Essay contest: general considerations for evaluating small-scale giving opportunities ($300 for winning submission)



This is an announcement that Vipul Naik, Peter Hurford, and I are holding an essay contest to solicit general considerations on how to evaluate small-scale giving opportunities (for example, giving to an individual or a small organization).

While we don’t want to force a structure on the submissions, here are some things that could be covered:

  • The extent to which evaluating a small organization involves evaluating the people running it, and the role of personal knowledge of the people involved
  • How to go about doing funding gap calculations
  • How to go about thinking about counterfactuals
  • How to assess traction (what the individual or organization has achieved so far) and dream-size (what the individual or organization might be able to achieve given more resources)
  • How transparency and oversight work
  • Possible analogies with for-profits
  • Enumerating other systematic ways in which evaluating small-scale giving opportunities differs from evaluating larger giving opportunities

You are free to present advantages and disadvantages of giving to individuals and small organizations, if you think that will help explain the relevant considerations. However, for the purposes of this contest, we are interested in the considerations for choosing among the pool of individuals and small organizations once one has decided to give to someone or some organization in that pool.

We don’t have strict requirements on the format. It can read like a traditional essay, be some sort of taxonomy of considerations, be organized in a tabular format, be a blueprint of steps to go through to evaluate the individual or organization, etc.

Broadly, we believe small-scale giving opportunities can be attractive to effective altruists and we are interested in improving community epistemics on the subject. Including a full discussion of why small-scale giving opportunities can be attractive is outside the scope of this post, but we list some past and related discussions.

Submission process

To enter the contest, post a comment reply to this post, post a link to a webpage that contains the submission, or email Vipul at vipulnaik1@gmail.com. If you email Vipul with your submission, then by submitting you agree to let us reproduce the submission in a public venue (which we will do after the deadline).

Submitting a piece written before this contest is fine, but only if you want your submission to be considered as such.

The deadline for submissions is 12:00 PM (PST) on February 24, 2017. You may modify your submissions until the deadline. In case of substantive overlap between submissions, the earliest one gets preference. The evaluation committee (see § Judgment below) will announce the results within 7 days after the deadline.

There is no upper length limit on submissions. For a lower limit, see the note about “serious” submissions in § Judgment.


The prize is $300 for the one winning submission. In addition, there will be six $50 participation prizes.

The funding for the prize is split fifty-fifty between Vipul Naik and Peter Hurford.

A submission must be considered “serious” by the evaluation committee (see § Judgment below) to be eligible for the winning prize or participation prizes.

If you believe you will benefit from the essays submitted to the contest and would like to create a bigger incentive for higher-quality submissions, feel free to add to the prize; contact Vipul at vipulnaik1@gmail.com to do so.


The winner will be judged by an evaluation committee consisting of Vipul Naik, Peter Hurford, and myself (Issa Rice).

The judgment procedure is as follows: we will internally discuss the submissions to attempt to come to an agreement, and will aggregate votes using instant-runoff voting if an agreement cannot be made.

The judgment will happen within 7 days after the deadline for submission.

Members of the evaluation committee will not be submitting an essay to the contest.

If you use a traditional essay format, a “serious” submission is likely to be at least 500 words long, though we don’t impose a strict word limit. For the other possible formats, the number of words could be less.

Public and private feedback from others (upvotes, likes, comments, and so on) could help inform the evaluation process but the evaluation committee retains final discretion.

Vetting the funders

Vipul Naik spends tens of thousands of dollars on contract work and follows through on payments. (Disclosure: I work with Vipul.)

Peter Hurford has a donations log. He has also previously commissioned at least one project and has followed through on the payment.


The idea of holding an essay contest with a cash prize is not new. Even within the effective altruist/rationalist communities, we are aware of the following:

In addition, we are aware of the following examples of explicit offers of cash prizes in exchange for work in the same communities (our “participation prizes” are similar):

Comments (4)

Comment author: capybaralet 27 January 2017 02:31:26AM 3 points [-]

(cross posted on facebook):

I was thinking of applying... it's a question I'm quite interested in. The deadline is the same as ICML tho!

I had an idea I will mention here: funding pools: 1. You and your friends whose values and judgement you trust and who all have small-scale funding requests join together.
2. A potential donor evaluates one funding opportunity at random, and funds all or none of them on the basis of that evaluation. 3. You have now increased the ratio of funding / evaluation available to a potential donor by a factor of #projects 4. There is an incentive for you to NOT include people in your pool if you think their proposal is quite inferior to yours... however, you might be incentivized to include somewhat inferior proposals in order to reach a threshold where the combined funding opportunity is large enough to attract more potential donors.

Comment author: vipulnaik 28 January 2017 01:20:29AM 2 points [-]

Awesome, excited to see you flesh out your thinking and submit!

Comment author: DonyChristie 24 February 2017 08:04:23PM -1 points [-]

Here's my submission. :)

Comment author: vipulnaik 26 February 2017 02:10:09AM 0 points [-]

Hi Dony,

The submission doesn't qualify as serious, and was past the deadline. So we won't be considering it.