The Hundred Billion Dollar Opportunity that EAs mostly ignore

Epistemic Status: Relatively confident but also willing to take advantage of Cunningham’s Law if I’m wrong. May lack deep knowledge of EA efforts in this area.

About me:

I’m a sometime EA and looking to dive into the EA world more fully, including potentially shifting my career to work in EA. I currently work in US politics and specialize in online movement building and communications. I trend towards near-termist and global health EA causes, although I think the argument below also has long-termist implications.

The Central Premise

There is a potentially massive method of doing good out there that’s mostly ignored.

This method is at the absolute heart of the very concept of Effective Altruism, and yet is rarely discussed in EA communities or spaces.

We should try harder to influence the average non-EA person’s donation.

The Current Charitable Landscape

A few quick facts: The United States donated almost $500 billion just in 2021. Without listing every individual country, European charitable donations are on the scale of hundreds of billions as well. Overall, yearly charitable donations in rich countries worldwide are in the high hundreds of billions of USD.

Most of this money, from an EA perspective, is wildly inefficiently spent. While it’s impossible to break down exactly where each of these dollars goes, a little bit of common sense and some basic statistics paints a discouraging picture. Of this giant pile of money, only 6% is donated internationally, despite donations to poor countries usually having a better per-dollar impact than donations inside a rich country. The largest categories for donation are religious organizations. The second largest category is educational donations. Three quarters of that educational money is given to existing 4-year colleges and universities. Much of that is the stereotypical worst kind of donation, a huge donation to an elite school that already has billions in endowment.

Beyond the statistics, any casual glance at how normal people donate their money can confirm this. People give to local schools, their friend’s charity, or generally whatever they feel a connection to. My parents, who are highly charitable people who gave >10% of their income long before it was an EA idea, have made significant charitable donations to a children’s puppetry program. This is the landscape in which the better part of a trillion dollars is being spent.

None of this should be surprising to EAs. The core of Effective Altruism is the argument that when you attempt to do good, you should try to be effective in doing so. The equally core fact about the world that EAs recognize is that historically, most people have not been very good at maximizing how much good they do. For the vast majority of charitable dollars, that’s still true.

The Argument for Impact

I believe Effective Altruism should spend more time trying to shift the behavior of the general public. I believe this area has the potential for large impact, and that it’s currently neglected as a way to do good.

Scale—Enormous. Not going to spend much time on this point, but obviously changes to how hundreds of billions of charitable dollars are given would be huge in scale.

Tractability—This problem is likely more difficult and less tractable than many other cause areas. It’s very difficult to simply spin wide-ranging cultural changes into existence. But it’s not impossible, and the enormous size of the pile of money mitigates the low tractability. Using some relatively low numbers—If you had even a 1% chance of success, and success meant only shifting 5% of US charitable dollars, that’s still 250 million dollars of donations going to more effective causes than before, every single year in perpetuity.

Neglected—It’s possible I am incorrect that this is a neglected area, because I am not a full time EA and am not deeply plugged in to EA circles. I am more of a part time EA, loosely plugged in to those circles.

But from my perspective, EA spends an enormous amount of institutional energy on what I’ll call ‘elite strategies’. This means reaching smaller groups of targeted individuals and convincing them to do an enormous amount of good. Sometimes this literally means elites—there are EA events I’ve attended where 75% of the crowd comes from Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford, Harvard, or Princeton.

You could also describe this as a focus on outliers. Don’t just improve your donations, find the absolute most worthy cause. Convince a small group of very bright people to dedicate their lives to it. Have a small number of ultra-wealthy folks fund most of our work. This approach has done an enormous amount of good, and I’m very glad it’s being done. But it’s not the only way to make change happen, and I don’t see much systematic effort put towards swaying the general public’s giving habits.

Again, it’s possible that I’m just missing an effort that already exists. But if it does exist, I haven’t noticed much of it. Shifting public opinion is hard and usually takes a long time, and it’s often much easier and more legible to shift small groups of people.

Ideas for Impact

More general public facing arguments—EA needs more people dedicated to getting off the EA forums, outside EA circles, and making our general case for broad EA values in wider venues. I do think that EA has been doing a slightly better job of this recently, with much of it connected to specific book releases. But I don’t think there’s yet a conscious, dedicated effort to convince the wider general public of EA values. So much EA outreach and publicity is done through EA-adjacent or EA-friendly channels. Going on Tyler Cowen’s podcast, posting comments on SlateStarCodex, etc. There should be more emphasis on doing interviews, op-eds and outreach well outside the traditional EA sphere in places that have never heard these ideas before, and there should be public communicators who specifically specialize towards the goal of getting EA in front of new audiences.

Meet people where they are—For most normal people, EA arguments will be somewhat persuasive but won’t get them to change everything they do. If you talk to a random person on the street, they’re likely to agree that we should be thoughtful about donations and try to make sure they go to causes that do a lot of good. If you tell them that this means they need to donate to wild animal suffering research or AI safety policy or some other obscure EA thing, they’re going to wonder if you’re in a cult.

Without criticizing the merits of those ideas, it’s undeniable that they sound bizarre to many people. Rather than asking people to jump into the deep end immediately, general public outreach should keep a laser focus on relatable giving efforts and making reasonable asks for a normal person. Don’t ask them to abandon their current cause, but suggest splitting their dollars between that and a more effective one. Try to get them giving better, not giving the absolute best. One critical way to do that is...

Fund more charity evaluators—GiveWell is one of my favorite EA organizations. But in the same way that normal people aren’t going to flock to AI safety, it’s hard to get people to switch from donating to their local favorite charity to malaria bed nets or vitamin A supplements for people ten thousand miles away. Instead, we should have significantly more charity evaluators like Animal Charity Evaluators.

Even if you think animal charities shouldn’t be focused on, the fact remains that lots of people like to donate to charities that help animals. Since that’s going to be happening, we should influence them away from the charity that helps three very photogenic piglets and to the charity that causes a policy change that helps millions of factory farmed pigs. I love the idea of ACE even though none of my own donations go towards animal welfare causes

People want to give to religious causes, to education, to cancer/​AIDS/​other disease research, to things that matter to them. Why isn’t there an Education Charity Evaluators for people who care about education? Or a Christian/​Jewish/​Islamic Charity Evaluators for people who are going to make those donations anyways? A Cancer Charity Evaluators for people who lost a loved one to cancer? People are going to donate in these areas. Why aren’t we trying to improve those donations?

More evaluators would help along two dimensions. It would help in that there would be people who read the recommendations and shift their dollars into a more effective charity. It would also help in that charities which have rarely ever been scrutinized are suddenly under pressure to think about how to pass a cost/​benefit analysis, and may improve themselves due to increased scrutiny.

Pick a fightI think this may be one of the more controversial ideas, but I think EA needs to pick more fights. EAs tend towards niceness and generally try to stay out of nasty culture war stuff or tribal political battles. But they should ignore that instinct in at least some instances and start a couple of very public fights.

If you want to change society’s culture, you’re going to ruffle some feathers. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing—there are bad incumbents and institutions which need to be replaced. Conflicts with entrenched, bad incumbents are unlikely to be resolved without a struggle, and that struggle is likely to turn at least a little bit tribal, political, and nasty. That’s ok. Publicly feuding with a terrible incumbent is still a good idea.

If I was the czar of EA, I’d choose Ivy League university endowments as my fight. Rich people routinely make massive donations to universities which already have tens of billions of dollars in endowments. It’s probably one of the single worst possible donations you can make. I’d fund a group called “Not A Single Dollar More” whose stated goal was to permanently end anyone ever giving to any Ivy League school ever again. Publicly attack everyone involved, shame the universities, shame the donors, organize protests, the works. This would have several benefits. It would generate an enormous amount of press if you do it right, with most of that press being favorable. The Ivy League is a symbol of elitism and out-of-touch rich people, which will bias the public towards us. And frankly the fight is just very easy to win on the merits—rich people shouldn’t donate 50M to name a new dorm.

Picking fights means creating enemies, but any movement that aims to change society is going to have enemies at some point (if they get close to success). I’d rather pick that enemy myself. (side note—even if you disagree with picking fights, it’s not central to the argument that we should still be trying to shift public values)

A note on longtermism

I am not a long-termist, but I think this goal is still a valuable undertaking for long-termist goals. I think most EAs are initially hooked by the very simple version of EA. They hear about giving more effectively, maybe read the GiveWell recommendations, get curious to learn more, and fall down the rabbit hole. My sense of the long-termist organizing apparatus is that there’s a lot of focused effort at doing university organizing, career help for people who have heard about EA and want to work in EA, etc. But an underrated mechanism for recruiting more long-termists is simply increasing the size of the initial input. Surveys indicate only 2.6-6.7% of the population has even heard of EA. If we can triple that number, I’d expect proportional increases in the number of people involved with long-termist causes, both from a donation standpoint and a career standpoint.

Personal Note

Pre-emptive thanks to any who can help refine these ideas. I’ll be at EA Global for the first time starting tomorrow, and would be happy to meet anyone interested in developing these ideas with me and figuring out how EA can develop a real strategy to target the general public. I’m looking to potentially make a career jump from politics into EA, and this is a topic I care deeply about and feel I am well positioned to make an impact in.