Evan_Gaensbauer comments on January Open Thread - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 20 January 2015 07:20:04AM 2 points [-]

Short Answer

It's better to decide each year where to donate if you're donating less than several thousand dollars per year, and you don't have very high confidence where to donate. If you donate several thousand dollars per year, or in excess of that, and you don't believe your donation preferences will change much, it may make sense to let organizations know you expect to donate to them for several years.

Long Answer

The following answer is based on my experience as having previously worked for a charity fundraising company, been a regular monthly donor to World Animal Protection, and the experiences of myself and other supporters of effective altruism as donors.

Donations In General

Based on work and personal experience, it seems most charities, and non-profits, are much more concerned with their short- and medium-term operation and goals. That's because the continuance of the organization is based on meeting these goals, and achieving long-term goals is based upon the organization still existing, e.g., several years from now. Thus, my impression is that most charities and non-profits are relieved enough that their base of doors lets them know they'll continue to donate on a monthly basis, never mind an annual one.

Of course, organizations want this information because it gives them a confidence interval for much funding they'll receive, which in turn dictates their budget for operations and projects. The biggest donors to an organization will have the greatest impact on an organization's budget, and its expectations of future funding. These donors are the ones organizations will focus on getting information on donation plans from on a year-to-year basis. Ask yourself: are you among the biggest donors to an organization?

As an example, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute publishes a [list of its top donors] over its history. A 'top donor' is someone who has donated =>$5000 USD to the MIRI. Animal Charity Evaluators[2] also publishes a list of [top donors], one of their 'top donors' being someone who donates =>$1000. The MIRI has existed longer than ACE has, and also has a greater operating budget. So, what would qualify you as a 'top donor' varies by organization. If you believe you fall into the category of 'top donor' to an organization, and will do so in the future, making a multi-year commitment may make sense. If you don't know the answer to the question, you can always ask the organization.

Just ask them, out of curiosity, what percentage your donation makes up of their total operating budget, and how much your regular donations impact their medium-term budget planning. At this point, you have no obligation to disclose you're considering a multi-year commitment to donating to the organization in question.

Donations and Effective Altruism

I believe the concerns of donors influenced by effective altruism make it so making a multi-year commitment to an organization that you expect to donate to them is not as good an idea.

First of all, effective organizations, such as Givewell-recommended charities, may run into room for more funding issues. This means organizations may hit a point at which the marginal donation to that organization will do less good than the same amount donated to a different organization. For example, at the end of 2013, Givewell believed its normally top-recommended charity, the Against Malaria Foundation, hadn't distributed enough malaria bed nets, or had the capacity to effectively allocate funds, such that Givewell recommended GiveDirectly as its top charity over Against Malaria Foundation for most of 2014. This was controversial within effective altruism, as several individuals, and also Giving What We Can, disagreed with Givewell's analysis and conclusion on regarding the AMF.

Anyway, similar issues may be raised in the future. Now, in a way, most of us don't believe ourselves as capable or experienced as Givewell or Giving What We Can to evaluate charities. So, we trust them to do so on behalf of the movement. If, as an individual, you make a multi-year commitment to organization, it may be awkward in future years when a charity evaluator you trust no longer recommends that organization as the 'best place to donate'. Given that effective altruism focuses on supporting the most effective organizations for any present time, what's considered 'the best place to donate' may change relatively quickly. This would render a multi-year donation commitment sub-optimal, and may hurt your relationship with the organization.

Of course, some of us donated lots of money to the Against Malaria Foundation in 2013, then switched to GiveDirectly in 2014, and will resume donating to the AMF in 2015, now that it's Givewell's top recommendation again. Still, the opportunity for such flexibility is still a point against a multi-year commitment.

Some causes areas are popular within effective altruism because to some they seem very neglected, or hold lots of value, even though they're not as tractable as global poverty. Such cause areas include animal advocacy, or existential risk reduction. By 'tractable', I mean to what extent we're confident what we do in the present will lead to desired goods in the future. Sometimes figuring if a cause area is tractable is difficult because the evidence to reach a conclusion hasn't been collected or evaluated yet, or because building an evidence base just seems too difficult.

Now, the MIRI, and ACE, are organizations working within cause areas for which it's much more difficult to discern how effective and positive financial and other support in the present will be. However, I believe that the novel introduction of greater effectiveness to cause areas may change them such that evaluating their tractability will be more possible. At such a point, you as an individual, or the effective altruism community at large, may conclude organizations within your selected cause area are more or less effective than you once though. So, this could shift your donation priorities within a couple of years. Thus, I believe accounting for this level of uncertainty about the effectiveness of a given organization over time is another mark against making multi-year commitments.

As someone who isn't very confident in which cause area, let alone which charity, may be the most effective target for donations, I wouldn't be making a multi-year commitment for donation even if I had the funds to justify such a thing. If you're extremely confident a single organization is the best, or confident in a single organization within the best cause area, a multi-year commitment could still make sense. However, keep in mind you may be biased if you're (one of) the only supporters of effective altruism with such high confidence in this organization.

In conclusion, I believe from the perspective of effective altruism, making a multi-year commitment to organizations for donation based is usually an imprudent course of action.

[1] The MIRI is an organization within the cause area of existential risk reduction, and supporters of effective altruism provide a great share of the total sum of donations it receives.

[2] Animal Charity Evaluators is an organization mirroring Givewell, in that it evaluates and recommends for donations organizations focused on helping non-human animals, as Givewell does for organizations in the domain of global poverty and public health in the developing world. ACE was incubated by the Centre for Effective Altruism in Oxford, England, but now operates independently out of the United States. It is an organization central to the intersection of animal advocacy and effective altruism.