My open-for-feedback donation plans

by MichaelA9 min read4th Apr 20206 comments

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Donation WriteupCommunity
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Overview

I'd like people’s input on:

  1. Whether I should donate to ALLFED
  2. Whether I should donate to GCRI
  3. Whether I should donate to CEEALAR (i.e., the artist formerly known as the EA Hotel [TAFKATEAH])
  4. Whether I should donate to organisations/projects/people who, if not given extra funding, would soon have to make hard-to-reverse decisions because of COVID-19’s impacts
    • Do such orgs/projects/people exist? Would they let the EA community know before making those decisions?
  5. Whether there are other things I should donate to instead
  6. Whether I should give more than 10% this year, due to COVID-19

You’re very welcome to just skip to whichever sections sound most interesting/relevant to you.

(Maybe this should be a “Question”? It just seemed perhaps too bulky for that.)

Purpose of this post

I’ve taken the Giving What We Can pledge, and plan to donate somewhere around 2000-5000USD this year. I will probably do this sometime months from now, due to how in-flux just about everything is at the moment. But I think it makes sense to talk about donations earlier and more:

EAs often post records of where they donated, sometimes with their reasoning attached. That's great, but it would be better if people posted before they donated, were explicit about whether they wanted feedback, and told others if their writing persuaded us to donate differently.

And I saw that the UK tax year ends on the 5th, so I imagine a decent number of relatably procrastination-prone EAs are thinking about donations now. Plus, it seems possible that the economic impacts of COVID create a reason for urgency (not sure; I want people’s thoughts on this). So this is a quick post about my current thoughts, to solicit people’s feedback and thoughts, and to hopefully also promote the general idea of posting about donation plans before making such donations.

Unfortunately, I don’t have time right now to do the full research I’d like to on these donation options and questions, nor to fully write up my thoughts. This is certainly not a definitive evaluation of any of the options mentioned. I also don’t really address how I arrived at ALLFED and GCRI as among my top contenders, out of all the many other possibilities.

Final note: I’m very empirically and morally uncertain, and think all the main EA cause areas are great, but I’m pretty sold on longtermism. So I’ll almost certainly donate to something longtermism-aligned or “meta”/“general” (like the EA Hotel).

1. Should I donate to ALLFED?

(EDIT: Here's ALLFED's 2019 Annual Report and Fundraising Appeal, which I hadn't seen when I posted this.)

My current plan might involve giving most of my 10% to ALLFED.

Some potential pros:

  • Their cost-effectiveness estimates seem remarkably promising (see here and here).
    • But it does seem quite hard to believe that the cost-effectiveness is really that good. And many of the quantities are based on a survey of GCR researchers, with somewhat unclear methodology (e.g., how were the researchers chosen?)
    • I also haven’t analysed the models very closely
    • But, other than perhaps the reliance on that survey, I can’t obviously see major flaws, and haven’t seen comments that seem to convincingly point out major flaws. So maybe the estimates are in the right ballpark?
    • And even if there’s just a small chance the estimates are roughly right, or if the models are off by a factor of 5-10, maybe ALLFED are still a strong opportunity in expectation?
  • It does just seem like something like ALLFED should exist, and it seems quite surprising and strange that there’s so little other similar work. It seems like their niche really is very neglected, and I can’t see good reasons for that neglect.
    • It also seems that there's substantial neglect even of the broader category of work ALLFED fits into, with that category roughly being “work to make it less likely that a 'disaster' would turn into a civilizational collapse or GCR, or to improve our odds of recovery”
    • But if ALLFED’s niche, and that broader category, are so neglected, maybe there are good reasons that I can’t see, as I haven’t thought about it for ages and lack relevant domain knowledge? But that would also require various competent-seeming people who work for them to be mistaken on this.
  • They seem to have quite a lot of concrete activities they could do with more funding, most of which seem to me like strong ideas (see here, though that might be somewhat outdated now)
    • Though there’s one item on that list that I’m not very excited about, from a longtermist perspective: “quantify[ing] the cost per expected species saved [from extinction] by alternate foods. These catastrophes could cause extinctions directly, but also starving humans would likely eat other species to extinction. So alternate foods could be a highly effective environmental intervention.” Unless the idea of this is just to help ALLFED attract more funding from environmentalists?
  • They seem strangely underfunded. E.g., I don’t believe the EA Long-Term Future Fund or Open Philanthropy have funded them, and SFF appears to have given them only 10,000USD. Coupled with the above, this suggests marginal donations may be very valuable?
  • I’ve only engaged with ALLFED’s (or Dave Denkenberger’s) actual work or seen evidence of their reasoning a little bit (a couple talks, his 80,000 Hours interview, a few posts), but I’ve generally been impressed by or happy with what I’ve seen.
    • And Denkenberger is an actual academic with a lot of peer-reviewed papers, providing some indirect evidence of general competence and credibility.
  • Funding ALLFED to complete more of its proposed activities seems likely to provide substantial value of information regarding ALLFED, alternative foods, and the GCRs ALLFED focuses on.
  • ALLFED/Denkenberger appear thoughtful and open to counterarguments and feedback.
    • E.g., Denkenberger’s statement here.

Some potential cons:

  • Their intervention seems to maybe help less with non-extinction existential risks (e.g., suffering risks) than do things like AI alignment efforts.
  • Perhaps their as-best-I-can-tell low amount of funding to date is evidence that there's some reason not to support them, which I just haven't recognised?
    • I’d be interested to learn (a) whether ALLFED has reached out to the LTF and OPP, or been reached out to by them, and (b) if so, why they weren't funded (if indeed they haven't been). But I'd also understand if that sort of info wouldn’t be made public.
    • I’d be interested in hearing from people in general who have actively decided not to fund ALLFED, and why they made that decision.
  • I haven’t seen clear evidence of big wins from ALLFED.
    • But I haven’t gone looking very hard.
    • And it might be quite hard to see such evidence unless a relevant disaster actually does occur.
    • And they’ve only operated for a few years, and without huge amounts of funding.
  • Perhaps work on alternative foods could have a “moral hazard” effect, increasing the likelihood of GCRs and agricultural shortfalls?
    • But a substantial effect of that nature seems quite unlikely to me. And ALLFED do already account for this possibility in their cost-effectiveness model.
  • They’ve gotten some coverage in media outlets (e.g., here, here, and here). I mostly see this as impressive and probably good, and my impression is that they’re pretty thoughtful about this. But I guess there could be risks of low-fidelity communication and reputational harm (see also memetic downside risks).
    • In particular, some of their ideas could be mutated by the media into something like fringe survivalist/prepper ideas. (Though maybe the coronavirus pandemic reduces this risk, as that fringe might seem a little less fringey now…)

Donation link here.

2. Should I donate to GCRI (the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute)?

(EDIT: Here's their Summary of 2019-2020 GCRI Accomplishments, Plans, and Fundraising, which I hadn't seen when I posted this.)

My current plan probably doesn't involve donating to GCRI, as they seem great but perhaps less valuable to fund on the margin than ALLFED. But I’m quite open to being convinced.

Some potential pros:

  • From memory, I think I’ve been very impressed with all of the work I’ve seen from Seth Baum (usually with coauthors).
  • It also seems like they produce a lot of output. And I have no particular reason to believe the portions I haven’t read will be of notably lower quality than what I have read.
  • I seem to see Baum’s name a lot in acknowledgements on other good work.

Some potential cons:

  • I’m not really sure what, specifically, they’d do with more funding. And maybe they’re fairly well funded already?
    • Larks wrote in December 2019: “They spent $140,000 in 2018 and $250,000 in 2019, and plan to spend around $250,000 in 2020. They have around $310,000 in cash and pledged funding, suggesting (on a very naïve calculation) around 1.2 years of runway.”
    • But I guess if more funding just grows their runway and lets them keep doing good research for longer, that might be quite valuable?
    • I think I’ve heard people say ~2 years of runway for nonprofits is a good target, to allow them breathing room, the ability to plan, the ability to attract good hires who might otherwise be worried about instability. Can't remember for sure, though.
    • I haven’t actually looked into what GCRI plan to do with more money.

Donation link here.

3. Should I give to CEEALAR (aka EA Hotel)?

Here, I have three different types of rationale.

First, I spent a month at CEEALAR recently. I was a “grantee”, so I didn’t have to pay for my stay, and I haven't done so. But I’m able to, and it seems like probably a good norm for those who stay at CEEALAR and are able to pay to do so. And I enjoyed my time there, and it was useful to be able to stay there (in order to have my first month of work for Convergence Analysis be in-person).

If I wasn’t a grantee, I’d have had to pay around 800-1000USD, so that’s probably the starting point for how much I might donate.

Second, my understanding is that CEEALAR has a fairly limited runway. Thus, if this pandemic reduces donations to things like CEEALAR, it seems plausible CEEALAR will end up having to make hard-to-reverse decisions that lastingly damage its ability to have an impact in future (see next question).

A consideration pushing against me donating now is that CEEALAR have applied for charitable status, and might get it sometime soon-ish. So if I wait for that, I could essentially give more (since I’d be able to claim tax deductions and thus have more income left to give).

But in any case, that second rationale wouldn’t matter if CEEALAR didn’t matter. Which brings me to my third rationale: I think that the marginal impact of donations to CEEALAR in general (i.e., ignoring COVID-19) is plausibly fairly high. This is mostly based on the sorts of arguments that have been discussed in the links given here; I don’t think I have much in the way of separate knowledge or insights to add, and I’m fairly uncertain about this (as I am about most important things!).

I’d be interested in other people’s thoughts on the value of donating to CEEALAR, and on the possibility of impending hard-to-reverse decisions.

Donation link here.

4. Should I donate to orgs/people who could be crippled by coronavirus’s economic impacts?

Sanjay from SoGive wrote recently:

Our experience of the charity sector at the time of the Global Financial Crisis of c2009 suggests that we expect the following to happen [during this pandemic]:
The need for all the various (non-coronavirus-related) charitable projects won’t go away; if anything the need will increase
Some charities will have lost money because of the impact of the markets on their investments
Many funders will have lost money because of volatility in the financial markets, and will therefore less able to providing funding
The remaining funding may be diverted to coronavirus-specific work

That all seems to make sense to me. I suspect the marginal value of donations to high-impact organisations/projects/people are unusually high at the moment.

But what seems like it could be even more unusually important right now is donating to orgs/projects/people who seem particularly likely to otherwise be forced to make hard-to-reverse decisions due to this pandemic. By that I mean things like:

  • Making certain employees redundant
  • Indefinitely pausing in-progress hiring processes (because of inability to provide or guarantee payment for hires; if it’s for other reasons, like inability to onboard people in-person at the moment, then funding wouldn’t fix that problem)
  • Shutting down certain projects
  • Shutting down entirely
  • Abandoning (in a hard-to-reverse way) valuable study or independent research to get a job that's less impactful, just to pay bills

If these things are done, we might later want them to be reversed, and it might be much more expensive or difficult to do that then than just to keep things afloat now. E.g.:

  • hiring and onboarding people to fill roles people were made redundant from will take a while and be expensive
  • candidates who orgs had spent a while evaluating might have now moved on, so searches have to be expensively started afresh
  • Connections and momentum that were supporting certain projects may have fizzled out

So I’m wondering:

  1. Does that seem like something that might happen? It’s just something I’m concerned about, not something I’ve seen other people explicitly discussing the possibility of.
  2. If it were to happen soon, would those orgs/projects/people let the EA community know first? Can I just worry about that as and when it arises, or might I just find out several months from now that this happened and that we could’ve helped if we acted earlier?
  3. Do people know of specific orgs/projects/people who this sort of thing could apply to? I imagine this might mostly boil down to “valuable things with limited runway and no clear relevance to COVID-19”.
    • As noted above, CEEALAR might count.
    • I also think I’m open to helping to support individuals and small projects, not only established orgs.

(ETA: There's some relevant discussion of this sort of matter here and in question 21 here.)

5. Should I donate to something else?

Some candidates that occur to me:

  • The EA Long-Term Future Fund
    • This is where I gave most of my 10% last year, and is typically the main option I've recommend so far for (potentially) longtermism-aligned people.
  • Some of the orgs listed in 2019 AI Alignment Literature Review and Charity Comparison (note that GCRI and the LTF Fund are listed there)
  • The EA Donor Lottery

6. Should I give more than 10% this year, due to COVID-19?

Ultimately, I plan to give away a very high proportion of the income I earned over my lifetime. But for now, I see value in maintaining runway for myself, as I’m also doing direct work.

And there seem to be good arguments for mostly investing, letting interest compound, and giving a lot later (or setting up a trust or something to do so on one’s behalf). For some reason, I don’t “feel” very convinced by those arguments. But I don’t think I have specific counterarguments other than those which Phil Trammell (in the linked episode) already seems to account for. So I think I should probably read Trammell’s write-up, and ideally see what clever responses the rest of the community comes up that that write-up, before ramping up my present donations.

But maybe the answers to question 4 would indicate that donations in the present are exceptionally valuable right now, and so I should ramp up my present donations substantially. This seems somewhat unlikely, but I’m not sure, and I'm open to thoughts.


Thanks for reading this far (or clever move skipping some sections!).

I look forward to seeing people’s thoughts on this (ideally as comments, so others can benefit too, but you're also welcome to message me if you'd rather not make your views public). And I hope this helps prompt others to make similar posts in future!

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6 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:52 AM
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In case people still stumble across this post in future, I've just discovered this post, which I plan to read (along with its comments) before deciding whether to donate to CEEALAR: $100 Prize to Best Argument Against Donating to the EA Hotel.

I just saw the post, I guess because of your comment.

I don't think that the EA Hotel is one of the most impactful and cost effective charities in the world. However, if you got personal value out of it and can afford it, perhaps you could consider donating to them out of your non-charity money?

I think it's good for EAs to contribute to the local community centres, churches, hospices etc that benefit them or the people they care about. I try to contribute to some charities that have benefited me personally, but I don't count that as part of my 10%. Hopefully that makes sense.

I think this is a useful mindset to have "on the menu". It seems reminiscent of the idea that we can have different "buckets": some of our time and money can be for ourselves, some can be for doing good in "common sense" or "warm and fuzzy" ways, and some can be for doing good in the way that seems genuinely most effective, from an impartial perspective (or something like that).

Personally, I do something like that in some ways. E.g., for friends or family who will appreciate charity gifts on their birthdays, I give to charities that match their interests, rather than shoe-horning some EA into their days. And I also give plasma regularly, without having really thought about whether that's the most effective use of my time (though it also doesn't "cost" much time given that I can still listen to audiobooks/podcasts as I donate).

But my long-term plans are closer to the "Further Pledge" than the 10% pledge, in that I aim to eventually give everything beyond perhaps $15-30,000 USD yearly. Though I haven't taken the Further Plesge yet, because I'm still working out things like my long-term location and career path, and because of arguments that might favour investing for a while and giving more later. So for now, I basically give 10% per year, spend at a frugal though not incredibly ascetic level, and save the remainder - but with that remainder still mostly in a "for EA-aligned stuff eventually" bucket, rather than in a "for me or for 'common sense' good stuff" bucket. (The rough idea is that I'll eventually "back-pay" what I "should've" paid during the years in which I hadn't yet taken the Further Pledge.)

All that said, I ultimately did decide to donate to CEEALAR the amount that I would've paid for my stay if I'd had to pay, with the motivation partly being what you describe: They'd provided me a service, and I had the ability to help support them in return. And I don't plan to donate more in the foreseeable future, as I think the argument for donating to ALLFED or GCRI is probably stronger. But I did count that CEEALAR donation as part of my 10%, as I do think there's at least a decent EA argument for supporting them (coming from a longtermist perspective).

I'm not sure I can help you, but I thank you for this post - it made me include ALLFED in my donation plans.

Should I give more than 10% this year, due to COVID-19


Well, it won't hurt anyone if you donate more than what you pledged for. I pondered on a similar issue, and have decided to donate to Covid-related charities what I've saved due to my decrease in consumption. It feels kind of "fair".

And there seem to be good arguments for mostly investing, letting interest compound, and giving a lot later (or setting up a trust or something to do so on one’s behalf).

Please let me know if you change your mind after reading Tramwell's argument. At least for me, in my home country, is very complex to invest in such a volatile scenarion. I'm probably biased here; I have already lost a significant portion of my savings (which was dumb, because I knew Covid was coming), and my first thought was "I should have given it all to AMF."

I thank you for this post - it made me include ALLFED in my donation plans.

Good to hear!

Some updates since I posted this:

  • I'll be meeting with someone from ALLFED in early July to discuss the argument for donating to them, and plan to make my donation decision that month. So in July, I'll likely report back here or in a new post with my updated thoughts.
  • Here's ALLFED's 2019 Annual Report and Fundraising Appeal, which has more up-to-date and detailed info than what I mentioned/linked to in this post. (I hadn't seen it when I wrote this post.)
  • Here's Summary of 2019-2020 GCRI Accomplishments, Plans, and Fundraising, which again has more up-to-date and detailed info than what I mentioned in this post.
  • I did donate to CEEALAR the amount I would've paid if I'd had to pay for my stay. (I don't plan to donate more in the foreseeable future.)
  • I haven't received any indications that longtermist orgs are likely to have to make unfortunate, hard-to-reverse decisions due to COVID that immediate funding would prevent them having to make. (Though I didn't ask around extensively either.)
Please let me know if you change your mind after reading Tramwell's argument. At least for me, in my home country, is very complex to invest in such a volatile scenarion. I'm probably biased here; I have already lost a significant portion of my savings (which was dumb, because I knew Covid was coming), and my first thought was "I should have given it all to AMF."

I've now read Trammell's write-up. I didn't spot any notable flaws - though I also didn't really try to understand the equations, as I'm not an economist. And I haven't seen any critiques of his ideas that seemed compelling and that he hadn't already accounted for - though I also don't think I've seen a massive amount of discussion of his ideas in the first place. So I've updated somewhat towards more belief in the arguments for most investing, letting interest compound, and giving a lot later. Though I still plan to give 10% per year, at least until I become further convinced by those arguments.

I've also drafted a post on Crucial questions about optimal timing of work and donations, which outlines a lot of relevant arguments. The post doesn't really argue for an overall conclusion, but the process of writing it very weakly updated me further in the direction of investing to donate more later.

(Caveat for the following: I am not an expert on investing.) I think that, if investing is currently a bad idea or expected interest is currently low (I won't comment on whether this is true), but Trammell's arguments generally hold, this seems like it would only somewhat weaken the argument for investing and donating a lot later. I.e., I think it would only weaken that argument to the extent that there's somewhat less compounding expected. So it might make sense in that case to save in a bank or something, and then still invest later (once the situation is better), let investment earnings compound from that point onwards, and donate a lot at some future point. Rather than donating all of one's "EA money" this year.

Personally, I don't invest everything other than what I spend and my 10%; instead, I keep a decent chunk in the bank as "runway". And I plan to occasionally move some of that money from the bank to investments, when the runway is larger than I need. (I've also been very lucky in a lot of ways, and I acknowledge that not everyone will be able to do these things.)