Donor Lottery Debrief

by TimothyTelleenLawton4 min read4th Aug 202015 comments

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Donation WriteupEA FundingForecastingCoronavirus
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Good news, I've finally allocated the rest of the donor lottery funds from the 2016-2017 Donor Lottery (the first one in our community)! It took over 3 years but I'm excited about the two projects I funded. It probably goes without saying, but this post is about an independent project and does not represent CFAR (where I work).

This post contains several updates related to the donor lottery:

CZEA

My previous comments on the original donor lottery post share the basics of how the first $25k was used for CZEA (this was $5k more than I was originally planning to donate due to transfer efficiency considerations). Looking back now, I believe that donation likely had a strong impact on EA community building.

My donation was the largest that CZEA had received (I think they previously had received one other large donation—about half the size) and it was enough for CZEA to transition from a purely volunteer organization into a partially-professional organization (1 FTE, plus volunteers). Based on conversations with Jan Kulveit, I believe it would have taken at least 8 more months for CZEA to professionalize otherwise. I believe that in the time they bought with the donation, they were able to more easily secure substantial funding from CEA and other funders, as well as scale up several compelling initiatives: co-organizing Human-aligned AI Summer School, AI Safety Research Program, and a Community Building Retreat (with CEA).

I also have been glad to see a handful of people get involved with EA and Rationality through CZEA, and I think the movement is stronger with them. To pick an example familiar to me, several CZEA leaders were recently part of CFAR's Instructor Training Program: Daniel Hynk (Co-founder of CZEA), Jan Kulveit (Senior Research Scholar at FHI), Tomáš Gavenčiak (Independent Researcher who has been funded by EA Grants), and Irena Kotíková (President of CZEA).

For more detail on CZEA's early history and the impact of the donor lottery funds (and other influences), see this detailed account.

EpiFor

In late April 2020, I heard about Epidemic Forecasting—a project launched by people in the EA/Rationality community to inform decision makers by combining epidemic modeling with forecasting. I learned of the funding opportunity through my colleague and friend, Elizabeth Garrett.

The pitch was immediately compelling to me as a 5-figure donor: A group of people I already believed to be impressive and trustworthy were launching a project to use forecasting to help powerful people make better decisions about the pandemic. Even though it seemed likely that nothing would come of it, it seemed like an excellent gamble to make, based on the following possible outcomes:

  • Prevent illness, death, and economic damage by helping governments and other decision makers handle the pandemic better, especially governments that couldn't otherwise afford high-quality forecasting services
  • Highlight the power of—and test novel applications of—an underutilized tool: forecasting (see the book Superforecasting for background on this)
  • Test and demonstrate the opportunity for individuals and institutions to do more good for important causes by thinking carefully (Rationality/EA) rather than relying on standard experts and authorities alone
  • Engage members of our community in an effort to change the world for the better, in a way that will give them some quick feedback—thus leading to deeper/faster learning
  • Cross-pollinate our community with professional fields engaged by EpiFor—possibly improving both those external fields and the EA/Rationalist community

I decided to move forward as quickly as possible; EpiFor was already making decisions that would go differently based on whether they had secured funding or not. In particular, the timing of the funding commitment affected how many superforecasters and software engineers they could afford to hire and onboard, and it enabled them to make the transition from a part-time/volunteer organization to a full-time salaried staff. It also seemed like some of the standard institutional donors in the community had pre-determined funding cycles that might take much longer to commit funding—and that even accelerating the project by a week might be quite valuable, especially in early days of the pandemic.

With that in mind it was an easy call for me to make, and I committed the remaining $23,500 from the donation lottery, as well as some personal funds on top of that. Notably, EpiFor is now conducting its next funding round, and I continue to suspect that more donations may have a substantial (though high variance) impact—particularly since funding is currently affecting which opportunities they pursue.

The project's concrete outputs so far include some research (cited in a Vox article yesterday) and being short-listed by pharmaceutical companies looking for help designing vaccine trials.

Looking Back on the Donor Lottery

Some observations from my experience:

  • Using the donor lottery to turn a ~$5k donation into a ~$46k donation meant the difference between spending a couple hours deciding among organizations I already knew, and actually looking for projects that would behave noticeably differently because of my money.
  • The donor lottery ended up slowing down my donation, because at the larger level I was no longer satisfied just giving to well-known opportunities that seemed to be getting the money they need from Open Phil or other institutional grants. It ultimately took a little over 3 years for me to distribute the donations. Depending on discount rates, that delay might have been a significant cost.
  • In the three years I continued to hold (at least some of) the money the nominal value increased by almost $3k, but I think it would have increased at least $5k more if I had been paying more attention (simply putting it all in S&P 500 index until Feb 2020, as I did with most of my 'own' savings). This is the clearest/simplest mistake I made.
  • Since I had only used about half of the winnings after two years I considered plowing the rest of it back into the 2019 donor lottery, but ultimately I did not. In hindsight I believe it was good that I didn't—since on expectation the money would have been less impactful than funding EpiFor—but I don't think the choice was obvious at the time.
  • Even after I found the CZEA opportunity, I wasn't sure how easy it would be for me to find attractive funding opportunities that weren't already sufficiently funded by institutional donors with heavily overlapping values (and more time to research and recruit applications) such as Open Phil, LTFF, and EA Grants.
  • I have come to believe that living and working in the EA/Rationality community in the Bay Area made it much more likely I would hear about attractive opportunities that weren't yet funded by larger donors. I have also updated that there does seem to be more of a niche for 5-to-6-figure long-termist/EA donors in the community than I had originally thought (perhaps only for people that are well-positioned to hear about the opportunities).
  • Now having found such opportunities twice in three years, I'm guessing I could find more of them at a rate of one per year or more, especially if I did more to advertise my desire to find 5-figure donation opportunities. Speaking of which, while I've finished distributing the donor lottery funds, I'm continuing to seek 5-figure donation opportunities for (at least) the rest of 2020. See details below.
  • Both of the organizations that received donations did not know I was looking for donation opportunities until a friend or I found them—I believe that not doing more to advertise my interest in making donations was likely the biggest mistake I made. Hence my final section:

Looking for more projects like these

If you are launching (or know about) a project that you believe may have a strong EA impact and has room for more funding, I'd be happy to hear about it. I'm most interested in projects that have:

  • One or more leaders with a track record of making good stuff happen
  • Obviously low downside risk (I think projects that risk doing real harm are better suited for giving mechanisms that include a solid due diligence process and have multiple reviewers, such as institutional grantmakers)
  • 501(c)3 status or sponsorship (a way for me to get a U.S. tax deduction). I'm also open to non-tax-deductible opportunities that are sufficiently attractive.
  • Some reason to prefer an individual donor like me rather than institutional donors like Open Phil, LTFF, EA Grants, and GiveWell, such as high time-sensitivity.

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