A new response to effective altruism

Reid Hoffman, the founder of Linkedin, recently reviewed Will's book, Doing Good Better.


Overall, it was very positive. One difference, however, was that he thinks we should continue to give some portion of our resources locally rather than internationally, and he justifies this on the basis of having a greater long-run impact. I hadn't seen this argument made by someone who agrees with so much of effective altruism before (normally those in favor of local giving reject the idea that we should maximise our social impact at all, or seem to have misunderstood effective altruism). I'm not convinced, but I think we should take the argument seriously:


But we're also members of local communities, and we have a moral obligation to support philanthropic efforts in those communities too, even if they don't leverage our contributions as efficiently as they might somewhere else.


Local participation in philanthropy isn't just a moral obligation though. It also has its own utilitarian component through strong derivative impact. When you donate locally, you function as a tangible role model to others in your community. You help build networks for action. You form partnerships and alliances with other community members, and position philanthropy as a local norm, a tangible part of the culture that has a compounding effect over time by solidifying community ties, facilitating engagement and collaboration, and creating a tradition of mutual support.

See the full article.

Comments (12)

Comment author: Jay_Shooster 12 September 2015 03:01:16PM 5 points [-]

In theory, local EA chapters can do all this already without focusing on local problems. This is not an argument for donating locally as much as an argument for focusing how to take on collaborative, visible, and engaging projects in our communities.

Of course work for effective causes might not be as engaging or enticing in our communities but then this just becomes an extension of the argument against weirdness: "AI is weird, but so is global poverty relative to the local soup kitchen."

Anyway, I welcome the broad criticism: maybe we should be thinking more about how to create engaging events in our communities, partnering with non-EAs and non EA organizations, and being more visible in the local sphere.

Comment author: IanDavidMoss 12 September 2015 08:17:43PM 2 points [-]

I think there's some merit to Reid's 2nd point, although I would frame it differently. The most efficient giving opportunities typically are not local, it is true. However, the relative efficiency of giving opportunities for EAs is defined in part by an assumption that other parties' giving will remain the same (this idea is at the core of GiveWell's "room for more funding" calculations).

EAs do not have the ability to control all or even a majority of donations within their local communities. There's lots of research (e.g., http://www.hopeconsulting.us/pdf/Money%20for%20Good_Final.pdf) showing that most donors are tied to specific causes, contexts, geographies, etc., and don't see any reason to change that. However, EAs might make more headway with this audience by pursuing EA principles within boundaries that they care about. So you're not asking a donor to give up on supporting (say) Seattle, but simply to direct his or her giving in ways that help Seattle more effectively. That approach is much more likely to actually move the needle on donating behavior in the short term, and it's a way to make all of giving more efficient and effective through a network of domains. It may even eventually make some of those inefficient giving opportunities much more competitive with the most efficient giving opportunities.

Remember, I'm suggesting this as a supplement to cause/geography-agnostic giving advocacy, not as a replacement for it.

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 14 September 2015 02:57:14PM 1 point [-]

Three anecdotes:

1.) One time I was with two friends and we were stopped on the street by a Planned Parenthood canvasser who asked us for money. I gave $10 because I wanted my friends to see donating as a good thing in general and to not see me as shying away from donating. I'm not sure if that was the right call.

2.) When I was in college, I was a founding member of a student venture philanthropy organization. We had a $10K grant to give to a local non-profit that we gave, along with 200 person hours of volunteering to implement the grant. We solicited proposals from non-profits for how to implement it. It's possible we could have had more impact with our money if we could give it abroad (e.g., to AMF), but we would not have been able to effectively volunteer, so there wouldn't be anything to do as a club. I think our learning was heightened by giving locally. (It wasn't our money anyway and the donor was quite keen on local giving.)

3.) Another thing I did in college my senior year was help run the student org that coordinated all the volunteering on campus. I think it was another great opportunity to learn how non-profits and volunteering worked, even if it was confined to only local orgs.

Comment author: Raemon 14 September 2015 03:01:50PM 1 point [-]

I basically divide my (classically parsed as "altruistic") into two buckets: helping the world, and making my community a nice place to live. I do the former because I want to help people. I do the latter fairly selfishly (which seems fine)

When I help out my local community, I help the parts of it I actually use - the local Less Wrong and Sunday Assembly communities. I sometimes clean up parks and similar things because physical labor makes me feel good.

This isn't "Effective Altruism" and shouldn't be considered such, but I do think EA people should consider doing such things if they're not already. (i.e. giving back to whatever communities they actually reap benefits from, in a pay-it-forward-passion)

Comment author: AGB 12 September 2015 04:35:34PM 1 point [-]

I think the second quote was probably more true throughout most of human history but is much less obviously so now that (a) social media is a thing and (b) people live in more geographically-distant and disconnected places. It might still be true for some people now.

Personally, AFAIK none of my friends or colleagues live within a one mile radius of me, despite me being close to the centre of a large city (London). In that context, if I give to the local charity for the homeless and then talk about it on Facebook I think I'm about as much of a role model as if I give to AMF and then talk about it on Facebook. In practice, I don't like to talk about my giving too much, so when I do I probably want to set the best example possible.

The first quote I have sympathy for some version of, depending how you define 'local'. Obviously it only makes sense in a non-utilitarian framework, but I do put some moral weight on non-utilitarian frameworks. The thought I've often had along these lines is that there are at least 4 charities I can readily identify that have each spent thousands of pounds (or equivalent in volunteer time) helping me to get where I am, and because it's worked out I'm going to reap benefits over my lifetime that will in all likelihood be in the tens of thousands, even after appropriate adjusting for counterfactuals. I'm not intuitively comfortable with telling them to go away if they ask for my help; it's in similar territory to 'stealing to give' for me.

Comment author: MichaelDello 12 September 2015 07:27:34AM 1 point [-]

Part of the second quote seems reasonable. "When you donate locally, you function as a tangible role model to others in your community." I can appreciate that, but if we accept that most local causes are less effective than causes in developing countries, we want to be a role model that encourages people to give to more effective causes and give locally less.

The first quote is weak. Why do we have a moral obligation to do good less effectively just because we are part of a community? Perhaps the full article backs that up more, but as it stands it doesn't stand.

Comment author: Ben_Todd 13 September 2015 01:11:39AM 0 points [-]

It's part of being a good citizen - your community supports you, so you should support it back.

GiveWell has made grants on this basis in the past to organisations whose research they've used: http://blog.givewell.org/2013/06/20/near-term-grantmaking/

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 12 September 2015 05:34:11AM 1 point [-]

Those two quotes you reproduced sound like they can be summarized as:

  1. Give locally even though it's less effective.
  2. Giving locally is effective.

These seem contradictory to me. Should you give to effective causes, or not?

A little later he argues that you can't be perfectly effective all the time and you should give locally to allow yourself some leniency. This is a common EA idea (Eric Herboso argued for it on here recently). This argument is somewhat more plausible to me. It only applies to people who feel a strong desire to give locally; for me personally, giving locally doesn't feel good, so this argument doesn't apply to me.

Comment author: Ben_Todd 13 September 2015 01:10:03AM 0 points [-]

I think it would be more charitable to interpret as the noncontradictory statements:

  1. Even if giving locally isn't the thing that your calculations say produces the most overall human welfare, we should still do it.
  2. If you're trying to produce the most human welfare, it can still be worth spending some proportion of your resources locally.
Comment author: xccf 13 September 2015 02:28:28AM *  0 points [-]

Reminds me of this EA critique, which among other things argued that helping the wealthy Western countries the EA movement arose out of is high-impact from a long-run utilitarian perspective. I think there is a good argument in here somewhere. EAs already get the logic of why it makes sense to prioritize helping fellow EAs, e.g. with 80K, skillshare.im, etc. It also seems smart to create more of the sort of fertile soil that the EA movement has grown in (do things that will increase the number of wealthy altruistic critical thinkers in the world).

Concrete example: Let's say the EA movement causes software engineers in Silicon Valley to do less for poor people locally and more for poor people globally. This causes poor people locally to become fed up with Silicon Valley as an industry. Local backlash forces the industry to move elsewhere, destroying the wealth creation engine that was generating the donations in the first place.

See also: There's Something About Teutonics

Comment author: Telofy  (EA Profile) 12 September 2015 03:47:43PM *  0 points [-]

There is a French charity I’ve been trying to convince of EA. I don’t know in how far I’ve succeeded so far because their plan is to first fundraise for (a tiny part of) a guide dog in order to build rapport with their audience (many of whom will have never thought about donating), convert them into donors, and win their trust. Then they want to switch to effective projects and use the momentum they think they otherwise wouldn’t be able to build up. So sort of the strategy Hoffman proposes. I think that’s risky to say the least:

  1. It comes at a great cost.
  2. If donors get attached to cause areas as easily as I fear they do, then they’ll have knowingly misinformed their donors in a way they can’t correct anymore.
  3. In cases where they can still correct it, they jeopardize their donors trust.
  4. If donors get more attached to the cause than the charity, they’ll lose them.
  5. If they try to avoid that by focusing their marketing on their own brand rather than the cause, they’re missing out on the educational benefits that are easily more valuable as the cumulate over time.
  6. The charity’s team might get attached to the cause and the guide dog trainers they’ve gotten to know, so the switch might not happen. (Or “not yet,” which will be easy to rationalize.)
  7. Since they try to address an audience that has been “drying up” since 2012, any postswitch donations will be far less than the preswitch donations.
  8. Since the organization is small, volunteer run, and has a lot of staff fluctuation, it’ll probably never get to any switch point or the current agenda will be forgotten by then.

Item 7 doesn’t apply generally, but I think 8 is a fairly common risk.

Comment author: nyralech 12 September 2015 06:22:39AM *  0 points [-]

Are there any actual numbers to back the claim made in the second quote?