Should EA Groups Run Organ Donor Registration Drives?

[Epistemic status: prima facie; exploratory]

Related content: Kidney donation is a reasonable choice for effective altruists and more should consider it; WaitList Zero Grant

Should EA groups run organ donor registration drives?

Prima Facie Case

Here are some reasons why I think this idea is worth trying (for American groups specifically):

1. There seems to be a significant gap between people’s stated support for organ donation and actual registration (“95% of U.S. adults support organ donation but only 58% are actually signed up as donors.” It’s immediately unclear to me what “support” means in this context, though.). Registering is also extremely low-cost to donors; likely much less costly than donating money to effective charities. This suggests tractability.

2. Transplantation is constrained by the number of registered donors.

3. Donations can significantly improve the longevity of recipients.

4. There is some evidence that donation initiatives are cost-effective. (“In conclusion, initiatives to increase organ donation such as DA are likely to be cost‐effective under a variety of clinical scenarios. Aggressively implementing such programs could be an important step to generating long‐term savings and alleviating the worldwide organ shortage.”). However, I have not compared this to other activities (the closest comparison point being fundraising for GiveWell charities).

5. Voluntary, uncompensated post-mortem organ donation is extremely popular (see 1. above) and uncontroversial; perhaps less controversial even than giving to the global poor.

6. For signaling and credibility reasons, I think it’s generally good for EA groups to run activities that have very concrete, public, measurable impacts. This scores well on all of those (e.g., # of donors registered).

7. I intuitively expect similar activities (namely, fundraising for GiveWell charities) to have rapidly diminishing returns and to also be largely non-rivalrous with organ donor registration, such that switching time from GiveWell fundraising to organ donor registration might be sensible on the margin, especially if groups have underutilized volunteer capacity.

8. In my experience at two large universities, I recall only being asked to register as an organ donor one time, in a highly unusual setting, which anecdotally suggests that this is a neglected area.

9. I think it’s generally good for EA groups to diversify their actions to attract more people and for reasons similar to 6. above.

10. Organ donation drives might emotionally resonate with people whose family members have lost QALYs due to waiting for a donation.

11. I suspect this would be easy to implement, since there are existing toolkits.

Some Arguments Against This

1. To credibly do this, this would require EAs to learn about a new cause area, which would take time.

2. Flow-through effects on farmed animals from extending Americans’ lifespans might be significantly negative on average, possibly offsetting gains.

3. One should have a strong prior that actions aimed at improving Americans’ lives are probably not cost-effective compared to actions aimed at improving the lives of the global poor.

4. It takes approximately 333 donor registrations to counterfactually increase the number of actual organ donors by 1, which suggests low tractability. (“[O]nly 3 in 1,000 people die in a way that allows for organ donation.”)

5. Whereas charity pledge drives can drive longer-term commitments and changes in mindset, this doesn’t seem like it can. H/​T Ryan Carey.

6. This could promote memes about live kidney donation that are potentially harmful to EA productivity. H/​T Ryan Carey.

My Takeaway

Taking all of the above into consideration, my qualitative weighting of the evidence is that this is a worthwhile activity for EA groups to consider, especially if they have spare volunteer capacity and are reaching diminishing returns on GiveWell fundraising. However, I would also appreciate quantitative analysis of this proposal. (I don’t have time to do this myself right now, unfortunately.) I would appreciate input from people who have run organ donor registration drives (or similar events like blood drives).

Even so, I think the arguments above are strong enough to warrant a local or school EA group experimenting with this right now.