Tell LessWrong about your charitable donations

by ChrisHallquist2 min read23rd Jan 201250 comments


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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.

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50 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:19 AM
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I'm curious why you're still going with PSI rather than one more highly rated by GiveWell? I respect Peter Singer, but charity research is not what he does best (and his website recommends GiveWell's picks). This is a field that changes pretty quickly, and I don't think anyone should go indefinitely based on what Singer published in 2009.

I'll be making this year's donation ($5K) to Against Malaria Foundation. This is my post on that choice.

I buy my utilons from SIAI. $4531, about 10% of my net in 2011. I give for the main reasons you always hear: massive payoff, impending doom, trust in the management.

I buy my fuzzies from the following sources, around 1% of my 2011 net:

  • Wikipedia annual drive. I use WP all the time; it's an awesome idea with a pretty great execution.
  • EFF recurring monthly donation. Reading about violations of civil liberties in the tech world really riles me up.
  • Whenever someone asks for something -- a friend raising money for a marathon, a homeless guy, free software asking for a donation -- I give well. This costs a couple hundred dollars annually, i.e. not enough to even worry about.

I won't post amounts, but I have relatively recently donated money to:

Directly life-saving charities:

  • Schistosomiasis Control Initiative
  • Against Malaria Foundation

Research organizations:

  • Methuselah Foundation
  • Singularity Institute (during the HPMoR drive, I'll admit!)

Political / legal advocacy:

  • Software Freedom Law Center

I primarily donate to SI (~80%), but I also donate to whatever Givewell's top charity is at the time. Over the last year this has resulted in $150 to VillageReach and $300 to AMF and $1800 to SI.

Why SI? Primarily because I like the people who work there, and wish to signal to them that I am part of their community and that I believe in their mission, so they will like me in return. :)

But that reason is not likely to convince you if you've never met them -- instead, consider that the work they are doing is incredibly important, and they're probably the best-equipped and best-positioned team to execute on any plan like theirs.

I donate $1000 per month to SI, and I donated more than $30,000 to them over the last few years. I'm trying to push it up to about 20% of my gross income per year, on a salary smaller than Eliezer's. I outlined my reasons for choosing them in this post.

We have similar situations! When I was a grad student I decided I'd donate 10% of my gross income to charity once I got a job after graduation. I was also convinced by Peter Singer's work.

At the beginning of this financial year I donated $6,000 to Against Malaria Foundation. I'd allocated about 50 hours for research to find the best charity, but once I found GiveWell I only spent a few more hours looking further.

My initial plan was to donate to GiveWell directly, but I emailed and asked about their tax status. I told them that if they weren't tax deductible in Australia, I'd give them 30% less than I could give to their top-rated charity that was deductible (since that's what I'd get back from the deduction). They told me to donate directly to AMF, as they were adequately funded.

Later AMF emailed me back and apologised, saying they actually aren't tax deductible for individuals at the moment. I told them they then needed to give me back $1,800, or they could give it all back and I'd wait until they sorted the problem out. They chose the latter; I guess they expect it won't take long.

So currently I still haven't made a donation. If it gets to June and I still haven't heard from them, I'm not sure what I'll do. I might have to find the best tax-deductible charity and decide whether it's <30% less efficient than AMF.

This year, I donated $10 to GiveWell, $5 to Wikipedia, and $5 to President Obama's campaign. While I am a college student, I intend to increase my donations very soon as I get a better hold of my income and where I think my donations can be most effective.

I gave around $2000 to SI near the end of 2011.

$500 to Oxfam.

$50 to Ron Paul. (Libertarianism is not important to me, but it is important to the quality of life of someone I care about.)

$50 to Planned Parenthood.

... I was going to ask you "why Oxfam" and then noticed your user name.

Are there disadvantages to Oxfam? They looked pretty legitimate -- food, medicine, disaster relief, no history of fraud that I know of. Sort of the index fund of charities.

I'd still be surprised if their cost per human life saved is under $10,000. I suppose they aren't so bad in the scheme of megacharities, but your dollars have much greater marginal impact at a smaller, more focused charity. Or if you like the index fund strategy, then giving to GiveWell itself serves that purpose.

GiveWell views Oxfam as being worth further investigation, despite it being a mega-charity.

~$5k for life so far to Singularity Institute (and much more given back in time).

$10 to Seasteading Institute

$20 to Schistosomiasis Control Initiative

$50 to Village Reach

I give $40 per month to World Vision (have been for over 2 years now) and $30 per month to Modest Needs. Both are automatic deductions from my bank account, and right now nearly 10% of my monthly income. I will increase my amount of automatic deductions when I'm reliably working full-time (right now I work full time in summer, with my income far exceeding rent and other expenses, and then go back to part-time during the school year and often either barely break even or have to draw on my savings. Ideally I would like to give 10% of my income, which on a starting nurse's salary would be over $5000/year.

I am also thinking of ending my donation to World Vision and moving to Village Reach or another charity that is rated highly on GiveWell.

I have a £10/month standing order to the Open Rights Group, the main UK digital rights activism group. This is, admittedly, because they are in my direct interest.

I'm still in college so right now all my money is going towards school. When I finish I plan on donating everything I can. The charity I think is best right now is Schistosomiasis Control Initiative.

I intend to continue to primarily direct my charitable giving towards PSI

Why primarily? If it's best to send some of your donations there, wouldn't it be best to send all of them?

A common trait amongst humans is the desire to accumulate warm feelings. Optimizing for warm feelings is rarely accomplished by donating to a single charity.

Also, donating to several charities rather than only one offers a different array of signaling benefits.

I don't think he'd post on here in hopes of getting people to donate more so we can all get warm feelings.

I doubt posting here about donating to multiple charities signals anything good.

telling people they get warm feelings by donating to multiple charities is a good way to make more charitable donation happen.

True, but I don't think donations really do much if your goal isn't to do something. Better to donate $1 to the Fred Hollows foundation than to donate $10,000 to the Seeing Eye foundation. (The first gives cataract surgeries for one 20,000th the price the second gives guide dogs.) Also, that wouldn't explain why he implied he gives to multiple charities. It would only explain him suggesting to other people to do it.

(The first gives cataract surgeries for one 20,000th the price the second gives guide dogs.)

How is that the price ratio? Are the cataract doctors all volunteering their time? Are dogs astronomically more expensive than I think they are, or are there no volunteer seeing eye dog trainers to be had...?

The cataract doctors are in third-world countries where labor is cheap.

One could also look at it as hedging one's bets, just as one would (typically) not put all of one's money into one (boy is this getting confusing) stock in the market. Admittedly, charities aren't really the same type of risk.

Question for downvoters: I acknowledge that RobertLumley is making an incorrect point. However, is he so incorrect as to deserve this many downvotes?

I think I'm the victim of some kind of karmassassination here. All recent comments I've made, even largely upvoted ones have been wildly downvoted in the last hour for some reason.

(I've lost about 110 karma in the last hour, all of it on my last 10 or so comments, many of which hadn't been voted on for about a week.)

One wouldn't put all of one's money into one stock in the market because we have decreasing marginal utility towards money. If we didn't and all we wanted was the highest expected value (which is how we should optimize for charity), then we would put our money into the stock that is likeliest to make us the most money.

In other words, I don't want to have a minimum number of lives saved - I want to maximize the number of lives I save.

Perhaps I didn't express my point clearly enough. In fact, I'm certain of it. But I more trying to express that there is some element of risk in a charity. Perhaps there is a probability is corrupt, etc. and isn't as efficient as it's rated as. A better example is likely this:

Assuming it will succeed, the SIAI is pretty unarguably the most important charity in existence. But that's a huge assumption, and it makes some sense to hedge against that bet and distribute money to other charities as well.

But you have no reason to be risk averse about purely altruistically motivated donations. A 50% chance to do some good is just as altruistically desirable as a 100% chance to do half as much good (ignoring changes in marginal utility or including them in "X as much good").

I tend to agree with you. But many people are risk averse and would prefer the latter to the former, and I'm not necessarily sure you can say that's wrong per se; it's just a different utility function. What you can say is that that methodology leads to non Pareto-optimum results in some cases.

It's either "wrong" (irrational) or not purely altruistic. Of course even a just mostly altruistic donations can do a lot of good and should be encouraged rather than chastising the donors for being selfish or irrational, but that doesn't change the facts about what would constitute rational altruistic behavior.

This would not be a good time to hedge one's bets. I was largely asking to correct him if he did something wrong like that.

Part of me likes the idea of donating tens of dollars to the ACLU or similar cause as a symbolic gesture.

I once donated to ACLU. I now receive "final renewal" notices from them every month along with calls to action and other mail. I should calculate how much these cost them to create, print, and mail, so I can determine when they've spent my entire donation on marketing to me.

This post directly caused me to have a conversation about if I can afford to donate, wich might hopefully cause me to be allowed to start donating. Upvoted for making a difference.