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This is a Draft Amnesty Week draft. It may not be polished, up to my usual standards, fully thought through, or fully fact-checked. 

Commenting and feedback guidelines: 

Keep one and delete the rest (or write your own):

  1. I'm posting this to get it out there. I'd love to see comments that take the ideas forward, but criticism of my argument won't be as useful at this time. 
  2. This draft lacks the polish of a full post, but the content is almost there. The kind of constructive feedback you would normally put on a Forum post is very welcome. 
  3. This is a Forum post that I wouldn't have posted without the nudge of Draft Amnesty Week. Fire away! (But be nice, as usual)

Epistemic status: musings and fuzzy ideas. There aren't any strong endorsements here, but rather explorations of a topic.

I occasionally wonder if we who care about EA are sometimes a bit too strict about applying principles. I mean that in the sense of cause neutrality and applying EA ideas/principles to areas that generally do not meet the bar for being EA. For example, I am guessing that a variety of interventions in low-income countries will be more cost effective (more bang for buck) than analogous interventions in the city of Cincinnati.[1] But if an organization has a mission that is limited to a helping people in Cincinnati, then they should probably find the most effective local maximum

I'm thinking of this as something like bounded effectiveness: it isn't cost competitive at a level of 10 times direct cash transfers, but within the boundaries that exist in this context, we want to be as effective as we can.

If John Doe runs a charity in Cincinnati and the donors want to keep the money local, he probably can't really do the "typical" EA stuff.[2] But he could certainly find the most cost-effective options within the restrictions. In a simplistic scenario, maybe the options are to knit hats for local homeless people to stay warm in the winter, or some kind of long-term housing assistance for local homeless.[3] If John Doe has good reason to believe that long-term housing assistance is more effective and efficient at the goal of helping the local homeless population in Cincinnati (it is his local maximum), then he should probably shift the programming away from knitting warm winter hats. John Doe can find the most effective way to use the resources for the benefit of a target population within Cincinnati, because that is the boundary he is working within.[4] At the same time, he is aware that he could use those resources to do much more good if he didn't have these restrictions. To me, it seems like this is still following EA principles of being cause neutral, having a scientific mindset, not being seduced too much by warm fuzzy feelings, but it is functioning within the boundaries/limits/restrictions of the scenario.

I think that to a certain extent we all do this,[5] and occasionally there are questions that come up on the EA forum about "If I want to donate money for this particular cause, what is the most cost-effective way to do it"? and these questions probably have the subtext of "I know this cause probably isn't cost-competitive with the top EA causes, and I am okay with that. I am looking for a local optimum, not a global optimum."

  1. ^

    I just chose a random city in the USA, but feel free to view this as a sort of stand in for any limit or restriction that a charitable organization has: geography, cause, target population, etc.

  2. ^

    Bednets, pandemic preparedness, alternative proteins, AI safety research, legislation, career advice for relatively wealthy and privilidge young people, etc.

  3. ^

    To be clear, this is very simplistic. I know practically nothing about homelessness interventions, so don't take the specific details seriously. This is only for an example.

  4. ^

    Or if you prefer something other than geography to be the restriction, think about orphanages in China: if you want to help cute babies, some organizations would probably be better to donate to than others. I don't know what research exists on this, but someone could certainly follow an EA-inspired path and figure out what the answer to "What is the most cost effective way to use my dollars to reduce suffering and cause happiness (within this particular scope that I am choosing to limit myself to)?" and then do it.

  5. ^

    In the broad sense, this strikes me as part of "personal fit." I interpret "personal fit" to partially mean "what would you be good at and happy doing," but also to mean "how flexible are you and what would you be willing to sacrifice." Maybe you really like animals in general and care a lot about chickens specifically, so you do the most effective things within that particular area/domain, even as you know that there might be other areas where your hours or dollars could have a bigger impact.





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I think the way an EA would view this would still be in terms of the most utility-effective use of their time, however, the opportunity for leverage may significantly impact the calculation, and may enable cost-effective uses of time outside of typical cause areas.

For instance, there might be an EA endorsed charity for which marginal donations would generate utility at a rate of 10 utils/dollar. There might be an organization in the developed world that generates utility at an average rate of 1 util per dollar, and has an average annual budget of $10 million.

Suppose an EA sees an opportunity to dramatically increase the effectiveness of the non-EA charity, by about 50%, increasing its utility to 1.5 utils per dollar, and taking the EA about a full-time of work of its time. Alternatively, the EA could Earn to Give, generating a $120k salary, being able to donate $40k to the EA endorsed charity.

The EA working for non-EA charity and increasing its average utility/$ from 1 to 1.5 generates $5 million utility, assuming the same budget. On the other hand, by ETG and generating 40k to the EA charity, only 400k utility is generated.

In this circumstance, the EA generates far more utility by working for the non-Ea charity and rendering it more efficient than ETG for the EA charity. 

I like the idea of enabling different domains (which may not, themselves, be the most cost effective marginal recipient) to reach local maximums as a particularly effective opportunity. There may not be as many opportunities to increase the effectiveness of the most effective charities as there are some of the less effective charities that are still significant recipients of funds. 

One might say that it is better not to support such charities and let them die. This logic may be more applicable in the for-profit world, where failure to generate sufficient returns is often a death knell. However, survival in the nonprofit world can be more tied to being able to make donors happy than it is to demonstrate QALYs/dollar. 

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