Where I'm giving and why: Eric Friedman

byEric_Friedman5y21st Dec 20133 comments

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I was pretty interested in where core members of the EA community are donating this year (and read with interest the views of GiveWell's staff), so I asked a few people to write up their giving choices with an explanation of why they chose to give where they did. If you'd like to do the same, e-mail me at the usual address or facebook me. This first post is from Eric Friedman, author of Reinventing Philanthropy and long-time GiveWell supporter. -- William MacAskill

When deciding where to give, my starting point is GiveWell’s recommendations.  In past years, a majority of my giving has followed GiveWell’s recommendations, but that will be less so this year because of emerging concerns that I have with GiveWell’s approach.  I believe GiveWell’s standard of evidence for impact is too high—so high that it is passing over charities that are likely to be higher impact than its recommended charities. GiveWell’s website describes its process as trying to identify opportunities for which they “could draw a maximally confident, linear, quantified link between donations and outcomes, along the lines of ‘$X per life saved’”.  That is, they are heavily concerned about minimizing the risk of failure.  My preferred criteria would allow more risk-taking in order to have the potential to do more good.  GiveWell has acknowledged that accepting more risk is likely to open the doors to higher-impact giving opportunities; that is a significant motivation for GiveWell Labs, though there are yet to be any recommendations from GiveWell Labs.

The four charities I will give to are the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), Evidence Action (the parent organization of Deworm the World), UNICEF, and GiveWell.  The remainder of this post details why I’m giving to each of the organizations I give to as well as why I am not funding GiveDirectly.

AMF was GiveWell’s favorite charity last year.  My understanding is that GiveWell removed AMF from its recommendations largely because of a small, though non-trivial probability of not being able to utilize its cash reserves for a mosquito net distribution.  Because of how strongly GiveWell has favored AMF in the past, giving to AMF seems likely to have significantly greater impact than SCI and GiveDirectly, but with a slightly larger probability of failure.  I’m willing to accept that (as is Giving What We Can).

Evidence Action is the parent organization for Deworm the World and Dispensers for Safe Water; only the first of those two is recommended by GiveWell.  Evidence Action is an off-shoot of Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), which specializes in doing randomized controlled trials to discover what works to help the world’s poor.  IPA does much of the research that GiveWell relies on—even being involved with the research on GiveDirectly.  IPA are experts in developmental research and test numerous programs, so I assign a lot of credibility to their putting Dispensers for Safe Water out for expansion.

GiveWell seemed less excited about the evidence for Dispensers for Safe Water, questioning the robustness of the studies evaluating it.  That’s a reasonable view, but I’m excited about the possibility of expanding the intervention as a way to get more evidence.  It might be the next big proven solution, and I view it as a high priority to find out.  Evidence Action’s management team is clearly excited about testing and proving programs, as demonstrated by their affiliation with Innovations for Poverty Action, GiveWell’s observations about their Deworm the World Program, and some of their own statements.  So I plan to donate to Evidence Action, unrestricted, and allow them to use the funds for either of their programs—wherever they think it is needed most.

UNICEF is different from GiveWell’s recommended charities, which almost always focus on only a single intervention.  GiveWell has expressed several concerns with mega-charities such as UNICEF, most notably that “they engage in a wide variety of activities, and we can’t get a concrete sense of (a) the specifics of the activities; (b) the organization-wide track record; (c) likely uses of additional funding.”  I share that concern.  In UNICEF’s case, 68% of their 2012 revenue was restricted, so it is not possible to look at their current activities and understand what they view as priorities or what they would do with additional unrestricted gifts.  However, UNICEF has advantages over organizations that focus on a single program, and these should not be ignored.  For example, there is value to having a lot of experience working in the developing world and having permanent in-country staff.  Ironically, this value can be seen through AMF’s weaknesses; GiveWell removed AMF from its recommendations because of AMF’s inability to finalize a large net distribution, which GiveWell attributes to a communication style that put off potential partners and a lack of in-person communication.  UNICEF is much less likely to have that type of problem.

In addition, UNICEF is a key implementer of several of the proven cost-effective interventions that GiveWell has had difficulty finding room for more funding for, including being the world’s largest purchaser of vaccines.  UNICEF’s track record includes a number of programs that likely have higher impact than GiveWell’s top recommendations.  I view that as a sign about UNICEF’s values and capabilities.  If GiveWell is right about their room for more finding, my donation to UNICEF may not directly increase the scale of these programs.  However, I believe there is significant value to giving them unrestricted support, which might be used to maintain their capabilities or expand other programs they view as priorities.  Nevertheless, some of UNICEF’s programs are not in areas I view as priorities; I don’t know to what extent that is because of restricted grants versus UNICEF’s decisions.  I wish I had more visibility into this, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

GiveDirectly is absent from the list of charities I’m donating to, though it is the favored charity of Good Ventures as well as most of GiveWell’s staffGiveWell describes GiveDirectly’s intervention as having “an unusually low burden of proof.”  Even GiveWell seems to state that GiveDirectly is probably less cost-effective than its other recommended charities.  The suggested upside of GiveDirectly is that it will “improve the aid community’s understanding of, and interest in, cash transfer programs.” This seems to be a preference for strong evidence of impact over evidence of strong impact.  I’m more excited about discovering, testing and promoting interventions with evidence of stronger impact.

After writing all that, it may be surprising that I’m still going to donate to GiveWell.  I still believe they have a very strong team and are an extremely important resource for the giving community.  Even when I don’t take their recommendations, the knowledge I gained from them has improved my giving.  GiveWell Labs will loosen the requirements for evidence, which I look forward to.  I also hope GiveWell will adjust its criteria for traditional charity recommendations to better balance the desires for high impact and robust evidence.  Transparency and evidence is a good thing, but I believe GiveWell has emphasized these characteristics too much, to the exclusion of other important factors.

Eric Friedman is the author of Reinventing Philanthropy: A Framework for More Effective Giving. An excerpt is available at www.ReinventingPhilanthropy.com