This is a couple weeks old, but I don't think it's been shared here yet. For context: GiveWell recently took GiveDirectly (which runs cash-transfer programs) off its "top charities" list. GiveDirectly wrote a very gracious and interesting response. One section particularly jumped out:
GiveWell is a charity evaluator with the stated goal of “finding and recommending a small number of outstanding giving opportunities to help donors save or improve lives the most with their gifts.” As one of the largest private funders in global health and development, they’ve made a huge difference in the lives of millions and been a positive influence in the sector. Their priority is to maximize the impact of the funds they direct from donors (~$500M in 2021), so they choose cost-effectiveness cutoffs based on the amount they expect to move.
But there’s a lot more money at stake. Official development assistance is $178B a year, and U.S. charitable giving alone is another $484B a year. Recently, Mackenzie Scott gave away $4B in 9 months, and Elon Musk debated how to use $6B with the head of the World Food Programme. We want an approach to giving well that has answers for budgets at these scales.
GiveWell would say they’re focused on prudently allocating the money they expect to direct, and if they received even more funds, they would figure out how to allocate those well too. We expect that they would. But GiveWell is not just any other donor — it is the premier, trusted voice on how to give. Structuring GiveWell’s recommendations only around the funds they expect to direct, at best, says nothing about the vast majority of funds that could help people living in extreme poverty. At worst, it suggests these funds can’t do much good.
This strikes me as a good point. It makes complete sense to direct the funds we have, right now, to charities that are 10x as cost-effective as cash transfers. But my (very uncertain!) understanding is that those programs will run out of room for funding at some point. So it does seem weird for EA organisations to not say anywhere that if we had billions more in resources we could also massively scale up cash transfers. That seems particularly worth saying because by highlighting that, we might be able to encourage those billions to come our way. To take GiveDirectly's example, we could say to Mackenzie Scott: if you give us $4B tomorrow to spend on global health, we can give all of it away really effectively through a mix of malaria nets, malaria chemoprevention, vitamin A supplements, conditional cash transfers and unconditional cash transfers.
But, like I say, I'm uncertain here, and would love other people's thoughts. One idea: perhaps GiveWell should have a "If we had X amount of money we'd do this" page, with milestone targets?
But large donations to the other charities might still have greater value than to GD. After they meet their “rfmf” threshold they can expand their programs for following years. It might not 10x GD but it won’t immediately fall below it.
Also there are a range of other charities GW suggests might exceed the return of GD but just not 10x it. Eg fistula fund.
I suppose the operative question would be what is the total funding capacity for all programs that are demonstrably more cost-effective than Givedirectly? Would it be in the tens of billions? Hundreds of billions? Trillions?
Direct cash transfers to the global poor could likely absorb in the trillions annually and still be very cost effective. But if there's no risk of exhausting the lower hanging fruit any time soon, I suppose it is not a concern.
Yes but we are far from exhausting better solutions then giving money directly and I doubt we ever will. And then there is the scaling problem - as long as Give Directly is small then problems such as inequity, corruption, inflation and the free-loader problem are all negligible. If we scaled Give Directly to be significant then how would these problems grow?
My nonprofit, the Consumer Power Initiative, has a plan to leverage consumer sentiment to direct a significant portion of our global economy to effective charities. This might create the scenario where we've plucked the lower hanging fruit than Givedirectly.
I actuality suspect that Givedirectly would become more efficient an judicious with its resources with scaling, while the extent of need would allow it to absorb hundreds of billions annually without large utility losses.
To learn more about my project, here's my most recent newsletter.
Ah yeah, that’s a good point. I guess what I’d love to see is what Brad mentions — a sense of how much money GW thinks it can distribute before getting to GD levels of return.
I don't really know how giving works for a very wealthy person, but to me it seems unlikely that they or someone on their staff would just look at the GiveWell site and be done. It seems a lot more likely that they would have a conversation, with GiveWell staff or others, which would create an opportunity for more nuanced advice. So I really doubt it much matters for that scenario.
That's a neat idea!
Yeah good point, giving is definitely more involved at the billionaire level. But I do still think the message of “we would like as much as you can give, we can do so much with your money!” is a good thing to have circulating — billionaires are just as online as anyone else and those messages might resonate!
Thanks for posting these two together!
Reading the GiveDirectly response highlighted important epistemic differences as a key differentiator for donors who may want to give directly - namely, whether or not you agree with GiveWell's moral weights and whether or not you value empowering individual choice.
While many donors may be seeking to maximize "impact" from an outcomes perspective and agree with GiveWell's approach for moral weights, I've found that individual empowerment resonates equally if not more with some groups. Even if GiveWell stops directing funds to GiveDirectly, it seems important to highlight these differences in values and approach elsewhere among donor facing materials in EA, such as this GWWC page.
There are definitely worlds where effective charities gain much more money, in which case it is critical that outlets with extremely deep uses for funding like Givedirectly will be critical.
For instance, if the Guided Consumption project of the Consumer Power Initiative and BOAS takes off, there may be tens or hundreds of billions of dollars that we need to make sure are directed towards effective global health and development and animal welfare charities. If you're interested in learning more about that: