have a reserve fund of any kind. It is our understanding that this level of support will enable SPARC to hold in reserve donations from corporate sponsors, which it estimates will be in the low tens of thousands of dollars per year. It will also receive approximately $30,000 in both 2016 and 2017 from the Future of Life Institute (FLI) as part of a three-year grant FLI made to SPARC in 2015.2

SPARC has received some limited corporate funding in the past. Jacob Steinhardt leads SPARC’s corporate fundraising efforts. Mr. Steinhardt told us that, without our support, SPARC would not be able to pay for 50% of the expenses associated with a full-time logistics manager and that he would need to spend additional time fundraising to secure funding from other corporate sponsors to cover other costs, and would potentially not succeed in raising sufficient funding.

2.2 Case for the grant

SPARC has only existed for three years, and the students who participate are in high school, which makes it difficult for us to assess its impact to date. Nonetheless, based on our positive impressions of the instructors and on conversations with contacts of ours who are familiar with the camp, we believe the program is strong, with the potential to have a substantial impact. It is clear to us, based on the background of students accepted to the program in previous years, that SPARC attracts unusually talented students. In addition, we think very highly of several of the instructors who work at SPARC, some of whom also show strong interest in effective altruism. For these reasons, we think it is reasonable to expect that helping SPARC grow into a stronger program could lead to increased interest in effective altruism, and therefore in causes we are likely to support, among some of the most mathematically talented young people in the US.

2.3 Risks and reservations about this grant

Our primary reservation about this grant is that the new logistics staff member will work for and be managed by CFAR. We have some reservations about CFAR’s management capabilities, and therefore are somewhat concerned about how effective this staff member will be able to be.

3. Plans for learning and follow-up

3.1 Goals for the grant

We have several goals for this grant:

  1. Reducing the amount of time spent handling SPARC’s logistics by Mr. Steinhardt, Mr. Christiano, and other SPARC staff, allowing them to focus on other work.
  2. Helping SPARC to become better-organized.
  3. Allowing SPARC to hold additional events for its alumni, which we believe could increase the impact the program has on participants.
  4. Helping SPARC to become a more flexible organization by providing it with cash reserves.
  5. Building the capacity for future expansions of SPARC.
  6. Making SPARC less dependent on the current principal SPARC volunteers in the future.

3.2 Key questions for follow-up

We intend to follow up with SPARC about a number of key questions after the grant is made:

  1. Who was hired to fill the logistics manager role and how is this person performing?
  2. Who is managing the new staff member and is that management effective?
  3. What has SPARC been able to accomplish, that it might not have been able to before, due to the new logistics manager?
  4. How much time has the logistics manager saved the SPARC principals?
  5. What were the results of SPARC’s corporate fundraising efforts?

4. Our process

Nick Beckstead, our Program Officer for Scientific Research, spoke with members of SPARC’s staff regarding its program, finances, and future plans.

5. Sources

DOCUMENT SOURCE
FLI, 2015 Project Grants Recommended for Funding Source (archive)
SPARC, Statement of Finances Source