Evaluating Life Extension Advocacy Foundation

by emanuele ascani5 min read30th Sep 20207 comments

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World Optimization
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(Crossposted from the EA Forum)

Summary

In this post, I try to evaluate Life Extension Advocacy Foundation, and I flesh out interview questions to ask them. LEAF has many foci, including crowdfunding, conference organizing, investor advisement, social media advocacy, news, YouTube shows and a podcast, partnering with YouTubers and content creators such as Kurzgesagt and Life Noggin, creating useful resources on aging research, and advocating for policy change, including communication with international organizations, such as the World Health Organization.

I think that LEAF's ratio of donations to money-brought-to-the-field is high. This organization's most easily measurable impact comes from its crowdfunding campaigns, which have brought $384k to other organizations (with LEAF's fee accounted for). I estimated its collaboration with Kurzgesagt to have brought to LEAF at least $3k per month for a couple of years from donors who were previously oblivious to the aging-research cause.

Other important sources of impact are LEAF’s investor network, which has a great potential influence on their ratio, the capital and human resources that it brings to the field in ways that are difficult to quantify, their role in public education on the topic, and its influence on policy and international organizations such as WHO, which may drive faster adoption of new biotechnologies, increased funding, and better international decision-making.

I invite the reader to come up with questions or criticize the questions that I have proposed. Please use the comment section in the forum or private messages.

Introduction and Focuses

Life Extension Advocacy Foundation (LEAF) is an advocacy and crowdfunding organization founded in 2014. It is now the leading advocacy organization in the space of aging research. Its foci include:

Considerations on cost-effectiveness

One effect of advocacy is to multiply the value of donations by attracting more donations to the cause area of interest. It's not easy, given the evidence I have, to ascertain the full extent of this effect for LEAF. The money we would want to see multiplied are the monthly donations of lifespan.io's recurring campaign, the share it takes from crowdfunding campaigns (5% from successful campaigns for non-profits, 10% from successful campaigns for for-profits) and volunteer time converted into salary.

I've followed the growth of LEAF's recurring Lifespan Heroes campaign since it was started, and I’ve seen it spike after LEAF's collaboration with Kurzgesagt. If I remember correctly, the campaign was at around $3k per month, and in a period of a few weeks, it gained at least other $3k that probably wouldn't have been made otherwise, since the new donations were very probably coming from people completely unaware of LEAF's cause before watching Kurzgesagt's videos. Since then, the recurring campaign grew more, reaching around $8k. It would be useful to ask LEAF about its retention of donors and other ways in which the organization brings in donations (to itself or other organizations). If the $3k figure is correct, it should have brought in more than $72k from new sources (if the donor retention has been high, as I suspect). If I am correct, this would have allowed LEAF to grow, other than having had an impact through the videos. I will ask for more details about this in the interview.

The crowdfunding campaigns, all together, have brought more or less $384k (with fee accounted for) to nine organizations, seven of which are non-profits. I expect the total figure brought to the field to be significantly larger due to LEAF’s other activities. For example, its investor network may be having a large non-visible impact and could easily repay its recurring campaign multiple times.

Other unknowns are: In total, how much has been donated to LEAF through the recurring campaign so far? How much money donated to the crowdfunding campaigns would have been donated anyway to other organizations?

Less quantifiable sources of impact deriving from advocacy are:

  • The money it brings to the field that gets donated to other organizations, and for which it's impossible to establish that the cause has been LEAF's advocacy.
  • The attraction of human resources to aging research.
  • A more positive attitude towards biotechnology, which may drive policy and faster adoption of biotechnologies.
  • Influencing the decision making of organizations such as WHO, which may drive faster adoption of new biotechnologies, increased funds to aging research, and better international decision-making.

Impact of crowdfunding:

  • Each crowdfunding project should be evaluated on its own merits, although we can gauge if LEAF's decision making on what to crowdfund is good. So far, I can comment on the SENS projects that it financed, which I think were among the most effective pursued at SENS, and in the cause area in general (see my evaluation of SENS and my interview with Aubrey de Grey.)

Interview questions

Questions on decision making

How do you choose what projects to crowdfund? Is your decision-making process stable or potentially subject to change in the future? What kind of changes?

How do you choose what advocacy projects to undertake? Examples: YouTube videos, investor network, lobbying, etc.

Questions on LEAF's advocacy in general

What knowledge and behavior changes do you try to promote?

What evidence is available (especially academic evidence) regarding the likely impact of such changes in knowledge and behavior?

Have you tracked changes over time in knowledge and behavior? Have you tried to see whether these patterns point to your impact (i.e. if improvements are stronger in areas where your presence has been stronger)? Can you share this information?

Questions to gauge the ratio of donations to money brought to the field

How much money donated to crowdfunding campaigns do you think would have been donated anyway to other organizations?

How much has the recurring Lifespan Heroes campaign yielded in total?

How is your donor retention for the recurring Lifespan Heroes campaign?

How much of the recurring campaign earnings do you estimate to have come from people new to the field who have been recruited through advocacy (Example: after they watched Kurzgesagt videos).

From the Kurzgesagt videos alone, I estimate that you gained at least $3k per month, a figure that I suspect has been mostly retained for the last two years. In total, this should amount to more than $72k. This probably means you gained much more than what you spent for making the videos (which adds to the impact you had besides your gains). Am I correct? Can you share more precise data on how much you are in the black as a result of the Kurzgesagt collaborations and how they have contributed to your growth? How much of the money that you gained is due to relatively large contributions as opposed to small?

How many volunteer-hours do you use?

Are there other ways in which LEAF acquires donations, besides the recurring campaign and the share from the crowdfunding campaigns?

In what ways do you bring money in the space of aging research other than with the crowdfunding campaigns? And how much? What project has been the most effective so far at bringing money to the field?

How many new investors and how much new capital have you brought to the field through your investor network?

Many effects of advocacy might be large but not easily quantifiable. I expect you to have brought more talent and money to the field, contributed towards improving the attitude of the general public towards rejuvenation biotechnology (maybe even speeding up the future adoption of these technologies) and potentially influenced international decision making. How large do you think these less quantifiable effects are compared to the more quantifiable ones? Of all the effects that you have had that are not easily quantifiable, which do you think is the largest?

What policy changes do you claim partial (or full) credit for in the past? What was your role in advocating for these changes?

Funding gap

How much more money could you use? What would you do with that amount?

Have you ever had to shut down projects due to a lack of funding? What projects?

How things would look if you had all the funding you needed from the start?

General questions regarding the landscape of aging research

What do you think are the most impactful, tractable, and neglected areas in aging research?

Suggest or criticize questions

I invite the reader to come up with questions or criticize the questions I have proposed. Please use the comment section in the forum or private messages.

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7 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:19 PM
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Question: Does LEAF believe the funding of AgeMeter was a good idea looking back? If so, why? Do they believe the device will be used in studies? If not what did they learn?

This post doesn't really address the factors which I am most skeptical about (and would expect others to be most skeptical about).

I expect that the primary bottleneck to effectiveness of an advocacy/fundraising-focused aging foundation is not their effectiveness at attracting money or talent, but their effectiveness at directing that money or talent at the right questions. Identifying competent experts, without having some expertise in an area oneself, is hard. Large amounts of aging research don't really tell us anything, because they weren't asking useful questions from the start. It's a very high dimensional problem, so searching in the right direction is orders-of-magnitude more important than just throwing lots of resources at it.

(One example of a red flag: on lifespan.io's aging page they say "Deep learning is ideally suited to aging research, especially for tasks that require a high volume of data to be processed accurately; computers, unlike people, do not suffer bias and can consistently work to a high degree of accuracy at a far faster speed than we can." Whoever wrote that sentence very likely has no idea what they're talking about.)

You do mention:

So far, I can comment on the SENS projects that it financed, which I think were among the most effective pursued at SENS, and in the cause area in general

If we want to evaluate LEAF's effectiveness, I'd expect this sort of thing to be the central topic. We need to look at what projects they've funded, what questions those projects have posed/answered, and how central they are to advancing our understanding of aging. This is not something which can be done while remaining agnostic about technical details, and it will inherently require criticizing a lot of work done in the field. We have to take a position on which aging research is most useful. (And no, things like citation counts or researcher surveys are not a good way to do this - that will mostly measure researcher status, which is not a particularly reliable proxy for research usefulness in a field where most researchers don't even have a strong understanding of e.g. statistics and causality.)

That said... I'd make an exception here for policy advocacy. There, the goal is not to address the technical problems, but to create better incentives for anti-aging (e.g. by making "aging" a valid disease target for pharmaceuticals). That's a different goal, and work in that direction should be evaluated differently than directing resources to research.

That said... I'd make an exception here for policy advocacy.

When it comes to policy advocay it's important to be taken seriously by relevant stakeholders. I'm not sure to what extend lifespan.io is presently good at that. 

The framing of the "Lifespan Heroes"-campaign might be good for motivating people to donate but at the same time I expect any mainstream medicine person to have their crackpot radar triggered when looking over the website. 

When it comes to asking questions, it might be worth asking them for how they think about the tradeoffs between appearing serious and engaging people outside the medical field. 

This is an interesting comment, I think you bring up good points.

One reason why I didn't focus much on crowdfunding is that the money that goes in there is not really LEAF's, and it's just one among many focuses they have. If an EA decides to give money to LEAF (through the recurring campaign, or through a grant, for example) that money will probably not go to a crowdfunding campaign, and would probably not make much of an impact on how they decide who to crowdfund. It would go to their other projects. When donating to a campaign you donate to the specific org who benefits from the project of the campaign and not to LEAF. LEAF, unlike other orgs like Open Phil for example, doesn't make grants directly, but only organizes campaigns so that people can bring money to a project. 

You probably already knew all in the paragraph above, so: I think your point is correct. Where exactly they bring money by choosing who to finance is important in order to ascertain if the research which wouldn't otherwise have happened is actually making an impact (an impact at all, given the characteristics of this field, yes). A plus to them from my POV is that they seem internally sympathetic to SENS' approach (it's obvious by reading their introductory articles), although they also financed different approaches (one campaign is for a project involving NMN supplementation led by David Sinclair, a couple of others on biomarkers...). But I admit it's not much and a more detailed look would be ideal. For now, if you are more concerned about the science than YouTube/internet advocacy, policy influencing, etc. it is probably best to donate directly to orgs doing specific scientific research.

Not being able to evaluate much by looking at crowdfunding alone I followed the methodology of trying to gauge the ratio donations : money brought to the field, which I've seen used a lot for evaluating advocacy charities inside EA. 

Maybe we'll be able to ascertain their decision-making regarding crowdfunding better (although probably not a lot better) after the interview, since the first question is about that.


 

This post's title gives the idea that the post is about laying out a case for donating to LEAF. It seems like the purpose of the post is to solicit questions. For that purpose another title might work better. Reading this post I'm not clear of your relationship with LEAF.

Numbers about money raised don't mean much without context of the budget of LEAF itself.

In the past, I've donated to them and supported them in Project4Awesome, but I'm not inside the org. Basically, this is a post trying to evaluate it from an EA standpoint, in a similar way I did for SENS. Their budget should be the recurring campaign and single donations (which I don't expect to be much), the interview should probably make it clearer I hope.

Edit: the post is probably not very on topic for LW, but since I crossposted my analysis of aging research from an EA standpoint I wanted to put this here too for completeness.

I think your point was valid though, I changed the title to be less strong