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Introduction

Thanks to Quentin Mot for writing the personal cost section and providing feedback, to Marie Wood for editing, and to Dave Banerjee for providing feedback.

Purpose and Target Audience

Nothing contained in this guide should be construed as legal or financial advice. Consult an expert if you aren’t sure about anything.

Lots of people in the effective altruism community want to donate money. The goal of this guide is to make it as easy as possible to donate well by systematically laying out key considerations and best practices for deciding where and how to give. We’ll provide ways to get more information, including written material, organizations, and people. We’ve also summarized the contents in the “What’s Inside?” section. As with investments and purchases, careful planning of giving can make things go much better than they otherwise would.

Those that fit in the following categories are our primary target audience:

  • Individual donors
  • US residents subject to US tax policy
  • Moderate to high effort donors
    1. The “Deferring” section of “Deciding Where to Give” is designed for moderate effort donors, whereas the “DIY Donation Planning” section is for high effort donors
  • Small to large dollar donors
  • Introductory fellowship-level to long-time community member-level familiarity with EA
  • Want to donate as effectively as possible

If you don’t fit into those categories, here’s what you may still find useful:

  • [Not an individual donor] If you’re working with a foundation, some of the advice here may be useful. It may be better, however, to go directly to other established foundations or professional advisors for help.
  • [Not a US resident or subject to US tax policy] If you aren’t subject to US tax policy, the content in the section on taxes will not apply to you insofar as your country’s tax system is different from the United States’. Some payment methods and giving platforms may not be available. Your country may also have different giving pledge organizations than the ones listed in “Pledging,” but we do link to a comprehensive database. In short, many practicalities will be different.
  • [Not moderate to high effort] If you’re interested in doing good with minimal effort, donate to your favorite fund listed in the “Managed Funds” section, and try to deduct it from your taxable income. We’d recommend the Animal Welfare Fund or the CLR Fund, but you do you.
  • [Very high dollar donor] This guide can be helpful for people donating any amount of money. However, if you plan to donate a very large amount, consider going straight to one of the advisors listed in the “Professional Advising” section, such as Founders Pledge.
  • [New to EA or EA expert] If you’re new to effective altruism, consider going through an introductory program or reading the EA Handbook to get some useful context before reading. Don’t worry about rushing to give – there are good reasons to wait until you’ve learned more. If you’re an EA expert, you’ve probably read about most of this before! Maybe it’ll be a useful checklist for you.
  • [Want to donate for warm fuzzies] If you want to donate to get warm fuzzies, that’s quite understandable! It feels nice to help others in a way you relate to or understand. But there are good reasons to focus on effectiveness when donating as well. The differences in impact between charities may surprise you!

Request for Feedback

If you have feedback or think we missed something, please let us know, and we’ll consider making an edit. Our goal is to collect all the best ideas in a concise and useful format, and it’s unlikely we thought of everything the first time.

What’s Inside?

This guide is divided into three main sections: Introduction, Why and How to Give, and Deciding Where to Give. The introduction explains who the guide is for, what’s inside, and where else you can get advice. Why and How to Give explains why you might give, how much to donate and when, ways to give more, and the practicalities of donation. Deciding Where to Give provides a moderate-effort system for partly deferring and a high-effort system for DIY Donation Planning.

We make recommendations throughout. While there are complex debates around many of these issues, and we don’t pretend to have it all figured out, recommendations may make it easier for people to take action than a morass of links to blog posts and academic papers. Where there isn’t a consensus, we’ll make a note.

Examples and Getting Advice

There’s plenty of advice on charitable giving out there. We think the best advice on where and when to donate will likely come from within the EA community, but the broader nonprofit world has been dealing with practicalities such as taxes and payment methods for a long time, so there’s likely good advice from them on those topics. We’ve listed resources from various sources in accordance with this belief.

Professional Advising

If you’re a high-dollar donor, you may be eligible for free professional advising. Different advisors provide services including education, personalized advising, connections to other donors, and more.

Bespoke Philanthropic Advising

Founders Pledge has a broad set of services in-house to help you with your decisions, including personal advising. Members are often founders or investors in tech. Anyone can access their research or funds, which we’ll discuss in more detail later.

Effective Giving provides coaching, resources, and connections to peers who are also interested in effective giving.

Farmed Animal Funders is a group of individuals and foundations that donate $250,000 per year or more and work together to make their donations to end factory farming as effective as possible. They have some public research, but other materials are private. They provide customized research and charity recommendations for members.

Focus Philanthropy provides free advising, also focused on ending factory farming.

SoGive has recently launched an advising service for donors focused on any cause area. Different yearly giving tiers come with different levels of service.

Generation Pledge is for inheritors wanting to donate a 10% or more of what they receive within five years of the transfer. They provide light-touch advising, community, and connections to other effective giving organizations.

You could also consider hiring someone directly to work through your key considerations and identify good opportunities. Or perhaps you have questions that are best answered by domain experts (there’s also an external benefit if you publish what your contractors wrote). In that case, you could hire a few people on short-term contracts. This is a higher-effort process that requires you to have more subject-matter understanding and connections, so it should not be the default option.

Nuño Sempere offers consulting services under his business Shapley Maximizers.

Personal Finance

Yield and Spread offers a $75 course for beginners and free 1:1 coaching for people at a more advanced stage. There’s also plenty to read on their blog, and they have tools that simplify common calculations.

Taxes

There’s lots of tax advice available in the broader market. Be sure that any financial advisor you hire is a fiduciary, which means that they’re legally obligated to act in your best interest.

Prediction Markets

If you have a good sense of your values, but don’t know where you should donate on that basis, you could consider creating a prediction market to help you decide. Several people in the effective altruism community have experimented with this practice on Manifold Markets. It can help you discover organizations you didn’t know about, and sometimes bettors will explain the reasons why they think their selected organization is best according to your values.

Aaron Bergman created this market and described his experience here. Athena C. created a similar market.

Funding Circles

A funding circle is a group of funders that coordinate donations, share advice, and find opportunities. Within a circle, minimum expected donations can help ensure that everyone in the group has skin in the game. Once you’ve identified a niche, you can build subject-matter expertise that can help you evaluate charities. Regular meetings help ensure that coordination happens.

If you want to read more about starting a funding circle yourself, read How to DIY a Funder's Circle (from which the above notes were derived) about the process. Alternatively, if you have a large donation budget and an interest in animal welfare or mental health, you can join an existing EA funding circle.

Farmed Animal Funders is for donors interested in giving $250,000 or more per year to charities in the farmed animal welfare space.

Mental Health Funding Circle is for donors interested in giving $50,000 or more per year to charities in the mental health space.

Regular EAs

Lots of people are dealing with the same challenges you are and would be happy to discuss donation plans with you. Consider looking at these donation writeups on the EA Forum to get a sense of how others plan their giving. Join a local EA group or an online group, such as EA Anywhere. If you’re a Giving What We Can member, go to one of their events. You can ask a question on the EA Forum. As is usually the case, larger dollar amounts will probably get you responses from and time with more fancy people.

There are also many effective giving communities, some focused on effective giving in a particular region (Giving What We Can, Ayuda Efectiva, Doneer Effectief), and others focused on a particular community (High-Impact Athletes, Effective Giving Quest). Here’s a comprehensive list of effective giving communities from Giving What We Can.

The writers of this guide are also a couple of regular EAs who are trying to figure out how to best donate our money. While we aren’t experts, we’re happy to talk your donation decisions through with you. Email Pete at prowlett2@gmail.com and Quentin at mot.quentin@gmail.com.

Regardless of how much you donate, thank you for doing it, and thank you for taking the time to seriously consider the best ways to go about it. We appreciate it!

Why and How to Give

Why Give?

If you’re reading this guide, you’ve probably got an interest in effective giving. If you already know why you’re doing this, feel free to go to the next section. But maybe you just have a vague sense that giving is something people do, but you can’t fully explain why you intend to do it. If that describes you, read on!

Shallow Ponds

There’s a famous thought experiment that goes something like this: Imagine that you’re walking along an outdoor path, and you notice a child struggling to stay afloat in a small pond. You, an adult, could easily hop into the water and prevent them from drowning. If you do so, however, you’ll ruin the expensive clothing that you have on. Should you still do it?

Many people think the obvious answer is yes – if someone is drowning, and you can save them for something as trivial as a nice piece of clothing, you have an obligation to do so. Some even believe that not doing it would be quite terrible.

If we consider our situation, there are lots of similarities. GiveWell estimates that you can save a human life for about $4,000 by giving to Helen Keller International’s Vitamin A supplementation program. And while the cost-effectiveness estimates for other interventions have been less rigorously studied, you may be able to do far more good for even less money.

Deontology, Virtue, and Religion

Perhaps you don’t identify primarily with consequentialism. You think deontology (a rules-based moral system), virtue ethics (which promotes the development of virtues), or a religious system is a better approach to ethics. You’re still not out of the woods! There are plenty of reasons to give under these systems as well.

If you’re a deontologist, you likely think it’s important to follow certain rules, such as not lying or stealing. Your rules may also include beliefs about one’s responsibilities to others that encourage you to give. Moreover, even if consequences aren’t your primary focus, you may still want to consider them once you’ve satisfied the requirements of your deontic view.

If you’re a virtue ethicist, you may consider virtues such as generosity and altruism to be valuable. As part of your expression of those values, you may consider giving more than you otherwise would have or focusing on making sure your donation is used for others as well as possible.

Different religions have different views on giving, but the practice is often encouraged. Notably, there are EA groups organized for people of different faiths, including EA for Christians, EA for Jews, and Muslims for Effective Altruism. If you’re curious about the relationship between your faith and effective giving, reach out to one of those organizations!

Giving Gladly

Giving can also be an incredibly exciting opportunity. Think about all the things you could spend money on – there are lots of good options! The best options, the options that give you the most joy, might just be what the world’s most effective nonprofits can get for you – be that prevented malaria cases, freedom for hens from battery cages, or future generations with safe AI systems.

There’s been some fantastic writing on this in the community. Some of the highlights are Holden Karnofsky’s Excited Altruism, Kaj Soltala’s Effective altruism as the most exciting cause in the world, and Julia Wise’s Cheerfully (she also has a fantastic blog called Giving Gladly).

The Personal Cost

Many studies document a direct correlation between well-being or life satisfaction and income, although that relationship depends on location, age, and other factors. Some research claims that there exists a plateau after which increased income is not correlated with improved well being. Other research claims the opposite. But as far as we are aware, the correlation is linear between well-being and log income (i.e. in expectation, the amount of income needed to increase your well-being by a fixed amount increases exponentially with respect to your current income). Moreover, how you spend your money also matters. In particular, one study found that $20 of prosocial spending (a.k.a. giving to charity) increased well-being more than spending that money on oneself, which contradicted participants’ beliefs.

Less rigorously, people who donate report being happier and people consistently underestimate how happy they will be after donating. Whether your final goal is to improve others’ well-being or to improve your well-being (we believe all goals reduce to one of the two), the case for donating seems strong.

Read more in Giving What We Can’s Can money buy happiness? A review of new data.

(How much) should you donate, and when?

It may be most impactful for some people to donate only small amounts, delay their donations, or avoid donating entirely. Here are some potential reasons why.

Students, young professionals, and those in poor financial situations

When you’re a student or young professional, you likely don’t have a large income or significant savings. It’s important to get in a good financial position before donating much, even from a pure impact-maximizing perspective. 80,000 Hours explains why in this article, which describes two main benefits that we’ve paraphrased:

  • It allows you to take more risks, such as building skills and switching careers
  • You become better able to deal with unexpected events that would harm your ability to be impactful in the long-run

Earning to save and FIREA

There’s no universally accepted definition of earning to save. The practice generally involves donating little to no money (0-1%) and saving a significant fraction of your income (5% or more). The savings can be used to enable you to have more impact later by taking risks with your career. They can also be donated later in life, assuming you haven’t needed to take the money out. We’ll talk more about this option in the next section about patient philanthropy and abnormal opportunities. An argument for keeping open the option of earning to save and Earning to Save (Give 1%, Save 10%) give more thoughts in support of earning to save.

The FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) community seeks to save and invest large fractions of their income to allow them to retire early. There is some overlap between this community and effective altruism, which has led to the creation of the FIREA acronym, which stands for Financial Independence, Retire, Effective Altruism. If you gain financial independence and are able to retire, you can spend as much time as you want working on EA-related projects. If you’re interested in doing this, Yield and Spread, a nonprofit founded by Rebecca Herbst, has useful resources and offers 1:1 coaching to help you achieve your saving and donation goals.

Extraordinary Opportunities and Patient Philanthropy

Sometimes abnormally impactful but time-sensitive giving opportunities come up, and it’s important to be able to take advantage of them. If you don’t have much saved, the moment may pass you by. When coming up with a savings and donation plan, consider whether you want to be ready for such a scenario.

Doing this successfully requires paying attention to what’s going on in the nonprofit world and the world more broadly. Certain conditions may come up that make your donations particularly useful.

  • There is a broad economic downturn, and other donors are giving less (be it a smaller portion of their income or a constant portion of a lower income)
  • There is a disruption in the EA funding space that doesn’t reflect broader economic conditions
  • A certain nonprofit becomes unpopular (certain donors don’t value its work as much, but you do)
    • There could be changing intellectual winds, as there were when the EA community started focusing more on longtermism and less on global health

Nonprofits in need of funding may make their situation known publicly through email lists, the EA Forum, or informal networks. It’s important to be prepared for this sort of situation by doing some of the donation planning work we’ll talk about later. This work includes knowing what sorts of work you prioritize and which organizations and recommenders you trust. People generally behave less rationally under time pressure, and having a plan to follow will make you less prone to error.

It may be advantageous to engage in patient philanthropy, the practice of accruing money with the goal of donating it far in the future. There are a number of reasons you may wish to do so:

  • You think better giving opportunities will present themselves later
  • You think the rate of growth of your invested funds will outpace the rate at which the work done by your donated dollars would grow in value
  • You don’t expect your values to drift (choosing luxuries over altruistic donations or changing priorities within altruism in a way current you doesn’t want), or you expect them to improve

Alternatively, perhaps you don’t want to engage in patient philanthropy, for the following reasons:

  • You think future giving opportunities will be no better than today’s opportunities
  • You think the rate of growth of value created by today’s donated dollars will outpace the rate of growth of invested funds
  • You expect your values to drift in ways that you aren’t happy with

If you think this is the right path for you, there are a few legal structures you may want to set up to get tax benefits and prevent value drift. You may want to consider setting up a donor-advised fund (DAF), gifts to which are tax deductible, and must eventually be given to a registered nonprofit. Another option is setting up a savings account that requires approval from multiple people, such as those you trust to enforce your past self’s wishes, for funds to be removed. You could also (credit to Julia Wise) donate to a trust which stipulates how its funds may be used.

Read more about the timing of philanthropy on the EA Forum and patient philanthropy on this podcast.

Common Sense Patience

There are common-sense reasons to avoid rushing to give as well. Sometimes people learn about effective altruism and (understandably) get excited about the impact their donations can have, so they decide to give a lot of money away quickly. Then they learn more and reflect, only to regret it because they think another giving opportunity would have been much more impactful (or for various other reasons).

Once a donation is made, you can’t get it back. You don’t have to engage in patient philanthropy to wait a few years to work through a good learning and reflection process. We’ll also talk about worldview development later, which is a process you can engage with in varying levels of depth.

Having More To Give (In Expectation)

Taking into account certain considerations when making long-term plans can greatly increase the amount you can expect to give over the course of your lifetime.

Decreasing Expenses

Every dollar you don’t spend is a dollar that could be donated. Take stock of your most significant expenses, along with smaller costs that may add up over time, and consider which ones could be most easily reduced. If you aren’t doing so already, try to practice budgeting. Whatever steps you take, try to make sure they’re sustainable – doing so will enable you to give more over the long run and be happier while doing it.

Earning More

While there’s a limit to how much you can decrease your expenses, there’s virtually none to the amount you can earn. If you’re in college, consider your earning potential with different degrees, and choose your areas of study partly on that basis. You may be fulfilled by something you didn’t expect to like. If you’ve already graduated, look for opportunities to switch to roles with higher salaries or gain skills that will allow you to do so. Creating or working at a startup is worth considering. You will likely fail, but if things go well, you could earn a lot of money.

Risk Neutrality

There is a spectrum of risk tolerance that spans from risk-averse to risk-seeking. Risk neutrality lies in the middle. Let’s set up five gambles with varying levels of risk and expected value to explain the behavior of agents with each level of risk tolerance. For each option, if you don’t receive the listed reward, you get nothing.

  1. 95% chance of receiving $315 [EV: $300]
  2. 80% chance of receiving $500 [EV: $400]
  3. 50% chance of receiving $800 [EV: $400]
  4. 20% chance of receiving $2000 [EV: $400]
  5. 5% chance of receiving $6000 [EV: $300]

The risk-averse agent will select option one. This agent accepts a lower expected value in exchange for a higher probability of receiving a payout. The risk-neutral agent is happy with options two, three, and four, since they all have an equal expected value that is higher than those of options one and five. The risk-seeking agent will choose option five. This agent accepts a lower expected value in exchange for a higher possible payout.

In reality, most people are risk-averse. This orientation makes sense given the law of diminishing marginal utility, the idea that each marginal unit of a resource decreases in value as you collect more of them. If I have $1000, an extra $100 makes a big difference in my quality of life. If I have $1 million, it doesn’t.

Most agents, however, are focused on their own happiness. Things change if we’re focusing on improving others’ lives. In this case, the value of additional resources diminishes much more slowly, and risk-neutrality starts to make more sense.

Let’s assume you’re a donor focused on global health and development. You think GiveWell’s analysis is solid, and that it costs about $5,000 to prevent one death from malaria. You are also scope-sensitive, which means that you value saving two lives twice as much as saving one. How should you invest? These are your options. As before, if you don’t receive the listed reward, you get nothing.

  1. 80% chance of receiving $10,000 [EV: $8,000]
  2. 50% chance of receiving $20,000 [EV: $10,000]

Choosing option one is tempting, since you have a meaningfully higher chance of getting to donate something. But you should probably go with option two anyway. Think about it this way: if there are 100 altruists like you around the world, each presented with these options, and everyone picks option one, you can expect to collectively save 160 lives. If you all pick option two, you can expect to save 200. There’s a chance you’ll save fewer than 160 lives, but it’s very low. In aggregate, risk-neutrality almost always beats risk-aversion.

Although you probably won’t be presented with options like this in reality, this analysis does have practical implications. When you’re considering investment options for your altruistic funds, if you find an option that has a high expected value despite a high probability of failure, you should seriously consider taking it. You may also want to try starting or working at a startup to earn to give.

There’s some complication to this. Our model assumes that there’s no downside possibility – the worst that can happen is that you get nothing. If this isn’t the case, taking the risky option is likely a bad idea (though there may be ways to mitigate the downside risk sufficiently to make the option worth accepting). Major funders should also not be risk neutral. Were Open Philanthropy to lose all its money, much of the EA ecosystem could collapse. Work in some cause areas, particularly new and underfunded ones, may create a lot of value from a small seed investment, and exhibit rapidly diminishing marginal cost-effectiveness because of low capacity to absorb more funding. In these cases, a high probability of a smaller seed investment could enable a project to create traction and land large-dollar donors. Lastly, there can be a real emotional cost to doing things that end up not generating value. Take this cost into account. It may be worth giving up some of the expected value from a given bet in order to increase the probability that you keep doing important work in the future.

Leverage

Using leverage is the practice of borrowing money to invest in hopes of getting a higher rate of return on the investment than you are paying for the borrowed money. Because this practice involves taking on significant risk, it is not a good choice for those that are not very experienced with personal finance. There is also a large time cost to understanding how to do it well.

However, because it comes with the possibility of higher returns, and the rate at which the marginal value of dollars donated diminishes much more slowly than the marginal value of personal consumption, it may make sense for dollars intended to be donated. For more, read Should Altruists Leverage Investments?, How Much Leverage Should Altruists Use?, and How leveraged should altruistic investors be?.

Practicalities

Taxes

Taxes are notoriously complicated and best practices will vary significantly from person to person. The key idea here is that you may be able to significantly increase the amount you donate by following a few best practices.

Donation Swapping

This practice involves a pair of donors in different countries agreeing to give to the other’s preferred charity. In country A, donations to a wide array of nonprofits are tax deductible, including the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), the Good Food Institute (GFI), and the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI). In country B, only donations to AMF are tax deductible. Beth, from country B, wants to fund MIRI. Adam, from country A, wants to support AMF with his own money, but is glad when MIRI receives more donations as well. Adam and Beth make a deal: If Adam donates $1,000 to MIRI, Beth will donate $1,000 to AMF. Both will receive the tax deduction, instead of just Adam. This means that more money can be donated or kept in their pockets. You can read more about how donation swapping works here.

Donation swapping can also be used to avoid transaction fees on currency exchange. For example, if an American donor wanted to give to the UK-based Humane Slaughter Association, they would have to convert their donation to pounds, incurring fees or a worse exchange rate. If a British donor wanted to give an equal amount to an American charity, a donation swap would allow both to avoid fees.

The online platform Donation Swap will facilitate these agreements between donors. They cannot, however, guarantee that the person you are matched with will actually follow through with their donation. They also note that the legal status of this practice is unclear.

You can manage your own donation swap if you know donors in other countries.

Coordinating With A High Earner

Give money to someone in a high tax bracket and have them donate a larger amount, which they can then use for their itemized tax deduction, while you can continue to take the standard deduction. The money that the high earner doesn’t pay in taxes can now be donated or kept. The legal status of this practice seems fine, but not certain. Read more about it here.

Donation Bunching

Save money over the course of several years so you can take a large (itemized) deduction instead of the standard deduction. This may be less legally risky than some other options, but you may not save as much on taxes, it restricts the timing of your donations, and you risk value drift. Read more about it in Long-term Donation Bunching? and Donation bunching for tax savings.

Changing Income

Some earners have relatively stable incomes, but others, such as lawyers and entrepreneurs, may have incomes that fluctuate wildly. Continuing with the theme of donation bunching, you may want to consider donating in years when your income, and top marginal tax rate, are relatively high. Givewell explains more in Advice for Larger Donors.

Changing Tax Policy

Tax policy, just like income, can change year-to-year. Consider whether any potential changes could affect charitable deductions, including limits or the standard deduction. Givewell explains more in Advice for Larger Donors.

Avoid Realizing Gains

Give appreciated assets to nonprofits so you don’t realize capital gains and have a taxable event. Imagine that Anay purchased a stock several years ago for $100, and it has now appreciated in value to $120. He can sell the stock, get taxed ~25% on his $20 capital gain, and donate $115 to his charity of choice. Alternatively, he can give stock directly to the nonprofit. That entity can then sell the stock without being taxed, and then use the full $120 value. Fidelity has an in-depth piece on Donating Stock to Charity.

Passing Up Pay

If you work at an organization that you think is doing highly effective work, it may make sense to voluntarily lower your pay instead of giving part of your income to other nonprofits. Doing so can increase the amount of money going towards altruistic work by avoiding income tax. Jeff Kaufman introduced the idea in Passing Up Pay on the EA Forum. There are significant potential downsides which are listed in the post and the comments.

Alternatively, there’s a chance you could request the opportunity to direct donations that come directly from your employer as part of your compensation package. Such donations would not be counted as income. We aren’t aware of anyone who has done this, so let us know if you do!

Donor-Advised Funds (DAFs)

A DAF allows you to get the tax benefits of writing off donations yearly, while still being able to make donations to actual nonprofits later. It is an account that holds funds that you can later direct to any registered nonprofit. In addition to the tax benefits, you also avoid the risk of becoming less altruistic and holding onto savings instead of giving. They do, however, cost money, since you must maintain an account with a broker. You also won’t be able to donate to an individual or a project that isn’t registered with the IRS as a nonprofit, which could mean missing out on great giving opportunities. Read more about DAFs at Donor-Advised Fund Definition, Sponsors, Pros & Cons, Example and A Comparison of Donor-Advised Fund Providers.

Employer Donations as Pay

You may be able to create an agreement with your employer by which you are allowed to direct a certain amount of your employer’s donations, thereby avoiding having the amount you donate taxed as personal income. Your employer may be able to deduct this amount from their profits. It may be difficult to make this donation a true counterfactual; that is, to make sure your employer donates more than they would otherwise donate. However, if your selected recipient(s) is (are) far more effective than the alternative recipient, this may be fine.

As far as we know, this hasn’t been done before, so let us know if you attempt it! It seems like an interesting idea.

Payment Methods

The payment method you use can have an effect on the amount of money your chosen recipient will receive. Some payment methods also require additional administrative work for the recipient.

Credit Card

Credit cards are among the most widely accepted and convenient ways of donating. Oftentimes, however, there is a processing fee that reduces the amount your recipient gets. This amount varies by credit card. GiveWell says that “For credit card donations, GiveWell is charged 2.60% (3.60% for AMEX) + $0.40 on each transaction. The fee is taken out by the credit card processor: if you donate $100, we receive $97.00 (or $96.00 if using AMEX).” So while this may be acceptable for small donations, it’s worth exploring other options if you plan to give over $1000. If you get cash back on donations, however, it could partially offset the processing fee. And NerdWallet says that “Many credit card issuers, frequent-flyer programs and hotel loyalty programs offer a way to donate your cash back, points or miles to charity. Unlike cash donations, however, these are generally not tax-deductible.”

GiveWell notes that "large credit card transactions are often flagged by credit card companies, although a call to the credit card company can generally resolve the situation quickly."

We recommend this method for one-off donations under $50.

Debit Card

Debit cards, like credit cards, are very widely accepted and often charge fees. Fee amounts vary by processor and can be found here. We recommend this method for one-off donations under $50.

Check

Donating via check incurs no explicit processing fees, but nonprofits do have to deal with more administrative work, and you may have to pay for an envelope and stamps to mail it. Also consider the additional time this method will take you.

We recommend using this method for donations over $1,000 when ACH is inconvenient.

Wire Transfer

Wire transfers are another option, but are not usually best. Your bank will likely charge you a fee (check their website to confirm), and the nonprofit may have administrative work figuring out who to send a receipt to and what they can use the funds for.

We recommend using this method when ACH and check are inconvenient, or you have abnormally low processing fees.

ACH (Automatic Clearing House)

ACH is often the best option. You will likely pay no fees, and your recipient may pay a relatively small fee that is capped. GiveWell says that they are “charged 0.8% + $1.00 account validation fee on each initial ACH transaction, but the overall fees on an ACH donation are capped at $5.60. (For recurring monthly or quarterly donations, GiveWell is charged 0.8% + $1.00 on the initial transaction and 0.8% + $0.40 per transaction on each subsequent transaction, up to $5.60.)” There is no additional administrative burden.

We recommend this method for most donations over $50.

Cryptocurrency

Some organizations accept cryptocurrency donations, but many do not. EA organizations may be more likely to accept them since potential donors are more likely to have assets in crypto. If your desired recipient doesn’t accept crypto, you may be able to engage in donation swapping with a donor who would have given dollars to a nonprofit that accepts crypto.

We recommend using this method when you already have assets in cryptocurrency that you want to give, since converting to dollars could incur transaction costs and capital gains taxes.

Securities/Stock

Stock and other securities are also not universally accepted. Organizations must have a brokerage account to store them in. If your desired recipient doesn’t accept securities, you may be able to engage in donation swapping with a donor who would have given dollars to a nonprofit that accepts securities.

We recommend using this method when you have appreciated assets in securities that you want to give, since converting to dollars could incur capital gains tax. If, however, the securities are in a non-taxable account, feel free to use either method.

PayPal

If you are already a PayPal user, this may be the most convenient method to use. The fees they charge, however, are somewhat unclear. It likely depends on what services the recipient uses, so you may have to ask them about their costs. Read more about PayPal’s fees here.

GiveWell, for example, is charged 2.2% + $0.30 on each transaction as payment processing fees since they are considered a partner platform.

We recommend using this method when transaction fees are low and it’s convenient for you.

Donor-Advised Fund (DAF)

Donor-advised funds (DAFs) are accounts in which assets can be put to be donated to nonprofits at a later date. The key advantage of the fund is that contributions can be deducted from your taxable income. On the other hand, providers do charge fees, and because of their legal structure, there may be some risk that the funds aren’t allocated as you wanted. You also have to give to nonprofits recognized by the IRS, which may not include your favored recipients (though donation swapping is, as usual, a convenient go-around).

We recommend DAFs for donors that are itemizing deductions and want to give in the future or do not yet know where they want to give. Read more about DAFs at Donor-Advised Funds: The Benefits and Drawbacks, Donor-Advised Funds vs. Taxable Accounts for Patient Donors, and A Comparison of Donor-Advised Fund Providers.

Qualified Charitable Distributions

After a certain age, retirement account owners must take out certain amounts of money from their account at specified intervals. These removals are known as required minimum distributions (RMDs). If your RMDs are taxed (say, from a traditional IRA), it may be advantageous to take RMDs in the form of qualified charitable distributions (QCDs). QCDs help you meet your distribution requirements, but are not taxed.

Read more about QCDs at Qualified Charitable Distribution (QCD): What It Is, How It Lowers Your Taxes.

Wills and Bequests

Donating through your will lowers the risk of having insufficient funds to maintain your standard of living if you have an expensive medical issue or simply live longer than you anticipated. We would recommend creating one as part of a giving plan.

If you write your own will, be sure to read up on how to do it correctly. In most cases, hiring an attorney is worth the decrease in risk that your will isn’t executed as you wanted. Choose specific assets or accounts to give, and be sure to specify the percent of the value that you want allocated to each recipient.

One potential cost is attorney’s fees from changing your desired recipient. Try to give these funds to an organization that you expect to continue to want to support for a long time. Alternatively, designate your DAF as a beneficiary of your other assets, and those assets will go to whatever recipients are designated as beneficiaries of the DAF. DAF beneficiaries can be changed whenever you want.

Read more details at How To Leave Money To Charities After You Pass.

Giving Platforms

There are many platforms that act as intermediaries between you and the nonprofits that you want to send money to. What are your options, and should you use them? Given what each platform offers and the associated fees, we would generally recommend that donors looking to maximize their impact consider only Manifund for their donations.

Manifund

Manifund is a newer platform. Many individuals and organizations in EA use it to request funding for specific projects, so it’s a great way to find opportunities that aren’t as well-known. You can also donate to regrantors, who may discover small projects that major grantmakers aren’t aware of, or simply have a better understanding of key problems and how to solve them.

Every.org

Every.org offers a simple and intuitive way to search for and give to nonprofits along with yearly consolidated tax receipts. This seems like a solid donation platform for general use. There are no platform fees; however, disbursement fees may be charged by every.org’s platform partners, depending on payment methods used. Every.org will cover some of these fees, but that funding could have gone elsewhere, though it’s unclear whether it would have gone to effective charities. Read more about disbursement fees here.

Causeway

Causeway seems to have had some EA origins but was recently purchased by Charity Navigator, and it seems that the platform may change soon. Currently it seems interesting for low-effort donors, allowing users to build a portfolio of selected funds, set a contribution, view an impact dashboard, and get a consolidated tax receipt. However, there are 5% fees on donations made through the platform, and it’s unclear whether their grantmaking is as good as other funds’, so we do not recommend this option.

Donational

Donational uses a survey to recommend users a set of charities that match their interests. Users can donate to any 501(c)3 organization at any interval they’d like. There is a 2% platform fee that covers their costs. Because of the fee, we generally do not recommend this option.

Donation Matching

Sometimes you can have your donation matched, in whole or in part, by another individual or organization.

Employer matching

Many employers offer to match donations, so it’s worth taking the time to see if yours does. Different employers offer different matching ratios and have different limits, so check with your HR department to figure out what your company does. It may even be worth switching jobs to join a company with a better match or a higher limit. Brian Tomasic lists some Employers with Huge Matching-Donations Limits, High Impact Professionals has a more extensive list of Top companies for donation matching, and Double the Donation as another list here.

Also, be sure to confirm a company’s terms before you join them to take advantage of a match. Some companies will only match donations to specific nonprofits.

These donations are likely to be counterfactual. If you don’t donate the funds, the company will most likely keep the match as profit. And even if they do give the same amount, your donation to be matched will redirect it from a normal nonprofit to a much more effective one.

External Organizations

Sometimes private entities unrelated to potential recipient organizations will match donations. In these cases, you have the opportunity to redirect money that likely would have gone to normal charities to highly effective ones.

Facebook offers a matching opportunity for recurring donations set up on its platform during certain times. Be sure to set a cancellation reminder if you don’t want the monthly donations to continue after the match has ended. The previous format for Facebook’s match was first-come-first-served, leading to the creation of a coordinated effort to get more EAs’ donations matched called EA Giving Tuesday. While they are no longer active, they may come back if the format changes again. Their website is here, and you can read about previous years’ efforts on the EA Forum here.

Every.org seems to offer matching opportunities each fall. The terms may change each year, but you can read the official blog post here and an accompanying EA Forum post here.

Double Up Drive matches donations to a select group of effective charities up to a few times per year. It is unclear if getting your donation matched will counterfactually release funds to effective nonprofits, as it seems the drive may be more focused on outreach and communications for new donors. However, if you like the recipient charities, you may want to consider giving to the match pool.

There may be opportunities for donor coordination in these external organization matches as well. If you can find donors with other priorities, you can donate to their preferred organization in exchange for a donation from them to your preferred organization.

Nonprofit-Specific Matches

Sometimes nonprofits themselves set up matching opportunities. In these cases it can be hard to verify that the matching funds are indeed counterfactual donations (that the money would not have gone to that organization had you not donated). GiveWell has only recently begun to conduct matching campaigns, but they’ve had to create a fairly rigorous process to ensure that the match is likely counterfactual. With organizations that aren’t as transparent, you can still try to donate during a matching campaign, but don’t stress over it. In fact, it may be better to donate without the campaign to avoid entrenching the incentive towards dishonesty. You can also reach out to nonprofits to ask about their process.

Other Employer Matching

Employers may offer other matching programs unrelated to donations. For example, many employers contribute to 401(k)s based on the amount that the employee has contributed. We recommend taking advantage of these offers. Read more about 401(k) matching at How 401(k) Matching Works.

Get Creative

Combine multiple techniques described to minimize your tax burden. For example, if your chosen recipient doesn’t have a brokerage account, but you’d like to avoid capital gains tax on appreciated stock that you have, consider donation swapping with someone who wants to give to a nonprofit with a brokerage account and has cash on hand to give to your recipient.

Funging

Funging refers to the redirecting of other donations that can occur as the result of a given donation. For example, Kim may want to give $50,000 to the Insect Institute, with the expectation that her donation will increase their budget by $50,000. However, other donors may think other funding opportunities are better given the Insect Institute’s budget increase and move their donations to the Malaria Consortium. Kim’s donation has now increased the Insect Institute’s budget by $40,000 and the Malaria Consortium’s budget by $10,000. She may consider the counterfactual impact of her donation much lower because of this effect, since she thinks the Malaria Consortium is a much less effective charity.

Funging can also occur within a nonprofit. Consider an organization that conducts research in several different areas. Providing funds restricted to global health research may lead that organization’s leadership to allocate more unrestricted funding to animal welfare and longtermist work.

Reverse Funging and Open Philanthropy’s 50% “Rule”

Open Philanthropy is by far the largest funder in effective altruism. Because they control so much funding, they have a lot of power. They don’t like this and prefer for organizations to not depend on them too much for funding. Though they do fund far over 50% of any organization’s budget, they prefer to support 50% or less. This means that they may be willing to fund a nonprofit more if it receives more outside support. Control+F “A regular listener” in this transcript to get more detail.

Philanthropic Coordination

Funging and other issues we’ll discuss relate to the concept of philanthropic coordination, which occurs when donors collaborate to make their individual donations more effective.

Consider two donors who share a top priority of global health and development. One has a secondary priority of AI safety, and the other’s is biosecurity. They each have $50,000 to give. Their top charity, New Incentives, can only absorb $75,000 of funding. Each one wants the other to donate all their funds to New Incentives, thereby allowing them to fill the remaining $25,000 of room for funding. $25,000 would then remain for their second priority area. The donors can try to force the other to give first by waiting, or they can try to coordinate.

Read more on the EA Forum.

Funding Restrictions

Donations to nonprofits can sometimes be restricted to certain uses. Whether you are allowed to restrict your donations will depend on the recipient, your desired use, and the amount you give. While nonprofits often accept restricted funding, they prefer unrestricted funding, which are funds that can be allocated as the organization’s leadership chooses.

Generally, we do not recommend providing restricted funds to a nonprofit because:

  • There is an increased administrative burden to managing those funds
  • The individual or organizations directing the funds have less context about the organization’s ability to use those funds efficiently for the desired task
  • You may end up running into issues with funging

There are cases, however, when applying restrictions to funds may be appropriate:

  • You are donating a large sum of money, so the increased administrative costs are relatively small
  • You have a good understanding of the recipient organization and have discussed your giving plans with them
  • You have different priorities than the individuals running the nonprofit
  • You do not anticipate issues with funging

Taking Over the Budget

While this won’t be an issue for most donors, large philanthropists giving to relatively small organizations may overwhelm an organization with money it can’t use effectively. If you plan to give a large amount of money, look into the organization’s financial history and check what fraction of their budget your donation will end up being. If it’s more than a few percent, consider reaching out to them for a phone call, and discuss how you can give in a way that works for both you and them in the long run.

Abraham Rowe, the former COO of Rethink Priorities and cofounder of the Wild Animal Initiative, discusses this issue from the nonprofit’s perspective in A robust earning to give ecosystem is better for EA.

Monthly vs. Yearly Giving

Monthly giving can be a convenient option for both donors and recipients. Donor contributions are consistent across the year, so budgeting stays simple. Nonprofits are able to rely on those automatic monthly contributions, which makes planning much easier. They have to pay employees, rent, and other expenses on a regular basis, not each year.

However, processing fees are often charged on a per-transaction basis. This means that the less often you donate, the more money will end up in the nonprofit’s bank account.

When making a yearly gift, it’s probably best to donate around the earlier part of December for most people. This way, if there’s an issue with your donation, you have plenty of time to get it sorted out before the end of the year. You also have a good sense of what your income for the year will be, which is especially relevant for those who earn different amounts each year, such as lawyers, investors, and entrepreneurs. This allows you to calculate the correct amount, if you give a consistent percentage each year.

GiveWell notes that “Many donors wait until the very end of the calendar year to give. Doing this will make it very difficult to execute some of the steps below (such as giving appreciated stock or using a donor-advised fund). And if something unexpected happens (as it often does with large credit card donations, which credit-card companies may flag for review), you may have little time to react. We recommend setting a target date of December 10 or earlier for finalizing your gift if you are giving appreciated stock or using a donor-advised fund."

How Many Organizations Should I Give To?

Most donors default to giving to multiple organizations, which is known as philanthropic diversification. This practice can help mitigate the risk of having no impact and allow a donor to gain information on their recipient charities. These benefits come at the cost of giving to the single organization with the highest expected value and more processing fees. Read more about philanthropic diversification on the EA Forum.

For small to medium-dollar donors, we recommend giving to between one and three nonprofits.

Political Donations

There are campaign contribution limits for funders in the U.S. federal elections have a $2,900 limit, and state maximums vary. Large funders, therefore, may not be able to give as much as they believe would be effective to political candidates, and small funders can fill the gap. Read more about this option in There's a role for small EA donors in campaign finance.

Pledging

If you think you’re financially ready to donate regularly and will be for the foreseeable future, you may consider pledging to donate a certain fraction of your income or wealth (though different pledges require different levels of giving at different intervals). Pledging can be a great personal commitment device and signal to others that you believe giving is important. This can inspire others to give and help create a culture of altruism. You’ll also become part of a community of givers. And if something unexpected happens that makes you unable to continue with the pledge, you can resign. You may also be eligible for partial reimbursement of your donations through Basefund if you experience financial hardship.

One of this guide’s contributors, Quentin Mot, believes that pledging small sums of money usually has a counterfactually nonnegative effect on one’s own well-being. If you are interested in pledging but are worried that you might regret it, he may be willing to partially reimburse you for donation in that scenario. Read more about a similar idea here and send him an email at mot.quentin@gmail.com to discuss if you’re interested.

Giving What We Can is the main pledging organization for members of the EA community. You can pledge any amount for any period of time. They offer guidance on how to donate, but don’t mandate that you give to any specific category of organizations.

One for the World has all members take a pledge of 1% of their income to be given to certain nonprofits in the global health and development space.

Founders Pledge is for entrepreneurs specifically and acts as a boutique advising service. Their research, however, is public, so you may find it useful even if you don’t pledge with them.

Generation Pledge is intended for inheritors who plan to give 10% or more of the amount received within five years.

Raising for Effective Giving (REG) is primarily targeted toward professional poker players.

Pledging isn’t for everyone, though. As we mentioned, you may want to switch to a lower-paying job, get fired, or have an unexpected expense that makes it difficult to maintain your pledge. You can also get some of the benefits of pledging by making your donations public, which can inspire people to be more altruistic as well. There’s a chance you’ll experience the overjustification effect, which involves losing intrinsic motivation because of new extrinsic motivation.

Read more considerations about public giving on the EA Forum.

Deciding Where to Give

Deferring

The easier option for deciding where to give is deferring – giving money to another individual or organization that they can allocate as they see fit, or giving money to a nonprofit based on a recommendation. While this option is easier than planning your own donations, you still have to choose who you are going to defer to. Depending on your values, answers to certain empirical questions, and methods for dealing with uncertainty (altogether known as a “worldview”), you may arrive at very different conclusions. In this section we’ll discuss basic worldview development and ways to defer before moving on to more advanced DIY donation planning.

Basic Worldview Development

Values

Consider investing some time in reflecting on your values. Take an online introduction to philosophy course to get a sense of the range of common ethical views. Try to understand variations on utilitarianism, value ethics, and deontology, and where they overlap and contradict each other. I’m a big fan of suffering focused ethics, which encompasses a range of views that prioritizes the mitigation of suffering (Suffering-Focused Ethics: Defense and Implications, Suffering-Focused Ethics (SFE) FAQ). Consider the implications of each view on how you and others should act, and sanity check it. This step is super important, since what’s valuable according to one ethical system may be worthless or problematic according to another.

Empirical Questions

Try to determine key empirical questions that affect where you want to donate. The majority of this variation will likely occur across cause areas, but there will still be significant within-cause variation. Here are a couple questions that might be worth trying to answer:

What are the welfare capacities of commonly farmed animals, and how much of that capacity is filled up by typical negative experiences? Consider reading Rethink Priorities' Moral Weight Project, Open Philanthropy’s 2017 Report on Consciousness and Moral Patienthood, and Jason Schukraft’s work.

What is the expected value of the future? Consider reading What We Owe the Future, Which World Gets Saved, and Why we may expect our successors not to care about suffering.

There’s lots more work out there on both of these questions, but the linked materials should get you started!

Uncertainty

Regardless of the amount of effort you put into answering some of these challenging empirical and philosophical questions, you will remain uncertain about the correct answers. How do we deal with uncertainty? We’d recommend reading Noticing Confusion, Overcoming Bias, The Question of Evidence, Why you shouldn't try to change your mind, and A failure, but not of prediction. You can also use Clearer Thinking’s online tool to calibrate yourself.

Where to Defer

You can do your own research to figure out where you want to donate, but you may want to defer to experts instead. Alternatively, you can also donate using a combination of deferring and doing your own research. These options may be good for you if you think this type of research is not your comparative advantage. Oftentimes you can find a professional grantmaker or charity evaluator that aligns with your values and follow their advice.

At the end of the day, however, you still have to pick someone to defer to. Even if you want to be minimally involved with your donations, there are major differences in the values and beliefs that evaluators and fund managers have that determine where they donate. We’d recommend that you at least take the time to conduct a basic review of your values and read about the funds and nonprofits you want to give to.

Charity Evaluators

Charity evaluators conduct extensive research to determine which nonprofits and programs are most effective.

In the global health and development space, the main charity evaluator is GiveWell. They list four top charities that work on malaria prevention, vitamin A deficiency, and routine vaccination. These charities have very strong evidence supporting the effectiveness of their programs. You can donate to these nonprofits directly or give to their funds, which go to various organizations with various risk profiles.

The Life You Can Save is another evaluator focused on human welfare, listing top nonprofits focused on global health, economic opportunity, women and girls, and climate change. You can give to these nonprofits directly or through their funds.

The Happier Lives Institute evaluates interventions based on their effect on subjective wellbeing. They are much newer than GiveWell, and some of their work has been criticized, but they have done some valuable research. They currently recommend StrongMinds, a nonprofit that “provides effective treatment for women struggling with depression in Uganda and Zambia.”

Animal Charity Evaluators evaluates nonprofits focused on helping farmed and wild animals. They recommend eleven charities that support alternative proteins, research, traditional advocacy, wild animal-focused work, and more. You can give to these nonprofits directly or through their Recommended Charity Fund. They also have Movement Grants for smaller, more global projects.

Giving Green evaluates nonprofits focused on mitigating climate change. Their work has also received some criticism, but updates to their modeling may have been made since then. They recommend five nonprofits focused on policy, community engagement, alternative proteins, and advocacy. You can give to these nonprofits directly or through their Giving Green Fund.

Managed Funds

There are independent funds focused on giving as effectively as possible in certain cause areas. They can have a good understanding of the needs of a wide variety of nonprofits simultaneously and disburse funds at the best possible times. Some charity evaluators also manage their own funds. For a more in-depth look at reasons for donating through funds, read this piece from Giving What We Can.

Nonhuman Animals
Longtermism
Climate and Environment
Global Health and Development
Other

Donor Lotteries

A donor lottery allows participants to have a chance at donating a large amount of money. Here’s how the process works:

  • A group of donors send money to a central account
  • Each donor has a chance of winning that is proportional to the amount they donated
  • The winner chooses where to donate the money by a set date

This process avoids wasting the time of smaller donors for whom it isn’t worth the time to go through the evaluation process, while still not supporting an overconcentration of power in central grantmakers. The donor that does invest time in evaluating opportunities has much more money to give. However, your money may end up being controlled by someone who will make a decision you disagree with. Read more about donor lotteries here.

DIY Donation Planning

While it’s generally recommended to donate based on an evaluator’s recommendation, there are a few reasons you might choose to plan your own donations. Giving What We Can lists the following in their giving guide:

  • Your values do not align with any expert evaluators and so you believe you can find more effective charities on your own.
  • You have unique access to or knowledge of effective donation opportunities that expert evaluators have not investigated.
  • You would benefit from learning how charity evaluation works, either because it could inform your future giving, or it would provide you skills that would allow you to do even more good through your career (for example, by working as a charity evaluator).

Advanced Worldview Development

When you make your own donations, step one is developing a worldview. This process involves looking into key philosophical and empirical questions, weighing competing views, and making decisions under uncertainty. If you want to do this well, you’ll need to read, think, and discuss ideas with others independently. Useful resources are Holden Karnofsky’s Learning By Writing, EA Virtual Programs, and EA Eindhoven’s collection of syllabi.

Values

In addition to the topics we discussed earlier, you may want to develop an understanding of population ethics, infinite ethics, and other topics listed here.

Empirical Questions

You may want to continue looking into nonhuman animal sentience and focus on less well-understood species. Meghan Barrett has done interesting research on insect sentience, for example. Research from the Global Priorities Institute and Rethink Priorities can help you with key longtermist questions and cause prioritization. Learn more about suffering risks in Avoiding the Worst: How to Prevent a Moral Catastrophe.

Understanding The Landscape

Get to know the landscape of organizations that are relevant based on your values and beliefs. This should be an iterative cycle. As you read about organizations and their work, you may be inclined to return to more fundamental questions, which will lead you to discover more organizations.

Go to EAGs and EAGxs, Animal and Vegan Advocacy (AVA) Summit, Conference on Animal Rights in Europe (CARE), and any other conferences that are relevant to your areas of interest.

Try learning by coat tailing: funding recommended organizations, developing relationships with them and learning more about their work, then using that knowledge to identify and fund better opportunities in the future. Read Coattailing and Funging to learn: strategies for non-expert donors for more details.

Worldview Diversification

Worldview diversification is the practice of putting resources into the work recommended by a range of plausible worldviews. As you develop your own, you’ll likely find that you can’t figure out with a high level of certainty answers to a set of very complicated empirical and normative questions. This may mean that a set of worldviews is plausible to you. Which worldview should you listen to when you make your donation decisions? You could give all your money to the worldview you find most plausible, or you could split money between them based on your credences.

Splitting the money has the benefit of increasing the probability that you’ll do something good. It also lets you learn about each space. However, it comes at the cost of higher transaction costs and less depth of investigation into each worldview. So while major funders will split money, we’d generally recommend that small to medium-sized donors give in one area from the beginning, or specialize after giving across areas and getting a sense of the landscape.

Holden Karnofsky, a former CEO of Open Philanthropy, agrees with this recommendation, and lays out his views on the practice in this blog post.

It also may be useful to think about affecting the overall allocation of resources, as opposed to your personal allocation. Let’s say you have 30% credence in a longtermist view, 50% in a human-focused near-term view, and 20% in an animal-focused view. Current funding allocations may be 10% toward longtermist work, 60% towards human-focused near-term work, and 30% toward animal-focused work. Even though you put half of your credence in the human-focused near-term view, it is already over-funded according to the current allocation, so you should allocate your money to longtermist work.

Moral Uncertainty

We have epistemic uncertainty about questions like “how many DALYs will be gained from $100 in marginal funding for the Against Malaria Foundation?” In the same vein, we have moral uncertainty about questions like “is classical utilitarianism the correct moral theory, or should I follow Kantian ethics?”

You likely put some credence in several moral views, each of which recommends that you take a different action. How can we deal with that? Read about several options here.

Epistemic Uncertainty

Part of your uncertainty is epistemic, meaning that you don’t know what is true and what is false in the real world. You can try to deal with this uncertainty using probabilities (and/or probability distributions) to express it. The better your probabilities are, the better the decisions you make will be. To get better at this, try doing calibration exercises from Quantified Intuitions.

Robustness and Downside Mitigation

We already discussed the importance of being willing to take on some risk. The greater the risk taken, the greater the variance in possible outcomes. It’s important, however, to try to concentrate that variation at the upper end, and mitigate the chance that your actions cause a negative outcome. 80,000 Hours explains here.

Understanding Impact

In this section we’ll introduce a few ways of thinking about impact that you’ll have to apply as you go through your review process.

Counterfactuals

A counterfactual is what would have occurred without a given action. If someone is trying to determine the counterfactual impact of a $5000 donation to the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), they are trying to determine the difference between the state of the world with the $5000 donation and the state of the imaginary world without it.

The calculation could look like this:

State of the world with $5,000 donation - state of the world without $5,000 donation = counterfactual impact

499,999 deaths from malaria - 500,000 deaths from malaria = 1 fewer death from malaria

We could also imagine a world in which a large donor determined the amount of money they wanted to donate to AMF based on the amount that had already been donated. Perhaps they wanted to make sure AMF’s budget would be $1 million, so if they had already raised $750,000, the donor would give $250,000. If they reached $755,000, the donor would give $245,000. In this case, the small donor’s gift would have no counterfactual value. No matter what the small donor does, the state of the world will be the same. This is an example of funging.

500,000 deaths from malaria - 500,000 deaths from malaria = no fewer deaths from malaria

We could also consider the opportunity cost of the donation; that is, the value of the next best option that was given up. In a world in which the donation isn’t made, the owner of those $5,000 will use them to increase their savings, buy a nice bike, or go on vacation. While those uses may not seem as important, they are given up when the donation is made. So while there is a decrease in value from the loss of life to malaria, one could argue that there is partial compensation from the benefit received by the person increasing their savings.

Shapley Values

Shapley values add more complexity to the idea of a counterfactual. It allocates credit to agents that have partial responsibility for an outcome in a way that avoids double-counting and some of the other issues that come with the counterfactual. Read more about them in Shapley values: Better than counterfactuals and Shapley Values II: Philanthropic Coordination Theory & other miscellanea.

Types of Changes

Eli Tyre has written a piece assigning issues to two categories. Category one problems have some sort of existing machine that will solve them – the primary question is “when?” not “if.” Category two problems may be solvable, but have no mechanism by which they will automatically be solved. When you solve each of these problems, you make a different sort of impact.

Toby Ord’s recent paper discusses a related idea in much more detail. He explains how different types of changes to the long-term trajectory of sentient life (including advancements, speed-ups, gains, and enhancements) can affect the net value of the future.

Heavy-Tailed Impact

There is reason to believe that impact may be heavy-tailed; that is, a majority of the expected effect comes from a small minority of the causes. Look at a Heavy Tails and Altruism: When Your Intuition Fails You and Why Charities Usually Don't Differ Astronomically in Expected Cost-Effectiveness for more.

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Executive summary: This guide comprehensively covers key considerations, best practices, and resources for individual donors looking to donate money effectively. It targets US-based moderate- to high-effort donors planning to give small to large amounts.

Key points:

  1. Careful planning and following best practices can greatly improve donation impact and amount given over time.
  2. Consider why and how much to give based on personal costs and opportunities to have more impact.
  3. Learn practical donation skills like tax optimization, employer matching, and avoiding fees.
  4. Follow experts or do thorough independent research to decide where to allocate based on your values.
  5. If deferring, pick evaluators and funds wisely and develop basic philosophical grounding.
  6. For independent decisions, thoroughly investigate values, empirical questions, uncertainty handling, cause areas, and impact types.

 

This comment was auto-generated by the EA Forum Team. Feel free to point out issues with this summary by replying to the comment, and contact us if you have feedback.