Should you donate to a fund-raising meta-charity?

I wrote this post a while ago. It assumes familiarity with effective altruismI thought it’s not good/timely/complete enough to go on http://effective-altruism.com/ but I thought that it should exist on some even more obscure corner of the internet so here it is… Ugh, I now feel I undersold it, I think it’s pretty good.

These charities became less appealing since I wrote this (Ruairí Donnelly left REG and he seemed to be the main person there, GWWC really merged with CEA) so now it’s more of an argument for EA charities to focus on fundraising for other charities, rather than argument for donating to these charities. Still I think you should donate to REG or TLYCS.

Arguments for

Multiplier

Firstly, I’ll lay out the basic case why everyone who donates should consider donating to these charities. According to their own calculations, for every $1 spent

  • Raising For Effective Giving (REG) raised $8 to various effective charities ($3.21 for MIRI, $1.37 for AMF, $0.81 for animal charities) (2015 report)
  • The Life You Can Save (TLYCS) raised $2.27 to AMF and $3.17 to their other top charities (2015 report)
  • Giving What We Can (GWWC) raised $6 to their top charities, estimated $104 if future donations were included[1] (2009-2014 report)

What is more:

  • People who were convinced to donate by these charities might donate in the future as well. This is especially relevant for GWWC. They tried to take this into account in their impact report by asking people how much would they have donated anyway and subtracting that amount from their calculations.
  • Created websites and articles might help in future years as well
  • Some people might have been influenced to donate but not reported their donations
  • People who were influenced by meta-charities might influence their friends and other people in a similar way.

Cooperation in prisoner’s dilemma

Let’s say charity META raises $0.70 to charity A and $0.70 to charity B for every $1 spent. Adam only cares about charity A, Betty cares only about charity B. If they both support their favourite charity directly, both charities get $1. If they cooperate and both donate to META, both charities get $1.40 and everyone is better off.

Adam donates to A Adam donates to META
Betty donates to B A gets $1, B gets $1 A gets $0.70, B gets $1.70
Betty donates to META A gets $1.70, B gets $0.70 A gets $1.40, B gets $1.40

It’s not necessary to find some person to cooperate with. Everyone who supports REG is already cooperating. The example I gave here is same as prisoner’s dilemma but in reality it’s n-person prisoner’s dilemma.

Cooperation under moral uncertainty

But I will go even further. Real pay-off of mutual cooperation for Adam is $1.40 + $1.40 * (probability that Betty is right) compared to simply $1 if everyone supported direct charities.

Many EAs are like Adam and Betty: they consider donations to charities outside their cause area/top choice to be almost worthless. I think such view is unreasonable. Smart people with similar moral values thought a lot about charity choice and came to different conclusions about which charity to support than you did. There is a good chance that they are right and you are wrong. If you donate to charities like REG, you’ll do lots of good even if you are wrong.

Some differences, however, are due to difference in moral values, not difference in predictions of consequences. But we can ask the same question here. If you had a pet chicken when growing up, maybe your views on farm animal importance vs. human importance would be different? If you experienced extreme pain in your childhood, maybe you’d be negative-leaning utilitarian too? Should you only maximise moral values of your current you, or of all possible versions of you (your personalised CEV, if you will)? If you think that some moral system is objectively correct, other smart people think that different system is the correct one. What if they are right? Giving to a meta charity like REG is more robustly positive from perspectives of different moral systems.

Arguments against

Counterfactuals

Many people who are hired by organisations like REG or GWWC would have probably done something else altruistic with their lives if they weren’t hired. For example, maybe instead of working full time in REG they would earn to give and in their free time would do some of the same things they are doing now. It would be great if employees and potential employees of meta charities could tell more how much of a factor this is.

Another similar consideration is: would people who were convinced to donate by meta charity would have made a similar donation even if that meta-charity didn’t existed? I don’t think it’s an issue for REG because it focuses its outreach on poker players and finance industry people who were previously uninvolved in EA for the most part. Even if they would have made donations, they almost certainly would have given to charities that are much less effective.[2] For GWWC and TLYCS it’s more complicated but I believe their reports (GWWC, TLYCS) do a good job of taking everything into account and are somewhat conservative. GWWC simply asks new members what percentage of their income they think they would have donated if they hadn’t joined GWWC and use that for their calculations.

Fungibility

REG is one of 4 projects by Effective Altruism Foundation (EAF). Purely theoretically, let’s say EAF wants to spend $100,000 on REG and the rest on other projects. EAF already has more than $100,000. Unless more than $100,000 of donations to EAF are restricted to REG, additional donation to REG might really fund EAF’s other projects. This is something to be mindful of when donating to any project that is under an umbrella organisation. I talked with someone from EAF and they said that this is not how they operate, that they look at restrictions as a vote on which projects should be expanded.

Time value of money

If you donate directly, money reaches charity now, while donating to meta charity postpones it. In some situations that could be important.

Room for more funding

I don’t think it’s an issue. Whenever I talk with employees of these organisations, they seem to have interesting plans how to expand, room for specialisation. There are loads of people who haven’t heard EA ideas. Not sure if there are enough people who are awesome at communicating them though.

Signalling

If you donate to AMF, it’s easier to convince other people to donate to AMF. If you are making such claim, you should try to honestly evaluate how much more money you raise a year because of your claim that you donate to AMF yourself. I think this should be calculated explicitly with numbers. What is more, if you donate to a REG, it’s easier to convince other people to donate to REG and that should also count for something.

Further reading

Notes

[1] Because of organisational changes at the Centre for Effective Altruism, you would be donating to CEA rather than GWWC and the money might be used for other effective altruism outreach projects as well.

[2] I believe that charities REG raises for are many orders of magnitude more effective than average charities people donate to. GiveWell reviewed lots of charities and think that the best one (AMF) is 10 times better than the 4th best one (GiveDirectly). Difference between GiveWell top charities and most charities people donate to is likely to be much higher, especially if they are local charities. Putting a lot of thought into donation is rare so there is less of uncertainty here than comparing between charities popular amongst EAs.

Subtopics I didn’t write about

  • Double counting of impact. If I convince another person to do 10 items of good then we both take credit for doing 10 items of good. This post is related. I don’t have clear thinking here
  • Why this is not an argument against donating to charity evaluators, 80,000 hours, EA movement building, etc. (I don’t remember why atm, maybe it is)
  • Cause indecisiveness – we don’t have to choose which cause is the best which has pros and cons.
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