Have there been any studies on the effects of being able to see the effects of your donation to an EA cause first-hand?

Cause I'm guessing that from a psychological perspective, it could matter. Also if it's not just first-hand but personalised and non-fungible. Like "this specific child or alcoholic is being sponsored by you" rather than your dollar donation is fungible with everyone else's dollar donation which has a collective output of benefitting some number of kids. I'd be keen on evidence of this.

I'd also be keen on any research by EA orgs that takes this into account. It might even make sense to promote charities that are not on the frontier for cost-effectiveness, if they can tug on people's emotions better and increase the net amount donated. Has this been tried?

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I've thought about this general idea for a while.

EA donors are special creatures, but to make donations sustainable in the large community one might need to think about both

  • the gains to the 'beneficiaries', and
  • the internal emotional and social benefits for the donor.

I.e., a 'two-sided market'. One needs to consider the 'donor as consumer'. As you say, we might want to consider some reduction in former if it greatly increases the latter.

The latter certainly involves tangibility, the feeling of having done something that you can see changes the world in a visible way, 'agency', and the feeling of having a particular attachment to somebody you can help. People buy fireworks because they get more pleasure from "lighting fireworks and controlling their direction" than from "seeing a display".

The problem is that the forms of generosity that you can more easily 'control and see the tangible effects of' tend to be more local to the wealthy (by global standards) donors, less neglected, and thus less effective at the margin.

Furthermore, ensuring and enabling this 'specific donation' can itself be costly in terms of administration and communication. It can also lead to some departure from 'giving to the most needy' if the 'most needy person' is harder to communicate with.

But I think there is potential to try to harness tangibility and incrementally in the effective giving space.

There is the idea of 'sponsor an individual child or family or village'. My impression is that many charities in fact do this in their marketing and communication but the actual donations are not directly tied to a particular beneficiaries. And I expect donors realize this. When I spoke with these charities they say that there are both practical and ethical issues making this undoable (see below).

My proposal, which seems to overlap what you're saying, was something like telling people

We are linking each potential donor to a particular household (or village etc). You are linked to the ZJHGUH household in SHMZPLA.

Do you want to donate to provide the ZJHGUH household with education, medicine, and clean water? You are the only potential donor linked to ZJHGUH by our organization.

If you donate to build a new sanitary facility, you will be able to choose which color it is painted, and we'll send photos

The idea is close to what are you are suggesting. Furthermore, technology could allow us now to provide some pictures and feedback directly linked to the beneficiary household.

The strongly-stated objections to this I have heard:

  1. "This is unethical/unfair to the beneficiary households not targeted"
  2. "This is too manipulative of potential donors"
  3. "This would be impossible to implement"
  4. "This is too 'white-saviour vs victim'-ish"

These objections are somewhat reasonable (but some could also be rebutted to an extent... see below). Anyways, I suspect that if done right, the benefits will outweigh the costs, in terms of generating substantial amounts of donations (as well as bringing connections between people on both sides of the global divide, which may have additional benefits).

Why do I think it could be so effective at motivating donations?

Humans in general (including the global wealthy) devote huge shares of our income to ...

  • our family
  • people whom we interact with, and in our community
  • public goods that we can have a tangible impact on (e.g., fireworks, public art, gardens)

If helping the worlds' poorest people can be made into something that is tangible, incremental, and more 'direct' I think it will leverage our innate desires...

  1. To help those we feel we have an 'obligation to' (because no one else will help them),
  2. To have a connection to people whom we can help, and
  3. To have agency and see the impact of our actions.

You might object to the first point, saying "this is inaccurate ... how can you say 'no one else will help them'" or "how can you link a single donor to a single beneficiary and otherwise deny that beneficiary the opportunity?"

But there is a sense in which the standard charity and aid does this anyways, only in a more probablistic sense. We don't give enough to provide for all the world's poor. Some are going to be denied opportunities, and an individual donation does make this difference. It's just that it is not completely traceable.

By making it traceable and tangible we may unlock a vast "supply of generosity".

Thanks, David - this is very interesting. I just wanted to add that I agree with you about all of this. Related to that (and your idea), I have wondered for a long time if there might be value in starting up and testing an EA 'donation documentation' organisation. This organisation would work with effective charities to try to find the best way to capture and convey information to their donors about their donations. This would in turn reward the donors and incentivise them to continue to give etc. I hadn't really thought about the exact best way to do it b... (read more)

Thank you for taking the time, this is a great reply. Might be worth it for you to post this reply as a standalone post.

EA donors are special creatures

This is true - your scheme might be more effective on people who do not currently self-identify as EA.

we may unlock a vast "supply of generosity"

Yup, even if this experiment has potential to fail, the gains if it succeeds may be high enough to be worth trying anyway.

I look forward to seeing your (or others) work on the same :)

I have done some research to understand the promotion of charity but I don't know of any research on this topic off the top of my head. I am about 95% confident that a well-run experiment would find an effect, probably just a small one. I imagine that effects would be moderated by factors such as uncertainty about 'trust' (i.e., can I trust the charity) and 'fulfilment' (i.e., will they do what they say with my donation). Thus seeing the effects of donations might be more important for donors giving overseas where trust and fulfilment would probably be lower.  I would definitely like to see more research on the topic. If the effects were very large then it would update me more towards promoting/supporting something like the idea I mentioned below:

"I have wondered for a long time if there might be value in starting up and testing an EA 'donation documentation' organisation. This organisation would work with effective charities to try to find the best way to capture and convey information to their donors about their donations. This would in turn reward the donors and incentivise them to continue to give etc. I hadn't really thought about the exact best way to do it but I like your ideas! It would probably be something that would require a lot of testing and research before rolling out to avoid the objections that you outline above and to fit with the capabilities and contexts of different charities. "