Deputy Director of Wild Animal Initiative
[Question] How do you decide how much to donate in “user fees” for free services?
Professional development resources for fundraisers: a few links
I would think if an organization had operational constraints, it would still have room for more funding, just the funding would be spent on expanding operations.
tl;dr: I don’t think “slow and steady” growth is a problem, only “slow and unsteady” growth.
speed of hiring—an organization can only spend money to hire and expand so quickly and maybe they are already saturated
Actually, I don’t think expansion speed alone should be considered a factor in room for more funding. If there are no mission constraints or relative timing constraints, should it matter to me when the organization spends my money? If not, why not donate now so they’ll have more to use once they are no longer saturated?
I was trying to define operational constraints more narrowly, to include only the kind of growth that actually threatens the effectiveness of the org. I’m not sure exactly what this would look like. Perhaps if an org currently has promising programs, but is growing in a way that I think will create problems for them, then I would worry they won’t be effective by the time they are no longer saturated.
I may not have much to add, because I know you’ve thought a ton about this and I’m obviously not on the AWF panel. But for what it’s worth, here’s how I would rate those categories, in descending order of expected impact:
Research to inform future interventions
Advocacy to raise concern about the subject
Current interventions to improve wild animal welfare
Most of all, I think we should be measuring projects by how they contribute to the formation of a movement around wild animal welfare. That points in a slightly different direction than if we just think about the direct impact of a particular project. For example:
Research: Developing methods or concepts might catalyze further research better than simply developing technologies or species-specific knowledge.
Advocacy: Appealing to conservation organizations (“grasstops”) might build coalitions quicker than appealing to the general public (“grassroots”).
Current interventions: Conceptually simple interventions on somewhat likable species (e.g., rat contraception) might attract more resources to the cause than counterintuitive interventions on alien species (e.g., humane insecticides), even if the latter would have more impact in the short term.
Feel free to reach out if you want to bounce around ideas! email@example.com
Hi Michael and Abraham!
The answer depends on which type of longtermism we’re talking about.
As an organization, Wild Animal Initiative is committed to the position that animals matter equally regardless of when they exist.
That is, we exist to help as many wild animals as we can as much as we can. All else equal, it doesn’t matter to us whether that happens in our lifetimes or in the long-term future, because it feels the same to the animals in either case. We’re not in the business of warm fuzzies—despite the warmth and fuzziness of many of our clients.
In practice, because there are so many wild animals in the far future, that leads us to think about the far future a lot. It’s the main reason we’re laser-focused on supporting the growth of a self-sustaining academic field dedicated to improving wild animal welfare. As far as we can tell, that currently seems like the most reliable vehicle for institutionalizing an ethical and scientific framework capable of continuously serving wild animals’ interests.
Several of our staff also believe that our decisions should primarily work backward from what we think would be best ~1000+ years from now. But we haven’t committed to that as an organization.
This position has been called “strong longtermism.” It’s something we plan to consider further.
Even though it’s not our official position, strong longtermists might still choose to donate to WAI—because they believe we have the most promising theory of change, because they believe we’re the most funding-constrained of available longtermist projects, or for other reasons.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear from anyone who has ideas on what we might do differently if we were to adopt a strong longtermist position.
My guess is that the EA AWF’s grantees almost always have room for more funding. In addition to the reasons I think effective orgs generally tend to have room for more funding, the EA AWF does an excellent job highlighting neglected orgs in neglected areas.
I think the grantees least likely to have room for more funding are individuals, teams of less than 4 people, and high-impact projects within lower-impact organizations. But these are also the cases where it tends to be easiest to cold-call the grantee and get the full answer in a quick call. For example, an independent researcher could tell you “I’m doing this alongside my PhD so I really can’t actually take on more projects” or “My last grant just ran out so I can keep working on this new project as long as I can pay for it.”
Note that my reasoning might be motivated by the fact that I work for an org that receives substantial support from the EA AWF (Wild Animal Initiative), and part of my job includes fundraising. Hopefully my perspective contributes more than my bias detracts!
I’m sure others have much more considered thoughts on how to evaluate and communicate room for more funding, but here are some I’ve been musing on.
I’ve found it more productive to frame the question in the negative: “Why wouldn’t this charity have room for more funding?”
I think that’s because it only takes a few things to constrain a charity’s growth, but when the org has room to grow, there are many directions it can grow. So when I try to think of the ways a charity could grow, I’m almost always going to underestimate the number of opportunities the charity itself has identified. For example, I might think a charity has exhausted the opportunities for a certain kind of campaign, but it probably wouldn’t occur to me that they could make all of their campaigns much more effective if they hired an operations staffer with Salesforce expertise.
Starting with the negative framing, there seem to be only a few kinds of constraints a charity can have other than funding. Probably not exhaustive, but here’s my list:
Mission constraints: Do I generally expect this charity to do high-impact work? If I’m only excited about a few of their projects, then it’s less likely that marginal donations will counterfactually increase those projects.
Note that questions of program constraints (e.g., “no more states they could run ballot measures in”) often reduce to questions of mission constraints (e.g., “if they run out of states to do ballot measures in, will they identify another high-impact program to launch?”).
Talent constraints: Is the charity able to hire people good enough to continue their high-impact work?
Operational constraints: Does the charity have enough administrative bandwidth to hire staff or expand programs without straining their systems so much that their effectiveness suffers?
Relative timing constraints: Are there comparably cost-effective charities with much more urgent and important funding needs?
Note that I don’t think timing should be considered a constraint independent of the needs of comparably cost-effective charities. If a charity already has enough funding to, e.g., hire as many staff as it has the capacity to hire in the next two years, then additional funding now will allow them to plan for hiring in the third year and optimize their current plans accordingly.
- 15 May 2021 2:23 UTC; 4 points)'s comment on Animal Welfare Fund: Ask us anything! by (
Funding is also a major constraint in wild animal welfare.
At Wild Animal Initiative, our core objective is to establish a self-sustaining academic field dedicated to improving wild animal welfare. This welfare focus is a major paradigm shift from the naturalness focus that currently dominates conservation biology and related disciplines.
That means one major constraint is the availability of interested scientists. Many researchers need to be persuaded before they can develop relevant projects.
However, we’ve been finding that we consistently underestimate the number of scientists who don’t need any persuasion at all. Plenty of people pursue careers in wildlife sciences because they love wildlife the same way they love their pets: they just want animals to be happy. Then there are the people who pursued careers in wildlife sciences for other reasons, but devoted themselves to helping them after seeing wild animals suffer in their labs or in the wild. (One such researcher was so radicalized by her experiences studying flying snake biomechanics that she eventually became our executive director.)
Funding is the main thing keeping these scientists from researching the highest-priority wild animal welfare questions. Often, they have to put aside their welfare concerns to focus on projects that appeal to traditional conservation funders. Sometimes they manage to fund welfare research by appealing to funders’ other priorities. These compromises tend to lead to suboptimal projects (e.g., exploring high-cost ways to improve rare species’ welfare, rather than low-cost ways to improve common species’ welfare). And even the best welfare projects funded by traditional funders tend to have limited impact, because the conservation spin makes it harder for other scientists to recognize the work and contribute to a cohesive research agenda.
More funding would give these scientists the support they need to come out of the woodwork. Eventually, Wild Animal Initiative would like to start a research fund we can use to issue calls for proposals on key themes in wild animal welfare. We’re also really excited about the possibility of the EA Animal Welfare fund supporting academic wild animal welfare research. It’s a big enough space that we’re years away from funging each other, but it’s still worth noting that the EA AWF will be a better funder for many projects that WAI could be, including:
Small scoping projects
Projects that need funding quickly
Projects outside the natural sciences, especially policy and social science projects
[Observations from inside the charity pipeline]
As Mikaela said, the EA Animal Welfare Fund has a lot of leverage to strategically diversify the effective animal advocacy movement:
The EA Animal Welfare and ACE Recommended Charity Fund sometimes act as a pipeline, where a nascent project will seek support from the EA Animal Welfare Fund before growing into a more established charity that receives support from the ACE Recommended Charity Fund. One example of this pipeline is Wild Animal Initiative, which has received EA Animal Welfare Fund grants since 2017 (under the name Wild Animal Suffering Research), and became an ACE Top Charity in 2020.
I’m lucky enough to work for Wild Animal Initiative, and I can confirm that the EA AWF’s support was essential to establishing enough of a track record that ACE could evaluate us. Without that funding, ACE just wouldn’t have much to evaluate, and whatever we might have accomplished could not have been accomplished nearly as professionally.
As a former donor to the EA AWF, it’s really important to me that it keep playing this role as the beginning of the high-impact project pipeline. So we’re taking care to design a fundraising strategy that allows the EA AWF to dial down their funding for us as soon as possible. Over the next 2-5 years, we plan to grow a donor base rooted more and more in the broader wildlife advocacy movement. We’ll need the EA AWF’s support to get there, but once we get there, we’re looking forward to freeing up more funding for fledgling ventures.
[Adding some unoriginal thoughts on risky donations]
As Mikaela said, which fund you donate to depends in large part on how safe/risky you want your donations to be:
In contrast, the EA Animal Welfare Fund tends to donate to more numerous, often earlier-stage projects that are higher-risk and, arguably, higher-reward.
When I first got involved in EA, I thought “high-impact donations” obviously had to be “safe donations.”
Over the past several years, I’ve changed my mind. I now think EAs should generally lean toward riskier donations than the average donor, for three reasons:
Preferring safety too strongly can be irrational. As this article on risk aversion concludes, “it may be best for altruists to be approximately risk-neutral overall.”
Neglected causes are both especially likely to be high-impact and especially likely to be relatively risky to work in. In order to pick low-hanging karmic fruit, you may have to start a new charity or try a new method. They might not be the safest bets, but they can still be good bets.
Non-EA donors tend to be risk-averse. That means those relatively risky projects in neglected cause areas are likely to stay neglected until risk-neutral donors support them. In other words, EAs have a comparative advantage in making relatively risky donations.
I think all that makes the EA Animal Welfare Fund an incredibly exciting place to donate to. So much karma to pluck, and so few plucking it!
In some cases, I am wary of us funging Open Phil or OWA or some other funder. E.g., potentially at times with some corporate chicken campaigns in a neglected region, or even with larger promising groups based in Europe or the US.
Because Lewis Bollard is both a manager of the EA AWF and a program officer at Open Philanthropy, does his involvement reduce the likelihood of funging with Open Phil?
This was such an interesting discussion! Jordan, I was particularly impressed by (and grateful for) the way you continued to clarify the nature of your concerns while simultaneously remaining open to the new evidence and arguments others shared.
And for what it’s worth, I think “Other people are doing this thing wrong!” is a great reason to do that thing yourself. I hope anyone with concerns about wild animal welfare will join the movement and make it better—or at least voice those concerns as productively as you did.
In the time since Abraham wrote this comment, Animal Charity Evaluators recommended one of the orgs he started as a Top Charity! So ACE definitely counts now, and Abe needs to update his resume.
I also think Abe was right to count ACE as working in wild animal welfare before, because their early explorations directly contributed to the formation of the field. For example, the intern that carried out their 2016 survey on attitudes toward wild animal welfare is now a researcher at Wild Animal Initiative. (You can see some of Luke Hecht’s recent work here.)
(That said I do think “deeply understand” doesn’t quite do the job.)
I feel the same way, even though I’m relatively strongly opposed to EA jargon, and even though I don’t know the specific connotations from Stranger in a Strange Land.
Here’s the compromise I’ve settled on: “to grok” → “to grok, to really deeply understand.”
That is, I’ll use the jargon and immediately follow it with the translation. It’s inelegant, and I’ve only used it in conversation so far. Not sure I’d be comfortable with so many redundant words in text. But I like that this compromise:
Conveys as much of the point as possible to someone unfamiliar with the term “grok.”
Adds the marginal value of “grok” for anyone who is familiar with the term.
Maybe even adds some of the marginal value of “grok” for someone unfamiliar with the term. The fact that I’m using a foreign word to describes this idea suggests that it’s a different/harder-to-capture idea than simply “really deeply understand.” So from context, you could conclude that “grok” means “like really deeply understand, but in a different or harder-to-capture way,” which is most of what I mean by “grok” anyway.
Agreed! I appreciate the correction.
Thanks for sharing Catia’s dissertation! I hadn’t seen that before and I’m looking forward to reading it.
Anecdatum: This is consistent with my recent experience measuring my own happiness!
I recently started using UpLift (a cognitive behavioral therapy app developed by our friend Spencer Greenberg of ClearerThinking.org) to manage some mood changes that might be mild depression. The app prompts you to rate and reflect on your happiness several times each day.
Each time I tried to rate my mood, I thought:
“Huh, I don’t feel that great. But I do feel better than before. So I have to say a higher number this time. Dammit, I can’t even measure my mood accurately. This damn app is confounding everything by making me slightly happier! …Oh.”
Great point, Eze Paez! I’m glad you added it.
1. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Jane was trying to say you have to be a utilitarian to support wild animal welfare. I interpreted her comment as mostly referring to the intellectual history of the wild animal welfare movement, which does seem to have its roots primarily in utilitarianism.
2. One of my favorite illustrations of a non-consequentialist/non-welfarist rationale for improving wild animal welfare (backing up your points b and c) is “Legal Personhood and the Positive Rights of Wild Animals” (Jay Shooster 2017). Well worth checking out if you haven’t already!
Another argument against this position is its effect on your moral attitudes as Jeff Sebo argued in his talk at EA global in 2019. You could dismiss this if you are certain it will not effect the relative value you place on other being and by not advertising your position as to not effect others.
(FYI, this is the argument I was referring to as the “epistemic” argument in my other comment. Thanks for linking to that talk, George!)
Thanks so much for sharing your perspective! That’s basically what I’ve been doing so far.
But I’ve started feeling the urge often enough that each appreciation donation makes me worried about my overall approach to appreciation donations — which seriously distracts from the warm fuzzies I was trying to buy in the first place.