About a year ago, GiveWell announced they were going to be offering donation matching. I missed this at the time, but now that I see it I'm disappointed. They intend to offer a "true" match, where donors who take advantage of donation matching can trust that the matching funder would not have given otherwise. They write:

We plan to verify that the donors who provide matching funds for GiveWell campaigns would not have otherwise donated. We are taking the following steps to do so:
  • Approaching donors who have shown interest in increasing GiveWell's reach.

  • Asking if they would be interested in making an additional gift this year to underwrite our matching campaigns.

  • Assessing their giving history and our expectation of their likely giving in 2020 so that we can see if matching funds appear additive.

  • Confirming with potential matching donors that we are only interested in donations they would not have otherwise made.

  • Communicating to potential matching donors that we will only accept their gift in the amount we are able to match from other supporters. This might mean asking the donor to wait to give until the matching campaign is complete so that we only receive the correct amount, or returning unused funds to the matching donor.

While this is a lot better than the more common practice of matches that are entirely illusory, it is below the standard I expect from GiveWell. Critically assessing impact is GiveWell's core strength, but on this question they are essentially taking the donor's word that it's a "true" match. GiveWell does have options if they wanted to more carefully validate these claims, such as refusing a fraction of donations and verifying that the money was not spent on anything similarly positive.

(I shared a draft version of this post with GiveWell, and they described the vetting that they currently do. While it was better than I had guessed from their website, I still don't think it's sufficient to support their strong claim of counterfactuality. I would encourage GiveWell to write publicly about the steps they take here.)

As with many donor illusions, however, I think it would probably be worse if GiveWell really did have a pool of money that would be wasted if people did not take them up on their match offer. As GiveWell explained ten years ago, that "creates incentives for [funders] to take gifts they would have made anyway, and structure them in a way that gets you to give more to the program of their choice."

I think GiveWell does a great job overall, and I really appreciate having their recommendations available when I'm deciding where to donate. I'm glad GiveWell is trying to expand its reach and move more money, and I understand how offering matching can drive donations. But I don't think donors understand how much weaker GiveWell's match vetting is than their charity vetting, and either way we should not be incentivizing setting up situations where funders leverage others into increased giving by threatening to spend their funds poorly.

(Disclosure: my wife is a GiveWell board member, but she had no input into this post.)


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Thanks for your thoughts Jeff!

I am of two minds about this:

  • I think that donation matching in general is an illusion (just like 0% overheads is an illusion) – illusions are sometimes bad (especially if they are perceived as dishonest or to be in bad faith)
  • I think that donation matching (and 0% overheads) is often effective at increasing donations – increased donations are often good

I think that on balance we are trading off against acting to change the world with humans as they are vs acting to try and change humans to change the world.

Changing humans and working against our biases is really difficult so I think that we need to pick our battles.

There are also other "illusions" that we are okay with. For example, we are at a point in the community where there is a lot of crowding out so that someone donating to AMF, is in a sense, increasing how much another donor (like Open Philanthropy) is donating to an entirely different cause area such as animal welfare.

Another example of an illusion that we generally accept: most EA regranting organisations get separate operational funding so that they can say that they pass on 100% of the donation to the partner charity, this comes at the cost of another donor who may have given to one of the other charities they regrant to. We're in a position where true counterfactuals are really hard to determine.

In my opinion a "true match" is more intellectually honest (though still not perfect) but probably a worse outcome (for the reasons you laid out).

But I think that GiveWell might be choosing this "true match" because they know matching works for fundraising (and attribution), but they are trying to pre-emptively deal with criticism from people who are aware of the illusion.

Personally, I have spent most of my donations on operational costs (to allow the low overheads) and donor matching (and other undirected donations such as sponsoring giving games). I do this because I think that getting someone to make their first donation to an effective charity is particularly high leverage – more leveraged than the difference between me deciding between two effective charities.

I lean towards accepting that matches are to varying extents an illusion (like 100% goes to the charity) but that the benefits of using them might often outweigh the costs, and attempts to make them more counterfactual might on net be worse (like you laid out here).

This is a coherent view, but I doubt it's how GiveWell is approaching it?  Specifically, I would be quite surprised if GiveWell chose to advertise a "true" match just with the goal of preventing criticism.  GiveWell has historically been comfortable with a pretty high level of transparency, and if they thought illusory matching was acceptable I would expect them to say so. Instead, they say the opposite: their post introducing their donation matching starts by describing their issues with conventional matching offers. 

Note that GiveWell is giving up quite a lot in potential donations by insisting on a "true" match, since it means their pool of matching funds will only support small gifts by first-time donors.

Yeah, very good point!

My reading is that they are seeing the marketing value in matching but philosophically want to have a true match because of the reasons outlined in earlier posts (they don't consider those campaigns even as "matches"). The 'true match' attempt however might seem to be the worst of both worlds...

That being said, I imagine that the average donor towards their "true match" matching funds is actually quite like me: a donor that is seeking to spend specifically on outreach donations. In this case the decision might be between donating to the GiveWell matching pool or something else such as sponsoring a Giving Game, or covering credit card fees, or paying for pizza at an introduction event for students, or an advertising experiment, or a study on psychology of effective giving. In this case it's definitely counterfactual (it wouldn't have gone to a GiveWell charity) but it's not "worse" than they would have otherwise given (they could believe for good reason that incentivising the first donation is sufficiently leveraged that it is better than another outreach focused donation). I can actually understand the psychology of the "true match" donor quite well: I would actually prefer that my donation be held for matching, used for marketing, or returned for me to use in a similar fashion than just go to one of their top charities. This isn't a typical donor, but it is one that I understand (intimately).

In this case it's definitely counterfactual (it wouldn't have gone to a GiveWell charity)

I don't think that should count as counterfactual, actually. Even though the money would not have gone to a GiveWell charity, it would have done something similarly valuable, so the donor cannot reason that their impact is higher. Compare this to when an employer offers to match $X per person, and doesn't put any restrictions on what charity you donate to. In the latter case, this really is more impact, and should factor into decisions like "should I be earning to give".

( I wrote some about this a few years ago, with some discussion: https://www.jefftk.com/p/what-should-counterfactual-donation-mean)

Ah, yes. In the case of something like "should I be earning to give" that is a very different situation. 

There's two uses of counterfactual here:

  1. Is the total impact triggered by donor A whose donation is being matched by donor B counterfactual once you take into account what donor B would have done otherwise?
  2. Were the actions of donor B counterfactually impacted by donor A (i.e. they would have given somewhere else but that might have been similarly impactful, or less impactful).

In the case of #2 it is not misleading to donor A to say that their donation was matched IMHO. But it isn't the full story for impact.

(I’d love it if you crossposted that post, but commenting here until then.) I think there’s another category before 9, which is “Donate to a charity not commonly supported by EAs, such as the World Wildlife Fund or Habitat for Humanity.” So this allows for Giving Tuesday to count as counterfactual. I would hope GiveWell’s was of this type (though I sympathize with Luke’s points).

Then we have another question, which is who are these people that are ~indifferent between any EA charity? They’re probably not the first time donors that GiveWell’s targeting.

I’d love it if you crossposted that post

Done!  https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/nz2scND85oFyTXTGo/what-should-counterfactual-donation-mean

I think there’s another category before 9, which is “Donate to a charity not commonly supported by EAs, such as the World Wildlife Fund or Habitat for Humanity.”

Yes, I think that's fine as long as we all agree that the impact of donating to an AA charity is very much higher than donating to one of those charities.