What’s better - starting an effective charity yourself, or inspiring a friend to leave a low-impact job to start a similarly effective charity? Most EAs would say that the second is better: the charity gets founded, and you’re still free to do other things.

Persuading others to do impactful work is an example of what I call passive impact. In this post, I explain what passive impact is, and why the greatest difference you make may not be through your day-to-day work, but through setting up passively-impactful projects that continue to positively affect the world even when you’ve moved on to other things.

What is passive impact?

When we talk about making money, we can talk about active income and passive income. Active income is money that is linked to work (for example, a salary). Passive income is money that is decoupled from work, money that a person earns with minimal effort. Landlords, for example, earn passive income from their properties: rent comes in monthly and the landlord doesn’t have to do much, beyond occasional maintenance.

Similarly, when we talk about our positive impact, we can talk about active impact and passive impact. When most people think about their impact, they think about what they do. A student might send $100 to the world’s poorest people, who might use this money to buy a roof for their house or education for their kids. Or an AI researcher might spend 2 hours working on a problem in machine learning, to help us make superintelligent AI more likely to share our values. These people are having an active impact - making the world better through their actions. Their impact is active because, in order to have the same impact again, they’d have to repeat the action - make another donation, or spend more time working on the problem.

Now consider the career advisors at 80,000 Hours. Imagine that, thanks to their advice, a young person decides to work for an effective animal advocacy charity rather than at her local cat shelter, and thus save hundreds of thousands of chickens from suffering on factory farms. The 80,000 Hours advisors can claim some of the credit for this impact - after all, without their advice, their advisee would have had a much less impactful career. But after the initial advising session, the coaches don’t need to keep meeting with their advisee - the advisee generates impact on her own. This is what I mean by passive impact: taking individual actions or setting up projects that keep on making the world better, without much further effort.

The ultra-wealthy make most of their money through passive income. Bill Gates hasn’t worked at Microsoft since 2008, but it continues to make money for him. Similarly, many highly successful altruists are most impactful not through their day-to-day work, but through old projects that continue to generate positive impact, without further input.

Why should you try to create passive impact

What are the benefits of passive impact? Here are a few:

You can have a really big impact

Your active impact is limited by your time, energy, and money, but your passive impact is boundless because you can just keep on setting up impactful projects that run in parallel to each other.

It’s satisfying

It’s really pleasing to be lounging on a beach somewhere and to hear that one of my projects has had a positive impact.

It’s more efficient

When I set up the Nonlinear Library, people asked me why I didn’t get a human to read the posts, rather than a machine. But by automating the process, I’m saving loads of money and time. It will take a robot two weeks and $6,000 to record the entire Less Wrong backlog; if we’d hired a human to read all those posts, it would take many years and over a million dollars.

It’s more sustainable

Since active impact takes time, effort, and money, projects that involve ongoing input from their founders are more likely to fizzle out. Passively impactful projects can just keep going, as machines or other people take on the effort.

It’s more fun

Many entrepreneurs thrive on variety and excitement and are easily distracted. If you found passively-impactful projects, you can move on to other projects as soon as you’re bored, and the original projects will continue to have an impact. As Tim Ferriss has said: interests wane; design accordingly.

Pitfalls and caveats

Passive impact is a powerful tool and like most powerful tools, it’s a double-edged sword. Here are some things to watch out for when trying to have passive impact.

Take care not to create negative passive impact

Of course, impact can be good or bad.



If you set up a passive impact stream, but then you discover that it is having a negative impact, then that’s really bad, because it might be harder to stop. For example, imagine that I persuade a friend to work for a certain charity, but I later discover that the charity is causing harm. Unless I can persuade my friend that the charity is bad, I’ve created passive negative impact.

Passively impactful projects can fizzle out

Passive impact streams can decay and disappear - nothing is 100% passive. Landlords need to arrange for routine maintenance, and passively-impactful people still need to put some effort into their passive impact streams, through management (for projects run by other people), debugging (for automated projects), or other things.

Passively impactful projects can go in unexpected directions

If you delegate a project to other people, they might take it in a very different direction from what you originally intended. You can make this less likely by delegating the project to people whose values are very similar to your own.

How to have passive impact

Automate

You can have passive impact by using machines to do things automatically. For example, I set up the Nonlinear Library, which automatically records new EA-related posts. This increases the impact of those posts (since some people might listen to them who would not otherwise have read them) but requires little ongoing maintenance.

Delegate

You can have passive impact by setting up an organization then having other people take over. For example, Charity Entrepreneurship teaches people how to found effective, impactful charities. Since the charities it incubates exist (in part) because of them, some of the credit for the impact of those charities goes to them, even though they’re only involved at the beginning. (We’re now running a similar incubation program at Nonlinear, incubating longtermist nonprofits).

Another way to delegate is to decentralize. This way, projects can take on a life of their own, without your active management.

Ideas

You can have passive impact by coming up with - and writing down - useful ideas. For example, Ben Todd’s idea of counterfactual considerations has helped a lot of people to think more clearly about their career plans, but he doesn’t have to personally keep explaining it to people - he can simply send them a post about it, or others can explain it.

Capital

Just as you can generate passive income by using capital that you already have (by buying stocks, or a house, or a business), you can also have passive impact that way. For example, at Nonlinear we set up EA Houses, a project that matches up EAs with spaces where they can live. If you have a spare room (for example), you can volunteer to host an EA. You can have passive impact yourself by housing EAs who are having an active impact through their career.

As an EA, you might have already spent lots of time thinking about your active impact: how to do the most good with your career or your donations. This is great, but I think that more EAs should consider their passive impact as well. Will you have the greatest impact through your day-to-day actions? Or can you spend a limited amount of time, effort, and money to create a passively impactful project that will keep on making a difference, changing the world before you even get out of bed?

This post was written collaboratively by Kat Woods and Amber Dawn Ace as part of Nonlinear’s experimental Writing Internship program. The ideas are Kat’s; Kat explained them to Amber, and Amber wrote them up. We would like to offer this service to other EAs who want to share their as-yet unwritten ideas or expertise.

If you would be interested in working with Amber to write up your ideas, fill out this form.

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I think the "passive impact" framing encourages us too much to start lots of things and delegate/automate them. I prefer "maximize (active or passive) impact (e.g. by building a massively scalable organization)". This includes the strategy "build a really excellent org and obsessively keep working on it until it's amazing", which doesn't pattern-match "passive impact" and seems superior to me because a lot of the impact is often unlocked in the tail-end scenarios.

You might argue that excellent orgs often rely on a great deal of delegation and automation, and I would wholeheartedly agree with that. But I think the "passive impact" framing tends to encourage a thinking pattern that's less like "building massively scalable systems" and more like "quickly automate something", and I think that's worse.

Yeah, it's an interesting question whether, all else being equal, it's better to set up many passive impact streams or build one very amazing and large organization.

I think it all depends on the particulars. Some factors are:

  • What's your personal fit? I think a really important factor is personal fit. Some people love the idea of staying at one organization for ten years and deeply optimizing all of it and scaling it massively. Others have an existential crisis just thinking of the scenario. Passive impact is a better strategy for when you like things when they're small and super startup vibe and for if you find it hard to stay interested in the same thing for years on end.
  • What sort of passive impact are you setting up? I think obsessively optimizing an amazing organization and working hard on replacing yourself with a stellar person, such that it continues to run as an amazing org without you beats starting and staying on the same org probably. On the other hand, digital automation tends to decay a lot more without at least somebody staying on to maintain the project, and that would on average be beaten by optimizing a single org.

Possible caveat.

If the 'passive impact' is of the 'convince someone else to do it' form, obviously we need some people willing to actually do the active things.

I think we don't want too much of a culture of

  • 'Person A who convinces other people to do X get the credit', and

  • 'Person B who actually does X gets less credit'

This would make it hard to get people to actually motivate people to be the person B actual do-er of the thing X.

Another possible caveat is that there is some possible deadweight loss in the time spent convincing other person to do X ... perhaps after multiple attempts. If A and B are actually equally qualified to do X and have ~ equal EA-impact opportunity costs (~value of time)

... then it may be better for "A to just do X" rather than to have "A spends 10 hours trying to convince B to do X" (or maybe trying B,..., F before finally convincing G to do X)

On that note, anyone want to start EA CB radio and give me a large share of the credit :).

Definitely! It's a specific instance of a potential meta-trap (another piece here about the idea).

The big questions are:

1. What ratio of meta to direct work should there be in the community?

2. How do we allocate credit?

Which is much beyond the scope of this post, but very important to discuss!

Yeah I think I was channeling Peter’s post here

A couple comments.

First, I think there's something akin to creating a pyramid scheme for EA by leaning too heavy on this idea, e.g. "earn to give, or better yet get 3 friends to earn to give and you don't need to donate yourself because you had so much indirect impact!". I think david_reinstein's comment is in the same vein and good.

Second, this is a general complaint about the active/passive distinction that is not specific to your proposal but since your proposal relies on it I have to complain about it. :-)

I don't think the active/passive distinction is real (or at real enough to be useful). I think it just looks that way to people who only earn money by directly trading their labor for it. So-called passive income still requires work (otherwise money would just earn you more money with zero effort), just less of it. And that's the key. Thus I think it's better to talk about leverage rather than active/passive.

To say a bit more, trading labor for money/impact by default has 1:1 leverage, i.e. you get linear return on your labor. For example, literally handing out malaria nets, literally serving food to the destitute, etc.. Then you can do work that gets a bit of leverage but is still linear. So maybe you can leverage your knowledge, network, etc. to have 1:n leverage. This might be working as a researcher, doing work for an EA meta-org, etc.. Then there's opportunities to have non-linear levage where each unit of work gets quadratic or exponential returns. In the realm of money and "passive" income this is stuff like investing in or starting a company (I know, not what people usually think of as "passive" income). In EA this might be defining a new field, starting a new EA org, etc..

Note though that we rely on people having impact in all these different ways for the economy/ecosystem to function. Yes, 1:1 leverage work would best be automated, but sometimes it can't be, and then it's a bottleneck and we need someone to do it. If you squeeze out too much of this type work you get something like a high-income/impact trap: no one can be bothered to do important work because it isn't high leverage enough!

So, I think people should try to have as much leverage as they can, but also we need to be careful about how we promote leverage, especially in EA where there are fewer feedback systems in the economy to help the EA ecosystem self-regulate, so that we don't end up without anyone to do the essential, low-leverage work.

One of the best passive impact examples I know is Eneasz Brodski's recording of HPMoR. (Also, can we retroactively reward this?)