Talk about donations earlier and more

by ClaireZabel 10th Feb 20163 comments


[My views are my own, not my employer's. Thanks to those who gave feedback. Ping me if you want your name publicly attached to my gratitude]

EAs often post records of where they donated, sometimes with their reasoning attached. That's great, but it would be better if people posted before they donated, were explicit about whether they wanted feedback, and told others if their writing persuaded us to donate differently. In general, EAs should be vastly more interactive about their donation decision-making process.

Specifically, EAs, you should:

1) Post your reasoning and questions before you donate, not after.

Why? You might change where you donate. You might change where other people donate.

EA is getting bigger and keeping track of all the organizations, their activities, and their funding gaps, is becoming harder. Trying to do it well, alone, would be very difficult or impossible. Communicating about these decisions publicly, on the other hand, allows people to share information and get involved in conversations that interest them. It gives people who may not be donating a chance to use their time to move money to causes and charities they believe are the most effective.

On the donor side, if we all want to maximize effectiveness, we should be greedy and desperate to hear all the relevant information and arguments. If we feel annoyed or defensive when someone provides evidence that changes our donation target, we should examine whether we've been diverted from the goal of being as effective as possible, or whether status concerns are interfering with our attempts to maximize our impact.

On the organization side, it's often terribly inefficient to lose donors because they had some concern you could easily have answered if you'd known about it.

There are different ways to communicate your remaining questions. You could ask "what's the most plausible way I could change my mind about cause or charity selection?" Tell other people the answer(s). You could phrase it as a prize, like "I will donate 5% of my income to MIRI if you can convince me there's a >10% chance of superintelligent AI in the next 20 years" or more generally, like "I want to support a metacharity but I'm not convinced they really have room for funding" or just say "I'm thinking of donating to the HSUS, but here are my three remaining doubts..." Doing this might require starting your process a bit earlier if you have an end-of-year deadline, but I think it's worth it for the wealth of useful information the community can provide, and that you can provide the community.

2) Be explicit about whether you want feedback

I imagine there are lots of people for whom extensive questioning of their plans at the pre- or post-donation stage would be quite unwelcome. Those people should definitely not be pressured to endure interrogation about their decisions.

More people should be explicit about this, so that we avoid questioning people for whom it would be unpleasant and don't avoid engaging with people who would like that sort of input.

For the record, I always welcome sincere questioning of my cause prioritization and donation decisions, although I can't guarantee I'll respond to every question or concern.

3) Tell people if you use their writing to figure out where to donate


If they know (how many) people are listening, they'll know more about how many resources it's worth putting into figuring out where to donate/recommend. When people have told me they chose to donate where I donated, it was flattering, but also a little disappointing. If I had understood that I was moving a much larger amount of money than I'd thought, I would have spent longer on my donation decisions. I often talk to people who mention a specific piece of EA writing that particularly affected their decisions. Of the people I've asked, so far none had told the person who wrote the piece.




I worry that conversations about donations, especially over social media, can be rife with misinformation, tension, or even hostility. However, I sort-of believe in the marketplace of ideas and think the countervailing worry that almost everyone makes worse decisions when they know and debate less is more important.

This is a small, vague subset of the more intensive coordination I hope EAs, especially earn-to-givers, embrace in the future. I hope we develop a coordinated system of tracking charity funding gaps, financial information, and track records. I think value-aligned donors should consider forming donor blocs that work together and divide labor to reduce redundant and low-quality cause/charity prioritization investigations. I may write more about these possibilities later.