See https://github.com/vipulnaik/working-drafts/blob/master/eaf/my-somewhat-unusual-q4-2021-donation.md for the draft edit history of this post!
On Saturday, October 9, 2021, I made a donation that might be considered somewhat unusual: a $1,000 gift (along with overhead, this came to $1,004.99) to kfangurl, the blogger behind The Fangirl Verdict. This may come as a surprise, given my past donation history and my interest in effective altruism.
I thought I would write a little bit more about my thinking behind this donation, as well as more generally my personal thoughts on donations, hence this post. Nothing here is being presented as a recommendation for others to follow.
Sections of this post:
- Background on where I am with respect to donations
- Some background thinking motivating this donation
- The specific donee, amount, timing, and followup considerations
My financial state is at the point where I feel like I’ve accumulated enough savings to be comfortable considering time-sensitive donation opportunities — and also comfortable investigating potential opportunities — but not enough savings for me to be actively looking for ways to give it away. I also haven’t signed any pledges around giving, and in general I don’t feel any obligation to hit specific giving targets, but I do in general plan to continue accumulating money with the possibility of either donating it or using it to finance future activities with altruistic side-effects (such as quitting my job and trying something where I don’t get paid (much) but feel I’m directly helping the world more).
There are a number of “fallback” donation targets including the EA Funds and the GiveWell Maximum Impact Fund. If I had enough savings that I was actively looking to give it away (and here I am thinking of something in the range of millions of dollars, which would be enough to last me a lifetime and then some), my strategy would be something like this:
- Proactively investigate donation opportunities that are likely to beat the fallback donation targets.
- After exhausting those (either not finding any within a predetermined time limit, or meeting their funding gaps), donate the rest of the money to the fallback donation targets.
I am currently not at the level of savings where I’m actively looking to give it away. So, in particular, I won’t do step 2; I will limit my donation efforts to step 1. And even within step 1, my investigation’s “proactive” nature will be limited, because giving money away is not a priority. Moreover, I will give more priority to relatively time-sensitive donation opportunities, and not focus on other donation opportunities that I can revisit later when I have more money and more information. So it really boils down to just:
Investigate time-sensitive donation opportunities that are likely to beat the fallback donation targets, and make donations to them if I am moderately convinced of them.
I think of my Q1 2019 EA Hotel donation as being a donation of the above kind: a time-sensitive donation opportunity that, for the window of time-sensitivity, is likely to beat the fallback donation targets. I am planning to write a retrospective on it at some point; my preliminary retrospective assessment of that donation is positive.
A few notes on background thoughts that inform my views:
- My general impression of EA spaces is that they are not cash-constrained in the short- or medium-term, and the constraints are more on the side of finding productive uses of the money. The recent growth in wealth of Dustin Moskovitz as well as Jaan Tallinn’s wealth gains with crypto price increases further cement my belief. My impression is further cemented by the planned launch of the FTX Foundation to give away Sam Bankman-Fried’s and his friends’ crypto-derived wealth (I did not have that information at the time of making the donation that this post is about).
- For this and a variety of other reasons, I think the direct effect in terms of removing funding constraints, as well as the demonstration effects, of funding in the EA space, are not enough to make a compelling case for donating now. My decisions to donate are therefore more moved by the case for specific opportunities.
My general budget for donations as of now is a minimum of zero and a maximum of $1,000 per month, averaged over months. I also loosely set a minimum donation size of $1,000 to justify the overhead costs of decisionmaking. So for instance if I make one donation in six months it could be anywhere from $1,000 to $6,000.
I decided on this budget starting July 2021, and this is my first donation since then (though I have considered others). So as of the end of October 2021 I have spent aroound $1,000 out of a cumulative budget of $4,000.
I may make exceptions for some “good citizen” / signaling donations e.g. donating to an open source project or musician to fund their work, in lieu of purchasing it from them. I think of those more as gifts than donations. I don’t make those most of the time, but I do leave the door open for such things and wouldn’t count it in the bucket of donations.
One simple criterion is that the size of a “gift” usually won’t be more than three times the amount I would pay for buying the thing if I had to spend money to acquire it. For instance, if I would pay $10 for a book, and it’s being offered for free and has a tip jar, a donation of up to $30 would in my mind be classed as a “gift”. The key thing in my mind is that the justification is a Kantian/decision-theory/coordination-style thinking of “a world where a lot of people behaved like me things would be better” rather than “my donation in and of itself is making things better”.
The donation / gift distinction is important, because the particular donation that is the subject of this post might be thought of as a gift. And indeed, if the amount had been something like $30, I would consider it a gift. But an amount of $1,000 is well over three times my private willingness-to-pay for the work I am supporting, and therefore I think of it more in philanthropic terms (and it also has to correspondingly meet the standards applied to a donation, and count against the corresponding budget).
I have a qualitative picture of the way I want to see the world move, and one of the qualities that interest me is legibility: bringing the world more within our understanding. I even mooted the idea of sponsoring a Legibility Prize at some point, and if I did end up making one, I would probably retroactively declare this donation as being a Legibility Prize award.
A bit more background. I think a lot of public social efforts, particularly the ones that are more successful, are designed with perhaps ignoble goals in mind, including the goal to use manipulative tactics of persuasion, and methods that involve disrespecting the time and attention of people to further one’s interests. Sleazy online advertising is the most obvious example, but I also have in mind the proliferation of low-quality, average, uninsightful content slapped with lots of ads to “monetize” it well.
Some people and groups have fought these tendencies well, championing genuineness and true efforts to make the world more legible by shining light on it. I think LessWrong is great in its own way. I like how examine.com holds its guns against many other health websites by maintaining longer, more comprehensive pages rather than churning out lots of shorter, more sensationalistic pages cluttered with ads (as is the trend on other health sites). I liked how GiveWell bucked the received wisdom back in the late 2000s and published long, detailed reviews of its top charities to help truly inform donors.
While organizational and community efforts to share information and make the world more legible are valuable, so are the efforts of individuals, whether it is bloggers like gwern or Tim Urban or Scott Alexander. While I don’t necessarily agree with each of them in terms of style or viewpoint, I do think the sheer energy and depth they bring to helping break down the world is valuable.
One challenge that individuals face is that over time, they need to make money. Making public efforts toward legibility is great to get their name out to the world, but over time in order to raise ongoing funds, they need to bring more private production into the mix. In many cases, this leads to a decline in their public production. Rather than helping the world see more clearly, they’re now more focused on helping their patrons see more clearly.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For there to be a path starting out with public production and then getting a steady stream of income as a result of that, is itself a positive incentive to engage in public production in the first place. But in my view of the world it would be even better if people can stay funded to continue doing great work on legibility — helping the whole world see more clearly.
This brings me to The Fangirl Verdict and its sole author kfangurl; her real name is not secret information, but doesn’t seem mentioned as part of her public persona, so I will not use it either. There’s a great interview of her on Audible that goes in some detail on how she got started in this space. Remarkably, until the COVID-19 pandemic, this was just a side hobby for her that made her very little money; she had a full-time job. When the COVID-19 pandemic led to reduced work, she started thinking more about switching focus to the blog, and that meant looking for ways to monetize it.
First off, what’s so great about The Fangirl Verdict? Overall, I think her reviews (mostly of Korean dramas but also some other East Asian dramas) are really good, well above the standard not just of other Korean drama reviews, but of reviews in general. The writing structure follows a pyramid principle-like structure, making the reviews valuable for people looking for different levels of depth. Her reviews have innovated in several ways: for instance, lengthy sections in the review on each character and even pairs of characters, instead of the more traditional episode-by-episode recap. And a liberal use of bullet points.
She’s also championed several post formats; not just drama reviews but also “Dear kfangurl” replies where she expertly addresses a question using her wide-ranging knowledge of patterns across dramas.
Unlike many other drama review sites that I feel tend to flail as they try to monetize more aggressively, she’s been able to maintain quality while raising quantity in order to be able to make more money off the site.
I think the following:
- The world would be a better place if more reviewers tried to emulate the standards set by her. I wish more dramas had reviews similar in quality to hers.
- I’m fairly confident that the world is better off with her continuing to focus on The Fangirl Verdict than returning to her day job (though it ultimately would be her call). In particular, I don’t want her to prematurely give up because of challenges figuring out the monetization side of it (though if she got bored of the work itself it makes sense to stop doing it!).
- At the margin, I prefer that, even as she figures out ways to generate private output (such as subscriber-exclusive content) — and such content could be valuable in its own way — she continue to create a fair amount of public output, because I feel that that’s where the bulk of value creation lies. For this reason I want to push a little bit in the direction of no-strings-attached funding; such funding tugs in the direction of public production.
- I am reasonably confident that she’s on the path to figuring out the right sustainable monetization approach (that is consistent with a lot of public output), but that it’s not a no-brainer right now. So this money at the margin probably helps provide some much needed runway.
As previously mentioned, I generally aim for a minimum donation size of $1,000. In this case, I felt that this minimum donation size would provide a few additional weeks of runway, which would be enough both as a signal of confidence and in terms of making a meaningful difference in terms of kfangurl’s ability to figure out a long-term strategy.
Some reasons I didn’t donate more, that were more constraints from my side:
- I wanted to maintain a buffer for making other donations; there were some other donations I was still investigating at the time, though as of now it appears that I won’t be making them.
- Overall, since I wasn’t super-confident that this donation was needed, I wanted to choose a level low enough to be “no-regret” for me even if a retrospective revealed this to be a useless donation.
Some reasons I didn’t donate more, that were more based on my thinking about the impact on the donee (though I think these constraints were less binding than the constraints on my side):
- The donation comes with no string attached; I didn’t want to donate a much larger amount that might create a sense of obligation for kfangurl to continue doing this work even if she decided against it.
- Relatedly, I didn’t want to make a donation that was large enough to be distortionary to the process of figuring out the monetization strategy. That’s because I believe that figuring out the monetization strategy is key to the long-term sustainability of the endeavor — I don’t think donations/philanthropy of the sort I did make sense as a dominant source of funding in the long term.
I had been pondering this donation since September; I mooted the idea of the Legibility Prize back on September 22. Initially, I wanted to hold off on this because I was expecting to make other, larger donations that would use up my $1,000/month budget for a while.
By early October, I had decided that I either wouldn’t make the larger donations or would make them at a lower size than I had initially thought. This left some room for making the donation to kfangurl. The ultimate decision to donate was a sort-of-impulsive decision with all this information in the backdrop.
In light of the various considerations that led me to choose the donation amount, it’s relatively unlikely that I will make further donations to kfangurl. I would not rule it out, but I do not expect to privilege this donation target for consideration when thinking about future donations.
The donation amount is small enough that I do not feel obliged to write up a retrospective on it. I do, however, plan to continue monitoring the blog, something that’s made easier by the fact that I expect to continue to be interested in its content as a consumer. The success and the trajectory of The Fangirl Verdict in coming years will inform my thinking about such donations.