Disclaimer: I’m somewhat nervous about posting this, for fear of down-voting on my first LW post, given that this post explicitly talks in a positive light about organisations that I have helped to set up. But I think that the topic is of interest to LW-ers, and I’m hoping to start a rational discussion. So here it goes…
Optimal philanthropy is a common discussion topic on LW. It’s also previously been discussed whether ‘meta-charities’ like GiveWell — that is, charities that attempt to move money to other charities, or assess the effectiveness of other charities — might end up themselves being excellent or even optimal giving opportunities.
Partly on the basis of the potentially high cost-effectiveness of meta-charity, I have co-founded two such charities: Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours. Both are now open to taking donations (info here for GWWC and here for 80k). In what follows I’ll explain why one might think of Giving What We Can or 80,000 Hours as a good giving opportunity. It’s of course very awkward to talk about the reasons in favour of donating to one’s own organization, and the risk of bias is obvious, so I’ll just briefly describe the basic argument, and then leave the rest for discussion. I hope I manage to give an honest picture, rather than just pitching my own favourite idea: we really want to do the most good that we can with marginal resources, so if LW members think that giving to meta-charity in general, or GWWC or 80k in particular, is a bad idea, that’s important for us to know. So please don’t be shy in raising comments, questions, or criticism. If you find yourself being critical, please try to suggest ways in which GWWC or 80k could either change its activities or provide more information such that your criticisms would be addressed.
What is Giving What We Can?
Giving What We Can encourages people to give more and to give more effectively to causes that fight poverty in the developing world. It encourages people to become a member of the organisation and pledge to give at least 10% of their income to the charities that best fight extreme poverty, and it provides information on its website about how people can give as cost-effectively as possible.
What is 80,000 Hours?
80,000 Hours provides evidence-based advice on careers aiming to make a difference, through its website and through on-one-one advice sessions. It encourages people to use their careers in an effective way to make the world a significantly better place, and aims to help its members to be more successful in their chosen careers. It provides a community and network for those convinced by its ideas.
What are the main differences between the two?
The primary differences are that 80,000 Hours focuses on how you should spend your time (especially which career you should choose), whereas Giving What We Can focuses on how you should spend your money. Giving What We Can is focused on global poverty, whereas 80,000 Hours is open to any plausibly high-impact cause.
Why should I give to either?
The basic idea is that each of the organisations generates a multiplier on one’s donations. By giving $1 to Giving What We Can to fundraise for the best global poverty charities, one ultimately moves significantly more than $1 to the best global poverty charities. By giving $1 to 80,000 Hours to improve the effectiveness of students’ career paths, one ultimately moves significantly more than $1’s worth of human and financial resources to a range of high-impact causes, including global poverty, animal welfare improvement, and existential risk mitigation.
How are you testing this?
Last March we did an impact assessment for Giving What We Can. Some more info is available here, and I can provide much more information, including the calculations, upon request. As of last March, we’d invested $170 000’s worth of volunteer time into Giving What We Can, and had moved $1.7 million to GiveWell or GWWC top-recommended development charities, and raised a further $68 million in pledged donations. Taking into account the facts that some proportion of this would have been given anyway, there will be some member attrition, and not all donations will go to the very best charities (and using data for all these factors when possible), we estimate that we had raised $8 in realised donations and $130 in future donations for every $1’s worth of volunteer time invested in Giving What We Can. We will continue with such impact assessments, most likely on an annual basis.
We have less data available for 80,000 Hours, but things seem if anything more promising. A preliminary investigation (data from 26 members, last May) suggested that the average member was pledging $1mn; 34% of were planning to donate to existential risk mitigation, 61% to global poverty reduction. Member recruitment currently stands at roughly one per day. 25% of our members state that their career has been ‘significantly changed’ by 80,000 Hours. A little more information is available here.
Why might I be unconvinced?
Here are a few considerations that I think are important (and of course that’s not to say there aren’t others).
First, the whole idea of meta-charity is new, and therefore not as robustly tested as other activities. Even if you find the idea of meta-charity compelling, you could plausibly reason that most compelling arguments to new and optimistic conclusions have been false in the past, an so on inductive grounds treat this one with suspicion.
Second, you might have a very high discount rate. Giving $1 to either GWWC or 80k generates benefits in the future. So working out its cost-effectiveness involves an estimate of how one should value future donations versus donations now. That’s a tricky question to answer, and if you have a high enough discount rate, then the investment won’t be worth it.
Third, you might just think that other organisations are better. You might think that other organisations are better at resource-generation (even if that’s not their declared aim). Or you might think that it’s better just to focus on more direct means of making an impact.
Finally, you might just have a prior against the idea that one can get a significant multiplier on one’s donations to top charities. (One might ask: if the idea of meta-charity is so good, why don’t many more meta-charities exist than currently do?) So you might need to see a lot more hard data (perhaps verified by independent sources) before being convinced.
I am skeptical of 80,000 hours and the general concept of "earning to give" because I suspect very few people will actually be able to execute this correctly. What tracking programs (if any) do you have to ensure that people actually follow up on their plans?
That being said, your cause seems a noble one and I wish you well.
I'm not surprised that people are doing this now, but I will be surprised if most of them are still doing it in five years, much less in the actual long term.
That being said, if the organization can maintain recruitment of new people, a lot of good will still be done even under this assumption.
Possible consideration: meta-charities like GWWC and 80k cause donations to causes that one might not think are particularly important. E.g. I think x-risk research is the highest value intervention, but most of the money moved by GWWC and 80k goes to global poverty or animal welfare interventions. So if the proportion of money moved to causes I cared about was small enough, or the meta-charity didn't multiply my money much anyway, then I should give directly (or start a new meta-charity in the area I care about).
A bigger possible problem would be if I took considerations like the poor meat eater problem to be true. In that case, donating to e.g. 80k would cause a lot of harm even though it would move a lot of money to animal welfare charities, because it causes so much to go to poverty relief, which I could think was a bad thing. It seems like there are probably a few other situations like this around.
Do you have figures on what the return to donation (or volunteer time) is for 80,000 hours? i.e. is it similar to GWWC's $138 of donations per $1 of time invested? It would be helpful to know so I could calculate how much I would expect to go to the various causes.
80k members give to a variety of causes. When we surveyed, 34% were intending to give to x-risk, and it seems fairly common for people who start thinking about effective altruism to ultimately think that x-risk mitigation is one of or the most important cause area. As for how this pans out with additional members, we'll have to wait and see. But I'd expect $1 to 80k to generate significantly more than $1's worth of value even for existential risk mitigation alone. It certainly has done so far.
We did a little bit of impact-assessment for 80k (again, with a sample of 26 members). When we did, the estimates were even more optimistic than for GWWC. But we'd like to get firmer data set before going public with any numbers.
Though I was deeply troubled by the poor meater problem for some time, I've come to the conclusion that it isn't that bad (for utilitarians - I think it's much worse for non-consequentialists, though I'm not sure).
The basic idea is as follows. If I save the life of someone in the developing world, almost all the benefit I produce is through compounding effects: I speed up technological progress by a tiny margin, giving us a little bit more time at the end of civil... (read more)
On (a). The argument for this is based on the first half of Bostrom's Astronomical Waste. In saving someone's life (or some other good economic investment), you move technological progress forward by a tiny amount. The benefit you produce is the difference you make at the end of civilisation, when there's much more at stake than there is now.
Why might I worry about the -10,000N figure? Well, first, the number you reference is the number of animals eaten in a lifetime by an American - the greatest per capita meat consumers in the world. I presume that the number is considerably smaller for those in developing countries, and there is considerably less reliance on factory farming.
Even assuming we were talking about American lives, is the suffering that an American causes 10,000 times as great as the happiness of their lives? Let's try a back of the... (read more)
I think that calculation makes sense and the -36 number looks about right. I had actually done a similar calculation a while ago and came up with a similar number. I suppose my guess of -10,000 was too hasty.
It may actually be a good deal higher than 36 depending on how much suffering fish and shellfish go through. This is harder to say because I don't understand the conditions in fish farms nearly as well as chicken farms.
This probably sounds horrible, but "saving human lives" in some contexts is an applause light. We should be able to think beyond that.
As a textbook example, saving Hitler's life in a specific moment of history of the alternate universe would create more harm than good. Regardless of how much or little money it would cost.
Even if we value all human lifes as intrinsically equal, we can still ask what will be the expected consequences of saving this specific human. Is he or she more likely to help other people, or perhaps to harm them? Because that is a multiplier of my intervention, and consequences of consequences of my actions are consequences of my actions, even when I am not aware of them.
Don't just tell me that I saved a hypothetical person from malaria. Tell me whether that person is likely to live a happy life and contribute to happy lives of their neighbors, or whether I have most likely provided another soldier for the next genocide.
Even in areas with frequent wars and human rights violations, curing malaria does more good than harm. (To prevent the status quo bias: Imagine healthy people suffering from the war or genocide. Would sending tons of malaria-infected mo... (read more)
Hansonian answer "Charity is not about helping"(Actually a quote from Gwern but Hansonian in spirit).
I wouldn't want to commit to an answer right now, but the Hansonian Hypothesis does make the right prediction in this case. If I'm directly helping, it's very clear that I have altruistic motives. But if I'm doing something much more indirect, then my motives become less clear. (E.g. if I go into finance in order to donate, I no longer look so different from people who go into finance in order to make money for themselves). So you could take the absence of meta-charity as evidence in favour of the Hansonian Hypothesis.
If I were to donate $1K right now, how would GWWC / 80k / etc. plan to use it? I'd also like to request the calculations.
By the way, thanks for the comments! Seeing as the post is getting positive feedback, I'm going to promote it to the main blog.
I recently sent in my membership for GWWC, and just got confirmation for the larger of my two donations for the year, and this article got me thinking:
The membership form asked me (iirc) what I expected to be donating before learning about GWWC and what I expect after joining GWWC. I filled in the "before" field based on historical behavior (~2% of income). But I think that was a wrong answer on my part -- the main thing that GWWC changed for me was the idea of 10% of income as the focal point. But since I decided to join a year ago, I've enco... (read more)
I've emailed Will a bunch of questions about 80K/GWWC and their need for funding - I'll post the answers in the Discussion section. (I have his permission to do this, and he seemed pretty enthusiastic about making the information public)
This is a really interesting issue, and it applies to any exceptional giving candidate, not just to meta-charities. In order to get exceptional value for money you need to (correctly) believe that you are smarter than the big donors - otherwise they'd already have funded whatever you're planning on funding to the point where the ... (read more)
And sensibly collecting obtainable data that could make a big difference for a decision. Making correct decisions with less data is harder, and so more taxing of epistemic rationality, but that difficulty means it's often instrumentally rational to avoid such difficulty.
My response was too long to be a comment so I've posted it here. Thanks all!
Did you know about Humanity United or other orgs for reducing human trafficking? http://www.forbes.com/sites/clareoconnor/2012/11/08/inside-ebay-billionaire-pierre-omidyars-battle-to-end-human-trafficking/
I'd be shocked if this were downvoted, as Lesswrong's affiliation with your charities is probably the best part of this website from a utilitarian standpoint.
So, I see that you use various sources to determine the optimal charity. Via GWWC, I found links to GiveWell's review via the site, and I notice that they post the results of their analysis next to each charity. Is your meta-analysis posted somewhere on your site as well?
If not, it should be, and more prominently featured! Your target audience are the type of people who would seek out a meta-charity,... (read more)
I'm interested to hear what you think is more important in terms of making a difference - the money or the job. Some jobs (teacher, social worker) which can have quite an impact can also have low salaries - teaching in particular is under political attack in the United States. Such jobs don't allow for as much donation to charity. On the other hand, there are jobs with high salaries (say, in the business and corporate world) which make a low or potentially negative impact, but have a larger salary which they could donate to charity.
There are of course... (read more)
I am compelled to point to a fundamental supply chain issue; intermediary drag. Simply stated, the greater the number of steps, the greater the overhead expense. While aggregators have some advantage on the purchasing side, they are an added expense on the distribution side in the vast majority of cases. If they enable some form of extended access, intermediaries may have a value, but the limited nature of charitable donations would make intermediaries an unlikely advantage.