At the end of 2018 (specifically, on December 22, 2018), I donated $3,000 USD with the following allocation:
- $2,000 to GiveWell for discretionary regranting to top charities, by check
- $500 to the $500,000 EA Donor Lottery by check, on behalf of Issa Rice. This means that, in the 0.1%-probability case that I win the lottery, he will choose the allocation of the funds
- $500 to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute by ACH, on behalf of Issa Rice. The donation qualified for donation double from Raising for Effective Giving’s Double Up Drive
This is my first set of normal charity donations since 2012, when I donated $500 to GiveDirectly. In this post, I describe:
- My reason for donating now, rather than earlier or later: Till now, I was first building up a saving buffer and then funding contract work heavily. With recent reduction in contract work spending and increase in income, I am better positioned to donate.
- My reason for choosing this amount to donate: It’s the minimum amount that is substantive yet unlikely to materially affect me; I would donate more if I saw more compelling opportunities, and want to keep a reserve that will allow me to donate more in the future
- The selection of recipients: For the money directly allocated by me, GiveWell top charities won as a default baseline because the alternatives were not yet compelling enough.
- My donation history page which provides a summary of my lifetime donations
- The page for my donations on the Donations list website (DLW)
- Issa Rice’s donation history page
My reason for donating now rather than earlier
After my last donation of $500 to GiveDirectly on December 24, 2012, my personal focus shifted toward building a good saving buffer and acquiring personal financial stability. For these reasons, I deferred donating, with the expectation that I might potentially donate larger amounts later, as I had done prior to 2012. You can see some related thoughts from me in a post to the Effective Altruists Facebook group in March 2014.
By 2015, I had a decent saving rate and I was quite interested in exploring philanthropic opportunities, but felt that, rather than directly allocate money to charity, I should invest more in getting a deeper understanding of various domains that might be relevant. This was part of the motivation for me spending a fair amount of money financing contract work, mostly by Issa Rice and Sebastian Sanchez, which picked up in 2016 and has been proceeding at a fairly steady pace since then. The total money I’ve paid for contract work since I started on it has been around $115,000. This is a significant amount of money that has taken precedence over donating money to charity.
A few weeks ago, while taking stock of my finances, I realized a few things:
- The amount of money I’m paying per month for contract work has reduced, partly because Issa Rice (one of the two main people working for me) is now working fewer hours for me and spending more time learning background math for AI safety research. This dovetails well with the fact that some of the projects he was working on with me have transitioned to maintenance mode where they don’t need many active hours from him.
- My income has increased somewhat, and I also realized some windfall gains from cryptocurrency price increases in 2017, which have put me in a somewhat better shape financially.
Together, these factors mean that I have a little more money available to donate to charity now than I did till recently.
My reason for choosing this amount to donate
My current financial situation is such that I could donate a reasonably large amount if I felt there was a compelling opportunity that I was uniquely suited to fund. Indeed, some of the contract work I’ve funded has fit that bill. Outside of the contract work I’ve directly funded, however, I have not yet found such opportunities. I have found a fair number of opportunities that meet some of the attributes, but most of them tend to get funded through other means, which is good for them and for me.
In the absence of compelling opportunities to fund, my default is to donate some minimum amount. Some reasons to keep my current donation to a minimum amount:
- The desire to keep funds available to spend on more compelling opportunities later, which could involve scaling up contract work (if it’s a project I can fund or direct) or donating to another person, project, or organization.
- The potential benefits of a larger financial buffer to support transitions to “direct work” careers in the future (though I don’t anticipate immediately making such a transition).
- The potential personal benefits of a larger financial buffer, outside of altruistic reasons.
To figure out the amount to donate, I used a few heuristics:
- It’s been 6 years since the last standard charity donation, and I feel like $500/year is a reasonable “minimum” — it is substantive enough but still small enough that it does not foreclose opportunities for me. Multiplying $500 by 6 gives $3,000.
- It also roughly works out to about 1% of my after-tax income for the 6 years, which is another way of seeing that it is nontrivial but still not enough to meaningfully impact me.
- The total amount that’s being donated is big enough that the financial transaction overhead doesn’t eat too much into it. This is another advantage of bunching across years.
The selection of recipients
For each of the years 2017 and 2018, I had given Issa the option of assigning $500 of my money to charitable causes of his choosing (with no strict requirement that these be recognized as charities). In 2017, Issa deferred the use of the money, so he had $1,000 to allocate.
Issa ultimately decided to allocate 50% of the $1,000 (i.e., $500) to the $500,000 EA Donor Lottery, and another 50% to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI). For the donor lottery, the understanding was that although the entry was under my name, Issa would make the decision as to how to allocate the winnings in the (0.1% probability) event that I win the lottery.
More of Issa’s reasoning can be found in the 2018 section of Issa’s donation history page.
Since my overall giving budget was $3,000, and $1,000 was to be determined by Issa, that left $2,000 to allocate. When thinking about this allocation, I considered a few different options.
- GiveWell top charities
- Effective Altruism Funds
- Interesting “rising stars”
GiveWell top charities
I’ve been observing GiveWell for quite some time. For a while, I’ve found their research quite good, but until a few years ago, I still had significant uncertainty around how well their top charities and their vetting process would stand up to the test of time. In the last few years, I’ve seen that the top charities seem to stand up quite well, the research process has continued to improve, and the funding cycle has a clear rhythm I can understand. I believe the problems that are being addressed by GiveWell top charities are large enough that there are few risks of room for more funding disappearing. I also think GiveWell’s approach to discretionary regranting is a good one.
Donating money to GiveWell for reallocation to top charities seems like a reasonable baseline choice. The question for me was whether there are better choices out there.
Effective Altruism Funds
I’ve been following the Effective Altruism Funds for a while, and in particular I’ve been keeping track of the grants they’ve been making. I am impressed with what I’ve seen so far, particularly from the Animal Welfare Fund, and I think the Meta Fund and the Long-Term Future Fund have also made some interesting grants.
However, I have a lot of uncertainty around how these funds will continue to operate over the years, and what sort of funding landscape they will be operating in. It could be the case that the money pouring into the funds significantly exceeds the amount of good places they can donate to. It could also be the case that we discover over the next year that the grants that seem good now turn out to be not so good, or even actively bad. Another source of uncertainty to me is how EA Funds will play with other financing initiatives like EA Grants: it could be the case that as EA Grants scales up, there are fewer of these interesting projects for EA Funds to fund.
I ultimately decided to watch the EA Funds (as well as the general landscape in which they operate) for a little longer before making a decision to donate to them.
Interesting “rising stars”
Some organizations start becoming donation targets in the effective altruism community after word of mouth from a few people. These could be:
- Organizations that have been around for a while and have no other direct connection to the movement, but that get picked up by a few people in the community. Examples: Tostan in 2016, StrongMinds (2016 to present), No Means No Worldwide. I thought a bit about donating in this space, but decided that these organizations have plenty of funding sources, and I also wasn’t convinced of the thoroughness of the evaluation of them.
- Organizations that started out from within the effective altruism community, and are still in a startup stage where they have enough funding to survive but maybe not enough to grow fast. Potential examples: AI Impacts,Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters, LessWrong 2.0. While I might have been interested in funding specific organizations in this reference class, none of the ones I know fit the bill for me; I believe the funding flowing to these organizations is adequate and the constraints hampering their growth are not primarily those of funding. However, this is just with my current state of knowledge; I’m keeping an eye on a lot of these and might change my mind about specific ones.
- Fledgling, not-quite-started organizations. Their very survival is unclear. At present, I don’t have a clear idea of which of them might be worth funding; the data I’ve seen didn’t point to a clear example of something that would be a compelling use of funds.
As you can see from the numerous links I’ve included above, I have (with help from Issa Rice) been collating a lot of donation information and discussion documents on the donations list website, and this has helped me get a sense of the landscape. I hope to continue to learn more and might find good opportunities.
The upshot is that GiveWell top charities “won” as the default baseline, and that’s where I ended up donating. But I also ended up making this donation smaller, opening the possibility for larger donations later.
I hope to continue working on projects like the Donations list website on my personal time and through contract work. I also hope to get a clearer picture of a number of things that might lead to more interesting donation decisions in the future.
Despite not finding anything immediately worthwhile or exciting to donate to, I did see a lot of potential opportunities. And in many cases, the limiting factor was that there were already many other donors who had snapped up the best opportunities. To me, this is a good problem to have :).