Getting money out of politics and into charity

I’m Eric Ney­man, a grad stu­dent work­ing on mechanism de­sign at Columbia. I am work­ing with Yash Upad­hyay, a stu­dent at UPenn (and pre­vi­ously Y Com­bi­na­tor Sum­mer ’19), to build a plat­form that would match dona­tions to op­pos­ing poli­ti­cal cam­paigns and send the money to char­i­ties in­stead.

Here’s the ba­sic idea: let’s say that in 2024 Ka­mala Har­ris (D) will be run­ning against Mike Pence (R) for pres­i­dent. The plat­form would col­lect money from donors to both cam­paigns; let’s say for ex­am­ple that Har­ris donors give us $10 mil­lion and Pence donors give us $8 mil­lion. We would send match­ing amounts ($8 mil­lion on each side) to char­ity and donate the re­main­ing amount to the poli­ti­cal cam­paign that raised more ($2 mil­lion to Har­ris). The re­sult is that $16 mil­lion more gets sent to char­ity, while not chang­ing how much money the cam­paigns have rel­a­tive to one an­other.

From a donor’s per­spec­tive, one way to think about this is: if you donate $100 to the plat­form, then in the worst case, your money will not end up matched and will go to your preferred cam­paign (as it would have gone if you’d con­tributed di­rectly). But in the best case, your money will be matched with $100 on the other side, re­duc­ing the op­pos­ing can­di­date’s cash on hand by $100 and caus­ing an ex­tra $200 to go to char­ity. As a back-of-the-en­velope calcu­la­tion: $7 billion was spent on the 2016 elec­tion cy­cle, a num­ber that has been rapidly in­creas­ing. If just 0.1% of the money spent on the 2016 elec­tion had in­stead gone to effec­tive char­i­ta­ble causes, that would amount to a few thou­sand lives saved.

If you’d like to read more about this idea, see here for a more ex­ten­sive write-up and here for an anal­y­sis of pos­si­ble in­cen­tives is­sues with the plat­form, as well as pos­si­ble fixes.

This idea has been tried be­fore: dur­ing the 2012 elec­tion, Eric Zolt and Jonathan DiBenedetto tried to cre­ate a plat­form like this and called it Re­pledge; here’s a Wash­ing­ton Post pro­file. Un­for­tu­nately they didn’t get past the test­ing phase. Yash and I talked to the two of them a cou­ple weeks ago to learn what worked and what didn’t. They told us that the pri­mary ob­sta­cle they ran into wasn’t a tech­ni­cal one (web in­fras­truc­ture etc.) but a le­gal one: cam­paign fi­nance law is com­pli­cated, plus the poli­ti­cal par­ties won’t like you (you’re tak­ing their money) and will very likely sue you. Dr. Zolt said that these law­suits are dan­ger­ous de­spite an FEC rul­ing say­ing that Re­pledge was le­gal, be­cause there are var­i­ous ways to in­ter­pret the rul­ing. He gave us a bal­l­park es­ti­mate that cre­at­ing some­thing like Re­pledge would cost a quar­ter of a mil­lion dol­lars. (We are work­ing on get­ting a more gran­u­lar es­ti­mate for the le­gal and mar­ket­ing costs in­di­vi­d­u­ally, but the largest com­po­nent would prob­a­bly be le­gal.)

The pur­pose of this post is ba­si­cally to gauge in­ter­est and ask for ad­vice. Here are some con­crete ques­tions:

  • If we suc­cess­fully built this plat­form, would you con­sider us­ing it? If your an­swer is “it de­pends”, what does it de­pend on?

  • Do you think build­ing this plat­form is worth the cost? If so, do you have sug­ges­tions for how we might be able to fi­nance this pro­ject? What grant-award­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions might be a good fit for our pro­ject? In par­tic­u­lar, would it be rea­son­able for us to con­tact the Open Philan­thropy Pro­ject?

  • One thing I didn’t spec­ify in the de­scrip­tion above is how ex­actly the char­ity dona­tion pro­cess will work. Our ten­ta­tive plan is to offer a list of char­i­ties for donors to choose from; what­ever frac­tion of a donor’s money gets matched will go to the char­ity they chose. If you have a sug­ges­tion you think is bet­ter, we’d love to hear it. But if we end up go­ing with this plan, how should we choose the char­i­ties? I think the right an­swer is to strike a bal­ance be­tween two ex­tremes. One ex­treme is hav­ing only GiveWell char­i­ties and the like; the other ex­treme is to have char­i­ties that max­i­mally ap­peal to po­ten­tial donors (but which are not as effec­tive). How do we choose char­i­ties that will seem like a fair list to both Democrats and Repub­li­cans? My pre­dic­tion is that we’ll have a lot more trou­ble at­tract­ing Repub­li­cans; should we bias our char­ity se­lec­tion to­ward things Repub­li­cans re­spond par­tic­u­larly pos­i­tively to (e.g. vet­er­ans’ char­i­ties) to miti­gate this? It would be re­ally helpful to talk to some­one who’s stud­ied donor psy­chol­ogy and has opinions about these things!

  • Are you sold on this idea and in­ter­ested in helping us? If so, shoot me an email at eric.ney­man@columbia.edu! I’d love to hear from any of you, par­tic­u­larly if you’re a lawyer or law-ad­ja­cent and have ad­vice on how to han­dle the le­gal challenges I briefly de­scribed. Of if you know any lawyers who might be able to help, that would be great too!

Thanks for any thoughts you have for us!

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