Comparing Four Cause Areas for Founding New Charities

Cross-posted from Char­ity En­trepreneur­ship blog.

CAUSE AREAS

Un­like in pre­vi­ous years, we are con­sid­er­ing mul­ti­ple differ­ent cause ar­eas this year, which leaves more room for cause com­par­i­son. We think that gen­er­ally, both en­trepreneurs and donors have spe­cific cause ar­eas in mind when they at­tend or sup­port our pro­gram. How­ever, some have asked us for a sense of how the differ­ent cause ar­eas, and more im­por­tantly, char­i­ties within them, com­pare. We think each area has its strengths and weak­nesses and at this level, it’s hard to re­li­ably com­pare be­cause many as­sump­tions (both eth­i­cal and epistemic) need to be made.

We are con­sid­er­ing the fol­low­ing four ar­eas:

  • Men­tal health

  • Fam­ily planning

  • Animals

  • Health policy

Weighted fac­tor model fram­ing. Each area is color-coded from strongest to weak­est.

* If the limit­ing fac­tor cell is red, this means that the limit­ing fac­tor will be met very quickly. Green means that the fac­tor will be hard to meet.
** If the non-cap­tured ex­ter­nal­ity cell is green, this means that the ex­ter­nal­ities are large and pos­i­tive. If the cell is red, this means that ex­ter­nal­ity is small.

Another way to frame this is by more spe­cific key strengths and weaknesses

Men­tal health

Strengths

  • Direct­ness of the sub­jec­tive well-be­ing met­ric and pos­si­ble un­der­rat­ing of the area by other metrics

  • Pos­si­ble promis­ing cost effec­tive­ness for both low and high in­come countries

  • Strong to mod­er­ate ev­i­dence base and back­ground re­search but limited pri­ori­ti­za­tion work

  • Could en­courage EA move­ment to con­sider more cause ar­eas long term

Weaknesses

  • Uncer­tain cost effec­tive­ness com­pared to top global health interventions

  • More the­o­ret­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal work that is re­quired for assessment

  • More limited fund­ing base par­tic­u­larly in the EA movement

  • Ev­i­dence base has a wider range of met­rics used, mak­ing it more difficult to compare

Fam­ily planning

Strengths

  • Strong fund­ing out­side of EA

  • Moder­ate ev­i­dence base

  • Un­der cer­tain eth­i­cal views could be ex­tremely impactful

  • Area has more limited use of CEAs than oth­ers in global health, leav­ing promis­ing sub-ar­eas ne­glected.

  • Di­verse range of pos­i­tive effects (e.g. un­born child benefits, fam­ily benefits, in­come benefits, etc.)

Weaknesses

  • Max­i­miz­ing mul­ti­ple pos­i­tive effects makes the char­ity harder to run

  • Size of im­pact de­pends on un­solved pop­u­la­tion ethics questions

  • Ev­i­dence is spread out be­tween a wide range of met­rics thus spec­u­la­tive con­ver­sions and com­par­i­sons need to be used

  • Can be a con­tro­ver­sial intervention

Animals

Strengths

  • Naive cost-effec­tive­ness es­ti­mates gen­er­ally show ex­tremely high cost effectiveness

  • High lev­els of his­tor­i­cal ne­glect mean many promis­ing char­ity ideas are not yet founded

  • Strong sup­port both within and out­side of the EA community

  • Very strong case that an­i­mals should be given moral weight

Weaknesses

  • Very low ev­i­dence base com­pared to other areas

  • Some tal­ent short­ages in the move­ment that im­pair key charities

  • More limited ex­ter­nal­ities and flow-through effects than other cause ar­eas
    High rate of non-effec­tive­ness minded ac­tivists in the area

Health policy

Strengths

  • Naive cost-effec­tive­ness es­ti­mates show higher cost effec­tive­ness than stan­dard global health in­ter­ven­tions and maybe all other hu­man-fo­cused areas

  • Ev­i­dence base fairly strong if con­fi­dence is es­tab­lished in causal re­la­tion­ship of lobbying

Weaknesses

  • Ex­tremely com­plex space re­sult­ing in a much higher than av­er­age chance of a char­ity hav­ing limited or no impact

  • More limited ex­ter­nal­ities and flow-through effects com­pared to other cause areas

  • Very high bar of char­i­ties that are already work­ing in the space leading

GLOBAL HEALTH INTERVENTIONS

Im­mu­niza­tion reminders

Strengths

  • Highly flex­ible and has great feed­back loops. For ex­am­ple can move from SMS re­minders to SMS + gos­sip reminders

  • Many im­pact­ful op­por­tu­ni­ties are still on the table due to the new­ness of the in­ter­ven­tion
    Has a spec­trum of suc­cess (un­like lob­by­ing-based or­ga­ni­za­tions)

  • Easier to get gov­ern­ment buy-in on large scale projects

Weaknesses

  • High cost effec­tive­ness can be hard to achieve (e.g. higher than GiveDirectly but not as high as other GiveWell top char­i­ties)

  • Be­hav­ior change makes con­cerns about ex­ter­nal val­idity stronger

  • Al­most all benefits are in sav­ing lives of chil­dren un­der five, so limited externalities

Tobacco taxation

Strengths

  • Pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing ex­tremely cost effective

  • Pro­vides learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties as well as the abil­ity to set a prece­dent if suc­cess is achieved

  • Often re­garded as one of the most effec­tive global health policy in­ter­ven­tions that is not con­sis­tently ap­plied in all countries

  • The ev­i­dence base that to­bacco pre­vents a mas­sive DALY bur­den and to­bacco taxes re­duce to­bacco use is very strong

Weaknesses

  • High-risk op­por­tu­nity with a high chance of failure

  • Has ac­tive agents, namely to­bacco com­pa­nies, that push against in­ter­ven­tions in this space
    The ev­i­dence base for the best strate­gies to use to get to­bacco taxes raised is unclear

  • There are ma­jor difficul­ties in as­sess­ing the im­pact of a sin­gle or­ga­ni­za­tion in the space when mul­ti­ple or­ga­ni­za­tions are work­ing in the same location

Iron and folic acid fortification

Strengths

  • Nutri­tion as a broad area is seen as a highly promis­ing area by a wide range of ex­ter­nal ex­perts in­clud­ing GiveWell and the Copen­hagen Consensus

  • Iron af­fects a wide range of health effects, of­ten lead­ing it to be un­der­val­ued in stan­dard calcu­la­tions. One ex­am­ple of this would be iron’s effects on de­pres­sion rates

  • There are large gaps in for­tifi­ca­tion in lower-in­come countries

Weaknesses

  • Cer­tain lo­ca­tions are highly effec­tive to run this in­ter­ven­tion in (such as north­ern states in In­dia) but there are fewer gaps than for other interventions

  • Medium risk op­por­tu­nity with a medium chance of failure

  • There are many other nu­tri­tion-fo­cused or­ga­ni­za­tions, al­though none fo­cus­ing on iron and folic acid in India

  • Sub-stan­dard for­tifi­ca­tion may lead to a limited or non-im­pact­ful effect

ANIMAL INTERVENTIONS

Dis­solved oxy­gen for fish

Strengths

  • Ex­tremely cost effec­tive when com­pared to other an­i­mal-fo­cused in­ter­ven­tions. The most cost-effec­tive di­rect in­ter­ven­tion we measured

  • Has a prece­dent in re­cent similar cage-free and broiler asks

  • Strong ev­i­dence baseHas strong path­ways to fund­ing as many donors con­sider fish a promis­ing fo­cus area

  • Has the pos­si­bil­ity of shift­ing the an­i­mal move­ment’s fish fo­cus in a much more effec­tive direction

Weaknesses

  • Upfront re­search re­quired to de­ter­mine key vari­ables (e.g. op­ti­mal range of DO)
    Hetero­gene­ity be­tween species of fish makes it harder to gen­er­al­ize DO or other in­ter­ven­tions.

  • Find­ing tal­ent on the re­search side will be challeng­ing in the an­i­mal space

  • Fish fo­cused char­i­ties would likely even­tu­ally get started so the coun­ter­fac­tual im­pact comes from the sub-fo­cus areas

Food for­tifi­ca­tion for egg-lay­ing hens

Strengths

  • Strong ev­i­dence base rel­a­tive to other in­ter­ven­tions in the an­i­mal space

  • Less ini­tial re­search needed be­fore this or­ga­ni­za­tion could be founded

  • Feed cost is the largest sin­gle item cost in poul­try production

  • Room for scal­ing to other food-re­lated interventions

  • Nutri­tion is a well un­der­stood and cost-effec­tive intervention

Weaknesses

  • The timing might not be op­ti­mal due to re­cent cage-free campaigns

  • Lower cost effec­tive­ness than other an­i­mal char­i­ties
    Some con­cerns re­gard­ing coun­ter­fac­tual re­place­abil­ity of the in­dus­try tak­ing into ac­count feed

  • There is a wide range of pos­si­ble nu­tri­tional im­prove­ments with ex­act effects on pain of birds be­ing less clear

Ask research

Strengths

  • There is limited re­search in both the an­i­mal move­ment as a whole and even less di­rectly fo­cused on asks that can be made of gov­ern­ments or corporations

  • This type of re­search seems tractable and com­pared to other re­search, has quick feed­back loops

  • Given the low cost of a re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion fo­cused on this and that it is pos­si­ble to af­fect large cor­po­rate cam­paigns, it could be highly cost effective

  • Effec­tive al­tru­ists have a strong com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage to found this idea

Weaknesses

  • The im­pact de­pends strongly on the effec­tive­ness of cor­po­rate and gov­ern­men­tal cam­paign­s
    Im­pact re­lies on NGOs and or­ga­ni­za­tions up­dat­ing based on research

  • Founders will have to be very strong in both re­search and com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills

  • Rel­a­tively few asks are cho­sen an­nu­ally, so the feed­back loops are slow and there is down­time be­tween key choices

An­i­mal careers

Strengths

  • Likely the char­ity idea the largest num­ber of fun­ders and ac­tivists will be ex­cited about

  • Meta-char­ity that could lead to other char­i­ties be­ing founded

  • Has a low floor for failure (even if done mod­er­ately well could have ma­jor benefits)

  • Has mod­els that can be repli­cated as a start­ing point (CSO in test­ing ideas, 80,000 hours in or­ga­ni­za­tional scope)

  • Could be very cost effec­tive if you take sur­veys of em­ployee de­mand at face value

  • Can be done in a wide range of lo­ca­tions effectively

Weaknesses

  • Relies on other char­i­ties in the an­i­mal move­ment be­ing net pos­i­tive and effective

  • Re­quires a high level of com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills

  • Re­quires a broad un­der­stand­ing of a di­verse movement

  • Co-founders will have to be com­fortable with in­ter-or­ga­ni­za­tional interaction

  • Many will not un­der­stand the char­ity idea or how it helps the movement

  • Im­pact is in­di­rect and hard to measure

  • Very limited his­tor­i­cal re­search in the area so start­ing from scratch in many cases

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