Tell LessWrong about your charitable donations

by ChrisHallquist 2 min read23rd Jan 201250 comments


When I was a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, I received a monthly living stipend of roughly $1,600. I decided to commit to giving ~10% of it to charity, and I had read in Peter Singer's book The Life You Can Save that one of the most efficient charities out there was Population Services International (PSI). Singer reported that GiveWell, a leading charity rating organization, had estimated that PSI's efforts saved lives at a cost of $650-$1000 each (pp. 88-89). So, I set up a recurring monthly donation of $160 to PSI, and kept it up for 15 months, for a total donation of $2,400.

I've been meaning to post the above information publicly for awhile, but was pushed over the edge by reading one of Eliezer's posts from a couple years back, Why Our Kind Can't Cooperate:

Let me tell you about a different annual fundraising appeal.  One that I ran, in fact; during the early years of a nonprofit organization that may not be named.  One difference was that the appeal was conducted over the Internet.  And another difference was that the audience was largely drawn from the atheist/libertarian/technophile/sf-fan/early-adopter/programmer/etc crowd.  (To point in the rough direction of an empirical cluster in personspace.  If you understood the phrase "empirical cluster in personspace" then you know who I'm talking about.)

I crafted the fundraising appeal with care.  By my nature I'm too proud to ask other people for help; but I've gotten over around 60% of that reluctance over the years.  The nonprofit needed money and was growing too slowly, so I put some force and poetry into that year's annual appeal.  I sent it out to several mailing lists that covered most of our potential support base.

And almost immediately, people started posting to the mailing lists about why they weren't going to donate.  Some of them raised basic questions about the nonprofit's philosophy and mission.  Others talked about their brilliant ideas for all the other sources that the nonprofit could get funding from, instead of them.  (They didn't volunteer to contact any of those sources themselves, they just had ideas for how we could do it.)

Now you might say, "Well, maybe your mission and philosophy did have basic problems - you wouldn't want to censor that discussion, would you?"

Hold on to that thought.

Because people were donating.  We started getting donations right away, via Paypal.  We even got congratulatory notes saying how the appeal had finally gotten them to start moving.  A donation of $111.11 was accompanied by a message saying, "I decided to give **** a little bit more.  One more hundred, one more ten, one more single, one more dime, and one more penny.  All may not be for one, but this one is trying to be for all."

But none of those donors posted their agreement to the mailing list.  Not one.

So far as any of those donors knew, they were alone.  And when they tuned in the next day, they discovered not thanks, but arguments for why they shouldn't have donated.  The criticisms, the justifications for not donating - only those were displayed proudly in the open.

As though the treasurer had finished his annual appeal, and everyone not making a pledge had proudly stood up to call out justifications for refusing; while those making pledges whispered them quietly, so that no one could hear.

Since Eliezer's post is about rationalists, he stresses the issue of what arguments people voice. However, we know that just telling other people that you've given to charity makes them more likely to give. This is a point that Singer himself has emphasized.

I propose a thread for people to publicize their charitable donations. In light of the above, I'm especially interested to hear from people who've donated to the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. Once I acquire a regular source of income again in March, I intend to continue to primarily direct my charitable giving towards PSI, but maybe someone in this thread will persuade me to start giving to the Singularity Institute.