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How do you decide how much to donate in “user fees” for free services?

by Cameron_Meyer_Shorb1 min read5th Aug 20214 comments

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I benefit hugely from all sorts of user-funded services I don’t have to pay for: Wikipedia, community social events, news sites, street music, porn, podcasts, green spaces, apps, public radio, etc. I’ve heard these donations called “user fee donations” to distinguish them from maximally altruistic donations.

User fee donations are a terribly expensive way to do good (better to donate to the EA Animal Welfare Fund) and a terribly expensive way to make myself superficially happy (better to buy Flavor-Ice popsicles). But they seem like a potentially affordable — and maybe even necessary — way to buy satisfaction with my contributions to my communities.

Do you donate to optionally user-funded services? Which ones, and how do you decide which ones? How much, and how do you decide how much?

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2 Answers

I don't donate to any of them. I wonder if I should be more utilitarian by not tipping at restaurants and other things along those lines. 

The cases i can think of to donate to these services would be along these 3 lines:

  1. You actually do think donating to wikipedia or X podcast etc directly or indirectly helps you enough that it is the most effective way to do good. I find it hard to imagine the direct impact of a podcast would be that big, but I can imagine a podcast leading people to make impactful career changes. In this case, it would have a similar impact to 80,000 Hours. 
  2. You think a service makes an even more indirect impact by helping you take a break, which makes you more productive.
  3. I want to do it. I don't care if I'm effective. 

I'm open to argument 1. I do think stuff I've read online and podcasts I've listened too have been enormously important in my life. 

That said I'd think about the marginal impact of my donation. If I thought X podcaster really needed the money to continue podcasting I'd consider donating to them. If the podcaster was already really successful and I didn't think they'd use my money well then I'd be less likely to donate to them.

I also think argument 2 is valid, though I'm skeptical that any service which helps you take a break is the best cause.

I don't like my third argument, but I think there are plenty of effective altruists who would endorse it.

To add on to your thoughts about argument 2: even if taking breaks with X podcaster is crucial to your personal productivity, you should still ask yourself whether X podcaster needs your money to continue podcasting. And then even if you decide they don't need your money to continue, but you really want those fuzzies from donating to X podcaster, then remember to  purchase fuzzies and utilons separately.

I occasionally donate to user-funded services, but it is very ad-hoc and not a lot of thought goes into deciding which ones. I think I donated to Wikipedia a few years ago, and I donated to a local public radio station once. It usually happens after I use a service for awhile and suddenly think "hmm, I want the people who make that to know I appreciate their service."

I don't think it's ever been anything more than $20. And again, no rigorous decision making process, something about $20 just seems right as an "appreciation donation." The dollar amount might go higher if I ever encountered a user-funded service that I believed needed more from me to stay afloat.

Thanks so much for sharing your perspective! That’s basically what I’ve been doing so far.

But I’ve started feeling the urge often enough that each appreciation donation makes me worried about my overall approach to appreciation donations — which seriously distracts from the warm fuzzies I was trying to buy in the first place.