A certificate of impact (also known as an impact certificate) is a kind of altruistic instrument at the center of a funding model proposed by Paul Christiano. Certificates of impact attempt to harness the benefits of the price system in altruistic contexts, where prices are usually unavailable.
On this model, altruistic work receives some or all of its funding after completion rather than beforehand. Once an individual or organization completes work with a positive social impact, they can apply for a certificate of impact. They can then sell this certificate to another organization or individual. Following the sale, the new certificate holder can claim credit for the impact of the project, and the organization that carried out the project must acknowledge that they have sold its impact.
This scheme has been proposed and tested by some members of the effective altruism community. They argue that the scheme is better than funding incomplete projects, because it allows for payments by results rather than by effort, which better incentivizes those running the project to do a good job. They also argue that awarding certificates of impact might be simpler and clearer than pre-funding projects.
Certificates of impact and non-fungible tokens
In early May 2021, the organization Noora Health—which implements educational programs for mothers of newborns in South Asia—launched a non-fungible token (NFT) which may in some respects be regarded as a certificate of impact. The auction opened with a list price of $2.5 million, and computer scientist and tech entrepreneur Paul Graham—a long-time supporter of the organization—placed the winning bid of ETH 1337, at the time worth $5.23 million (Noora Health 2021; Graham 2021). A difference between this use of NFTs and certificates of impact as conceived by Christiano is that those bidding in the NFT auction are paying for the prospect of future impact, whereas an impact purchase is a transaction involving the transfer of past impact.
casebash (2020) Making impact purchases viable, Effective Altruism Forum, April 17.
Christiano, Paul (2014) Certificates of impact, Rational Altruist, November 15.
Christiano, Paul & Katja Grace (2015a) Why certificates?, The Impact Purchase.
An explanation of the benefits of certificates of impact.
Christiano, Paul & Katja Grace (2015b) Certificates of impact, The Impact Purchase.
Graham, Paul (2021) An NFT that saves lives, Paul Graham’s Website, May.
Hoffman, Ben (2016) Minimum viable impact purchases, Compass Rose, August 29.
Kuhn, Ben (2015) I just sold half of a blog post, Ben Kuhn’s Blog, April.
A good intuitive description of the idea of impact purchase.
Linsefors, Linda (2020) The case for impact purchase | part 1, Effective Altruism Forum, April 14.
Noora Health (2021) Save thousands of lives, OpenSea.
Rose, Eli (2020) Do impact certificates help if you’re not sure your work is effective?, Effective Altruism Forum, February 12.