Giving now vs. later: a summary

There's an ongoing debate about whether it's better to give now or later.  A quick summary:

Reasons to give now:

  • You may get less altruistic as you age, so if you wait you may never actually donate.
  • Estimates of the returns on investment may be over-optimistic.
  • Giving to charities that can demonstrate their effectiveness provides an incentive for charities to get better at demonstrating that they're effective.  We can't just wait for charities to improve — it takes donations to make that happen.
  • Having an active culture of giving encourages other people to give, too.
  • Better to eliminate problems as soon as possible. E.g. if we had eliminated smallpox in 1967 instead of 1977, many people would have been spared.

Reasons to give later:

  • As time passes, we'll probably have better information about which interventions work best.  Even in a few years, we may know a lot more than we do now and be able to give to better causes.
  • Investing money may yield more money to eventually donate.
  • When you're young, you should invest in developing yourself and your career, which will let you help more later.
  • You can put donations in a donor-advised fund to ensure they will someday be given, even if you haven't yet figured out where you want them to go.

But it’s a topic that deserves more depth than that summary.  Here's some of what's been written on the topic, in roughly chronological order:



Comments (6)

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Comment author: lukeprog 04 April 2014 10:20:00PM 1 point [-]

The most important reason missing from 'Reasons to give now' is "Giving to particular organizations can accelerate our learning about which causes are best to support." We'll probably get better information as time passes, but we'll get a lot more of it if we fund ongoing projects to figure out what's best to give to.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini2 10 April 2014 09:20:00PM 1 point [-]

Paul Christiano discusses this consideration in The best reason to give later:

I think the most important impact of giving now is probably that it accelerates the process of learning. At the level of the EA movement, the main reason to be optimistic about better giving opportunities emerging in the future is that we will actively seek out such opportunities, and discover through experience what directions are most fruitful to explore. (As an individual you can expect your money to go further if you wait and do nothing, but only because you can benefit from the work of others.)

However, I think that most causes that EAs currently donate to are not responsible for this learning, except indirectly for the reasons explored in the last section (e.g., giving to AMF is not a cost-effective way of learning in and of itself, but may facilitate GiveWell’s other activities, which are a big driver of current learning). A relatively small set of activities seems to be responsible for most learning that is occurring (for example, much of GiveWell’s work, some work within the Centre for Effective Altruism, some strategy work within MIRI, hopefully parts of this blog, and a great number of other activities that can’t be so easily sliced up). The argument I’ve given definitely doesn’t justify delaying any of this funding: I’m recommending delaying object-level do-gooding relative to learning, not delaying do-gooding altogether.

However, it may be that some of these activities produce info much more efficiently than others, and depending on the relative importance of funding and haste it may be worthwhile to stall some of these activities while the most important info-gathering proceeds. To me it currently looks like the value of getting information faster is significantly higher than the value of money, and on the current margin I think most of these learning activities are underfunded. A more serious concern is that there seems to currently be a significant deficit of human capital specialized for this problem and willing to work on it (without already being committed to work on it), so barring some new recruitment strategies (e.g. paying market wages for non-EAs to do EA strategy research) there are significant issues with room for more funding.

These issues seem important to me, and I’ll certainly return to them in future posts. For now, I’d leave it at: a small fraction of activities EAs fund are directly producing relevant info, and those are probably important and worth scaling up. However, the majority of EA funding does not fall into this category.

Comment author: Overcoming_Bias_:_Multiplier_Isn't_Reason_To_Wait 14 April 2014 12:23:21AM 0 points [-]

[…] the issue of whether to help now vs. later, many reasonable arguments have been collected on both sides. For example, positive interest rates argue for helping later, […]

Comment author: Ben_Kuhn_on_the_effective_altruist_movement_|_Pablo's_miscellany 23 July 2014 07:53:44AM 0 points [-]

[…] giving now vs. later debate has been ably summarized by Julia Wise on the EA blog. My sense from reading various arguments for both sides is that I more often see bad […]

Comment author: Brian_Tomasik 24 April 2015 11:18:12AM *  1 point [-]

Some additional links:

Comment author: ZacharySmith4989 04 July 2015 07:10:51PM 1 point [-]

FYI The link to Peter Hurford's article is broke. Here it is on his blog: http://lesswrong.com/lw/hr3/giving_now_currently_seems_to_beat_giving_later/