SoGive conducts research like this as part of its moral weights process.
Our first such study was last year and focused primarily on how much people value
Averting severe depression
Averting animal suffering
We invested less effort in, but also explored
Saving species from extinction
Comparing a life in the far future with a life today
We were interested in comparing them against each other, and in a quantitative comparison (i.e. how much is one valued more than another)
We were motivated to conduct this research because our work is intended to serve a broad audience, and we wanted to incorporate the perspective of the population as a whole.
Because the questions we wanted to answer were quantitative, we posed quantitative questions in the survey. We found that several respondents gave answers which did not seem consistent, when consistency checks where included in the survey. This is a key challenge for this type of work, and suggests that a slightly more indirect approach to answering the questions may be more effective.
I believe I had a chat with an EA group at Harvard who said they were doing exactly this. I seem to remember thinking that it would be valuable for RCTs to be made available to NGOs more cheaply. If I remember correctly, this was the group:
In order for us to be safe from future pandemics, it’s really important we don’t overindex on the pandemics of the past (or the present).
SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t really spread through surfaces/fomites much, if at all.
I’m sure the linked post is right to say that this is also true of “several respiratory pathogens”.
However I’d be surprised if it were true of all respiratory pathogens, let alone other diseases. Gastric/diarrhoeal diseases such as norovirus, rotavirus, or, indeed, ebola can spread through fomite transmission.
In short, I disagree that airborne transmission of viruses is the only way that pandemics can ever arise.
I would love to see Santa become more longtermist.
Santa travels at speeds in excess of 4 million km/h (source) in order to travel 160 million km to visit 200 million children in one night. This suggests that Santa has access to very powerful energy source. Research into this could swiftly accelerate clean energy research. This could (a) quickly resolve the climate crisis and (b) leave fossil fuels in the ground which would allow for a quick recovery to civilisation in case of future civilisational collapse. Santa’s failure to share this potentially humanity-saving power with everyone surely makes him very s-elf-ish.
As someone who has lived since the third to fourth century, Santa certainly has a very valuable perspective on the long term past. I’d like to see Santa contribute as a historian to help us better understand the long term future. I’d also expect Santa to be well-positioned to collaborate with Rudolph on a longtermist history project, because many have predicted: “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, you’ll go down in historyyyy!”
I think Santa should be more anti-speciesist.
His presents go overwhelmingly to human children. I’m sure many young animals feel they are missing out simply because they happen not have been born human. Where is Santa Paws?
Santa gets his reindeer to travel at the aforementioned >4 million km/h. It seems highly unlikely that this would be consistent with how reindeer would behave in their natural environment. However, there is some reason to believe that Santa may care for his reindeer. After all, when all of the other reindeer used to laugh and call names at one particular reindeer, Santa did intervene and grant that reindeer a leadership position which effectively ended the bullying. Perhaps, therefore, Santa may love animals deerly.
Santa could do more as an impact investor too.
Like all other philanthropists, Santa should remember that his money is being invested before it is donated. I’m sure Santa must deal with some money, probably to purchase the raw materials which his elves use in their workshop, or failing that he at least handles the chocolate coins which appear in so many stockings. Enough money to fund 200 million children’s worth of presents suggests an endowment of many billions. Santa could use this to fund more impact investing evaluations, using the Total Portfolio Return framework. For any leftover funds, he could invest in a Universal Ownership approach to help transform the financial system for the better. This makes sense for Santa, or anyone else who is not nickel-less.
Santa could also do more in terms of short-termist happiness.
Some research suggests that therapy may be 12x better than cash transfers. But how effective are gift transfers? Maybe Santa could outperform his current impact by focusing more on mental elf.
Santa could also do more charity entrepreneurship.
What better way to be more ambitious than to set up a new charity? Perhaps Santa was suffering from misconceptions about what sort of person you need to be to found a charity. Santa is clearly a quiet man—I’ve never spotted him bringing presents to my home—and therefore perhaps quite introverted. However he should learn that to be a charity founder you don’t need to be brimming in elf-confidence.
There was a period around 2016-18 when I took this idea very seriously.
This led to probably around 1 year’s worth of effort spent on seeking funds from sources who didn’t understand why tackling EA issues was so important. This was mostly a waste of my time and theirs.
The formula isn’t just:
Impact of taking money from a high-impact funder = impact you achieve minus impact achieved by what they would have funded otherwise
Instead it’s :
Impact of taking money from a high-impact funder = impact you achieve minus impact achieved by what they would have funded otherwise plus the amount of extra work you get done by not having spend time seeking funding
SoGive piloted charity gift cards some years ago.
Our charity donations product worked as follows:
The gift giver loaded up the gift recipient’s account with however much money they liked
The gift recipient could choose to donate to any charity
The user journey “nudged” donors to high impact charities: the front page showed SoGive Gold-rated charities (which at the time perfectly aligned with GiveWell-recommended charities). To get to another charity required an extra click. The front page explained that those charities were there because careful research had shown these charities to be higher impact.
The successful bits:
Our user testing suggested the nudge was largely successful: users largely wanted to complete the process as quickly as possible and were happy to accept the research done by others
The less successful bits
Donor acquisition costs (i.e. the costs of online advertising to get users) was higher than the donations generated
We then experimented with the model. We tried a different product where the gift recipient receives 50% charity donation, 50% Amazon gift voucher. This was more successful, in that the amount of charity donations generated at least exceeded the advertising costs. However this was not sufficient—we had set a more demanding goal than this, and it did not reach that target.
We did not target the EA community, as we were aiming for impact, and didn’t want to target users whose counterfactuals involved donating to high impact charities anyway.
Hi Iris Amazon, thank you for your interest in helping the Amazon rainforest in the most effective way possible.
I founded SoGive, an organisation which aims to help donors get EA-based answers to questions such as these. We have not done a careful review of this question, so this comment is off-the-cuff.
I suspect that the best way to help the rainforest is probably to support an animal welfare charity.
Avoiding deforestation is intrinsically effective at preserving the rainforest, and also deforestation is likely to cause forest fires (see, e.g., Cardil et al 2020; note that a fuller analysis would seek to understand your goals better to ensure that tackling deforestation really achieves what you’re aiming for)
I understand that Amazon deforestation is mostly caused by cattle ranching (63% according to this source, which cites World Resources Institute using Hansen et al 2019, 80% according to this source; note that a fuller analysis would fact-check these sources further and seek to understand how the numbers were derived)
My best guess is that the Good Food Institute is best charity to donate to for this. In case I haven’t made it clear enough thus far, this is a caveated recommendation.
Good Food Institute (GFI)
GFI works to accelerate alternative protein innovation (i.e. plant-based meat or cultivated/lab-made meat). It does this through lobbying, research and other activities.
We have not done a review of GFI. You can find the Animal Charity Evaluators review of GFI here. I cannot vouch for the quality of Animal Charity Evaluators because we haven’t reviewed their work carefully enough yet, although we plan to.
A major downside of GFI is that their work will take time, and may not be suitable if you seek immediate impact.
Why GFI and not another animal charity?
As this comment is not a rigorous review, I can’t be confident that GFI is the best choice. However, I looked briefly at the Animal-Charity-Evaluators-recommended charities, and observed that their recommendations tend to help animals like chickens, or perhaps fish, but less so cows. This makes sense given that Animal Charity Evaluators focuses on animal welfare, which is much worse for industrially farmed chicken than for most ruminants, such as cows. GFI’s work is more systemic and therefore could impact cows as well.
It is certainly possible that another charity is more effective at preventing cattle ranching without me knowing about it. A fuller review would explore this question further.
Is tackling animal product demand definitely the right choice?
Just because we have a chart showing that most of the Amazonian deforestation is caused by cattle ranching, that doesn’t necessarily mean that stopping the cattle ranching will stop the deforestation.
For example, it may be that the land will continue to be sought after, but for another purpose (e.g. I understand that palm oil mostly happens in other rainforest-rich countries at the moment, but that there are plans afoot to increase palm oil production in Brazil).
This is yet another area which would need a fuller review in order to have confidence in the recommendation.
If the recommendation turns out to be wrong, I suspect that this is most likely to be the cause.
Why not a charity which works directly to counter deforestation?
It may seem counter-intuitive to suggest a charity which doesn’t directly work with rainforests. Below I set out some specific examples of charities working directly with rainforests. We haven’t done a full review of all such charities.
However several interventions working with rainforest protection suffer from risks such as leakage (aka displacement; i.e. if you protect one area of rainforest, will the logger simply go elsewhere). Also the weakness of land rights may render some rainforest preservation methods less effective.
This isn’t to say that all rainforest conservation work is doomed to failure, only that it’s hard, and that we haven’t found decent evidence of a rainforest charity overcoming these hurdles.
SoGive has written a shallow, public-information-only review on WWF, which can be found here:
You may find the write-up interesting for its summary of WWF’s work, but in short it found that we don’t have enough information to form a view on WWF’s effectiveness.
An assessment of “more information needed” might sound like it doesn’t tell us much, however donors in the EA movement often have a sceptical prior on charity impact (i.e. they believe that achieving impact is hard, and in the absence of evidence we should likely assume that the charity isn’t achieving much impact).
Assuming that you too share this sceptical prior, then you may be interested in a charity which is supported by the EA community. The EA community largely supports a recommendation of a donation to GFI, however here are a couple of other EA recommendations:
Founders Pledge (an EA-aligned group whose analysis I have partially reviewed and believe to be generally good) used to recommend donations to Coalition for Rainforest Nations (CfRN). CfRN runs a scheme called REDD+, which allows donors to donate to prevent deforestation.
SoGive wrote a report on why we were more cautious than Founders Pledge about the CfRN recommendation.
Since then, I understand that Founders Pledge no longer recommends CfRN (I’m not claiming that their change is caused by the SoGive report; if you want to know why their opinion changed it’s best to ask them).
There are further concerns about REDD+ which were not fully outlined in that report, such as the nuances of determining the reference level / counterfactual (i.e. the thorny question of what would have happened to the forests otherwise).
However it is useful to recognise some positives: there is a real lack of carbon offset schemes that are effective at scale, and REDD+ could be that solution, especially since it’s recognised by the UN and built into the Paris Agreement.
Cool Earth used to be recommended by Giving What We Can when they did charity analysis. Cool Earth aims to protect rainforests by supporting the indigenous communities living in the rainforests.
We at SoGive believe that certain elements of the GWWC analysis were not given enough credit, as set out here. For example, it didn’t give enough credit to what displacement / leakage.
One might imagine that if Cool Earth expanded enough, there would be so much rainforest protected that loggers would have nowhere to go. The fact that only 20% of rainforest is inhabited by indigenous peoples suggests that for at least some types of logger, this isn’t credible.
One thing that confused me about the game/ritual was that I had the power to inflict a bad thing, but there was no obvious upside.
All I had to do was ignore the email, which seemed too easy.
This seems to be a bad model for reality. People who control actual nuclear buttons perceive that they get some upside from using them (even if it’s only the ability to bolster your image as some kind of “strong-man” in front of your electorate).
Perhaps an alternative version could allow those who use the “nuclear” codes to get an extra (say) 30 karma points if they use the codes?
When I started thinking about these issues last year, my thinking was pretty similar to what you said.
I thought about it and considered that for the biggest risks, investors may have a selfish incentive to avoid to model and manage the impacts that their companies have on the wider world—if only because the wider world includes the rest of their own portfolio!
It turns out I was not the first to think of this concept, and its name is Universal Ownership. (I’ve described it on the forum here)
Universal Ownership doesn’t go far enough, in my view, but it’s a step forward compared to where we are today, and gives people an incentive to care about social impacts (or social “profits”)
As I alluded to in a comment to KHorton’s related post, I believe SoGive could grow to spend something like this much money.
SoGive’s core idea is to provide EA style analysis, but covering a much more comprehensive range of charities than the charities currently assessed by EA charity evaluators.
As mentioned there, benefits of this include:
SoGive could have a broader appeal because we would be useful to so many more people; it could conceivably achieve the level of brand recognition achieved by charity evaluators such as Charity Navigator, which have high levels of brand recognition in the US (c50% with a bit of rounding).
Lots of the impact here is the illegible impact that comes from being well-known and highly influential; this could lead to more major donors being attracted to EA-style donating, or many other things.
There’s also the impact that could come from donating to higher impact things within a lower impact cause area, and the impact of influencing the charity sector to have more impact
Full disclosure: I founded SoGive.
This short comment is not sufficient to make the case for SoGive, so I should probably right up something more substantial.
I believe that in time EA research/analysis orgs both could and should spend > $100m pa.
There are many non-EA orgs whose staff largely sit at a desk, and who spend >$100m, and I believe an EA org could too.
Let’s consider one example. Standard & Poors (S&P) spent c.$3.8bn in 2020 (source: 2020 accounts). They produce ratings on companies, governments, etc. These ratings help answer the question: “if I lend the company money, will I get my money back”. Most major companies have a rating with S&P. (S&P also does other things like indices, however I’m sure the ratings bit alone spends >$100m p.a.)
S&P for charities?
Currently, very few analytical orgs in the EA space aim to have as broad a coverage of charities as S&P does of companies/governments/etc.
However an org which did this would have significant benefits.
They would have a broader appeal because they would be useful to so many more people; it could conceivably achieve the level of brand recognition achieved by charity evaluators such as Charity Navigator, which have high levels of brand recognition in the US (c50% with a bit of rounding).
There’s also the impact that could come from donating to higher impact things within a lower impact cause area, and the impact of influencing the charity sector to have more impact.
I find these arguments convincing enough that I founded an organisation (SoGive) to implement them.
At the margin, GiveWell is likely more cost-effective, however I’d allude to Ben’s comments about cost-effectiveness x scale in a separate comment.
S&P for companies’ impact?
Human activity, as measured by GDP (for all that measure has flaws) is split roughly 60%(ish) by for-profit companies, 30%(ish) by governments and a little bit from other things (like charities).
As I have argued elsewhere, EA has likely neglected the 60% of human activity, and should be investing more in helping companies to have more positive impact (or avoiding their negative impact)
The charity CDP spent £16.5m (c.$23m) in the year to March 2019 (source). They primarily focus on the question of how much carbon emissions are associated with each company. The bigger question of how much overall impact is associated with each company would no doubt require a substantially larger organisation, spending at least an order of magnitude more than the c$23m spent by CDP.
(Note: I haven’t thought very carefully about whether “S&P for companies’ impact” really is a high-impact project)
An EA-specific agency would have to be low-bono, offering major discounts to EA orgs—otherwise it would be indistinguishable from the countless existing for-profit agencies.
I think this needs justification. I’m currently aching for a tech agency I would trust, and I’m happy to pay market rates to get a decent agency to implement some EA projects.
If you told me you had such an agency, and it was peopled with EAs, that would be even better!
If you told me that you needed to pay your developers decent salaries, I could cope with paying a small premium.
Not sure how good the Robert Miles channel is for mums (mine might not be particularly interested in his channel!) but for communicating about AI risk Robert Miles is (generally) good and I second this recommendation
Just a quick comment to say that SoGive would be well positioned to be another consultancy providing services like Rethink.
We have collaborated with Rethink before (see this research) and are in moderately frequent informal contact with them.
We have c10 analysts who are a mixture of volunteers and staff. Mostly volunteers, as the organisation is funded solely by me, and there is a limit to what I can afford.
I’m open to the idea of us doing more of this sort of work, although it would need a discussion before we commit to anything, as we already have a separate strategic focus in mind.
Thanks for this, good question!
I agree with your point that investors have some blind spots, in particular that some areas of finance are not good at incorporating long term considerations.
So I think you’re right, the ESG concept probably could achieve some impact by helping address that sort of blind spot.
I probably should have said something more like “To judge whether I, as someone working in ESG investing, is having material impact, we need to see if I’m actually having an influence on scenarios where there is a tension/trade-off”. This is because ESG-related work is already working to address that blind spot.
Sorry I didn’t spot your comment earlier. Yes, more than happy for this to be shared more widely. Feel free to use this link if you wish: https://effectiveesg.com/2021/05/24/esg-investing-needs-thoughtful-trade-offs/
Thanks very much for pointing out that error—now corrected. I’ve looked at the answers which have been recorded, and they include an answer which includes comments similar to the comment you made here, so I think it’s been recorded. Thank you very much!