TLDR: if the title is all you needed to hear and you want to make a contribution, please check out this form!
In the past, earning to give has been a well-publicized way to participate in the effective altruism community. However, effective altruism currently has a funding overhang, which means the marginal value of money donated by small donors has diminished significantly, at least in most cause areas. If this leaves you wondering where to put your money, consider that election campaign contributions might be a way in which you can have a substantial impact as a small donor, which to my knowledge has not been discussed substantially on this forum before. Due to campaign contribution limits, many small funders outperform a few large funders.
(Note: Most of this post will discuss the situation in the U.S., which is what I know, and unfortunately for non-U.S. readers, foreign nationals cannot donate to candidates for any public office in the U.S. If you live in a democratic country that has campaign contribution limits, you might consider presenting the campaign finance situation in your country in the comments or in a separate post.)
Why should you give?
Where policy choices greatly impact wellbeing (such as in the recent pandemic), there are few other ways to influence outcomes as direct as placing aligned individuals in public offices.
In the United States, campaign finance regulations at the federal level cap individual donations towards candidates for public office, intentionally creating a structural bias towards small donor contributions. The contribution limit to candidates contesting in federal elections is $2,900 per individual (or corporation) as of 2021, meaning this is one area in which large funders do not have an advantage. Campaign finance laws vary from state to state, and each state has its own contribution limits (some allow unlimited contributions). A table of all 50 states' contribution limits can be found here.
Where should you give?
You can donate to candidates in states, counties, or municipalities in which you do not reside; this applies to both local and federal elections. In fact, many superstar candidates receive a majority of their financing from out-of-state donors. For effective altruists, this means that you are able to contribute in whichever election where you judge your money will matter most. You also do not have to donate to only a single candidate in any given race; instead, you can donate to all of those which satisfy a given policy preference.
Contributions may matter more in down-ballot (state and local) elections, which are in general less publicized, have lower total funding, and are otherwise neglected relative to the presidential election. Some smaller elections are especially neglected, because their locales are "solid red/blue" and are therefore rarely contested, or are contested only in the primary. This provides an opportunity for an effective altruist to have even more leverage, if you are willing to consider contributing funding to non-local candidates affiliated with either (or neither) major party who are aligned with your priorities on non-partisan topics (c.f. Robin Hanson's "Pull the rope sideways").
Money donated to candidates substantially outperforms money donated to Super PACs (which cannot themselves contribute to candidates). The majority of campaign spending from both candidates and Super PACs is on advertising. Federal law entitles candidates for any public office to the "lowest unit charge" for broadcast advertising airing within 45 days ahead of a primary or 60 days ahead of a general election, although in practice this is complicated. Super PACs are not entitled to this rate, and often pay 3-10x as much for comparable advertising slots. You should therefore consider maxing out your contributions to candidates you support before donating to Super PACs, which can receive unlimited funds and therefore can be supplied equally well by a few large funders as by many small funders.
When should you give?
You also can have unusual leverage by making an early contribution. A candidate who is successful at fundraising early in a campaign cycle signals to analysts, media outlets, and Super PACs that they are a viable contestant. Even if your preferred candidate does not win, their platform is more likely to be adopted as an outcome of that election.
Admittedly, it's much more difficult to price the impact of campaign contributions than it is to price the impact of contributions to interventions in global health and development or in farmed animal welfare. Even leaving aside other cause areas, the positive correlation between funding and winning an election is fairly loose. Donald Trump won the 2016 Republican presidential primary despite spending less than his opponents. Michael Bloomberg lost the 2020 Democratic presidential primary despite personally spending over $500 million, nearly equivalent to all his competitors put together. Once again, the situation may be substantially different down-ballot where races are more neglected, and where unusual opportunities can be identified.
Specific places to donate
Elizabeth Edwards-Appell is seeking to assist potential candidates and has asked for sign-ups if you are willing to be contacted in the near future about contributing. Please fill out her form here!
Proposals for further work
Some ideas, would love to see more in the comments:
- Create a platform for effective altruists to easily review arguments for donating to certain candidates at all levels of government, and how to direct funds to those candidates. The simplest form of this would be one person taking the time to do the research and writing a blog dedicated to the topic.
- Form a funding bloc composed of effective altruists who each pledge to individually donate a certain sum if a candidate credibly supports a given policy or platform, in sum making a large contribution.
- Help identify, train, and provide logistical support to promising EA-aligned candidates for various public offices.
- Other work to remove trivial inconveniences from donating and to more easily surface opportunities to donate.
Thanks to Elizabeth Edwards-Appell for suggesting this post's topic.