Dan_Keys comments on How Should a Large Donor Prioritize Cause Areas? - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: Dan_Keys 26 April 2016 08:05:55AM 7 points [-]

My guess (which, like Michael's, is based on speculation and not on actual information from relevant decision-makers) is that the founders of Open Phil thought about institutional philosophy before they looked in-depth at particular cause areas. They asked themselves questions like:

How can we create a Cause Agnostic Foundation, dedicated to directing money wherever it will do the most good, without having it collapse into a Foundation For Cause X as soon as its investigations conclude that currently the highest EV projects are in cause area x?

Do we want to create a Cause Agnostic Foundation? Would it be a bad thing if a Cause Agnostic Foundation quickly picked the best cause and then transformed into the Foundation For Cause X?

Apparently they concluded that it was worth creating a (stable) Cause Agnostic Foundation, and that this would work better if they directed significant amounts of resources towards several different cause areas. I can think of several arguments for this conclusion:

  1. Spreading EA Ideas. It's easier to spread the ideas behind effective altruism (and to create a world where more resources are devoted to attempts at effective altruism) if there is a prominent foundation which is known for the methodology that it uses to choose causes rather than for its support of particular causes. And that works best if the foundation gives to several different cause areas.

  2. Diminishing Returns to Prestige. Donations can provide value by conferring prestige, not just by transferring money, and prestige can have sharply diminishing returns to amount donated. e.g., Giving to your alma mater, whether it's $10 or $10,000, lets them say that a higher percentage of alumni are donors. One might hope that this prestige benefit (with diminishing returns) would apply to many of the grants from a Cause Agnostic Foundation, and that it will be well-regarded enough to bring other people's attention to the causes & organizations that it supports.

  3. Ability to Pivot. If a foundation focuses on just one or two cause areas (and hires people to work on those cause areas, publicizes its reasons for supporting those cause areas, builds connections with other organizations in those cause areas, etc.) that can make it hard for it to keep an open mind about cause areas and potentially pivot to a different cause area which starts looking more promising a few years later.

  4. Learning. We can learn more if we pursue several different cause areas than if we just focus on one or two. This can include things like: getting better at cause prioritization by doing it a lot, getting better at evaluating organizations by dealing with some organizations that are in cause areas where progress is relatively easy to track, and learning how to interact with governments in the context of criminal justice reform and then being better able to pursue projects involving government in other cause areas.

  5. Hits. A foundation which practices hits-based-giving can tolerate a lot of risk, but they may need to have at least some visible hits over the years in order to remain institutionally strong. Diversifying across cause areas can help that happen.

My sense is that this is an incomplete list; there are other arguments like these.

It's worth noting that many of these lines of reasoning are specific to a foundation like Open Phil, and would not apply to a single wealthy donor looking to donate his or her own money.

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 26 April 2016 03:55:42PM 3 points [-]

A few of these reasons do suggest that it might be useful to make grants in a cause area to stay open to it/keep actively researching it/keep potential grantees aware that you're funding it. This would suggest that it's worthwhile to spend relatively small amounts of money on less promising cause areas, but maintain spending to keep momentum.

This does have downsides:

  1. It costs money. If you can afford to spend $200 million/year, and you want to spend $5 million/year on each suboptimal cause area, that would easily eat up a quarter to a half of your budget.
  2. It costs staff time. You have limited capacity to do research and talk to grantees, so any time spent doing this in a suboptimal cause area is time spent not doing it in an optimal cause area. Maybe you could resolve this by putting only passing investment into less important areas and making grants without investigating them much.

Making grants in secondary cause areas has benefits, but the question is, does it have sufficient benefits to make it better than spending those grants on the strongest cause area(s)?

It's easier to spread the ideas behind effective altruism [...] if there is a prominent foundation which is known for the methodology that it uses to choose causes rather than for its support of particular causes.

Aside from the fact that I'm skeptical of this claim, Open Phil is fairly opaque about how it makes grant decisions. It produces writeups about the pros and cons of cause areas/grants, which is nice, but that doesn't tell us why this grants was chosen rather than some other grant, or why Open Phil has chosen to prioritize one cause area over another.

And like I said, I'm skeptical of this claim. Perhaps making grants to lots of cause areas promotes EA ideas. But since the standard EA claim is that individual donors should give to the single best cause, maybe a foundation would better promote EA ideas by focusing on the single best area until it has enough funding that it's no longer best on margin. I don't really know either way and I don't know how one would know.

I'm also not convinced that promoting EA ideas is a good thing.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 27 April 2016 01:59:41AM *  0 points [-]

My intuition is that you might be overestimating how much information is available to donors? There is also uncertainty over the value of purchasing additional information. It seems you need to buy at least a little bit of information in the best way you know how in order to start to calibrate how valuable that info is and thus your future information purchases will be.

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 27 April 2016 02:32:39AM 0 points [-]

Getting information is definitely important in a lot of cases. I believe it's more important for narrow decisions (e.g. which interventions to support within a cause) than broad decisions (such as whether to prioritize short-term or far-future interventions). I don't believe there's much you could learn from making grants about how to prioritize short-term versus far-future interventions, since this depends mostly on theoretical questions and extremely long-term effects that you can't really measure.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 31 May 2016 08:50:29PM 0 points [-]

since this depends mostly on theoretical questions and extremely long-term effects that you can't really measure.

This itself is the sort of hypothesis that we wish to test by doing additional research. What sort of actions, if any, have ever had predictable long term consequences? What is the actual time horizon of e.g. qualitative predictions (unknown) vs quantitative predictions (around 400 days according to superforecasting work so far).