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My main question

The EA Funds Animal Welfare Fund makes grants to many different animal charities. Suppose I want to support one particular charity that they grant to because I think it's better, relative to my values, than most of the other ones. For example, maybe I want to specifically give to Legal Impact for Chickens (LIC), so I donate $1000 to them.

Because this donation reduces LIC's room for more funding, it may decrease the amount that the Animal Welfare Fund itself (or Open Philanthropy, Animal Charity Evaluators, or individual EA donors) will give to LIC in the future. How large should I expect this effect to be in general? Will my $1000 donation tend to "funge" against these other EA donors almost fully, so that LIC can be expected to get about $1000 less from them? Is the funging amount more like $500? Is it roughly $0 of funging? Or maybe donating to LIC helps them grow faster, so that they can hire more people and do more things, thereby increasing their room for funding and how much other EA donors give to them?

The answer to this question probably varies substantially from one case to the next, and maybe the best way to figure it out would be to learn a lot about the funding situation for a particular charity and the funding inclinations of big EA donors toward that charity. But that takes a lot of work, so I wonder if EA funders have some intuition for what tends to happen on average in situations like this, to inform small donors who aren't going to get that far into the weeds with a particular charity. Does the funging amount tend to be closer to 0% or closer to 100% of what an individual donor gives?

I notice that the Animal Welfare Fund sometimes funds ~10% to ~50% of an organization's operating budget, which I imagine may be partly intentional to avoid crowding out small donors. (It may also be motivated by wanting charities to diversify their funding sources and due to limited funds to disburse.) Is it true in general that the Animal Welfare Fund doesn't fully fill room for funding, or are there charities for which the Fund does top up the charity completely? (Note that it would actually be better impact-wise to ensure that the very best charities are roughly fully funded, so I'm not encouraging a strategy of deliberately underfunding them.)

In the rest of this post, I'll give more details on why I'm asking about this topic, but this further elaboration is optional reading and is more specific to my situation.

My donation preferences

I think a lot of EA donations to animal charities are really exciting. About 1/3 of the grants in the Animal Welfare Fund's Grants Database seem to me roughly as cost-effective as possible for reducing near-term animal suffering. However, for some other grants, I'm pretty ambivalent about the sign of the net impact (i.e., whether it's net good or bad).

This is mainly for two reasons:

  1. I'm unsure if meat reduction, on the whole, reduces animal suffering, mainly because certain kinds of animal farming, especially cattle grazing on non-irrigated pasture, may reduce an enormous amount of wild-animal suffering (though there are huge error bars on this analysis).
  2. I'm unsure if antispeciesism in general reduces net suffering. In the short run, I worry that it may encourage more habitat preservation, thereby increasing wild-animal suffering. In the long run, moral-circle expansion could encourage people to create lots of additional small-brained sentience, and in (hopefully unlikely) scenarios where human values become inverted, antispeciesist values could multiply total suffering manyfold.

If I could press a button to reduce overall meat consumption or to increase concern for animals, I probably would. In other words, I think the expected value of these things is perhaps slightly above zero. But my expected value for them is sufficiently close to zero that I don't feel great about my donations being used for them.

Therefore, I would prefer to not spend precious money to support alternative proteins, veg outreach, or expanding the general animal-advocacy movement. Rather, the work I'm most excited about is welfare reforms -- especially for the most numerous animals like chickens, fish, and shrimp, and especially those reforms that reduce the very most intense suffering, such as the pain of slaughter.

(By the way, I would definitely press a button to reduce chicken consumption, but I plausibly would not press a button to reduce beef consumption. I wish it were feasible to push on one but not the other of these variables, but that seems tricky to do as a donor, other than maybe by giving to One Step for Animals.)

Donation funging

The specificity of my preferences regarding which animal activism I'm enthusiastic about makes it harder to find good donation targets. Most animal charities do a mix of welfare reforms, meat reduction, and moral-circle expansion. Earmarking your donation for one of these activities in particular could allow the charity to funge your donation by spending less of their unrestricted money on that activity (although in some cases, earmarked donations go toward new projects that wouldn't have happened at all otherwise).

There's a similar kind of funging between charities, especially in contexts like EA where donors are sensitive to room for more funding (Shulman 2014). Donating to a single charity is kind of like making an earmarked donation: it frees up other EA donors to use their "unrestricted" money for all the other EA animal charities instead. This funging concern has been discussed by a number of authors, such as Budolfson and Spears (2019). The thrust of my question is: Does this actually occur a lot in practice in the EA animal-welfare world? Or is it mainly a theoretical worry?

The concern is that if I donate to, say, Legal Impact for Chickens, then the Animal Welfare Fund will donate less to that charity and have more money for other things. In the worst case where there's 100% funging, my donation to LIC is only as good as donating to the Animal Welfare Fund itself, which splits its grants between welfare reforms and other activities that I'm less interested in. Maybe the average Animal Welfare Fund grant is only 1/3 to 1/2 as good as a grant to a specific charity that I want to support, so in the case of 100% funging, the effectiveness of my donation by my lights would be multiplied by 1/3 to 1/2.

Donating to less popular targets

One possible answer to the funging problem is to seek charities or other funding opportunities "off the beaten path", i.e., ones that the big EA animal donors probably wouldn't fund. AppliedDivinityStudies (2021) also makes this suggestion.

One way to do this is to look for individual activists whom you know personally but who are unlikely to receive institutional EA funding, such as because the grant size would be too small to bother with or because the activism isn't legible to or suited to the tastes of the bigger EA funders. However, the total amount of gifts you can make this way may not be very high unless you know a lot of activists in this category.

Another approach is to give to charities that aren't popular with other EAs. I donate a bit to Animal Ethics (AE) because it doesn't receive much funding from the big EA donors. AE's last grant from the Animal Welfare Fund was in 2018, and Animal Charity Evaluators stopped highlighting AE as a Standout Charity in 2017. AE's focus on wild-animal suffering makes it less likely that AE's particular brand of moral-circle expansion will increase support for wilderness preservation. That said, I'm more enthusiastic about specific welfare reforms that will reduce suffering in the near future, which AE doesn't really work on. My reason for donating to animal causes at all is because they're more concrete than nebulous far-future suffering-reduction work, so the more tangible the impact is, the better.

The Humane Slaughter Association (HSA) is another option that not many EAs seem interested in. HSA received two large grants from Open Philanthropy, in 2017 and 2019, but those were earmarked for specific projects, so general HSA funding may not be funged by them. HSA meets most of the criteria I'm looking for: it only does welfare reforms, it doesn't mention environmentalism, and it focuses on the most extreme suffering (slaughter), including of chickens and fish. The main downside of HSA for me is that a lot of its work targets larger animals (cattle, pigs, etc), which are numerically less important. If only, say, 1/3 to 1/2 of HSA's work is about chickens and fish, then the impact of a donation to it is sort of multiplied by 1/3 to 1/2, similar to what I mentioned regarding donating to the Animal Welfare Fund. I suppose one could ask HSA to earmark a donation toward a fish-specific project, as Open Philanthropy did, but this would be a lot of work for a small donor like me. And that fish-specific project would be more likely to funge against future Open Philanthropy grants.

HSA has for many years had a large fund of assets that it invests rather than spending, which may lead people to conclude that it lacks room for more funding. I'm not sure if that's accurate, since investing money to spend later is a reasonable strategy to take, both for individuals and organizations. HSA has existed since 1911, so it's not in growth mode the way a startup charity would be. Donating more than what a charity can spend now doesn't seem to me like a problem per se; the problem is when that surplus of funding discourages other donors from giving to the charity.

Charities that aren't adored in EA can still have their own forms of funging with non-EA donors. Some non-EA would-be donors might think these charities already have enough funding and give elsewhere. But that seems less likely than in the case of big EA donors who actively scrutinize room for more funding and aren't as emotionally attached to one particular organization.

If having lots of money makes a charity less interested in fundraising, that could be another way in which donations to more obscure charities can be funged. (Holden Karnofsky makes this point in the comments on Shulman (2014).)

Closing remarks

I'm curious whether readers have suggestions for additional animal-welfare charities meeting my criteria that wouldn't by default be funded by the big EA donors. Maybe the Animal Welfare Fund could share a list of charities they almost funded but that didn't make their cutoff and that they're unlikely to fund in the future either. Or a list of which of the charities they are funding still have significant room for more funding that the Animal Welfare Fund doesn't expect to fill in the future.

I certainly wouldn't want to discourage people from donating to the Animal Welfare Fund; I consider donating to it myself. I think some of the work it funds is amazing and some is at worst ~neutral in expectation. By my lights, it would be bad if people donated less to animal charities and more to other EA causes -- especially something like biorisk reduction, which I think increases expected future suffering, though like with everything else, the sign is very unclear. This problem of funging between EA cause areas (including cause areas that are net good and net bad according to my values) is an additional layer of vexation.

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Hi Brian, I'm the executive director of Farmed Animals Protection Association(Çiftlik Hayvanlarını Koruma Derneği) in Turkey, which works mainly in two program areas: corporate cage-free campaigns and corporate engagement to ensure effective stunning of farmed fish before slaughter. You can read more about our work from our Animal Charity Evaluators review. In our latest application to EA Animal Welfare Fund, we were granted less than the amount we requested. Therefore both of our program areas still have more room for funding. Furthermore, having a diverse donor base rather than relying on a few institutional donors helps us to attract better talent as it allows us to demonstrate long-term sustainability to potential hires. You can reach out to our fundraising director Çağrı, cagri.mutaf@kafessizturkiye.com to donate to us through Animal Charity Evaluators' fiscal sponsorship. I'm happy to answer any questions you might have.

Thanks! I may have several questions later. :) For now, I was curious about your thoughts on the funging framework in general. Do you think it is the case that if one EA gives more to you, then other EAs like the Animal Welfare Fund will tend to give at least somewhat less? And how much less?

I sort of wonder if that funging model is wrong, especially in the case of rapidly growing charities. For example, suppose the Animal Welfare Fund in year 1 thinks you have enough money, so they don't grant any more. But another donor wants you to spend $25K (or whatever it costs) to hire an extra person. That other donor gives you a $25K donation in year 1, and you make the additional hire. Suppose that donor stops giving to you in year 2. Now you have an extra hire needing $25K/year -- a funding gap that no one is filling. So in a sense, you now have that much more additional room for funding. And as long as that hire remains employed with you, you have that additional funding gap every year. The one-time donation of $25K resulted in an ongoing additional $25K of room for funding in subsequent years. This would be the opposite of the funging model assumed in my post: an individual donor's gif... (read more)

emre kaplan
I don't really have a good response to your main question as I can't speak on behalf of the grantmakers. But I might at least contribute in the following way: In our first and second years, EA Animal Welfare Fund and other funders were willing to fund us more than we requested. So if some individual donor gave money to us in our first and second years, we would basically ask for less money from EA Animal Welfare Fund and other sources. This is no longer the case as EA Animal Welfare Fund doesn't make grants larger than $100k very often. For that reason, additional individual donations have a counterfactual positive impact on our growth. But I don't know if additional individual contributions lead the grantmakers to grant less money to us. That is something grantmakers can speak about.


You might be interested that Healthier Hens recently said "Healthier Hens (HH) has scaled down due to not being able to secure enough funding to provide a sufficient runway to pilot dietary interventions effectively." https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/6eaY7MEDWnK39sCEi/healthier-hens-y1-5-update-and-scaledown-assessment 

HH seems like an organisation that is counterfactually funding constrained and meets your criteria (underfunded, focused on measurable chicken welfare, no veganism promotion, potentially highly impactful).

This kind of case and my own donating experience leads me to expect there are some often good "less popular targets" to donate to, especially outside of HICs. I expect the "less popular targets" strategy might be a good way to go.

(COI note: I work for CE and HH was a CE charity)

Thanks! That's good to know. When I looked through the Animal Welfare Fund grantees recently, Healthier Hens was one that I picked out as a possible candidate for donating to. I'm more concerned about extreme than chronic pain, but I guess HH says that bone fractures cause some intense pain as well as chronic (and of course I care about chronic pain somewhat too).

Is there info about why grantors didn't give more funding to HH? I wonder if there's something they know that I don't. (In general, that's a main downside of trying to donate off the beaten path.)

I don’t have this info. I think it is possible that funders are not interested in Africa (HH was working in Kenya) or that funders don’t value this kind of work as they see it as incremental welfare improvements that they don’t lead to long run change, but I'm mostly honestly speculating ... 
Thanks. :) No worries.

Dear Brian,

Thank you so much for using Legal Impact for Chickens as your example!!!! It’s an honor. Reading our name here made me so surprised and happy!!!

Thank you, also, for appreciating our desire to focus specifically on reducing suffering.

To address your question:

In my limited experience, starting a new nonprofit over the past two years, I haven’t personally noticed much funging.

To me, it generally seems like the opposite happens—the more we fundraise, the easier it is for us to fundraise.

It seems like many grantors want to see that a nonprofit has a diverse donor base and is putting effort into fundraising. So, my hunch is that receiving each donation generally helps LIC receive more donations in the long run. When we apply for funding, we sometimes brag about how many donors we already have and how much we’ve already raised. And there are certain large grantors that I have been told prefer to fund nonprofits that already have raised at least a certain amount from other sources. Maybe that helps create certainty that the nonprofit is self sufficient?

So, I would guess that this model from your comment above is generally correct: “the opposite of the funging model assumed in my post: an individual donor’s gift led to more funding from [a large grantor] over the long run, not less.”

But there has been one exception: We applied for one small grant from a non-EA grantor and were rejected partly on grounds that we already had raised too much money to qualify.

But I believe that one rejection is outweighed by other, larger, gifts that LIC received partly because we already had already received earlier gifts.

That said, of course, I’m not a grantor. Maybe I’m not really understanding how things work from the perspective of our amazing grantors. (Thank you so much to all of them who may be reading this!)

Thank you again for mentioning our name!!

Sincerely, Alene & LIC

I'm honored that you're honored. :) Thanks for the work you do and for your answer here!

there are certain large grantors that I have been told prefer to fund nonprofits that already have raised at least a certain amount from other sources

Are those EA grantors? Or maybe you prefer not to say.

That makes sense about how more donors helps with fundraising. I wonder if that's more true for a startup charity that has to demonstrate its legitimacy, while for a larger and more established charity, maybe it could go the other way?

One of them is and one of them isn’t! Yeah it could totally be a startup thing. :-)

Hi Brian,

Thanks so much for mentioning One Step for Animals. Having spent decades promoting dietary change, I know my efforts at my previous nonprofits have ended up leading to more chickens suffering. (This for those not familiar, and this is what got me fired from "Animal Asylum".) One of the reasons I wrote Losing My Religions - hoping readers won't make the same mistake.

As far as funding for One Step, we reach more people with our short video the more people contribute. There seems to be no correlation between current contributions and future contributions. We just put money into outreach; we don't have a development team, we don't send out fundraising letters, we just buy more eyeballs. Since our founding in 2014, One Step has raised anywhere between ~$300k and $112k. We're currently looking at ~$150k for the current fiscal year.

One note: One Step's matching donor only contributes to double what we raise elsewhere. They don't donate at all otherwise. Working for other orgs, I took part in "matching" campaigns where the org knew they were going to get the "matching" money regardless.

Again - thanks for the shout-out. I have a lot of work to do to make up for my past mistakes.


Super glad that One Step exists. It’s really scary to think about people switching from beef to chicken. ❤️🐥

Thanks! Good to know. If you're just buying eyeballs, then there's roughly unlimited room for more funding (unless you were to get a lot bigger), so presumably there'd be less reason for funging dynamics. (And I assume you don't receive much or any money from big EA animal donors anyway.)

Hi Brian, 

EA Animal Welfare fund does ask on their application form about counterfactual funding, IE "If we don't fund you will anyone else fund you?/what would happen if we don't fund you" of course as an org it can be hard to know if you'll get funding or not so in some sense you're being speculative when answering this question

I suppose the realistic effect is you may donate let's say an additional 1 month of runway to the org, therefore the org applies for 1 months less funding from EA Animal Welfare next time round, and that money then flows through to the next best opportunity EA Animal Welfare would fund, so the effect may be thought of as additional money going to the worst/borderline EA Animal welfare grantee, at least that would be my speculation in this situation 


so the effect may be thought of as additional money going to the worst/borderline EA Animal welfare grantee

Yeah, that's the funging scenario that I had in mind. :) It's fine if everyone agrees about the ranking of the different charities. It's not great if the donor to the funged charity thinks the funged charity is significantly better than the average Animal Welfare Fund grant.

EA Animal Welfare fund does ask on their application form about counterfactual funding

Interesting! That does support the idea there is some funging that happens inte... (read more)

The section "B. A value certificate equilibrium" in this post[1] might be of interest, because it kind of provides one solution to that coordination problem. In theory you could try to get the Animal Welfare fund to agree on that coordination solution, and then estimate parameters for your case, and then send a bill/donation to the Animal Welfare fund to reach that solution. That said, for relatively small amounts, my guess is that this would be too much work. 1. ^ Sadly amateurishly/immaturely written, though I think that the core point gets across.
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This is only somewhat related but I would be keen to get your thoughts Brian on this talk and related paper on positive wild animal welfare? They argue that wild animal welfare isn't necessarily so clear cut to be negative and there are some positive elements as well that we often don't discuss. I'm no expert and you've probably thought about wild animal suffering more than most people so I would be very curious to hear what you think.

There's a lot in the talk but I found the slides below particularly interesting to think about (timestamp: 30:13) as it implies that even with heavily r-selected species, the deaths and suffering of juveniles may not dominate overall suffering.

Your question is fairly relevant to the discussion because if I thought there was net positive value in the lives of wild animals, then I would have a lot fewer concerns about non-welfare-reform animal charities.

I've had it on my todo list to check out that video and paper, but I probably won't get to it any time soon, so for now I'll just reply to the slides you asked about. :)

Personally I would not want to live even as the two surviving adult fish, because they probably experience a number of moments of extreme suffering, at least during death if not earlier. They may be fearful of predators, they face unpleasant temperatures or other bad environmental conditions without being able to control them the way humans do with air conditioning and heating, they may face long periods of low food, there might be intraspecific aggression and sexual harassment (I don't know if those behaviors apply to Atlantic cod, but they are common in some fish species), and there would be many other hardships. Most of these moments of suffering probably wouldn't feel that bad, but a few of them might be unbearably awful.

I said that I "personally" wouldn't want to live as one of these surviving fish, but you might say that the real question is whether they would want to have these lives rather than not existing. We can't ask fish that question, but if we imagine humans having similar lives as these fish, we could ask such humans that question. Maybe many of those humans would say during many moments of their lives that they were on balance glad to exist. However, I suspect that during some moments, such as the peak pain of dying, they would often change their minds and wish they hadn't existed. Therefore, there's no single individual whom we can ask whether his/her life was net positive; there are multiple "individuals" within the animal's life, some of whom are glad to exist and some of whom are horrified to exist. How we weigh up these conflicting opinions is ultimately a judgment call, and no amount of further empirical data on wild-animal welfare will resolve it. I take a suffering-focused approach to this dilemma and say that it's not acceptable for the happier moments of the animal's life to impose unbearable suffering on some other moments of the animal's life. So for any animal that has moments of unmitigated, unbearable agony (as most animals do, if only when dying), its life is net negative in my view.

But most people don't take this suffering-focused approach. Many people think enough happy moments of life can outweigh something as awful as being eaten alive. So next I'll discuss the specific numbers in those slides.

If a baby fish is only enduring 10 seconds of agony when dying, as the first slide suggests, then it's presumably dying from predation (or maybe a severe physical injury like being crushed or something). The next slide suggests that maybe the pain of predation is 100/100, compared against a presumed positive welfare of 0.1/100 for ordinary life. So getting eaten alive is only 1000 times worse than the goodness of a typical moment of life. That might seem plausible if we only glance at the numbers, but it's not at all plausible if we actually think about what it implies. Imagine that you endure getting eaten alive for 1 minute. These numbers say that a mere 1000 minutes of ordinary life could compensate for that. 1000 minutes is 16.7 hours, slightly more than the amount of time a typical person is awake in a day. So this ratio says that even if you spend a minute every day experiencing what it's like to be eaten alive, then your life can still be welfare-neutral. I wonder if anyone would actually sign up for that. One of the least suffering-averse trade ratios I've heard someone endorse was that he'd be willing to experience being eaten alive for an extra week of life (IIRC; that conversation was a long time ago). (I guess there are also a few people who say even more extreme things like "I'd rather be alive and tortured forever than not exist", though I expect they'd change their minds pretty quickly when the torture started.)

One possible argument is that it's illegitimate to rely on our human intuitions about this tradeoff, because r-strategists may have evolved different pain-pleasure trade ratios based on the situation they face. For example, almost all fish babies will die by default, so if there's an opportunity to take a dangerous risk in order to gain some slight advantage, they should probably take it, since they have almost no chance of winning otherwise. Therefore, maybe they need to be less averse to suffering (or at least less afraid of suffering) than we would be. This might be the case, but it's a very theoretical argument, so I'm wary of putting too much stock in it. Of course, any estimate we have of how much suffering and pleasure exist in nature will be very speculative, so if I were a classical utilitarian who thought a minute of extreme suffering might be outweighable by a few days, weeks, or months of ordinary life in the wild, then I would have some uncertainty about the net hedonic balance of nature. But in my own case, I don't think it's ok to force extreme suffering on one for the pleasure of another -- much less imposing extreme suffering on 1,999,998 for the pleasure of 2. (If we assume a 10% hatch rate and a 10% chance of sentience, then this comparison is actually 19,999.98 vs 2. And if we look at individual organism-moments of experience, the 2 surviving fish have a lot of organism-moments.)

As I mentioned, the slides seem to be assuming deaths by predation given how short the duration of suffering is. Death by almost anything else would probably take hours, days, weeks, etc, although the intensity of pain during that time would usually be a lot lower than the intensity of pain during predation. This article says:

A new study has uncovered the reason why 90 percent of fish larvae are biologically doomed to die mere days after hatching. This understanding of the mechanism that kills off the majority of the world's fish larvae may help find a solution to the looming fish crisis in the world. The research suggests that "hydrodynamic starvation," or the physical inability to feed due to environmental incompatibility, is the reason so many fish larvae perish.

So maybe rather than 10 seconds, the period of pain while dying should be measured in hours or days? 1 day = 86,400 seconds. Of course, the badness of most of those seconds would be a lot less than 100/100.

See also: "Is There More Suffering Than Happiness in Nature? A Reply to Michael Plant".

Given that EA seems to be taking invertebrate welfare more seriously lately and seems likely to do so increasingly, it may be worth specifically promoting research on the wild animal effects of diet change (I guess this post does that a bit), and possibly supporting more research on it and the welfare of populous wild animals, especially if you think wild animals are likely to have bad lives even according to classical utilitarianism, and the movement is miscalibrated and/or often ignores this. This could shift the movement's funding as a whole in a better direction.

Yeah, more research on questions like whether beef reduces net suffering would be extremely useful, both for my personal donation decisions and more importantly for potentially shifting the priorities of the animal movement overall. My worries about funging here ultimately derive from my thinking that the movement is missing some crucial considerations (or else just has different values from me), and the best way to fix that would be for more people to highlight those considerations.

I'm unsure how more research on the welfare of populous wild animals would shift people's views. I guess relative to mainstream animal-rights ideology that says more wildlife is good, there's only really room to move in a more pessimistic direction. But for people already thinking about wild-animal welfare, it's less clear. To me it's obvious that I would be horrified to be born as a random wild animal, but I'm often surprised by how little some classical utilitarians care about suffering relative to happiness.

This is one reason I'm more inclined these days to promote suffering-focused philosophy rather than generic antispeciesism. However, there aren't that many ways to donate to suffering-focused philosophy at the moment, and depending on who is funded, that approach has its own possible downside risks. For example, I've considered whether the antinatalism movement could benefit from funding (because it's people-rich and money-poor), but a lot of antinatalists are abrasive and may give suffering-focused ethics a bad name. Picking the right antinatalists (and other advocates of suffering-focused ethics) to fund would be a lot of work (but might be worth it). Also, this philosophy work doesn't scratch my itch to have some amount of concrete suffering-reduction impact in the near term.

I'm a bit confused about why the fact that most organizations have funding gaps would be highly relevant here.

It's clear that if you donate $100K to X, and it has no good use for more than $1MM, other rational donors won't give more than $900K. That seems simple enough. But it would seem too strong to say there's no meaningful funging unless the other donors were going to give more than $900K counterfactually.

Rather, it seems likely that RFMF isn't a binary cliff -- a funder may assess the hypothetical organization as producing 4 utilons per dollar for the first 300k (because of fixed overhead / diseconomies of non-scale), 10 utilons per $ for the next 300k (which would go to the highest-value programs), 7 per $ with the next 200k, 5 per $ with the next 200k, then 0 thereafter.

So the effect of your donation on the funder's action would seem to depend on where the funder would be putting their last marginal dollar. Even assuming the organization would have RFMF in the binary sense in all scenarios, the other funder may be evaluating a different marginal tranche than it would have absent your $100K donation.

Great point! Michael said something similar:

the funders may have specific total funding targets below filling their near term RFMF, and the closer to those targets, the less they give.

For example, the funders might aim for a marginal utility of 6 utilons per dollar, so using your example numbers, they would only want to fund the org up to $800K. And if someone else is already giving $100K, they would only want to give $700K.

My guess would be that in practice, funders probably aren't thinking too much about a curve of marginal utility per dollar but are more thinking something like: Is this org working on an important problem? Do they need more money to continue/expand this particular work? What percent of that funding gap do we want to fill?

But this is just my speculation about how I imagine people would make grants when they have lots of charities to review and lots of money to disburse, with limited time to investigate each one in depth. If they have time to review more detailed plans about what each incremental chunk of money would be spent on, they might get closer to the marginal-utility approach you mention.

This isn't about the main question you raise in this post, but I'm curious why you think biorisk reduction would increase expected future suffering.

Not speaking for Brian, but biorisk reduction increases the probability humanity reaches the stars, which is object-level bad from a negative utilitarian perspective unless you think we're counterfactually likely to encounter worse-than-humans aliens. 

That's right. :) There are various additional details to consider, but that's the main idea.

Catastrophic risks have other side effects in scenarios where humanity does survive, and in most cases, humanity would survive. My impression is that apart from AI risk, biorisk is the most likely form of x-risk to cause actual extinction rather than just disruption. Nuclear winter and especially climate change seem to have a higher ratio of (probability of disruption but still survival)/(probability of complete extinction). AI extinction risk would presumably still involve intelligent agents reaching the stars, so it still may lead to astronomical amounts of suffering.

There are also considerations about cooperation. For example, if one has enough credence in Evidential Cooperation in Large Worlds (ECL), then even a negative utilitarian should support reaching the stars because many other value systems want it (though some don't, even for reasons besides reducing suffering). Even ignoring ECL, it seems like a bad idea to actively increase biorisk because of the backlash it would provoke. However, due to the act/omission distinction, it's probably ok to encourage others to omit funding for biorisk-safety work, or at least to try to avoid increasing such funding yourself. Given that work on reducing AI risk isn't necessarily bad from a suffering-reduction standpoint, shifting biorisk funding to AI risk (or other EA cause areas) is a way to do this omission in a way that may not be that objectionable to most EAs, because the risk of human extinction is still being reduced in either case.

[Epistemic status: confused stuff that I haven't thought about that much. That said I do think this consideration is quite real and I've talked to suffering focused people about this sort of thing (I'm not currently suffering focused)]

Beyond ECL-style cooperation with values which want to reach the stars and causally reaching aliens, I think the strongest remaining case is post singularity acausal trade.

I think this consideration is actually quite strong in expectation if you think that suffering focused ethics is common on reflection among humans (or human originating AIs which took over) and less common among other powerful civilizations. Though this depends heavily on the relative probabilities of S-risk from different sources. My guess would be that this consideration out weighs cooperation and encountering technologically immature aliens. I normally think causal trade with technologically mature aliens/AIs from aliens and acaual trade are basically the same.

I'd guess that this consideration is probably not sufficent to think that reaching the stars is good from a negative utiliarian perspective, but I'm only like 60/40 on this (and very confused overall).

By 'on reflection' I mean something like 'after the great reflection' or what you get from indirect normativity: https://ordinaryideas.wordpress.com/2012/04/21/indirect-normativity-write-up/

My guess would be that negative utilitarians should think that at least they would likely remain negative utilitarian on reflection (or that the residual is unpredictable). So probably negative utilitarians should also think negative utilitarianism is common on reflection?

Thanks! I'm confused about the acausal issue as well :) , and it's not my specialty. I agree that acausal trade (if it's possible in practice, which I'm uncertain about) could add a lot of weird dynamics to the mix. If someone was currently almost certain that Earth-originating space colonization was net bad, then this extra variance should make such a person less certain. (But it should also make people less certain who think space colonization is definitely good.) My own probabilities for Earth-originating space colonization being net bad vs good from a negative-utilitarian (NU) perspective are like 65% vs 35% or something, mostly because it's very hard to have much confidence in the sign of almost anything. (I think my own work is less than 65% likely to reduce net suffering rather than increase it.) Since you said your probabilities are like 60% vs 40%, maybe we're almost in agreement? (That said, the main reason I think Earth-originating space colonization might be good is that there may be a decent chance of grabby aliens within our future light cone whom we could prevent from colonizing, and it seems maybe ~50% likely an NU would prefer for human descendants to colonize than for the aliens to do so.)

My impression (which could be wrong) is that ECL, if it works, can only be a good thing for one's values, but generic acausal trade can cause harm as well as benefit. So I don't think the possibility of future acausal trade is necessarily a reason to favor Earth-originating intelligence (even a fully NU intelligence) from reaching the stars, but I haven't studied this issue in depth.

I suspect that preserving one's goals across multiple rounds of building smarter successors is extremely hard, especially in a world as chaotic and multipolar as ours, so I think the most likely intelligence to originate from Earth will be pretty weird relative to human values -- some kind of Moloch creature. Even if something like human values does retain control, I expect NUs to represent a small faction. The current popularity of a value system (especially among intelligent young people) seems to me like a good prior for how popular it will be in the future.

I think people's values are mostly shaped by emotions and intuitions, with rational arguments playing some role but not a determining role. If rational arguments were decisive, I would expect more convergence among intellectuals about morality than we in fact see. I'm mostly NU based on my hard wiring and life experiences, rather than based on abstract reasons. People sometimes become more or less suffering-focused over time due to a combination of social influence, life events, and philosophical reflection, but I don't think philosophy alone could ever be enough to create agreement one way or the other. Many people who are suffering-focused came to that view after experiencing significant life trauma, such as depression or a painful medical condition (and sometimes people stop being NU after their depression goes away). Experiencing such life events could be part of a reflection process, but experiencing other things that would reduce the salience of suffering would also be part of the reflection process, and I don't think there's any obvious attractor here. It seems to me more like causing random changes of values in random directions. The output distribution of values from a reflection process is probably sensitive to the input distribution of values and the choice of parameters regarding what kinds of thinking and life experiences would happen in what ways.

In any case, I don't think ideal notions of "values on reflection" are that relevant to what actually ends up happening on Earth. Even if human values control the future, I assume it will be in a similar way as they control the present, with powerful and often self-interested actors fighting for control, mostly in the economic and political spheres rather than by sophisticated philosophical argumentation. The idea that a world that can't stop nuclear weapons, climate change, AI races, or wars of aggression could somehow agree to undertake and be bound by the results of a Long Reflection seems prima facie absurd to me. :) Philosophy will play some role in the ongoing evolution of values, but so will lots of other random factors. (To the extent that "Long Reflection" just means an ideal that a small number of philosophically inclined people try to crudely approximate, it seems reasonable. Indeed, we already have a community of such people.)

It seems as though I'm more optimistic about a 'simple' picture of reflection and enlightenment.

When providing the 60/40 numbers, I was imagining something like 'probability that it's ex-ante good, as opposed to ex-post good'. This distinction is pretty unclear and I certainly didn't make this clear in my comment.

Makes sense about ex ante vs ex post. :)

Are you more optimistic that various different kinds of reflection would tend to yield a fair amount of convergence? Or that our descendants will in fact undertake reflection on human values to a significant degree?

More optimistic on both.

And even if we encounter worse-than-humans aliens, that could be bad due to conflict with them.

Also, If there's sentient life on reachable planets or a chance of it emerging in the future, some NUs might also argue that the chance of human descendants ending/preventing suffering on such planets might be worth the risk of spreading suffering. (Cf. David Pearce's "cosmic rescue mission".)

Right, this is what I was alluding to with 

unless you think we're counterfactually likely to encounter worse-than-humans aliens. 

but I agree that in theory we can reduce suffering for aliens who are morally better than humans but less technologically capable. 

That said, the NU case for it doesn't necessarily seem very strong because natural suffering isn't as astronomical in scale as s-risks.

Larger charities also tend to have more room for more funding, e.g. the big corporate campaign ones, and I think ACE (for Top Charities, at least) and Open Phil both leave room for more funding in them even after taking into account other funding the funders expect the charities to get. But I suppose there could still be funging; the funders may have specific total funding targets below filling their near term RFMF, and the closer to those targets, the less they give.

To be clear, I don't think ACE does this except crudely between recommendation statuses, because they regrant evenly to their Top Charities, and evenly to their other Recommended Charities. You'd have to donate enough to reduce the recommendation status of an org, which seems unlikely for their Top Charities, at least, unless you're donating (much?) more than $100K, and probably also unlikely for their Recommended Charities. So, it may be worth looking more into Open Phil in particular.

You'd have to donate enough to reduce the recommendation status of an org, which seems unlikely for their Top Charities, at least

It's unlikely, but if it did happen, it would be a huge negative impact, so in expectation it could still be nontrivial funging? For example, if I think one of ACE's four top charities is way better than the others, then if I donate a small amount to it, there's a tiny chance this leads to it becoming unrecommended, but if so, that would result in a ton less future funding to the org.

I'd guess the funging or reduced funding this way would be small in expectation, like less than 5%? If you split your donations across multiple of these charities, you can reduce the total risk.

But again, I think these orgs systematically have extra RFMF (and you could check ACE's reports to see how much), and they tend not to lose status because of reduced RFMF. Like THL and GFI have been Top Charities continuously (except GFI missing one year for culture issues). I think other orgs dropped in status usually because of culture/harassment issues or revisions to expectations of their cost-effectiveness or promisingness of their work.

Also, I suppose donating could even increase their RFMF in the longer run instead of dropping the recommendation status, by addressing bottlenecks for growth.

they tend not to lose status because of reduced RFMF

Great point! That makes them different from GiveWell charities, where, e.g., AMF was dropped at least once due to RFMF concerns.

I suppose donating could even increase their RFMF in the longer run

Yeah, it's not obvious to me that it's right to think about RFMF decreasing as a charity gets more money. It may well be the opposite: more money means faster growth, which means more ability to use money.

OTOH, if other donors believe that RFMF is limited, then there's a possibility of them funging away any extra donations you might make. For example, if you donate $25K in an effort to help the charity grow faster and increase its long-term RFMF, if someone else sees that and immediately shrinks their grant size by $25K, then you don't succeed in helping the charity grow any faster, its long-term RFMF remains unchanged, and you still get funged.

Also, Open Phil mostly seems to spend on corporate animal welfare campaigns, so I'd expect around or less than half of your donations to big corporate campaign charities to be funged towards things other than corporate campaigns.


That's a useful post! It's an interesting idea. There could be some funging between Open Phil and other EA animal donors -- like, if Open Phil is handling the welfare reforms, then other donors don't have to and can donate more to non-welfare stuff. OTOH, the fact that a high-status funder like Open Phil does welfare reforms makes it more likely that other EAs follow suit.

Another thing I'd worry about is that if Open Phil's preferred animal charities have less RFMF, then maybe Open Phil would allocate less of its funds to animal welfare in general, leaving more available for other cause areas. Some of those cause areas, like biorisk reduction, plausibly increase expected suffering. From the perspective of this worry, it may be safest to give to small charities that Open Phil would be unlikely to consider or charities that Open Phil doesn't find promising enough for some reason.

But I suppose there could still be funging; the funders may have specific total funding targets below filling their near term RFMF, and the closer to those targets, the less they give.

Yeah. Or it could work in reverse: if they commit to giving only, say, 50% of an org's budget, then if individual donors give more, this "unlocks" the ability for the big donors to give more also. However, Karnofsky says it's a myth that Open Phil has a hard rule like this. Also, as I noted in the post, I wouldn't want them to have a hard rule like this, because it could leave really valuable orgs significantly underfunded, which seems bad.

Probably the answer of how it actually works varies depending on the specific case. For example, I imagine that an org that everything thinks is outstanding would be more likely to get fully topped up, while an org that seems average wouldn't be. But as an outsider, I can only speculate about how these decisions are made, which is why I posted this question.

THL also regrants through the Open Wing Alliance to small orgs that the EA Animal Welfare Fund and ACE Movement Grants sometimes support, and is expanding internationally to neglected regions where it might (speculating here) crowd out other small charities, so there might be some funging there, too. But they're still doing substantial corporate welfare work concentrated in specific countries, like the US and the UK. I would guess other large charities working on corporate animal welfare reform are more concentrated in a few regions, so would funge less this way.

I suppose there could also be some funging on the corporate animal welfare work, because the next targets could be relatively less important and orgs would shift to other work, now or in the future. But this seems much less important as a concern.

FWIW, I have a note from a Q&A with Leah Edgerton in 2021 mentioning that the funding gaps that Animal Charity Evaluators assigns to a charity typically does not get filled. The charities still don't receive enough money. One could verify that by comparing the funding gap with the actual money moved a year later. (I did not do that work so far, but could imagine myself doing that if I'm interested enough in the charity).

If true, I would not be very concerned about funging in ACE-recommended charities.

Thanks! That's encouraging to hear (although it would be better for animals if the charities did fill their funding gaps).

There could still be some funging if a smaller remaining funding gap discourages other donors, such as the Animal Welfare Fund, from giving more, but at least the effect is probably less drastic than if the org hits its target RFMF fully.

The Humane Slaughter Association (HSA) is another option that not many EAs seem interested in. HSA received two large grants from Open Philanthropy, in 2017 and 2019, but those were earmarked for specific projects, so general HSA funding may not be funged by them.

That is already a while ago. It might be worthwhile to check what they did after they received this grant and whether they have good follow-up work to do. Maybe they have room for more funding again, but Open Philanthropy downprioritized re-evaluating them? Or they aren't as promising as Open Philanthropy thought in 2019.

I briefly looked at their 2022 Annual Report. They were still working on fish and invertebrates, or funding research by others.

Good points! I'd be curious to hear what Lewis thought of those two HSA grants and why Open Phil hasn't done more since then.

Hey Brian, I think it's too early to judge both of the HSA grants we funded because they're for long research projects, which have also gotten delayed. We'd like to fund more similar work for HSA but there have been capacity constraints on both sides. We also tend to weigh prolonged chronic suffering more highly than shorter acute suffering, so slaughter isn't as obvious a focus for us. So I think funding HSA or similar slaughter-focused groups is a good idea for EAs like you who prioritize acute suffering. On slaughter, you might like to also look into the Shrimp Welfare Project (OP-funded, but with RFMF).

Good to know! Are there any other slaughter-focused groups besides HSA? Maybe you mean groups for which one of their major priorities is slaughter, like Shrimp Welfare Project and various other charities working on chickens and fish?

I saw a 2021 Open Phil grant "to Animal Protection Denmark to support research on ways to improve the welfare of wild-caught fish." But that organization itself does lots of stuff (including non-farm-animal work).

Off topic: There's a line in the movie A Cinderella Story: Christmas Wish that might be applicable to you: "was also credited with helping shift the Animal Rights movement to a more utilitarian focus including a focus on chicken."

Off topic: There's a line in the movie A Cinderella Story: Christmas Wish that might be applicable to you: "was also credited with helping shift the Animal Rights movement to a more utilitarian focus including a focus on chicken."

This is an amazing thing to learn.

If you did find an organization that could use more funding that wasn't already receiving funding from major EA grantmakers, you should recommend it apply to the EA Animal Welfare Fund and ACE Movement Grants (and Open Phil?). If it has already, but it was rejected, it may be worth finding out why, in case the grantmakers found it unpromising for reasons you'd agree with. If it does get funding, all the better, and you could still top it up if it has more RFMF or donate elsewhere.

In reading more about this topic, I discovered that there has already been a lot of discussion about donor coordination on the EA Forum that I missed. (I don't read the Forum very actively.) EAs generally think it's bad to engage in a game of chicken where you try to let other people fund something first, at least within the EA community -- e.g., Cotton-Barratt (2021).

My original thought behind making this post was that the extent of funging for animal donations seemed like a useful thing for various animal donors to be aware of, to be more informed about their giving choices. However, I can imagine that some people see it as a net-negative topic to bring up, because it may encourage more games of donation chicken among donors. My post also mentioned my criticisms of some existing EA animal charities, but I could have done that separately from the discussion of donation funging. I still think it's reasonable for people to be more informed about how funging works, but I also see the downside of broadcasting that discussion.

I think it's a fair topic to bring up in general, as long as the questioner isn't seeking more than their "fair share" (as it were) of control over global allocation.

I think it's important that overall funding levels reflect the collective wisdom of all donors, rather than larger donors "funding last" and setting global funding levels to their own individual judgment. Stated differently, suppose Big Fund thinks that funding should be allocated 50:50 between strategies A and B. But 80% of small/medium independent donors in the community think strategy A is better and donate to it exclusively. To me, that's evidence that 50:50 isn't the correct overall allocation, and it would be suboptimal for Big Fund to use its economic firepower to totally "correct" what the smaller donors have done. (That is not to say I think Big Fund needs to totally disregard the effects of other funders and allocate 50:50 in this circumstance. Nor am I confident in any specific mathematical construct, such as quadratic funding, to set the global funding level in this hypothetical.)

So in my example, Big Fund needs to take steps to ensure that its views are not overweighted in the global allocation of funds. It should then assure independent donors (those not giving through Big Fund) that they are exerting an appropriate amount of influence on global allocation (i.e., that they are not being practically forced to delegate their decisionmaking to Big Fund). Not doing that may suppress independent giving, as independent donors who feel they are being 100% funged by Big Fund will give based on their perception of the cost-effectiveness of Big Fund's entire portfolio without weighing the cost-effectiveness of their preferred organization.

All that is to say that your post makes me think that communication on this topic to independent donors could be improved.

Makes sense. :) There are at least two different reasons why one might discourage taking more than one's fair share:

  1. Epistemic: As you said, there may be "collective wisdom" that an individual donor is missing.
  2. Game theoretic: If multiple donors who have different values compete in a game of chicken, this could be worse for all of them than if they can agree to cooperate.

Point #1 may be a reason to not try to outcompete others purely for its own sake. However, reason #2 depends on whether other donors are in fact playing chicken and whether it's feasible to achieve cooperation. If you genuinely have different values from other donors, you should try to do the best you can by your own values, which could include taking advantage of opportunities to donate less than your "fair" share.

It's easy to feel warm fuzzies toward being "fair", but we can imagine scenarios where those fuzzies don't apply. For example, imagine that the USA and Russia are both contributing development aid to an international organization, and with any funds left over, Russia will buy attack drones from Iran. If there's an opportunity to get Russia to contribute more than its "fair share" to the development aid, leaving less money left over for drones, the USA should try to do that.

Maybe being the kind of person who would never even consider aiming to gain some advantage for one's own values is more effective at making cooperation actually happen, but being such a person could also lead to getting exploited. It seems non-obvious how exactly to best ensure that each party gives its fair share, especially when there are so many different possible donors to keep track of, and we have no way of knowing how much each entity would have contributed on its own.

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