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Peter_Hurford comments on Should EAs think twice before donating to GFI? - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 31 August 2017 09:03:31PM *  9 points [-]

Hi, I'm on the board of Animal Charity Evaluators and participated in some of the charity evaluation process. Here's a few of my own opinions. Note that this is not an official ACE response.

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The idea that a group with no discernible track record would ascend to top charity status seemed an unlikely proposition. However, the decision itself seemed to have some basis in GFI arising out of Mercy for Animals*, a group which is a regular beneficiary of top ACE status.

It's not truly the case that GFI has no track record. They have had a strong start and have had a few notable early successes, though unfortunately I believe some of their successes are not public information. For more, see the relevant section in the GFI review.

That being said, it is true that GFI has a weaker track record than other organizations. The seven criteria were meant to help us rank charities, they were never meant to be a "pass all seven or no recommendation" gate. Moreover, the criteria are not binary... it's possible that exceptional performance on some of the criteria could make up for weaknesses on other criteria.

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Some of the main considerations for making a funding decision about GFI would probably include factoring in such issues as diminishing returns, the funding gap (presently likely negligible),

ACE's analysis is that the Good Food Institute could productively use $3M to $3.5M in 2017 fundraising. That being said, this is not an exact science and productively using funding is also not a binary, so they certainly could excel with more.

My understanding was as of the time of the recommendation, there still was a gap of $500K-$1M, even after the $1M grant by OpenPhil. I do not believe this has been fully filled. Thus, I still think GFI represents a good use of funds.

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and the scenario of the Open Philanthropy Project (Open Phil) as the donor of last resort (unlikely to allow GFI to fall short when GFI likely advocate on behalf of investments for philanthropists who also support Open Phil).

I don't think OpenPhil operates that way, where they fully fund 100% of the organization to the point where the organization has no use of additional funds. They have written at length about how they balance their grants to specifically avoid being a donor of last resort (see here, here, and here).

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If we choose to work outside EA Funds and Open Phil, then it is reasonably the case that we need to find alternatives to GFI, so we could start to look at other groups that might fit our criteria.

You could consider other ACE top charities or standout charities. :) I think Mercy for Animals has the largest remaining funding gap right now (though that is my personal impression, not a careful or official analysis) among top charities.

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As part of this process, if we accept the claims made by GFI, then I would suggest there is little value to be found elsewhere in the ‘mainstream’ (ideologically reducetarian) animal movement.

I don't think this is true, as you do need to also build the demand for replacement meat products in addition to creating the supply.

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For a starting point, I would be most interested in the Food Empowerment Project, perhaps Encompass (new), and Better Eating International (also new). These groups wouldn’t represent a large funding opportunity, though a degree of funding will be required to help some of them develop further.

I'd be interested in more analysis here. I personally donated $10K to Better Eating International and have privately and personally analyzed their operations and found them to be a great start-up organization to support. I believe they still have room for more funding and could productively use more funds, and I'd personally encourage other people to donate to them. That being said, donating to them is more risky than donating to ACE top charities, as they've received less overall vetting and have much less of a track record.

I may personally write more about their activities in the future. It's also possible ACE may review them in the future, after they develop more of a track record.

I do not yet have opinions about the Food Empowerment Project or Encompass. I'd be curious to hear more. It's possible these organizations may be reviewed by ACE (I don't personally know).

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There is also a further option, that we consider whether EAs could prioritise meta-evaluation projects for ACE and other EA related groups.

I think this would also be a great idea. Donations to ACE could certainly be used for this purpose.

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Mercy for Animals has the appearance of a one stop shop for interventions. Where various interventions are constructed without a corresponding assessment of how they fit (or don’t fit) together.

MFA does do a lot of things, but from personal conversations with MFA staff I think they do have a very coherent and well-thought strategy for how they integrate all the different interventions.

Comment author: AviN 31 August 2017 09:43:47PM 2 points [-]

I don't think OpenPhil operates that way, where they fully fund 100% of the organization to the point where the organization has no use of additional funds. They have written at length about how they balance their grants to specifically avoid being a donor of last resort (see here, here, and here).

Here's some information I found a few months ago when trying to figure out the approach Open Phil takes with its recommendations to Good Ventures regarding funding gaps of its grant recipients. It's somewhat different than the approach that Open Phil / GiveWell takes with recommendations regarding funding gaps of GiveWell top charities.

In December 2015, Open Phil wrote regarding Open Phil grants: "In many cases, we find a funding gap we’d like to fill, and then we recommend filling the entire funding gap with a single grant. That doesn’t leave much scope for making a recommendation to individuals."

In March 2017, however, Open Phil wrote: "We typically avoid situations in which we provide >50% of an organization’s funding, so as to avoid creating a situation in which an organization’s total funding is 'fragile' as a result of being overly dependent on us. To avoid such situations, one approach we’ve sometimes taken is to fill the organization’s funding gap up to the point where we are matching all their other donors combined."

Similarly, in December 2016, Lewis Bollard, Farm Animal Welfare Program Officer at Open Phil wrote: "In April, we made a two-year $550K grant to CIWF, which filled much of its room for more funding at the time. I think it’s now likely ready to absorb more funds, and we’re limited in our ability to provide all of them by the public support test and a desire to avoid being the overwhelming funder of any group."

Comment author: KevinWatkinson  (EA Profile) 01 September 2017 12:46:40PM 1 point [-]

Hi Peter, thanks for those comments.

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I believe that one issue with thinking of the seven criteria as fairly rules based is that people can have an expectation the criteria will be met in relation to consistency and impartiality. I am not in favour of maintaining strict rules, though I think there are some potential negative consequences of not doing so that need to be taken into account. So in which circumstances would they be overlooked or minimised? I think it is fine to be open that it could happen, but it raises issues in relation to how other groups perform well, but wouldn’t get top status for less certain reasons. There are further problems with this in relation to how the process is viewed by potential groups taking part in the evaluation process, and by people who look upon recommendations as sufficient consideration. In this way, I think we need to take into account evaluation isn’t a particularly competitive area, and there aren’t many groups that do it.

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I reasonably believe the funding gap is presently fairly negligible at GFI (for example EA Funds are not very concerned about it, and already look for alternatives to GFI in that area), and I don’t think EAs generally ought to be funding groups in preparation for 2018. Once a group has had their funding requirements met then I think we probably ought to move onto other areas of interest. Though people can choose to do what they like, and if they believe donating now for next year is a good thing, then that is their choice, but I think there are other projects that are neglected today that need further consideration and resources. Also, if GFI receive more money today that could be a factor against them receiving top status next year, because their funding requirements are met over and above their needs. So if people think they benefit, or should benefit more than others then it may be more helpful to GFI not to receive more money now.

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I think it could be possible to second guess Open Phil. I like the considerations they put into different areas, but I have spoken to Holden Karnofsky and don’t feel there is any tangible process that ensures that checks and balances are applied. I think there are issues now with the funding that Open Phil engage in, and Holden doesn’t. It essentially seems to come down to the idea he thinks things are fine, rather than there being some form of system in place that can be pointed toward that would take care of this process. In some ways it reminds me of issues with too much red tape, it is the case there can be onerous criteria that start to limit efficiency and effectiveness, but at some point we find red tape exists for a reason. At the moment I think there aren’t enough checks and balances, others will be less inclined to think this is an issue where they are reasonably content with the overall pattern of how resources are distributed, and how that is encouraged by ACE and Open Phil.

In terms of the donor of last resort, Open Phil don’t announce who they are going to give to at the beginning of the year, but I would second guess at least some of their donations based on their ideological leanings (it is more explicit with EA Funds, in their section about why people may choose not to donate to EA funds). It could also just be better if they didn’t tell anyone who they are donating to at all. As a general matter there are some updates posted by ACE, but I don’t think this sufficiently takes into account what other groups / people are likely to do in relation to those top charities, or really considers diminishing returns.

So taking a couple of points “THL has already received more funding that we predicted they would be able to use this year (including their forthcoming grant money), Coman-Hidy hopes that THL can raise an additional $2.2 million–$2.7 million this year.”

MfA had raised $5m in five months. So I don’t think there is much reason to believe they wouldn’t hit $8.3m in twelve (including a budget increase of $1m over the previous year) so in relation to GFI, MfA and THL, i think many EAs ought to be looking at other areas. Whilst AE have continued to grow, though likely at a lower rate than if they had top charity status.

Whilst stated in one of the links you posted: “For the highest-value giving opportunities, we want to recommend that Good Ventures funds 100%. It is more important to us to ensure these opportunities are funded than to set incentives appropriately.”

I think there are few grounds to believe any of the top groups aren’t going to easily hit their targets, so I am most interested in what follows from that, and I think my main point here is that donor agency is something that can be quite different depending on where people stand in the organisational donor structure. The idea that Open Phil are building knowledge or funding groups to build knowledge is a good idea, like many of their ideas, but there isn’t much evidence they do this, at least not in the areas in which I am most interested.

Comment author: KevinWatkinson  (EA Profile) 01 September 2017 12:47:19PM *  1 point [-]

Continued.

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You could consider other ACE top charities or standout charities.

I think to be fair I did mention standout ACE charities the Non-human Rights project and Animal Ethics as considerations, so I left the door open with those groups, rather than to close it.

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I don't think this is true, as you do need to also build the demand for replacement meat products in addition to creating the supply.

In terms of building demand, I think this is true, but there are differences within animal advocacy and the relationship with marketing, differences which are rarely examined in depth. I think a fair amount of the contestation in the animal movement is created through neglecting this issue. Robert Grillo discussed some of these issues in his recent book Farm to Fable.

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In relation to Better Eating International, i’m thinking in terms of the criteria of needing x amount more money. I haven’t heard anything from them about further fundraising after the Kickstarter project. Though I haven’t asked either. As a group I personally like it, and supported the Kickstarter, but I am not sure they would presently meet the room for further funding criteria given they recently had a fundraiser which was oversubscribed. So where people are looking for opportunities this month, I wouldn’t prioritise BEI.

Where large donors are looking for opportunities it may be they would think about breaking down sums of money between smaller groups, but I’m not sure how much this happens or where (A Well Fed World seem to do some work here, but I don’t know what criteria they use, and I don’t think ideological differences are accounted for). In terms of Open Phil most of the announcements are for larger donations, so it isn’t clear how they manage smaller funding opportunities, or how they consider them / what resources they have to do that.

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I have quite a few opinions on the Food Empowerment Project as a group working more closely in relation to my own outlook. ACE interviewed lauren Ornelas fairly recently and covered some useful ground.

In terms of Encompass it looks like an interesting group, quite new and working in what I feel is an important area within the animal movement and the Effective Altruism movement. I have some concerns over the difference between how the large organisations operate and how that fits with grassroots organisations, and how this is represented within the advisory council. Yet I’m fairly confident this is an issue which is being taken into account. Aryenish Birdie discusses some points in this interview that I really liked (starts at 1.21.35). I also discuss some of the issues with larger non-profits and smaller grassroots groups here.

I also think it would be a good thing if ACE look at the organisations I mentioned in some depth, I think that would be useful and I would encourage all groups to be open to this process.

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In terms of meta-evaluation I would like to see ACE ring fence donations for a particular project with an accompanied plan. It’s true that money could be donated to ACE for it, but when I spoke with them it wasn’t on the table, and they’ve capped funding this year at $1m with further funds going to recommended charities. So I would be inclined to believe that people donating with this intention will find their money going to the other charities, whilst if the end of year fundraising is a matching opportunity I wouldn’t donate to ACE (if I were, and I’m not) until that point.

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From a deontological perspective I don’t find MfA’s current approach very convincing. I think it is possible to suggest it is an ideological difference, but I tend to view Effective Altruism as being more about applying EA principles and values, so we could say that each division at MfA is separate enough from the other, but I don’t think that is the case. In terms of how organisations function, the divisions which bring in more funding will arguably be valued differently, and the inconsistencies between different interventions aren’t well established. For example, the five freedoms and undercover investigations into the welfare systems MfA promote.

In a sense the reason why large non-profit groups are ‘pro-veg’ is part of this issue, in order to not disrupt the different work they tend to be doing, or the systems they are working in. There isn’t much in the way of criticial analysis around this approach from utilitarians from an EA perspective, which would have to take deontology into account. This is part of the reason I say groups don’t tend to do their counterfactuals. I think partly because we don’t find many deontologists in EA anyway, and most of the people EAs talk to are other utilitarians and so there isn’t much discussion about rights based approaches. The other issue is that many utilitarians tend to say they now do rights based advocacy through ends justify the means thinking, and this marginalises deontology, generally in a way that utilitarians haven’t really considered. At least not that I have seen so far.

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 01 September 2017 03:49:43PM 0 points [-]

I believe that one issue with thinking of the seven criteria as fairly rules based is that people can have an expectation the criteria will be met in relation to consistency and impartiality. I am not in favour of maintaining strict rules, though I think there are some potential negative consequences of not doing so that need to be taken into account. So in which circumstances would they be overlooked or minimised?

So far, all seven criteria are followed for every top charity. But it's not a binary. How much track record is enough track record to have a "good" track record? GFI does have enough of a track record that we felt comfortable evaluating it, but it does have less of a track record than our other recommended organizations.

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I reasonably believe the funding gap is presently fairly negligible at GFI (for example EA Funds are not very concerned about it, and already look for alternatives to GFI in that area)

I'm not sure I'd read that much into the EA Funds donations, personally.

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I don’t think EAs generally ought to be funding groups in preparation for 2018.

Speaking about room for more funding generally -- I agree it has been harder to find room for more funding lately (and this is definitely a good problem to have) and this is something ACE has been monitoring closely. The next charity update will be in just a few months and will include fresh re-estimations of room for more funding. You may consider waiting until then.

Either way, I'm confident that GFI could continue to productively use money given now. I don't think there's any particular reason to give in January but not September as you say, unless you're worried that ACE's recommendation will change or that they are out of RFMF for a good portion of 2018 also.

Additionally, organizations that get more money now might be encouraged to take on more, to scale, and to build a bigger budget in the future. More money now would help them give them more confidence.

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In relation to Better Eating International, i’m thinking in terms of the criteria of needing x amount more money. I haven’t heard anything from them about further fundraising after the Kickstarter project. Though I haven’t asked either.

You could consider asking. I think they could make use of another $20-40K to boost their analytics capabilities.

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I also think it would be a good thing if ACE look at the organisations I mentioned in some depth, I think that would be useful and I would encourage all groups to be open to this process.

I can suggest those organizations if they are not already on ACE's radar.