(Written in a personal capacity, and not representing either my current employer or former one)
In 2016, I founded Utility Farm, and later merged it with Wild-Animal Suffering Research (founded by Persis Eskander) to form Wild Animal Initiative. Wild Animal Initiative is, by my estimation, a highly successful research organization. The current Wild Animal Initiative staff deserve all the credit for where they have taken the organization, but I’m incredibly proud that I got to be involved early in the establishment of a new field of study, wild animal welfare science, and to see the tiny organization I started in an apartment with a few hundred dollars go on to be recommended by ACE as a Top Charity for 4 years in a row. In my opinion, Wild Animal Initiative has become, under the stewardship of more capable people than I, the single best bet for unlocking interventions that could tackle the vast majority of animal suffering.
Unlike most EA charities today, Utility Farm didn’t launch with a big grant from Open Philanthropy, Survival and Flourish Foundation, or EA Funds. There was no bet made by a single donor on a promising idea. I launched Utility Farm with my own money, which I spent directly on the project. I was making around $35,000 a year at the time working at a nonprofit, and spending maybe $300 a month on the project. Then one day, a donor completely changed the trajectory of the organization by giving us around $500. It’s weird looking at that event through the lens of current EA funding levels — it was a tiny bet, but it took the organization from being a side project that was cash-strapped and completely reliant on my energy and time to an organization that could actually purchase some supplies or hire a contractor for a project.
From there, a few more donors gave us a few thousand dollars each. These funds weren’t enough to hire staff or do anything substantial, but they provided a lifeline for the organization, allowing us to run our first real research projects and to publish our work online.
In 2018, we ran our first major fundraiser. We received several donations of a few thousand dollars, and (if I recall correctly) one gift of $20,000. Soon after, EA Funds granted us $40,000. We could then hire staff for the first time, and make tangible progress toward our mission.
As small as these funds were in the scheme of things, for Utility Farm, they felt sustainable. We didn’t have one donor — we had a solid base of maybe 50 supporters, and no single individual dominated our funding. Our largest donor changing their mind about our work would have been a major disappointment, but not a financial catastrophe. Fundraising was still fairly easy — we weren’t trying to convince thousands of people to give $25. Instead, fundraising consisted of checking in with a few dozen people, sending some emails, and holding some calls. Most of the "fundraising" was the organization doing impactful work, not endless donor engagement.
I now work at a much larger EA organization with around 100x the revenue and 30x the staff. Oddly, we don’t have that many more donors than Utility Farm did back then — maybe around 2-4 times as many small donors, and about the same number giving more than $1,000. This probably varies between organizations — I have a feeling that many organizations doing more direct work than Rethink Priorities have many more donors — but most EA organizations seem to have strikingly few mid-sized donors (e.g., individuals who give maybe $1,000 - $25,000). Often, organizations will have a large cohort of small donors, giving maybe $25-$100, and then they’ll have 2-3 (or even just 1) giant donors, collectively giving 95%+ of the organization's budget across a handful of grants. Although revenue at these organizations have reached a massive scale compared to Utility Farm’s budget, in some senses it feels like they are in a far more tenuous position. For these top-heavy organizations, one donor changing their mind can make or break the business. Even when that “one person” is an incredibly well-informed grantmaker, who is making a difficult call about what work is most important, there is a precariousness to the entire situation that I didn’t feel while working at a theoretically much less well-resourced group. Right now, despite neither directly conducting fundraising nor working at an organization that has had major fundraising issues, an unfortunately large amount of my time is taken up thinking about fundraising instead of our work, because of this precarity.
I find considering donors giving between $1,000 and $25,000 a year particularly interesting, because that seems like a rough proxy for “average people earning to give.” While we (and especially me) might not all be cut out for professions that facilitate making gifts of hundreds of thousands of dollars, many people in the EA community could become software engineers, doctors, lawyers, or other middle-class professionals, who might easily give in the “mid-size donor” range. In fact, employees of many EA organizations could probably give in that range. But most people who I meet in the space aren’t earning to give, or aren’t giving a substantial portion of their income. They are doing direct work or community building, or trying to get into direct work or community building.
I think this is a huge loss for EA. My sense is that earning to give is slowly becoming a less central part of EA, and with it, I think there are huge costs:
- A robust earning to give ecosystem is better for EA organizations.
- For EA organizations, having one donor is a lot worse than having a few dozen or hundred, all things being equal. This is for reasons of both donor influence and administrative/fundraising burden of engagement.
- A robust earning to give ecosystem is better for the EA community.
- Power in the EA community has become increasingly concentrated among a few individuals or grant-making bodies. Concentration of power increases the risk that a bad call by a single individual can harm the community as a whole. More people earning to give decentralizes this power to a certain extent, decreasing this risk.
- One particular kind of risky decision centralized power brokers can make is giving based only on their own value, and not considering the views of the community as a whole. The more people are earning to give, the more likely it is that donation distributions represent the values of the community at large, and given the disagreements and uncertainties across cause areas, might be a better way to allocate funds.
- In particular, the combination of (a) and (b) allows charitable organizations to worry less about what specific people in power think, and respond more to what the community at large thinks, and to rely more on their own on-the-ground judgment of the best way to do their work. This seems to be a really good outcome for charity efficiency, quality of work, and community cohesion as a whole.
Mid-sized earning to give donors might never match the giving potential of institutional donors in the EA space, but it seems possible to reach a world where 5,000 more people give $20,000 annually, generating an additional $100M for effective charity while decentralizing power and building a healthier funding ecosystem for organizations. Millions have been spent on EA community building over the last few years, but little of that seems to focus on pushing people to earn to give, this seems to be a huge missed opportunity.
The past emphasis on earning to give wasn’t perfect — it turns off some people, is easily misunderstood, and can come across as valuing community members in proportion to their incomes. I personally felt an internal change when I took the Giving Pledge in terms of how much I worried about money: I felt like I started to measure some of my self-worth in the community in terms of how much money I made, because it directly translated to impact. I have some thoughts on how EA could return to valuing earning to give while avoiding some of its past mistakes, but I don’t pretend to have all the answers. It would be great to hear from others whether they feel similarly that earning to give has fallen out of fashion in EA, and what impacts (good and bad) this has had.
The above gives a pretty good overview of my position; the below sections give a bit more nuance for those who are interested.
A robust earning to give ecosystem is better for charities
Imagine that a new high-impact charity launches. It needs funding! But getting funding is hard — engaging with donors takes away needed time from important programs. The charity needs $1,000,000 to carry out a promising project. Here are three ways it could get funding from donors:
- It could secure $850,000 of its funding from one donor, and fill in the rest with a mix of mid-sized and smaller donors.
- It could secure $25 from each of 40,000 people.
- It could secure $10,000 from each of 100 people.
The first option is the only option available to most EA organizations right now. Organizations might generally have one giant donor, and a handful of smaller donors fill in gaps in their funding. But it is risky — that singular donor changing their mind about the project might cause it to shut down forever.
The second option might work well for Bernie Sanders but is incredibly difficult without his kind of profile: he needed over 700,000 donations to raise $20,000,000 at an average of $27 each. For an EA organization trying to hire a handful of staff, this model is completely out of the question — getting 40,000 donors is likely impossible, and if it was possible that might be a sign that the intervention isn’t that neglected anyway.
The third option is a comparatively easy and far more resilient way to build an effective organization. If the EA community embraced earning to give as a way to participate in the community, this approach seems like it would be achievable for a much larger number of organizations.
Having relatively few donors is good for charities, but having one is too few.
Fundraising is exhausting, distracting, and can be anxiety-inducing. Assuming a project is doing great work, spending as little time as possible on fundraising is ideal. But relying on relationships with only a few individuals comes with issues — most of all, what happens if those funders don’t renew their gifts, and the project collapses? If 85% of an organization’s funding comes from one donor, this is a major threat. A relationship with a single grantmaker completely shapes the organization's trajectory.
If that grantmaker were replaced by a few dozen mid-sized donors, the risk profile completely changes. The organization might not need to invest heavily in fundraising — a few dozen emails sent a year, updating people on projects, etc., isn’t that much work. And, a few individuals changing their minds, or a few grant-makers shifting their focus, isn’t devastating — the project can likely afford to lose some of its donors. Finally, for an organization with a mid to large donor base, a large portion of its donors stopping giving is probably an important signal about the project’s work, impact, or decisions: many people have become convinced it isn't worth continuing to fund.
A robust earning to give ecosystem is better for the EA community
EA has a large amount of resources (money, people, organizations) that are steered by a small number of individuals. Even when grant-makers and major donors are thoughtful about the resulting power dynamics, it’s still a bit of a nerve-wracking reality that the livelihoods of most people in EA are pretty reliant on the decisions of a couple dozen people.
One way to decentralize power is to increase the number of funders. Past authors have cited various ways to do this, including establishing regranting programs (such as Manifund), bringing in more large donors, or pushing earning to give. Increasing the number of people who are earning to give is the only suggestion I’ve seen that truly decentralizes power. Both regranting and large donor outreach will inherently only enable a handful more people to contribute to decision-making. More donors equals more decentralization, and given the difficulties of reaching tens of thousands of small donors, more earning to give seems like the best path for decentralization in EA.
Increasing the numbers of mid-level donors also seems like it could decentralize power relatively quickly — it likely doesn’t take significant effort to get a few hundred more people earning to give at medium-ish levels. Compared to many of the accomplishments of EA over the last decade, finding a few thousand more donors might be ambitious, but seems completely possible. And this somewhat decentralized structure for funding within EA seems like a reasonable, healthy goal for the community.
More donors means that funding matches community priorities
The more donors there are in the space relative to total dollars, the closer the overall funding distribution will be to community priorities. This seems good: it seems clear that there ultimately are judgment calls on how to do good effectively. We can use tools to hone the nature of those disagreements, but ultimately, if one person values animals’ lives highly, and another thinks the likelihood of an existential catastrophe is particularly elevated right now, they might disagree on the best place to spend charitable resources. One way to address these reasonable disagreements is for funding to be aggregated according to the beliefs of the community. This is democratizing for EA, and might also be a reasonable way to address the uncertainty inherent in trying to do good.
It seems unlikely that major funders in the space would reallocate funds according to community priorities (except via proxies like social pressure), so the best tool we have for now to distribute funding according to the priorities of community members is to increase the number of donors giving sizably to organizations in the space. This seems like a benefit that increasing earning to give produces for the community.
The success of EA shouldn’t only be measured by how much money is moved by the community
Before working in EA, I was a fundraiser for an animal shelter. I would spend an entire year conducting multiple engagements with a single donor to solicit a minor gift. This was inefficient. That organization, and many like it, spend huge portions of their budgets on fundraising.
When I came to EA, one of the most striking things was the generosity — I had never encountered a space where ordinary people were so generous, caring, and humble. It was genuinely shocking to encounter donors who were giving large portions of their income and not asking to be wooed, honored, or celebrated. People just wanted to see evidence of your impact.
The EA community’s early inclination toward giving made it incredibly easy to launch new projects, especially those that focus on causes that don’t benefit the donors directly (such as animal welfare). In many ways, this generous dynamic is still present, but now I mostly only see it through funds and large grantmakers. Normally, it seems rare for new charitable ventures to launch with millions in funding so regularly, but this is common in EA. But it used to feel possible to launch a new organization supported directly by community members. This seems nearly impossible now, or at least much more difficult.
I’m not certain how much better the EA world of 2016 was, or how different it was from the EA of today. But the community atmosphere felt different — it felt easier to go against the status quo (and start a project in a previously highly neglected space) because there might be a handful of random people who would support it. It felt more community-focused — priorities were set by everyone, instead of by a few large foundations. And, as an executive of an EA organization, it felt less precarious. I had direct feedback from donors and supporters on our project regularly and was less tied to the power structures of the space.
There are probably genuine downsides to trying to move the community more toward earning to give again. But, when we measure community health only by looking at “how much money is available relative to the opportunities,” we miss important features of how those funds are controlled, how much community buy-in there is for the strategies funders pursue, and how much risk is entailed in the funding models available to EA organizations. An EA of many mid-sized donors is much better on all these fronts than an EA with a single large donor.