The Importance of EA Dedication and Why it Should Be Encouraged

Differ­ent EA or­ga­ni­za­tions seem to value ded­i­ca­tion differ­ently, al­though al­most all of them would put some weight on this be­ing a pos­i­tive fac­tor. How­ever, I think over­all the im­por­tance of ded­i­ca­tion is un­der­rated by the EA move­ment.

Why Ded­i­ca­tion is Important

There has been some writ­ing about tal­ent gaps and tal­ent dis­tri­bu­tion and how this im­pacts the world. For in­stance, a tal­ented per­son might make more and thus donate more money or do higher qual­ity re­search. Like­wise, ded­i­ca­tion af­fects these same num­bers. For ex­am­ple, a ded­i­cated per­son might donate 50% com­pared to a less ded­i­cated per­son who donates 10%. To stick with dona­tions as an easy to mea­sure ex­am­ple, it seems that the EA move­ment says to gen­er­ally fo­cus on in­creas­ing your earn­ings as that will be eas­ier than re­duc­ing your spend­ing. How­ever, a harder look at the num­bers makes me skep­ti­cal of this. If a per­son was mak­ing a $100,000 salary and they donated 10% they would have to com­pare the ease of in­creas­ing their salary to $200k and stick­ing at that 10% to donat­ing 20% of their origi­nal $100,000 salary. For most peo­ple it seems far eas­ier to do the lat­ter than the former. Of course, in the­ory a per­son could in­crease their salary to $120,000 and donate 50% of the in­crease, also end­ing up at the same endline, but in prac­tice this does not seem to hap­pen. Gen­er­ally the EA’s spend­ing goes up pro­por­tion­ally with their in­crease earn­ings un­less they have taken a spe­cific pledge or made a spe­cific plan of how much to donate (and the most com­mon pledge by far in the EA move­ment is the 10% one).

Im­por­tantly, I think ded­i­ca­tion is an even big­ger fac­tor in di­rect EA jobs. Again, the weak ver­sion of this premise most would agree with. Some­one who cares about an­i­mal rights will likely do a bet­ter job work­ing at an an­i­mal rights or­ga­ni­za­tion than some­one who has no in­ter­est in an­i­mals. But I think that even out­side of the baseline car­ing or not about the cause, ded­i­cated em­ploy­ees vs unded­i­cated ones end up do­ing very differ­ent sorts of work. Much like tal­ent, ded­i­ca­tion can af­fect:

  • What top­ics that are re­searched in an or­ga­ni­za­tion. Does it lean more to­wards what the re­searchers find fun or to­wards what will help the most peo­ple?

  • Man­age­ment choices. Does one hire/​fund some­one they are friends with or do they hire/​fund the strongest ap­pli­cant cho­sen by more ob­jec­tive crite­ria?

  • Strate­gic di­rec­tion. Does the per­son point their or­ga­ni­za­tion in a di­rec­tion that might be higher im­pact but less per­son­ally or or­ga­ni­za­tion­ally pres­ti­gious?

In many, if not most, of the highly tal­ent sen­si­tive jobs, a per­son’s odds of mak­ing good de­ci­sions is greatly af­fected by their ded­i­ca­tion as well as tal­ent. This is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant if you think the per­son, due to tal­ent, IQ or what­ever other traits, has an ex­tremely high ex­pected value be­cause these mul­ti­pli­ers will be in­fluenc­ing a much higher level of out­put.

Of note, much like tal­ent, ded­i­ca­tion is a spec­trum. All EA em­ploy­ees are “ded­i­cated” in some sense, but there are de­grees with some peo­ple be­ing more ded­i­cated than oth­ers, just like some peo­ple are more tal­ented than oth­ers. Fac­tors like these com­bine to­gether to re­sult in some­one’s po­ten­tial to do im­pact.

Our Cur­rent Level of Fo­cus on Dedication

Cur­rently the move­ment has shied away from its more ded­i­ca­tion-fo­cused as­pects of which there are many ex­am­ples:

  • The Giv­ing What We Can pledge now fo­cuses on the main pledge (10%) and the Try Giv­ing pledge where the pre­vi­ously more in­tense pledges (Bolder Giv­ing or the GWWC Fur­ther Pledge) have been less fre­quently talked about and fea­tured on web­sites.

  • Ex­cited al­tru­ism has be­come a more pre­dom­i­nant force in EA which im­plies a lower level of self-sac­ri­fice.

  • The term self-sac­ri­fice it­self is cur­rently seen quite nega­tively in EA rel­a­tive to how it was 5 years ago.

  • Salaries at EA orgs have gone up sig­nifi­cantly over time as well as more fre­quent re­treats and other staff benefits.

  • As men­tioned be­fore, there have been mul­ti­ple posts writ­ten on the EA move­ment be­com­ing broader and more ac­cept­ing to­wards low lev­els of mo­ti­va­tion with a de­crease of writ­ing about more ded­i­ca­tion-re­quiring ac­tions.

There are al­ter­na­tive fac­tors that also af­fect each of these (we live in a com­plex world and rarely is one fac­tor the sin­gle ex­pla­na­tion for any­thing), but I feel the av­er­age trend is pretty clear over the last 5 years (with per­haps a slightly higher fo­cus on ded­i­ca­tion in the last six months).

Con­cerns With Un­der or Over-Fo­cus­ing on Dedication

I am not sug­gest­ing we limit the EA move­ment to only ded­i­cated peo­ple, but I am sug­gest­ing that ded­i­ca­tion should be broadly en­couraged, not dis­cour­aged. I have talked to quite a few peo­ple in the ded­i­cated group who felt judged, dis­con­nected or al­most treated with hos­tility for tak­ing a more com­mit­ted ap­proach to EA. Of course there are wor­ries about dis­pirit­ing low ded­i­ca­tion folks as well, but I think there are also wor­ries about de­mor­al­iz­ing peo­ple with higher lev­els of ded­i­ca­tion. There has been far more dis­cus­sion of the former than the lat­ter. It also worth not­ing that you end up hav­ing to deal with similar con­cerns talk­ing about tal­ent, IQ or any other char­ac­ter­is­tic that is not uniformly dis­tributed in the EA pop­u­la­tion.

So­cial mo­ti­va­tion and an­chor­ing are strong drivers of many hu­man ac­tions. If our move­ment treats a 50% donor the ex­act same as a 10% donor, fewer peo­ple will donate 50% than if it’s ac­tivity cel­e­brated and talked about. The effect is much worse if peo­ple are a bit nega­tive to­wards them, sug­gest­ing they should be aware of burnout and be very care­ful about mak­ing oth­ers feel bad. The same rules ap­ply for 10% vs 1% dona­tions as well. Every eth­i­cal de­ci­sion will have some peo­ple who ac­cept it minorly, ma­jorly and not at all, and we want to be care­ful not to an­chor our move­ment’s baseline ded­i­ca­tion level too heav­ily off the first pledge that got pop­u­lar in it.

Another con­cern peo­ple might have is clos­ing the door to new, less in­volved mem­bers, but again I think this con­cern can be re­versed as well. I know folks from other move­ments who have trou­ble treat­ing EA se­ri­ously when se­nior mem­bers or most mem­bers of the EA move­ment see EA as a very minor part of their lives. Th­ese are the sort of peo­ple who, if they joined, would have very high lev­els of in­volve­ment and po­ten­tially endline im­pact. It’s worth not­ing that a 50% donor donates as much as fifty 1% donors (as­sum­ing they have the same av­er­age in­come), so even if there are lower num­bers of peo­ple in this cat­e­gory, they are still worth con­sid­er­ing se­ri­ously from an im­pact per­spec­tive. I think one could ar­gue the differ­ences are even more ex­treme in di­rect work. Some peo­ple might say that this is the op­po­site of their con­cern, and that high tal­ent peo­ple will be scared away by some mem­bers be­ing very de­voted. How­ever, if we’re get­ting high tal­ent peo­ple with low com­mit­ment, we have all of the prob­lems listed above, mag­nified by the fact that they are higher out­put.

A fre­quent worry peo­ple have is that those less in­vested in the move­ment will feel bad if there are peo­ple do­ing far more than them. How­ever, this equally ap­plies to all lev­els of in­volve­ment. We would not want to stop pro­mot­ing giv­ing 10% be­cause it makes the peo­ple who give less feel bad. Of course we don’t want to blud­geon peo­ple with guilt, but un­for­tu­nately, do­ing more than the norm eth­i­cally will in­evitably lead to some peo­ple feel­ing guilty or in­se­cure. We should try to speak about things sen­si­tively while still en­courag­ing peo­ple to do the most im­pact­ful thing given their con­text. Which brings me to the fi­nal con­sid­er­a­tion—not ev­ery­body can be very com­mit­ted.

If some­body men­tions some­thing they are do­ing that is above the av­er­age, peo­ple are quick to note that not ev­ery­body can ac­com­plish said feats. This is definitely true. How­ever, as above, it ap­plies to ev­ery level of in­volve­ment in the move­ment. Not ev­ery­body can af­ford to donate 10% or do high im­pact vol­un­teer­ing. That does not mean that we should not pro­mote those ac­tions. We just need to try and com­mu­ni­cate it sen­si­tively and rec­og­nize that each per­son has differ­ent life cir­cum­stances. How­ever, if you are for­tu­nate enough to have life cir­cum­stances that al­low for higher lev­els of ded­i­ca­tion, don’t hold back just be­cause oth­ers can­not. We should all give what we can, whether it be money or tal­ent.

In sum­mary, ded­i­ca­tion is an im­por­tant fac­tor pre­dict­ing im­pact. It ei­ther leads to peo­ple giv­ing more per in­come or mak­ing de­ci­sions with im­pact as the more dom­i­nant con­sid­er­a­tion. We should en­courage peo­ple mak­ing im­pact a larger part of their lives rather than dis­cour­ag­ing it or be­ing in­differ­ent.