The core question was: How risk-averse should we be in striving for higher impact, if doing so risks making no impact at all (or worse, a negative one)? Is it better to pursue a very small chance of gargantuan impact, or a very high chance of a smaller one?
My search for answers regarding where we should donate prompted me to organize a panel discussion at the 2021 Yale Philanthropy Conference. The conference is run mainly by Yale MBA students, whose intent this year – in the context of COVID-19 and last summer’s Black Lives Matter movement – was to focus on philanthropy’s role in systemic change. The highest-profile speaker is recent Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer, and total registration is currently on pace to exceed 900. About 35% of these are nonprofit professionals, 30% are students, and the rest are a hodge-podge of government, academia, and private sector professionals.
My panel – titled Weighing Risk and Impact: Setting Strategic Priorities – will feature researchers and grant-makers from the Ford and Hewlett foundations explaining how they answer my core question. Although one of my panelists is a member of the EA community, the conversation will not be framed through an explicitly EA lens. It’s more of an inside look at how those in the philanthropic sector currently approach and mitigate risk, in deciding which causes to fund. A broader panel description (aimed at a non-EA audience) is below:
“As 2020 so gently reminded us, the future is difficult to predict. This makes long-term causes – like battling climate change or systemic racism – all the more challenging. How should philanthropists balance that increased risk against the moral urgency of systemic change? This panel will dive into such choices by exploring the interplay between risk and impact measurement. Panelists will address such questions as: How much risk should philanthropists tolerate in pursuit of lasting change? How can causes with less quantifiable or immediate impacts nonetheless demonstrate progress to funders? And what strategies can funders employ to navigate these tradeoffs in a more structured and rational way?”
The conference will take place online via Hopin. My panel will begin at 11:30am EST on Friday, February 12th.
It will include about 30 minutes of audience Q&A, and be followed by a roughly 20-minute networking session, where attendees can share their screens and continue the conversation. With an expected audience of more than 100 philanthropists, academics, grad students, and nonprofit leaders, the panel could be an opportunity to both learn from and influence some consequential decision-makers. The same could be true for the 15 panels besides mine, on other hot-button topics in philanthropy.
Registration is free for students and an optional $10 for everyone else. Should you choose to donate $10 more to an EA cause instead, I’d call that a win-win. Either way, I’d love to see some EAs there, as I'm sure you could influence the conversation in a productive way.
Edit: I forgot to mention another panel at the conference that may be of interest to EAs. Just before mine, at 10am, is a panel on Data-Driven Impact featuring GiveWell Managing Director Niel Buddy Shah and IDInsight CEO Ruth Levine, among others. By all means, check out that panel as well!