Comparing Four Cause Areas for Founding New Charities

by Joey 5 min read24th Jan 20203 comments

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Cross-posted from Charity Entrepreneurship blog.

CAUSE AREAS

Unlike in previous years, we are considering multiple different cause areas this year, which leaves more room for cause comparison. We think that generally, both entrepreneurs and donors have specific cause areas in mind when they attend or support our program. However, some have asked us for a sense of how the different cause areas, and more importantly, charities within them, compare. We think each area has its strengths and weaknesses and at this level, it's hard to reliably compare because many assumptions (both ethical and epistemic) need to be made.

We are considering the following four areas:

  • Mental health
  • Family planning
  • Animals
  • Health policy

Weighted factor model framing. Each area is color-coded from strongest to weakest.

* If the limiting factor cell is red, this means that the limiting factor will be met very quickly. Green means that the factor will be hard to meet. 
** If the non-captured externality cell is green, this means that the externalities are large and positive. If the cell is red, this means that externality is small.

Another way to frame this is by more specific key strengths and weaknesses

Mental health

Strengths

  • Directness of the subjective well-being metric and possible underrating of the area by other metrics
  • Possible promising cost effectiveness for both low and high income countries
  • Strong to moderate evidence base and background research but limited prioritization work
  • Could encourage EA movement to consider more cause areas long term

Weaknesses

  • Uncertain cost effectiveness compared to top global health interventions
  • More theoretical and philosophical work that is required for assessment
  • More limited funding base particularly in the EA movement
  • Evidence base has a wider range of metrics used, making it more difficult to compare

Family planning

Strengths

  • Strong funding outside of EA
  • Moderate evidence base
  • Under certain ethical views could be extremely impactful
  • Area has more limited use of CEAs than others in global health, leaving promising sub-areas neglected.
  • Diverse range of positive effects (e.g. unborn child benefits, family benefits, income benefits, etc.)

Weaknesses

  • Maximizing multiple positive effects makes the charity harder to run
  • Size of impact depends on unsolved population ethics questions
  • Evidence is spread out between a wide range of metrics thus speculative conversions and comparisons need to be used
  • Can be a controversial intervention

Animals

Strengths

  • Naive cost-effectiveness estimates generally show extremely high cost effectiveness
  • High levels of historical neglect mean many promising charity ideas are not yet founded
  • Strong support both within and outside of the EA community
  • Very strong case that animals should be given moral weight

Weaknesses

  • Very low evidence base compared to other areas
  • Some talent shortages in the movement that impair key charities
  • More limited externalities and flow-through effects than other cause areas
    High rate of non-effectiveness minded activists in the area

Health policy

Strengths

  • Naive cost-effectiveness estimates show higher cost effectiveness than standard global health interventions and maybe all other human-focused areas
  • Evidence base fairly strong if confidence is established in causal relationship of lobbying

Weaknesses

  • Extremely complex space resulting in a much higher than average chance of a charity having limited or no impact
  • More limited externalities and flow-through effects compared to other cause areas
  • Very high bar of charities that are already working in the space leading

GLOBAL HEALTH INTERVENTIONS

Immunization reminders

Strengths

  • Highly flexible and has great feedback loops. For example can move from SMS reminders to SMS + gossip reminders
  • Many impactful opportunities are still on the table due to the newness of the intervention
    Has a spectrum of success (unlike lobbying-based organizations)
  • Easier to get government buy-in on large scale projects

Weaknesses

  • High cost effectiveness can be hard to achieve (e.g. higher than GiveDirectly but not as high as other GiveWell top charities)
  • Behavior change makes concerns about external validity stronger
  • Almost all benefits are in saving lives of children under five, so limited externalities

Tobacco taxation

Strengths

  • Possibility of being extremely cost effective
  • Provides learning opportunities as well as the ability to set a precedent if success is achieved
  • Often regarded as one of the most effective global health policy interventions that is not consistently applied in all countries
  • The evidence base that tobacco prevents a massive DALY burden and tobacco taxes reduce tobacco use is very strong

Weaknesses

  • High-risk opportunity with a high chance of failure
  • Has active agents, namely tobacco companies, that push against interventions in this space
    The evidence base for the best strategies to use to get tobacco taxes raised is unclear
  • There are major difficulties in assessing the impact of a single organization in the space when multiple organizations are working in the same location

Iron and folic acid fortification

Strengths

  • Nutrition as a broad area is seen as a highly promising area by a wide range of external experts including GiveWell and the Copenhagen Consensus
  • Iron affects a wide range of health effects, often leading it to be undervalued in standard calculations. One example of this would be iron’s effects on depression rates
  • There are large gaps in fortification in lower-income countries

Weaknesses

  • Certain locations are highly effective to run this intervention in (such as northern states in India) but there are fewer gaps than for other interventions
  • Medium risk opportunity with a medium chance of failure
  • There are many other nutrition-focused organizations, although none focusing on iron and folic acid in India
  • Sub-standard fortification may lead to a limited or non-impactful effect

ANIMAL INTERVENTIONS

Dissolved oxygen for fish

Strengths

  • Extremely cost effective when compared to other animal-focused interventions. The most cost-effective direct intervention we measured
  • Has a precedent in recent similar cage-free and broiler asks
  • Strong evidence baseHas strong pathways to funding as many donors consider fish a promising focus area
  • Has the possibility of shifting the animal movement’s fish focus in a much more effective direction

Weaknesses

  • Upfront research required to determine key variables (e.g. optimal range of DO)
    Heterogeneity between species of fish makes it harder to generalize DO or other interventions.
  • Finding talent on the research side will be challenging in the animal space
  • Fish focused charities would likely eventually get started so the counterfactual impact comes from the sub-focus areas

Food fortification for egg-laying hens

Strengths

  • Strong evidence base relative to other interventions in the animal space
  • Less initial research needed before this organization could be founded
  • Feed cost is the largest single item cost in poultry production
  • Room for scaling to other food-related interventions
  • Nutrition is a well understood and cost-effective intervention

Weaknesses

  • The timing might not be optimal due to recent cage-free campaigns
  • Lower cost effectiveness than other animal charities
    Some concerns regarding counterfactual replaceability of the industry taking into account feed
  • There is a wide range of possible nutritional improvements with exact effects on pain of birds being less clear

Ask research

Strengths

  • There is limited research in both the animal movement as a whole and even less directly focused on asks that can be made of governments or corporations
  • This type of research seems tractable and compared to other research, has quick feedback loops
  • Given the low cost of a research organization focused on this and that it is possible to affect large corporate campaigns, it could be highly cost effective
  • Effective altruists have a strong competitive advantage to found this idea

Weaknesses

  • The impact depends strongly on the effectiveness of corporate and governmental campaigns
    Impact relies on NGOs and organizations updating based on research
  • Founders will have to be very strong in both research and communication skills
  • Relatively few asks are chosen annually, so the feedback loops are slow and there is downtime between key choices

Animal careers

Strengths

  • Likely the charity idea the largest number of funders and activists will be excited about
  • Meta-charity that could lead to other charities being founded
  • Has a low floor for failure (even if done moderately well could have major benefits)
  • Has models that can be replicated as a starting point (CSO in testing ideas, 80,000 hours in organizational scope)
  • Could be very cost effective if you take surveys of employee demand at face value
  • Can be done in a wide range of locations effectively

Weaknesses

  • Relies on other charities in the animal movement being net positive and effective
  • Requires a high level of communication skills
  • Requires a broad understanding of a diverse movement
  • Co-founders will have to be comfortable with inter-organizational interaction
  • Many will not understand the charity idea or how it helps the movement
  • Impact is indirect and hard to measure
  • Very limited historical research in the area so starting from scratch in many cases

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