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! 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!