Should donor lottery winners write reports?

Sum­mary: I was wor­ried that donor lot­tery win­ners writ­ing re­ports might have a net nega­tive effect by dis­cour­ag­ing en­trants. After mod­el­ling the out­comes of re­ports, I pro­vi­sion­ally think that writ­ing re­ports is likely a good thing and should con­tinue. This is mostly be­cause the win­ner shar­ing their re­search work may im­prove the qual­ity of oth­ers’ dona­tions.

EDIT/​Up­date: Denise Melchin points out that peo­ple may over­rate lot­tery win­ners’ eval­u­a­tion. This makes me less clear about the sign of re­ports’ effects on oth­ers’ dona­tions, and so I’m now pretty un­cer­tain whether re­ports are good or not.

NB: I dis­cuss pos­si­ble down­sides of donor lot­tery win­ners writ­ing re­ports. I definitely don’t want to come across as crit­i­cis­ing win­ners like Adam Gleave who wrote up a re­port. A lot of work went into the re­port, and read­ing it gave me use­ful ob­ject-level in­for­ma­tion and eval­u­a­tion heuris­tics. I just wanted to look into a pos­si­ble down­side that oc­curred to me.

Ini­tial worry

Sec­tion sum­mary: if peo­ple think lot­tery win­ners have to pub­li­cly jus­tify their choices, en­tries to lot­ter­ies may be re­duced; if lot­ter­ies are the most effi­cient choice for small donors, this could be bad

I am choos­ing to use a donor lot­tery as a ve­hi­cle for my dona­tions this year. When I was try­ing to de­cide whether or not to do so, I weighed the fact that my dona­tions could be pub­li­cly scru­ti­nised if I won. Would I have to fol­low in the foot­steps of Adam Gleave’s ex­cel­lent 2017 re­port? I cer­tainly didn’t rel­ish the thought of do­ing so.

Though I ul­ti­mately de­cided to use a lot­tery, if my re­ac­tion is com­mon, some peo­ple could be dis­suaded from en­ter­ing the lot­tery. I think that economies of scale from dona­tions may make the lot­tery the best choice for small donors. If that’s the case, peo­ple be­ing dis­suaded from en­ter­ing could be a big deal.

Pos­si­ble up­sides to reports

Sec­tion sum­mary: re­ports could in­crease will­ing­ness to en­ter, in­duce more work from the win­ner and provide valuable in­for­ma­tion to other donors

His­tor­i­cal record

A re­port al­lows po­ten­tial lot­tery en­trants to see the sort of dona­tions that have his­tor­i­cally been made by win­ners. Is this a good rea­son to write a re­port?

On the one hand, in many situ­a­tions, it shouldn’t mat­ter what other lot­tery en­trants would donate to (search for “Does it mat­ter what other donor lot­tery par­ti­ci­pants would do with their funds?”).

Of course, the ex­pected out­come if you don’t win the lot­tery does in fact af­fect the over­all ex­pected out­come of the lot­tery. Yes, it’s true that lot­ter­ies could make sense even if the ex­pec­ta­tion af­ter los­ing is neu­tral, but they make even more sense if that ex­pec­ta­tion is pos­i­tive.

In the end, I de­cided not to model the in­creased will­ing­ness to en­ter from a his­tory of re­ports.

More work from the winner

If the win­ner in­tends to write a pub­lic re­port about their dona­tions, they are prob­a­bly go­ing to do their due dili­gence and come up with good rea­sons for their dona­tions. Of course, it’s pretty likely they’d do that even with­out the re­port, but I think it likely in­creases the con­scien­tious­ness of the win­ner.

Im­prov­ing oth­ers’ donations

As I men­tioned in the note at the be­gin­ning of this post, read­ing Adam’s re­port gave me in­for­ma­tion about char­i­ties and some ideas about how to eval­u­ate char­i­ties. Shar­ing the in­for­ma­tion from the eval­u­a­tion is in fact the main rea­son Adam gives in the post for writ­ing up the re­port.

I think this is likely to be fairly valuable. When I model this, I fo­cus only on the in­for­ma­tion it pro­vides to small donors. After all, larger donors already have quite a lot of eval­u­a­tive power (Adam writes that he spent about 45 hours on the pro­cess. I don’t think a marginal week of eval­u­a­tion is very im­por­tant for large donors)

A model

After think­ing about this for a bit, I de­cided to make a Guessti­mate model. The model is very rough, and feed­back on pa­ram­e­ter val­ues or miss­ing path­ways from the model would be ap­pre­ci­ated.

De­spite the model’s rough­ness, I find the benefit from writ­ing re­ports to be large enough (~300x more benefit than cost) that I’ve changed my mind and think will­ing win­ners should prob­a­bly write re­ports on their dona­tions. In fact, even ig­nor­ing the knock-on effect of im­prov­ing oth­ers’ dona­tions, I find writ­ing the re­port to be a net benefit.

The sum­mary from the model’s page

I’m roughly es­ti­mat­ing the value of donor lot­tery win­ners writ­ing up a re­port of where they donated.

The causal path­ways to im­proved out­comes that I’m mod­el­ling are (1) bet­ter dona­tions by the lot­tery win­ner given that the win­ner knows they’ll be writ­ing up a re­port and (2) im­prove­ments to oth­ers’ dona­tions based on the lot­tery win­ner shar­ing their work.

The pos­si­ble nega­tive out­come is that it con­tributes to an ex­pec­ta­tion that the donor lot­tery win­ner should write up a re­port, lead­ing peo­ple to not want to en­ter the donor lot­tery. If the donor lot­tery is in gen­eral more effi­cient than in­di­vi­d­ual dona­tions, this dis­place­ment of funds away from the lot­tery re­duces the amount of good done.

A big prob­lem with this model is that it goes through es­ti­mat­ing the to­tal size of the EA donor pool. This re­ally isn’t ideal, mostly be­cause the es­ti­mate is very rough and changes would make a big differ­ence to the over­all im­prove­ment in dona­tion.

A more con­cep­tual prob­lem is that I don’t model changes in the donor lot­tery’s size over time. I just con­sider the effect at cur­rent sizes. If an effect is slower growth of the donor lot­tery, that could be the largest con­tri­bu­tion to the out­come of writ­ing re­ports.

Ev­i­dence that would be useful

Here are the main things that would make me change my mind:

  • Ar­gu­ments or ev­i­dence that re­ports may slow up­take of lotteries

  • Ar­gu­ments or ev­i­dence against the claim that writ­ing a re­port im­proves the qual­ity of the win­ner’s donations

  • Bet­ter in­for­ma­tion on the to­tal amount of dona­tions from small donors (on its own, this could only make me un­sure whether re­ports are good or not; it couldn’t make me think they might be bad)