Many thanks to Luke Freeman, Pablo Melchor, Chloë Cudaback, Adam Binks, Devon Fritz, Michael Townsend, Julia Wise and Ella Matza for their feedback on the draft.
We believe that giving is an important aspect of effective altruism. However, we feel that giving is becoming less prominent in the community and, in particular, that it has been de-prioritised by a lot of EA groups. We believe that it’s a tremendous lost opportunity, if groups are not leveraging giving or pledging to increase recruitment and engagement; and we think it’s tactically and philosophically wise to promote effective giving in every EA group.
This post argues that we should revitalise our commitment to giving as a movement. If you want help with this, there are several organisations perfectly placed to support you, including Giving What We Can, One for the World, national regranting organisations and High Impact Professionals.
CTA: Fill out this form if you’d like support in promoting effective giving at your group! This can include:
- Requesting an expert speaker
- Getting trained to deliver effective giving talks yourself
- Getting ready-made materials such as presentations, graphics and advertising copy
- Building a session about giving into your EA fellowship
- Getting a checkout page set up for your group (for immediate or for future donations)
See the bottom of this post for more detail on taking action.
Why has giving become less prominent in EA?
Giving has become a less prominent part of EA culture for a variety of reasons:
- There is now more money available to effective altruism projects than ever before, which can make donors feel that their contributions may not make a difference.
- The importance attached by EAs to the risk of artificial intelligence and other existential risks has grown. These cause areas do not have the same number of clearly effective giving opportunities as, for example, global health; and they often prioritise other types of action such as career choice over giving, because longtermism is relatively well-funded (although arguably far from overfunded - see below) and is instead considered talent-constrained.
- The community has in general become more focussed on career advice and career choice than in previous years. More people now hear about EA for the first time via 80,000 Hours than any other organisation, and half of all EA survey respondents said 80,000 Hours was the most important factor that led them to getting involved in EA. By comparison, only 5.5% of respondents first heard about EA via a giving organisation, so giving is drawing fewer new people to the community. It can therefore be seen as less important for community building and may have fewer advocates within the EA community in comparison to other types of action.
- The community has deprioritised the notion of “Earning to Give”, partly in reaction to negative outside perceptions of this approach to impact and partly because money now seems less important than talent on the margin, and this has affected how giving is perceived in general (even though Earning to Give and giving in general are vastly different things).
- Thought leaders such as Toby Ord and Will MacAskill, who used to promote giving heavily, have also started to talk about other types of impact, such as working to reduce existential risk, and so people have become less influenced towards giving (although Toby and Will personally remain extremely committed to effective giving - see below).
Tactical reasons to make giving an integral part of every EA group
We believe that giving and pledging should be integral parts of all EA groups, alongside our other efforts. This includes workplace, professional, local, faith and student groups!
Giving is great scaffolding to bring people further into EA
Promoting effective giving is extremely tactically wise. Indeed, we think this point is possibly the best argument for integrating giving and pledging into your group:
Giving both increases and sustains engagement with EA
Giving is an important factor in deepening people’s connection to EA. When asked which factors were important for EA survey respondents getting [more] involved, 35% cited GiveWell, 21% cited Giving What We Can, 12% cited The Life You Can Save and 6% cited ACE, all organisations that are primarily concerned with giving.
It also makes sense that giving is a great way of recruiting new people to the movement; and leading them deeper into the EA community:
- Giving is a concrete action you can take easily and early in your journey. It’s accessible and meets the expectations of people new to EA, because donating is part of mainstream culture, so there is no ‘comprehension barrier’.
- It encourages you to engage with key EA concepts, like cause prioritisation and cost effectiveness.
- It improves people’s first impressions of EA, by showing that the community is committed to helping others and making a difference in a concrete way, even at some personal expense.
- It (mostly) has short feedback loops, where you can see the results of your actions much more quickly than in, for example, choosing a new career, and so it can refresh and maintain your commitment to longer term projects. It can also have an anchoring effect, preventing 'value drift' over time.
- It is a concrete commitment that involves self-sacrifice, which can in turn make you more committed to the community and its ideas. This aligns with the theory that ‘costly signals’ increase your commitment to a group or cause.
- It is an excellent signal of your commitment to the project of EA, if you want to take a further step such as attending a conference, volunteering or getting a job working in the field.
For all these reasons, encouraging giving should be a core part of pretty much any strategy for EA movement building. If you're trying to build your group, giving will help you recruit more people and get them to engage with our ideas. It will also help existing members, by deepening their connection to the community, improving their understanding, helping them achieve their goals within it, and sustaining their commitment as they are in the community over time.
Giving does not mean you cannot pursue the full range of EA activities
Clearly there are times when we need to choose between different types of outreach, programming, or content. We shouldn’t offer “a little bit of everything, all of the time”. However, it’s easy (and surprisingly common) to fall into a false choice when it comes to encouraging giving versus other types of EA activity.
It is great to concentrate your group on a particular type of activity - like career advice, fellowships or reading groups. Indeed, on the margin, you might well think these are more impactful than encouraging giving from small dollar donors. The key phrase, though, is on the margin - because very few of us actually face zero sum choices between promoting giving or doing something else. You can 100% do other types of programming while also talking about giving at the same time. And, given the substantial tactical benefits to promoting effective giving laid out above, there are strong arguments for making room for giving in your group strategy.
Let’s consider some concrete examples.
You're doing the second module of your EA fellowship, which focuses on maximising impact and effectiveness. At the end, instead of thanking everyone and going your separate ways. you give energised attendees an immediate way to take action, either by making an immediate token donation or by taking a pledge for a modest percentage of their future income. This brings to life the ideas of cause prioritisation and personal fit/resonance that you've just discussed - and gives people thinking about their career an immediate first step in their change of values.
The following month, you’re giving a talk on a cause area, like AI safety. Everyone seems convinced that this is important work - but only one or two people are seriously considering changing their careers to work within it. Ending this talk with a variety of concrete ways for people to get involved, which include using your career, donating and advocacy within your peer group improves the presentation and gives a clear call to action, even for people who don’t think they have a strong personal or academic fit with AI safety careers.
In each case, talking about effective giving actively helps other aspects of EA - and definitely doesn’t undermine them or force you to neglect them.
Beyond this dovetailing, you don’t need to distract your members from other types of action by talking about giving. There is no reason why many people cannot commit to donating a modest percentage of their future income, at the same time as deepening their understanding of EA or engaging with new cause areas.
We want to say clearly that we support people being financially responsible and pursuing high impact careers. You should think really carefully about whether a pledge is right for you. This is especially true with young people committing future income at an idealistic stage of life, and with more significant pledgers such as 10% of your income. Some people have negative experiences from pledging.
However, in the overwhelming majority of cases, members of the EA community can be giving something at the same time that they are studying, community building, doing direct work or debating EA ideas. Critically, giving and pledging do not mean “Earning to Give”, which is the most radical commitment to donating and which can legitimately be considered through a zero sum lense. Effective giving pledges start at just 1% of spending money, an affordable action for anyone in a high income country with at least some disposable income. Nothing about this precludes other types of impactful EA action.
Philosophical reasons to promote effective giving
If you've read this far and you're convinced - good stuff! You can go straight to our support form and get help getting started. However, we know that the community has philosophical reasons for reprioritising giving and so we wanted to lay out our thinking here as well.
Giving can still make a massive difference
While EA does now have a lot more money committed to it than ever before, there are still a lot of excellent giving opportunities to be funded right now. The money that is available is unevenly distributed between a small number of decision-makers and is unevenly available to different cause areas in a way that looks suboptimal, leaving plenty of underfunded routes to having a high impact.
Indeed, a common misconception is that saying ‘EA has a funding overhang’ is the same as saying ‘EA does not need more funding’. While longtermism has a formidable war chest, and actually faces more of a challenge in distribution than fundraising, this is not true of other cause areas (a forthcoming GWWC post will also argue that longtermists can expect to find very impactful donations right now). Many meta organisations report having significant funding insecurity; animal welfare is still significantly neglected given the scale of the problem; promising cause areas like mental health are operating on a shoestring; and there is a scattered and uneven pipeline of funding available to new ideas and organisations. For evidence of this, we can look to well-reasoned arguments that resources are misallocated; the small budgets of Charity Entrepreneurship start ups (typically <$200k); and the views of EA entrepreneurs. [Edit: Joey from Charity Entrepreneurship just laid this out brilliantly in another post here.]
Alongside this, there is strength in a diversity of funders. At present, a very small number of gatekeepers control practically all available funding. Using Ben Todd’s rough calculations, Open Philanthropy and Sam Bankman-Fried account for over two thirds of the money available to EA. This is bad for two reasons.
First, concentrating so much funding in just two sources is a significant financial risk to EA (one that is hugely underestimated, in our opinion). It should be noted that Dustin Moskovitz’s net worth has declined by around $10bn since last July (albeit it that FTX’s valuation has substantially increased, probably leaving us in much the same position overall).
Put simply, EA is currently seriously overexposed to a few volatile assets.
This also has serious implications for the distribution of funding in EA. At the most basic level, the changing valuation of two companies just reduced funding for neartermism by around $5bn and increased funding for longtermism by around $9bn, for reasons completely disconnected from EA.
Second, while we don’t doubt the good faith or expertise of these funders, they each have their own priorities, preferences and criteria, which can end up excluding certain organisations or approaches. This provides donors who have differing worldviews from these large funders with an amazing opportunity to find impactful opportunities on their own. (Ben Todd lays out various ways to get great value as an individual donor here, alongside other arguments in favour of giving.)
There is strength for EA in having a large number of small dollar donors, which allows organisations to avoid over-reliance on a single funder; protects the money available to EA and its distribution between cause areas; and gives innovative approaches the chance to grow. Neither Open Philanthropy nor FTX would ever claim that they are trying to fund every good idea out there at every stage of its life cycle - so we need a diversity of funders to keep discovering and inventing more and more effective ways to do good, now and in the future.
We should only expect opportunities for impactful donating to grow in the future
In addition to existing opportunities, the most expert charity evaluators expect to find more exceptional giving opportunities in the very near future. GiveWell aims to find $1.5bn/year in excellent giving opportunities by 2025 and Open Philanthropy is also confident of finding new opportunities that are highly cost effective - so we should confidently expect the range of giving opportunities to broaden in the near future. This means that we need giving to remain a central theme of EA, so that we can fill these amazing funding opportunities as we discover them.
If we zoom out a little, we need also to remember that EA is about tackling the most important, neglected and tractable problems in the world. $46bn in expected donations, and $500m in current annual donations, might sound like a lot - but not if you consider that this community aims to end extreme poverty, end animal suffering, and safeguard the future of humanity. Seen through this lense, we do not have nearly enough currently or in expectation to achieve our goals. (Also, if you care about the outside perception of EA, there is a big reputational risk to the community here because it's so easy to misunderstand the idea that 'there is not a funding gap'. Usually, what EAs mean by this is that further funding is not the primary bottleneck to the most effective ways of improving the world. But it can easily sound horrendously callous if we seem to be saying that there isn't a funding gap when millions of people and billions of animals are suffering and dying unnecessarily each year.)
Waiting often means giving less
Of course, you might say that you will reconsider giving when these opportunities emerge - but this could be a mistake. Giving, like almost everything else, is habitual. In addition, the sooner you start giving habitually, the more giving you will do.
The evidence suggests that donors who give regularly and by percentages of their income give more on average (that is, excluding Ultra High Net Worth donors, who tend to give extremely large amounts irregularly). For example, donors who have taken a giving pledge give 2-5x more than donors who have not done so via Giving What We Can and EA Funds. Likewise, the median monthly donor via One for the World gives 25x more per year than the median annual donor, and 6x more than the median one-time donor.
Conversely, it follows that people who give irregularly give less - and, on average, this likely applies even if they hold back with the intention of giving in the future. Often someone aiming to ‘wait for a better opportunity’ is actually, intentionally or otherwise, just giving less over time. This is not to say that there are not people, especially thoughtful philanthropists like EAs, who are sincerely intending to give more later and who will follow through - but this is not true for your average donor.
Even if you’re conscious that EA has an overall funding overhang right now, you still have several high impact options that are immediately available to you. You can funge Open Philanthropy dollars, so that they can give more to new or different opportunities; add to the funds GiveWell has at its disposal for future opportunities; support funds that are in some way time-sensitive, as GiveWell’s Maximum Impact Fund aims to be; fund high potential projects early in their life cycle; or even take a deliberate patient philanthropy approach, which would at least reduce your chances of never giving the amount away (especially if you use an irreversible mechanism like a Donor Advised Fund, where amounts you pay in can only be used philanthropically). This is leaving aside some of the funkier options like donor lotteries.
Finally, as Ben Todd points out, even giving opportunities that may not be absolutely the most effective ways to improve the world right now can still be incredibly impactful:
In a worst case scenario, billions could be spent on cash transfers at a level of cost-effectiveness similar to or only a little below GiveDirectly. This would most likely still produce 100 times more wellbeing for the world than spending the money on your own consumption.
EA thought leaders give, a lot
Some people wield significant influence in EA, and some of these people promoted effective giving often in the past, but now focus mainly on other cause areas or types of effective activity. However, we should emphasise that these people all still give as well.
Toby Ord is one the foremost existential risk philosophers and is the trustee at CEA responsible for the giving pledge Giving What We Can, which he co-founded. He has donated 26% of his lifetime earnings and all of the proceeds from The Precipice. Julia Wise, one of the longest serving EAs in the community and currently Community Liaison at CEA, donates 30-50% of her income, along with her partner. Will MacAskill, another Giving What We Can co-founder, gives everything he earns above a modest threshold. Peter Singer just donated his entire $1m Berggruen Prize and has given 30-50% of his income away for decades. As far as we can tell, pretty much everyone on the team at CEA, 80,000 Hours, GiveWell, Open Philanthropy and Longview Philanthropy is giving regularly.
So while EA is clearly about more than just giving, it is a core action taken by the foremost thinkers and influencers in the community. This should be a positive signal to all of us to keep giving as part of our altruism.
So what can we do to make giving an integral part of our EA group?
If you would like to introduce more discussion of giving into your EA student, workplace, professional, faith-based, or local group, the good news is that there is abundant support available. So fill out this form and take one or more of the following actions today!
- Request an expert speaker from a pledging or giving organisation - many places have speakers experienced in promoting effectively and sensitively, even in potentially delicate settings like corporate workplaces or faith communities.
- Get trained to deliver a great presentation yourself.
- Get ready-made materials such as presentations, graphics and advertising copy.
- Build a session about giving into your EA Fellowship.
- Get a checkout page set up for your group. One for the World can offer you pages on Donational to collect donations and record pledges to global health and poverty charities. For students, these let you set up a future-dated donation, which only begins your donation deduction after you graduate. This is often critical for signing up student givers in a meaningful way and you can track your progress live. It even lets you set up a small donation as a student which will automatically upgrade to your chosen amount once you graduate, if you have taken Giving What We Can’s Try Giving Pledge and want to actualise it. These pages are currently tax deductible in USD, CAD, GBP and AUD.