Should effective altruism have a norm against donating to employers?
A number of people who work at effective altruist organisations also donate to their employer. We’ve had some interesting conversations recently at CEA on whether this is a good thing. We haven’t reached a consensus, but we thought the ideas were worth sharing. This is a somewhat niche topic, and is mostly relevant for people doing direct work at such organisations.
The strongest reason to have a community norm against doing this is that it’s easier to be unbiased in assessing other organisations.
Reasons why we may be biased towards believing orgs we work for are effective:
Helps us feel better about working there
Helps us convince others it’s worth giving money to or coming to work for
Extra reason we may be biased towards donating to orgs we work for:
Likely to be a popular action at office / with employer
May be hard to eliminate such bias, so better to remove the pressure for or damage from the bias (Christiano, 2016)
Norms against donating to employer help with both
Reduces pressure for bias by removing one incentive towards believing it’s effective
Reduces impact of bias by having people’s actions depend less on biased beliefs
Reduce “echo chamber” effects where everyone talking to each other all agree about what’s most effective.
The strongest reason not to have such a community norm is that it pushes against the norm of just doing what’s most effective.
This is a distinctive and important part of effective altruism.
People are particularly likely to think their employer is the most effective use of money, since a belief that it’s extremely effective could be a common cause of choosing to work there and wanting to donate.
People often have comparative advantage in being donors for their employer:
On the heuristic that people should often just fill funding gaps that they are well-placed to evaluate (and can tell it’s a good use of money), it should be fairly common for people to be best-placed to make judgements about their employer.
This applies particularly for small organisations without much of a track record.
There are often tax advantages in donating-by-drawing-a-smaller-salary.
We should note that this isn’t a binary distinction. We want to know where we should be on a spectrum:
It should be illegal to donate to one’s employer
EA orgs should not accept donations from employees
There should be a strong norm in EA of not giving to employers
There should be a weak norm in EA of not giving to employers (for example, not unless you’ve really done your homework, or not except for orgs without a track record, or not giving more than 50% of donations to employers)
There should be no norm in EA regarding this
There should be a positive norm in EA of giving to employers
EAs should be strongly encouraged or required to give to their employers
I don’t think anyone (involved in the discussion so far) supports a. or g., and perhaps not b. or f.
There are some further considerations in each direction.
Additional reasons to support stronger norms against donating to employers:
Possible conflicts of interest
Employers may be less willing to fire or discipline employees who donate significant amounts, or may give their opinions undue weight
Employee/donors may feel like they should have more say over organisational strategy than is appropriate, and may lobby to have their views implemented
Outside view suggests that a norm of donating lots of salary back to employers is weird and worth pushing against. Carl Shulman pointed out to me some specific possible harms:
Filters out the less dedicated
Filters out alternative perspectives about efficacy
Reduces efforts finding new good opportunities
Makes wages misleading
Creates the opportunity for abuse of power by the organization/employer
Creates the appearance of all of the above, even if they are not directly damaging
Probably we don’t lose too much efficiency by redirecting these donations
If we’re functioning at all reasonably as a community, the marginal value of funds at the top organisations is actually comparable (market efficiency among the small community—opportunities which are significantly better will be taken)
Of course we’ll have controversy over which are in this set … but should expect to find some other places which are in-expectation comparable, so not leaving too much value on the floor
This doesn’t push particularly against donating to an employer, but means that if there are significant considerations against, they shouldn’t get overruled by a consideration saying “Must donate to X, since X is way more effective than alternatives”
At most EA orgs, employees are making a significant de facto donation to their employer anyway, by accepting well below salary they could earn elsewhere
This reduces the relative importance of the direct effects of their actual donations, relative to other factors.
We might donation-swap to recover the tax benefits without vulnerability to bias, although there is extra hassle associated with this.
More donor-donee links across the EA community help keep it more of a community, and also mean that people are more actively keeping up with what’s happening elsewhere.
Additional reasons to oppose such norms:
They push against norms of allowing personal freedom in how to allocate resources.
EA tends to not want to dictate to people what they may or may not do. This is a serious mark against the stronger versions of the norms.
They would be somewhat weird.
We don’t think these norms exist elsewhere. There are costs to having extra and unusual bits of culture.
There’s a tradition of for example activists donating money to their parties.
Donating to an employer is an opportunity to signal confidence in the project by using your own money
Signalling is less strong than when trying to get personal gain via investment
This cuts both ways a little, since it might also increase pressure for bias
Donating to an employer by reducing salary is low-hassle
And (like payroll giving) it can also make donating easier by avoiding loss aversion.
Thanks to Max Dalton, Sam Deere, Will MacAskill, Michael Page, Stefan Shubert, Carl Shulman, Pablo Stafforini, Rob Wiblin, and Julia Wise for comments and contributions to the conversation.
Opinion: Owen Cotton-Barratt
I actually used to donate to my employer, but I now think that the appropriate level is around c. on the spectrum. Probably we should allow or even encourage donation to an employer when the org is very small / just getting started, as the comparative advantage as a donor assessing the org is likely to be very large in this case. But I’d prefer to discourage donating to employers as those employers get bigger. I don’t know whether it would make sense for employers to explicitly refuse donations from employees, and I wouldn’t implement such a rule now, but I could see myself supporting one in the future.
I worry that normalising donation to employers is taking a short-sighted consequentialist view (“Where will my donation do most good?”), rather than asking which norms will lead to the best version of EA.
Opinion: Robert Wiblin
I have donated to my employer in the past and intend to continue, inasmuch as I think it’s among the best places for the money to go. The reason to give there is the same as the reason to work there in the first place—I think the intervention we are implementing is highly effective.
The amount of money employees at EA organisations can give is fairly small, so I think it’s reasonable to just choose a simple option. Forgoing salary is easy and highly tax efficient.
If you share the values of the people donating to your organisation, giving to your employer also ‘funges’ well; by shrinking the funding requirements of your org, you free up donors who would fund you to fund something else they judge to be effective. By doing this you leave it up to bigger donors to determine where the final marginal dollar goes.