Epistemic Status: 75% confidence in the general thesis, ~40% confidence in the specific arguments used to support that thesis.

Note: I wrote this in a hurry and it isn’t my most well-polished piece, partially because most of my core reasoning is based on non-formal intuition from my experience doing media relations (most visibly for the tech startup SudShare, if you want to check my credentials). The reasoning given here should be read as a somewhat loose attempt to get that intuition into words, and not necessarily the crux of why I believe this to be necessary. I’m only releasing this post as-is because I likely won't have the time/motivation to improve it.

I’m not sure if SBF himself reads this forum regularly, but but I hope the general argument at least makes its way to someone close to him, as I genuinely think this is pretty important.


Core thesis: SBF is going to be having an outsized impact on how people perceive EA, especially as he wades into political waters. Right now he is most famous for his cryptocurrency success, but this is not something that will help his public image outside of very specific markets. Spending ~$100,000,000 on altruistic projects with very near-term measurable impact (especially if that impact is felt within America/wherever he's doing the most political philanthropy) is almost certainly worthwhile from a pure PR perspective, and can multiply the value of future political contributions.


According to a recent podcast interview, Sam Bankman-Fried (from here on referred to as "SBF") is planning to donate up to a "soft ceiling" of $1,000,000,000 on the next US presidential election. I will assume that his team has accurately done the cost-benefit calculation and determined that this is a worthwhile cause area. If this is so, we need to consider both the best way for that money to make an impact within said cause area, and potential ramifications of making the donation.

An excellent case-study of what not to do here is the presidential election campaigns of Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer. Bloomberg spend over a billion dollars(!) on his campaign in 2020, (with Steyer spending "just" $340 million), and yet lost the primaries by a landslide, only winning a single contest in American Samoa. In Tom Steyer's case, I believe it's likely that the sheer amount he was spending cost him votes—media coverage was such that being bombarded with ads for his campaign reinforced the impression of him as a power-hungry businessman running because he had nothing better to do.[1] 

For a more direct example, take Carrick Flynn’s recent campaign. Almost all media coverage focused on him as the guy being supported by a “crypto-bro” billionaire, which while perhaps a popular image in some tech-savvy subcultures, is not a very appealing image to most Americans. This made sense as a framing device because it’s what his primary funder, SBF, was famous for. If SBF doesn't want that framing, he’s going to need to become more famous for something else. This is almost certainly worth investing at least 10% of the amount he is willing to spend on traditional campaign donations, since it seems to have such an outsized effect on election results—people really do care about (perceived) backgrounds, and the wrong framing can make billions in donations less than useless. In Flynn’s case SBF wasn’t even running, but heavy funders will be put under heavy scrutiny, and that’s inevitably going to impact the candidate’s public image as well. The good news is that changing what you're most famous for is absolutely doable, but it's going to take some work. One of the best possible ways to convince Americans that you are acting in good faith is to have a track record that backs up your core thesis. If you say that you’re an Effective Altruist (forget for a moment about how we define the term), by golly, you’d better have a track record of doing altruistic acts that have been measurably effective!

Unfortunately for SBF, so far none of his big ($100M+) donations have been easily measurable in impact, mostly because they’re focused primarily on the long-term future. This is great from the perspective of ultimately helping the greatest number of people, but it does mean that reporters will basically ignore it, due to a lack of reportable results. If SBF wants to become known as a capital-A Altruist who isn’t in it for some cynical tech-bro reason, he will (ironically enough perhaps somewhat cynically) have to create a Bill Gates-esque track record of saving lives in the here-and-now.[2] This means spending enough money on short-termist non-partisan causes (which also preferably impact Americans in a noticeably positive manner) that the first thing people think of when they think of SBF are those cause areas. This is advantageous outside of the political arena as well, because it will help insure later buy-in for long-termist causes he later champions if he can show that he has measurably done great good in the world already.

As such, I would strongly recommend SBF spend at least $100,000,000[3] this year on a highly-visible neartermist cause, before funding his next political target.

This lesson extends outside of SBF to the larger EA community of course, but it seemed worthwhile to focus on him in this post, for obvious reasons.

  1. ^

    [Please note that I have pretty low confidence in the accuracy of the rest of this footnote.] Compare this to Donald Trump in 2016, where the popular framing by those in favor of him was “he has a great track record of running his business; government is like a business in many ways; therefore he will probably do great in government”. This is despite the fact that he’s (arguably) a pretty terrible businessman! How did he create that impression? Two primary answers: the Art of The Deal, and The Apprentice. Yes, he was popularly known even before that, but those two pieces of media were what turned him from just another businessman to The Archetypal Successful Businessman in American consciousness. This is different from Bloomberg's framing, where he was pushing his experience as Mayor of NYC over pretty much anything else (and very much failing at even that, but that's another story).

  2. ^

    [Please note that I have not fact-checked this footnote, though I am fairly confident my assessment is correct.] Bill Gates is an excellent example here, even though he's also been the victim of many negative conspiracy theories: If he were to massively fund a political candidate, I suspect most news articles would focus on his work funding public health measures, rather than his time as CEO of Microsoft. Negative ads would still run connecting him with Big Tech of course, but the dominant media narrative would be around his qualifications as philanthropist, not his past in tech. It would be a massive win for SBF if he can pull off something similar.

  3. ^

    I've chosen this amount because the impact of any less will likely get drowned out in the news cycle, and because it would be 10% of his "soft ceiling" on presidential political donations, meaning it's an amount he should easily be willing to spend if he cares about that donation having a positive impact.

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My sense is that this post - as well as many other recent posts on the forum - focuses too much on PR/reputation relative to direct impact. Also, I think that insofar as we try to build a reputation, part of that reputation should be that we do things because we think they're right for direct, non-reputational reasons. I think that gives a (correct) impression of greater integrity.

I disagree with this for two reasons. First, it's odd to me to categorize political advertising as "direct impact" but short-term spending on poverty or disease as "reputational." There is overlap in both cases; but if we must categorize I think it's closer to the opposite. Short-term, RCT-backed spending is the most direct impact EA knows how to confidently make. And is not the entire project of engaging with electoral politics one of managing reputations? 

To fund a political campaign is to attempt to popularize a candidate and their ideas; that is, to improve their reputation. That only works at all if you're deeply in tune with which of our ideas are political winners, and which are less so. It only works if you're sensitive to what the media will say. If selectively highlighting our most popular causes seems disingenuous, manipulative, or self-defeating to an impression of integrity, I hear you - but that's hardly a case FOR political advertising. To support what SBF's doing in the first place starts by accepting that, at least to some extent, framing EA in a way the mainstream can get behind instrumentally overlaps with "doing things because we think they're right."

If you accept that reputation matters, why is optimizing for an impression of greater integrity better than optimizing for an impression of greater altruism? In both cases, we're just trying to anticipate and strategically preempt a misconception people may have about our true motivations. It just boils down to which misconception you think is empirically more common or dangerous.

My second and broader worry is that EA may be entering the most dangerous reputational period of its existence to date. I'm planning a standalone post on this soon, so I won't elaborate too much on why I think this here. But the surge of recent posts you mention suggests I'm not alone; and if we're right, high-level PR mindfulness could be more important now than ever before. EA's reputation is important for long-term impact, especially if you think (as SBF appears to) that some of the most important X-risk reductions will have to come from within democratic governments.

First, it's odd to me to categorize political advertising as "direct impact" but short-term spending on poverty or disease as "reputational."

The OP focused on PR/reputation, which is what I reacted to.

If you accept that reputation matters, why is optimizing for an impression of greater integrity better than optimizing for an impression of greater altruism? In both cases, we're just trying to anticipate and strategically preempt a misconception people may have about our true motivations.

I think there's a difference between creating a reputation for integrity by actually behaving with integrity, and creating a reputation of being helpful by doing something that you actually don't think is the most helpful thing that you can do.

If you are a consequentialist, then incorporating the consequences of reputation into your cost-benefit assessment is "actually behaving with integrity." Why is it more honest - or even perceived as more honest - for SBF to exempt reputational consequences from what he thinks is most helpful?

Insofar as SBF's reputation and EA's reputation are linked, I agree with you (and disagree with OP) that it could be seen as cynical and hypocritical for SBF to suddenly focus on American beneficiaries in particular. These have never otherwise been EA priorities, so he would be transparently buying popularity. But I don't think funding GiveWell's short-term causes - nor even funding them more than you otherwise would for reputational reasons - is equally hypocritical in a way that suggests a lack of integrity. These are still among the most helpful things our community has identified. They are heavily funded by OpenPhilanthropy and by a huge portion of self-identified EAs, even apart from their reputational benefits. Many, both inside and outside the movement, see malaria bednets as the quintessential EA intervention. Nobody outside the movement would see that as a betrayal of EA principles.

Insofar as EA and SBF's reputations are severable, perhaps it doesn't matter what's quintessentially EA, because "EA principles" are broader than SBF's personal priorities. But in that case, because SBF's personal priorities incline him towards political activism on longtermism, they should also incline him towards reputation management. Caring about things with instrumental value to protecting the future should not be seen as a dishonest deviation from longtermist beliefs, because it isn't!

In another context, doing broadly popular and helpful things you "actually don't think are the most helpful" might just be called hedging against moral uncertainty. Responsiveness to social pressure on altruists' moral priorities is a humble admission that our niche and esoteric movement may have blind spots. It's also, again, what representative politics are all about. If we want to literally help govern the country, we must be inclusive. We must convey that we are not here to evangelize to the ignorant masses, but are self-aware enough to incorporate their values. So if there's a broad bipartisan belief that the very rich have obligations to the poor, SBF may have to validate that if he wants to be seen as altruistic elsewhere.

(I'm in a rush, so apologies if the above rambles).

Thank you, this is helpful. I do agree with you that there is a difference between supporting GiveWell-recommended charities and supporting American beneficiaries. More generally, my argument wasn't directly about what donations Sam Bankman-Fried or other effective altruists should make, but rather about what arguments are brought to bear on that issue. Insofar as an analysis of direct impact suggests that certain charities should be funded, I obviously have no objection to that. My comment rather concerned the fact that the OP, in my view, put too much emphasis on reputational considerations relative to direct impact. (And I think this has been a broader pattern on the forum lately, which is part of the reason I thought it was worth pointing out.)

I didn't focus on it in this post, but I genuinely think that the most helpful thing to do involves showing proficiency in achieving near-term goals, as that both allows us to troubleshoot potential practical issues, and allows outsiders to evaluate our track record. Part of showing integrity is showing transparency (assuming that we want outside support), and working on neartermist causes allows us to more easily do that.

FWIW I think SBF disagrees. FTX has spent hundreds of millions on marketing so far (see here). For an organization that already believes in the power of PR, making donations that are more legibly altruistic seems like a great way to demonstrate their core values. 

Personally I would love to see a commitment to fund any charities that GiveWell projects as 5x to 8x better than direct cash transfers, which currently do not receive donations from GiveWell. You're right that we should do good things for the right reasons, and I would argue that it's the right thing to do for FTX to fill that funding gap.  

Those partnerships between FTX and sports teams and individuals seem wholly different. They are not purporting to directly improve the world, the way donations to an altruistic cause do. (Rather, their purpose is, as far as I understand, to increase FTX's profits - which in turn indirectly can increase their donations.) As such, there is no risk of a conflation between PR-related and direct impact-related reasons for those expenditures: it's clear that they're about PR alone.

FTX is a for-profit enterprise, and it's natural that it engages in marketing. My comment rather concerned whether one should donate to particular causes because it looks good, as opposed to because it has a direct impact.

Within the domain of politics (and to a lesser degree, global health), PR impact makes an extremely large difference in how effective you’re able to be at the end of the day. If you want, I’d be happy to provide data on that, but my guess is you’d agree with me there (please let me know if that isn’t the case). As such, if you care about results, you should care about PR as well. I suspect that your unease mostly lies in the second half of your response—we should do things for “direct, non-reputational reasons,” and actions done for reputational reasons would impugn on our perceived integrity. The thing is, reputation is actually one of the things we are already paying a tremendous amount of attention to—in the context of both forecasting and charity evaluation. To explain:

In forecasting, if you want your predictions to be maximally accurate, it is highly worthwhile to see what domain experts and superforecasters are saying, since they either have a confirmed track record of getting predictions right, or a track record of contributing to the relevant field (which means they will likely have a more robust inside-view). In charity evaluation, the only thing we usually have to go on to determine the effectiveness of existing charities is what the charities themselves say about their impact, and if we’re very lucky, what outside researchers have evaluated. Ultimately, the only real reason we have to trust some people or organizations more than others is their track record (certifications are merely proxies for that). Organizations like GiveWell partially function as track-record evaluators, doing the hard parts of the work for us to determine if charities are actually doing what they say they’re doing (comparing effectiveness once that’s done is the other aspect of their job, of course). When dealing with longtermist charities, things get trickier. It’s impossible to evaluate a direct track record of impact, so the only thing we have to go on is proxies for effectiveness—is the charity structured well, do we trust the people working there, have they been effective at short-termist projects in the past, etc…evaluation becomes a semi-formalized game of trust.

The outside world cares about track record as much—if not significantly more than—we do. I do not think it would signal a lack of integrity for SBF to deliberately invest in short-term altruistic projects which can establish a positive track record, showing that not only does he sincerely want to make the world a better place, he knows how to actually go about doing that.

I don't think the actual dollar number he spends is that important here. Media coverage can be very scope insensitive, so it isn't obvious to me that $100m would be meaningfully different to $50m or $25m here.

I agree more legible altruistic acts would be good for PR, and contra Stefan I do think there's a case for focusing on this to an extent, but that doesn't mean just picking a big number out of a hat and spending it.

Fair enough; I didn’t mean to imply that $100M is exactly the amount that needs to be spent, though I would expect it to be near a lower bound he would have to spend (on projects with clear measurable results) if he wants to because known as “that effective altruism guy” rather than “that cryptocurrency guy”

It's hard to imagine him not being primarily seen as a crypto guy while he's regularly going to Congress to talk about crypto, and lobbying for a particular regulatory regime. Gates managed this by not running Microsoft any more, it might take a similarly big change in circumstances to get there for SBF.

SBF/FTX already gives quite a lot to neartermist projects afaict. He's also pretty open about being vegan and living a frugal lifestyle. I'm not saying that this mitigates optics issues, just that I expect to see diminishing marginal returns on this kind of donation wrt optics gains.

https://ftx.com/foundation

Other than the donations towards helping Ukraine, I’m not sure there’s any significant charity on the linked page that will have really noticeable effects within a year or two. For what I’m talking about, there needs to be an obvious difference made quickly—it also doesn’t help that those are all pre-existing charities under other people’s names, which makes it hard to say for sure that it was SBF’s work that made the crucial difference even if one of them does significantly impact the world in the short term.