Where I'm giving and why: Tom Ash

byTom_Ash5y28th Jan 20145 comments


Tom Ash was invited to write this post in the 'Where I'm giving and why' series as the Centre for Effective Altruism's Director of Operations; he's since moved to Charity Science, and runs the Effective Altruism Hub.

It’s difficult to pick between the top charities recommended by GiveWell and Giving What We Can, because neither group currently ranks their recommendations, and I certainly know less about the choice than their researchers do. However, it seems likely that one charity is (in expectation) better than the rest, and that the extra good done by my donating to it rather than the alternatives will be truly important - an extra life saved, or a huge difference to the recipients’ welfare. Just as the enormity of the good I could do moved me to pledge to donate 10% of my income, so it calls for putting real effort into picking the best charity - something I haven’t done enough in previous years.

This makes it a shame that GiveWell don’t pick out the charity that they think does most good, radically uncertain though this choice would be. However, it’s a choice that’s forced on their staff when they make their individual donations, and fortunately GiveWell have published where these go. A clear majority donate to GiveDirectly, and this carries great weight, as I trust GiveWell researchers’ ability to pick charities far more than I do my own. So GiveDirectly is a strong candidate. It has many qualities I value highly: straightforward counterfactual impact; an RCT demonstrating significant improvements in the lives of its beneficiaries; and a simple and clear model for doing good, without too many speculative or poorly-evidenced steps.

However, it has these qualities at the cost of doing slightly less good than some other candidates for my donations, at least on certain expected value calculations. I’m conscious of the weaknesses of these calculations, but in the case of the Against Malaria Foundation in particular they provide a persuasive case in favour of its doing more good than GiveDirectly. If they’re even roughly correct, I’d save several lives if I donated £5,000 to AMF this year. That’s an awe-inspiring ability to have, and seems better than sending that money to the poor households to which GiveDirectly would grant it, despite the enormous difference I know that would make.

So my current top choice would be AMF. As many readers will know, GiveWell recently ceased recommending it on the grounds that it currently lacks room for more funding, not having arranged enough bednet distributions to use up its substantial reserves. But this concern may be addressed within three or perhaps six months, as large distributions are currently being negotiated; Giving What We Can continues to recommend AMF for this very reason. Given this, I plan to give to AMF if it gains clear room for more funding over the next six months, and otherwise seriously consider donating to GiveDirectly.

This is a provisional choice, as I’m constantly learning and thinking about where my donations can do the most good. (For example, I’m open to the argument that I could help people more through indirect means; I’m currently talking to GiveWell about the possibility of donating to them, as this might ultimately cause larger donations to first-order charities than my own.)  I’d love to hear readers’ comments on my reasoning, as if there’s a better giving opportunity I’d very much want to know about it!