Hi, I've been interested in EA for years, but I'm not a heavyhitter. I'm expecting to give only dozens of thousands of dollars during my life.

That said, I have a problem and I'd like some advice on how to solve it: I don't know whether to focus on short-term organizations like Animal Charity Evaluators and Givewell or long-term organizations like Machine Intelligence Research Institute, Center for Reducing Suffering (CRS), Center on Long-term Risk (CLR), Long-term Future Fund, Clean Air Task Force and so on. It feels like long-term organizations are a huge gamble, and if they don't achieve their goals, I will feel like I've wasted my money. On the other hand, short-term organizations don't really focus on the big picture and it's uncertain whether their actions will reliably reduce the amount of suffering in the universe when taking into account the long-term future like how CRS or CLR claim to do. What do you think?

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Tobias Dänzer

Dec 02, 2021


Asking which is "better" seems like a false question, a type error.

The "gamble" framing works better. Donating to a short-term charity is equivalent to taking a very-high-probability bet for a comparatively but not absolutely small impact (e.g. distributing malaria nets to prevent malaria infections), which gives your donation moderate expected value (EV). Conversely, long-term charities are more speculative but also more ambitious, so donating to them is like taking a low-probability bet for a comparatively bigger payout (e.g. averting extinction).

From my perspective, if one is sufficiently risk-tolerant, some of the best long-term charities seem to offer better EV than the very best short-term charities. But I've formed that impression by reading about these topics for years, taking some pretty weird argument seriously, etc. And I care about EV rather than certain success, so I'm fine with making long-shot bets that may not pay off. In that sense, I treat donating like I would investing.

In your case, it might help to ask yourself what you expect your donations to achieve, how risk-averse or risk-tolerant you want to be in donating: do you consider a donation more like an investment in some speculative altruistic outcome (which might mean emphasizing EV), or like a purchase of a certain altruistic outcome (which might mean emphasizing high probability)?

If a purchase doesn't pay off, that feels like you've wasted your money; whereas if an investment doesn't pay off, that's just bad luck (assuming your assessment at the time was correct of this investment being high EV).

Thank you for taking the time to answer my question. What you said makes a lot of sense, but I just feel that the future is inherently unpredictable and I don't think I can handle the risk factor so much.

Zach Stein-Perlman
+1 to Tobias. A complementary framing I've found useful is: would the universe be better if we spent $1 more on bednets or $1 more on improving the long-term future?
Tobias Dänzer
That's a perfectly fine attitude to have! In that case I would likely advice donating to short-term charities rather than long-term ones which are more speculative. I don't have as much experience with the former myself, and so have to defer to e.g. GiveWell's recommended charities and the like. Also, if you discover in a few years that you're more or less risk-averse than you'd thought, you can still reconsider where to donate. Finally, if you care about getting as much "bang for your buck" for your EA donations, keep a look out for ~yearly recurring donation matching events like this current one by Double Up Drive [https://doubleupdrive.org/donate/] (though in that case it's not entirely clear to me whether they match donations outside the US, and to which extent these donation matches can be considered counterfactual).