My 2018 donations

At the end of 2018 (speci­fi­cally, on De­cem­ber 22, 2018), I donated $3,000 USD with the fol­low­ing al­lo­ca­tion:

This is my first set of nor­mal char­ity dona­tions since 2012, when I donated $500 to GiveDirectly. In this post, I de­scribe:

  • My rea­son for donat­ing now, rather than ear­lier or later: Till now, I was first build­ing up a sav­ing buffer and then fund­ing con­tract work heav­ily. With re­cent re­duc­tion in con­tract work spend­ing and in­crease in in­come, I am bet­ter po­si­tioned to donate.

  • My rea­son for choos­ing this amount to donate: It’s the min­i­mum amount that is sub­stan­tive yet un­likely to ma­te­ri­ally af­fect me; I would donate more if I saw more com­pel­ling op­por­tu­ni­ties, and want to keep a re­serve that will al­low me to donate more in the future

  • The se­lec­tion of re­cip­i­ents: For the money di­rectly al­lo­cated by me, GiveWell top char­i­ties won as a de­fault baseline be­cause the al­ter­na­tives were not yet com­pel­ling enough.

I con­clude with a sum­mary.

Gen­eral back­ground:

My rea­son for donat­ing now rather than ear­lier or later

After my last dona­tion of $500 to GiveDirectly on De­cem­ber 24, 2012, my per­sonal fo­cus shifted to­ward build­ing a good sav­ing buffer and ac­quiring per­sonal fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity. For these rea­sons, I deferred donat­ing, with the ex­pec­ta­tion that I might po­ten­tially donate larger amounts later, as I had done prior to 2012. You can see some re­lated thoughts from me in a post to the Effec­tive Altru­ists Face­book group in March 2014.

By 2015, I had a de­cent sav­ing rate and I was quite in­ter­ested in ex­plor­ing philan­thropic op­por­tu­ni­ties, but felt that, rather than di­rectly al­lo­cate money to char­ity, I should in­vest more in get­ting a deeper un­der­stand­ing of var­i­ous do­mains that might be rele­vant. This was part of the mo­ti­va­tion for me spend­ing a fair amount of money fi­nanc­ing con­tract work, mostly by Issa Rice and Se­bas­tian Sanchez, which picked up in 2016 and has been pro­ceed­ing at a fairly steady pace since then. The to­tal money I’ve paid for con­tract work since I started on it has been around $115,000. This is a sig­nifi­cant amount of money that has taken prece­dence over donat­ing money to char­ity.

A few weeks ago, while tak­ing stock of my fi­nances, I re­al­ized a few things:

To­gether, these fac­tors mean that I have a lit­tle more money available to donate to char­ity now than I did till re­cently.

My rea­son for choos­ing this amount to donate

My cur­rent fi­nan­cial situ­a­tion is such that I could donate a rea­son­ably large amount if I felt there was a com­pel­ling op­por­tu­nity that I was uniquely suited to fund. In­deed, some of the con­tract work I’ve funded has fit that bill. Out­side of the con­tract work I’ve di­rectly funded, how­ever, I have not yet found such op­por­tu­ni­ties. I have found a fair num­ber of op­por­tu­ni­ties that meet some of the at­tributes, but most of them tend to get funded through other means, which is good for them and for me.

In the ab­sence of com­pel­ling op­por­tu­ni­ties to fund, my de­fault is to donate some min­i­mum amount. Some rea­sons to keep my cur­rent dona­tion to a min­i­mum amount:

  • The de­sire to keep funds available to spend on more com­pel­ling op­por­tu­ni­ties later, which could in­volve scal­ing up con­tract work (if it’s a pro­ject I can fund or di­rect) or donat­ing to an­other per­son, pro­ject, or or­ga­ni­za­tion.

  • The po­ten­tial benefits of a larger fi­nan­cial buffer to sup­port tran­si­tions to “di­rect work” ca­reers in the fu­ture (though I don’t an­ti­ci­pate im­me­di­ately mak­ing such a tran­si­tion).

  • The po­ten­tial per­sonal benefits of a larger fi­nan­cial buffer, out­side of al­tru­is­tic rea­sons.

To figure out the amount to donate, I used a few heuris­tics:

  • It’s been 6 years since the last stan­dard char­ity dona­tion, and I feel like $500/​year is a rea­son­able “min­i­mum”—it is sub­stan­tive enough but still small enough that it does not fore­close op­por­tu­ni­ties for me. Mul­ti­ply­ing $500 by 6 gives $3,000.

  • It also roughly works out to about 1% of my af­ter-tax in­come for the 6 years, which is an­other way of see­ing that it is non­triv­ial but still not enough to mean­ingfully im­pact me.

  • The to­tal amount that’s be­ing donated is big enough that the fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tion over­head doesn’t eat too much into it. This is an­other ad­van­tage of bunch­ing across years.

The se­lec­tion of recipients

For each of the years 2017 and 2018, I had given Issa the op­tion of as­sign­ing $500 of my money to char­i­ta­ble causes of his choos­ing (with no strict re­quire­ment that these be rec­og­nized as char­i­ties). In 2017, Issa deferred the use of the money, so he had $1,000 to al­lo­cate.

Issa ul­ti­mately de­cided to al­lo­cate 50% of the $1,000 (i.e., $500) to the $500,000 EA Donor Lot­tery, and an­other 50% to the Ma­chine In­tel­li­gence Re­search In­sti­tute (MIRI). For the donor lot­tery, the un­der­stand­ing was that al­though the en­try was un­der my name, Issa would make the de­ci­sion as to how to al­lo­cate the win­nings in the (0.1% prob­a­bil­ity) event that I win the lot­tery.

More of Issa’s rea­son­ing can be found in the 2018 sec­tion of Issa’s dona­tion his­tory page.

Since my over­all giv­ing bud­get was $3,000, and $1,000 was to be de­ter­mined by Issa, that left $2,000 to al­lo­cate. When think­ing about this al­lo­ca­tion, I con­sid­ered a few differ­ent op­tions.

  • GiveWell top charities

  • Effec­tive Altru­ism Funds

  • In­ter­est­ing “ris­ing stars”

GiveWell top charities

I’ve been ob­serv­ing GiveWell for quite some time. For a while, I’ve found their re­search quite good, but un­til a few years ago, I still had sig­nifi­cant un­cer­tainty around how well their top char­i­ties and their vet­ting pro­cess would stand up to the test of time. In the last few years, I’ve seen that the top char­i­ties seem to stand up quite well, the re­search pro­cess has con­tinued to im­prove, and the fund­ing cy­cle has a clear rhythm I can un­der­stand. I be­lieve the prob­lems that are be­ing ad­dressed by GiveWell top char­i­ties are large enough that there are few risks of room for more fund­ing dis­ap­pear­ing. I also think GiveWell’s ap­proach to dis­cre­tionary re­grant­ing is a good one.

Donat­ing money to GiveWell for re­al­lo­ca­tion to top char­i­ties seems like a rea­son­able baseline choice. The ques­tion for me was whether there are bet­ter choices out there.

Effec­tive Altru­ism Funds

I’ve been fol­low­ing the Effec­tive Altru­ism Funds for a while, and in par­tic­u­lar I’ve been keep­ing track of the grants they’ve been mak­ing. I am im­pressed with what I’ve seen so far, par­tic­u­larly from the An­i­mal Welfare Fund, and I think the Meta Fund and the Long-Term Fu­ture Fund have also made some in­ter­est­ing grants.

How­ever, I have a lot of un­cer­tainty around how these funds will con­tinue to op­er­ate over the years, and what sort of fund­ing land­scape they will be op­er­at­ing in. It could be the case that the money pour­ing into the funds sig­nifi­cantly ex­ceeds the amount of good places they can donate to. It could also be the case that we dis­cover over the next year that the grants that seem good now turn out to be not so good, or even ac­tively bad. Another source of un­cer­tainty to me is how EA Funds will play with other fi­nanc­ing ini­ti­a­tives like EA Grants: it could be the case that as EA Grants scales up, there are fewer of these in­ter­est­ing pro­jects for EA Funds to fund.

I ul­ti­mately de­cided to watch the EA Funds (as well as the gen­eral land­scape in which they op­er­ate) for a lit­tle longer be­fore mak­ing a de­ci­sion to donate to them.

In­ter­est­ing “ris­ing stars”

Some or­ga­ni­za­tions start be­com­ing dona­tion tar­gets in the effec­tive al­tru­ism com­mu­nity af­ter word of mouth from a few peo­ple. Th­ese could be:

  • Or­ga­ni­za­tions that have been around for a while and have no other di­rect con­nec­tion to the move­ment, but that get picked up by a few peo­ple in the com­mu­nity. Ex­am­ples: Tostan in 2016, StrongMinds (2016 to pre­sent), No Means No Wor­ld­wide. I thought a bit about donat­ing in this space, but de­cided that these or­ga­ni­za­tions have plenty of fund­ing sources, and I also wasn’t con­vinced of the thor­ough­ness of the eval­u­a­tion of them.

  • Or­ga­ni­za­tions that started out from within the effec­tive al­tru­ism com­mu­nity, and are still in a startup stage where they have enough fund­ing to sur­vive but maybe not enough to grow fast. Po­ten­tial ex­am­ples: AI Im­pacts, Alli­ance to Feed the Earth in Disasters, LessWrong 2.0. While I might have been in­ter­ested in fund­ing spe­cific or­ga­ni­za­tions in this refer­ence class, none of the ones I know fit the bill for me; I be­lieve the fund­ing flow­ing to these or­ga­ni­za­tions is ad­e­quate and the con­straints ham­per­ing their growth are not pri­mar­ily those of fund­ing. How­ever, this is just with my cur­rent state of knowl­edge; I’m keep­ing an eye on a lot of these and might change my mind about spe­cific ones.

  • Fledgling, not-quite-started or­ga­ni­za­tions. Their very sur­vival is un­clear. At pre­sent, I don’t have a clear idea of which of them might be worth fund­ing; the data I’ve seen didn’t point to a clear ex­am­ple of some­thing that would be a com­pel­ling use of funds.

As you can see from the nu­mer­ous links I’ve in­cluded above, I have (with help from Issa Rice) been col­lat­ing a lot of dona­tion in­for­ma­tion and dis­cus­sion doc­u­ments on the dona­tions list web­site, and this has helped me get a sense of the land­scape. I hope to con­tinue to learn more and might find good op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Summary

The up­shot is that GiveWell top char­i­ties “won” as the de­fault baseline, and that’s where I ended up donat­ing. But I also ended up mak­ing this dona­tion smaller, open­ing the pos­si­bil­ity for larger dona­tions later.

I hope to con­tinue work­ing on pro­jects like the Dona­tions list web­site on my per­sonal time and through con­tract work. I also hope to get a clearer pic­ture of a num­ber of things that might lead to more in­ter­est­ing dona­tion de­ci­sions in the fu­ture.

De­spite not find­ing any­thing im­me­di­ately worth­while or ex­cit­ing to donate to, I did see a lot of po­ten­tial op­por­tu­ni­ties. And in many cases, the limit­ing fac­tor was that there were already many other donors who had snapped up the best op­por­tu­ni­ties. To me, this is a good prob­lem to have :).

PS: This post is cross-posted to my per­sonal blog and is also available in my GitHub work­ing drafts. The ver­sions may differ slightly due to for­mat­ting ad­just­ments and limi­ta­tions.