Aug 25, 2016
At EA Global, a common discussion topic was that direct work was becoming increasingly higher priority in comparison to earning to give. I’ve helped to contribute to this conversation, and I’m glad we’re talking about this. This post is just to give some considerations on the other side, to ensure that (i) we approximate allocative efficiency, where the people who have the strongest comparative advantage in earning to give do so, and those who have strongest comparative advantage in direct work do so; and that (ii) we don’t overcorrect. There were a few conversations I had at EA Global where I thought there were some considerations that should be on the table that weren’t widely known about, and weren’t written up publicly, so I’ve chosen to write them up here. I should caveat that these are just my personal off-the-cuff thoughts, rather than necessarily representative of CEA or 80,000 Hours. This also isn’t meant to be a complete picture; it’s just some considerations that I think might not currently be widely known or fully understood.
The primary reason people were less excited by earning to give was simply that we’ve raised a lot of money already, and diminishing marginal returns means that additional money becomes comparatively less important.
It’s true that, as a community, we’ve raised an awful lot of money; it’s very plausible that we’ve had comparatively greater success at moving money to the highest-priority issues than convincing people to work on those issues. What’s more, Open Philanthropy has started making grants in the areas that people in the community often think of as highest-priority: factory farming, global catastrophic risks, artificial intelligence, and building the effective altruism community.
These facts make me believe that fewer people should earn to give than I used to believe several years ago. But I still think some people should earn to give; in my previous post a year ago I asked, “At this point in time, and on the margin, what portion of altruistically motivated graduates from a good university, who are open to pursuing any career path, should aim to earn to give in the long term?” The median and mean answer among myself, Ben Todd, Roman Duda and Rob Wiblin was 15%. This number still seems about right to me: the people with the highest comparative advantage in earning to give should continue to earn to give; other people should do direct work (including research, advocacy, policy, socially-motivated entrepreneurship, etc).
My primary concern going forward is that we as a community fail on allocative efficiency. Different people vary considerably on both their donation potential and their potential at direct work. Ideally, if 15% of people should earn to give long-term, then it’s the 15% of people who have the strongest comparative advantage at earning to give.
For this reason, I believe that those people who have the strongest comparative advantage at earning to give, such as those working in quantitative trading, or who are already far along in their earning-to-give career, should at least wait and see over the next year or two how the community responds and develops before switching to direct work. To emphasise, this is about comparative advantage: if you have lots of amazing options, then the fact that you have an amazing earning to give option doesn't mean you should earn to give; for example, for someone concerned about AI safety, who has the option to work on AI safety at an AI lab, it’s plausible to me that they ought to do that even over a great earning to give job in quantitative trading.**[later edit] For other people, for example people earning to give in software engineering, who have skills that would be useful in direct work, and who would be happy either earning to give or doing direct work, I’d still encourage them to seriously think about what sorts of direct work they could do.
In general, when considering whether to do direct work or earn to give, you could ask yourself: am I in the top 15% of people in terms of comparative advantage at earning to give?
As well as ensuring that we get allocative efficiency, it’s also possible that the community will overcorrect to changes in circumstance. So, for people who are currently pursuing earning to give and wondering whether to switch to direct work, here are some countervailing considerations to bear in mind:
You may differ from Open Phil or other major funders in your assessment of the funding gaps within what you think of as the highest-priority issues. As a hypothetical: If you think that factory farming would still be the highest-priority problem even if a further $100mn/yr were put towards it, whereas Open Phil think that the room for more funding is only $10mn/yr, then earning to give, from your perspective, would still be very valuable over the long-run, even though you’re both funding it as much as you can right now.
Over time, your views or the views of Open Phil and other major funders may change substantially on what the top priorities are. Even if you’re in perfect agreement right now, that might change in the future; earning to give can be an important hedge against this possibility.
For some organisations, Open Phil and other major funders might wish to limit their donation to a certain % of their overall budget, in order to ensure that the organisation doesn’t become overly dependent on a single donor. In some circumstances, this can actually increase the argument for earning to give, because every dollar you donate unlocks an additional amount of room for more funding from those %-capped major donors.
There will be giving opportunities that Open Phil and other major funders won’t look at, for example because the funding gap for the organisation in question is comparatively small.
We can already see people in the community adapting their plans on the basis of the emphasis away from earning to give; so you need to take this adjustment into account. Even if you thought that too many people are earning to give right now, this might not be true in two years, after the adjustment takes place.
Similarly, organisations are able to increase their room for more funding in response to a greater availability of funding. For example, many organisations that people in the community donate to pay significantly less than market rates; it’s possible that with a greater abundance of funding they could pay more in order to attract more experienced people; or they could start hiring more expert contractors, which are typically expensive; or they could come up with innovative ways of spending money that don’t require hiring a lot of people.
Similarly, new organisations within a particular area may come into existence if it’s widely known that there’s funding for such organisations.
In some cases, it’s possible to ask the organisations where you might work for the amount of donations at which they’d be indifferent between having you work for them and having you donate more. This can be an awkward conversation to have, but does enable you to more directly make a comparison between earning to give and direct work.
There may be fewer people earning to give than you think. Only 10% of attendees at EAG were earning to give as their long-term plan for impact. This is less than the 15% suggestion I made in my previous blog post on the topic. In an informal survey of organisations in the effective altruism community done by 80,000 Hours at EA Global, respondents on average only claimed to be slightly more people-constrained than funding-constrained.
The area I know in most depth is funding of effective altruism community-building. In this area, all of the considerations above weigh on my mind; I think it would be a very precarious position (both for insurance and impartiality reasons) if the EA community were heavily dependent on a single donor, or a small number of donors. I wouldn’t be that surprised if in a few years we switched to emphasising how funding-constrained rather than people-constrained we are (though I’m aware that other people disagree with me on the likelihood of this).
Career advice is hard to give general recommendations about, because everyone’s circumstances and options are so different. I’m glad that we’re now more heavily emphasising career paths other than earning to give. But I think that if you’re particularly well-suited to earning to give, compared to your other options, or if you’d gain a lot of skills by earning to give, or if you’d be particularly happy in that path, or if you are particularly unsure about which problems are highest priority to tackle, then it’s often still a great option for having a positive impact, and you should be cautious about moving on from that.
Thanks to Nick Beckstead, Holden Karnofsky and Benjamin Todd for comments on an earlier draft.
**[Later Edit] To clarify again, this is about comparative advantage, not absolute advantage: x has a comparative advantage over y at producing G iff x can produce G at a lower opportunity cost than y. (In this post I'm most interested in comparative advantage within the EA community). Example: If Jane can earn to give and donate $100,000 per year, or do research and write 8 papers per year; and Joe can earn to give and donate $50,000 per year or do research and write 3 papers of the same quality that Jane could write per year, then Jane has a comparative advantage in research (giving up 8 research papers for every $100,000 donated) and Joe has a comparative advantage at earning to give (giving up only 6 research papers for every $100,000 donated).
[Second later edit]: Disclosure: I am CEO of the Centre of Effective Altruism, which is funded in significant part by the donations of effective altruists, including donors who earn to give. You can find out more about my background at www.williammacaskill.com.