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I’m really excited about the opportunity I have to use money to make the world a significantly better place. Furthermore, it’s a core conviction of mine that living an ethical and fulfilling life requires donating as much as one can spare to the best causes.

But what are those best causes? The only honest answer is that I don’t know. I think I have a good grasp of where the best causes aren’t, but a lot more research has to be done by myself and others before I can feel confident giving anywhere. Therefore, I’ve decided to donate very minimally and save my donations for later.

My plan to learn through giving

If anything is the core foundation of effective altruism theory, it’s that causes can differ from each other in expected impact by tremendous amounts. The example of spending $42K on a guide dog in the developed world versus spending $25 to cure blindness in the developing world is very salient comparison to me, though perhaps it is not completely fair. There’s also a concern echoed by Brian Tomasik that since we’re uncertain about a lot of cause-and-effect relationships, what appears to be doing good might actually be a harm! I therefore want to be pretty careful with how I donate even $1K, because that could be worth the same as millions of dollars elsewhere.

This makes it a huge priority to learn more about opportunities for doing good, whether by donating or working. Thus, I’ve decided to spend my money and time trying to figure out how to learn more in reliable ways and I’m going to be slow to disperse money until I find ways I can reliably invest that money in learning. You can see the money I donate, as I donate it, on my donations page.

What is my plan, more specifically?

My current plan is to keep a line in my budget spreadsheet that specifies how much donations I “owe”, which currently will be 20% of my total income. Currently, I don’t have any plans to earmark these donations in any other way, and they will just remain a part of my total investments.

What about other opportunities?

Why not a donor-advised fund?

If I keep up the plan of saving long-term, I will eventually get a donor advised fund for tax reasons. However, right now I am still a college student and I am not yet in a position where I need to worry about taxes. I’m also not worried, at least in the short-term, about the traditional concern of values drift that a donor advised fund protects against.

I also think there are two compelling advantages to keeping some donatable money outside of a donor-advised fund: (a) keeping the ability to move money to projects that do not have 501(c)3 status (something I expect to run into a lot, actually) and (b) keeping the ability to save money for myself, in case I want to retire early and work full-time on EA stuff.

What about GiveWell?

I have high trust and broad epistemic and methodological agreement with GiveWell. I normally look to GiveWell’s recommendations as solid opportunities for doing good. However, this year, the recommendations available seem to be poorer than usual. As Carl Shulman points out and GiveWell employees confirm, this favors saving to wait for later.

However, I still find GiveDirectly to be intuitively appealing and I’m attracted to the relative simplicity of the model and using GiveDirectly as a way of spreading cost-effectiveness. Therefore, while I haven’t personally put any money toward GiveDirectly, I’ve asked for donations to GiveDirectly for my birthday and Christmas.

What about GiveWell Labs?

I thus have strongly considered donating to GiveWell directly to help them, and have done so in the past. However, as of their recent partnership with Good Ventures, I believe them to now have all the funds they need to operate. GiveWell wishes to have additional donations for diversification purposes, so as to maintain their independence from Good Ventures.

However, I personally don’t find this to be a compelling and urgent need. If the situation were that Good Ventures were withdrawing and GiveWell was going to scale back significantly, I would probably donate (depending on the reason for Good Ventures) splitting. But right now, I think there are more urgent needs and therefore I consider GiveWell to have no “room for more funding”. I intend to write more about this.

Perhaps one can think of moving money to GiveWell Labs as a donation to Good Ventures’s future funding, increasing the amount of money that is moved to future recommendations by GiveWell. This could be compelling given my broad trust about GiveWell, but right now I think it’s generally more robust to wait and see what other opportunities I find, since (a) there’s a risk that I might stop trusting Good Ventures / GiveWell, (b) I might run into a better funding opportunity that Good Ventures / GiveWell is not in a position to also fund, and (c) I don’t yet get tax benefits on moving donations out of my investment account.

Are there any other groups working on EA learning that you like?

I’m also watching closely the work of other organizations, like the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA), the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI), the Future of Humanity Institute (FHI), Effective Animal Activism (EAA), and Brian Tomasik’s upcoming Foundational Research Institute (FRI). All of these organizations seem focused on learning in potentially useful ways and I could see myself moving significant amounts of money to them.

Unfortunately, I do not yet have enough detail on what these organizations are doing to learn and whether they are following methodologies for learning I would endorse and therefore I’m not quite confident enough to give large sums of money to these organizations. Spending more time figuring out what these organizations are doing and spending more time figuring out what methodologies for learning I would endorse are top priorities for me going forward. Some aspects I’m concerned about is whether good monitoring and evaluation procedures are in place to make sure progress is made. It’s very easy to do things and not learn about them and end up spinning in circles, especially with theoretical work.

But I’m excited about 80,000 Hours’s recent impact report, Giving What We Can’s plan to focus on monitoring and evaluation for their pledgees, and MIRI’s commitment to “lean non-profit” methodologies. I look forward to following more development in these areas and I plan on writing more about this.

I also intend to spend a substantial amount of time looking for projects that I myself can take on to both perform and fund necessary expenses out of my donation account. I’ve created an organization with Ozzie Gooen, .impact, that will allow us to both do this. I’m not yet sure if .impact will produce more promising opportunities in research or other areas than these other organizations, but I look forward to further exploration to see what I can find. .impact has not fully launched yet, and I expect to write a lot more about it later.

Crossposted from Everyday Utilitarian





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Out of interest, where have you ended up giving so far?

@PETER_HURFORD, seconded. I don't know how to put this properly but I hope you've moved past any analysis paralysis!

I agree it makes sense to wait in your position. If you are filing taxes, you'll probably be taking the standard deduction this year. So you wouldn't save on taxes by donating now, but you would save on taxes if you postponed the donations for a year when you itemize.

I also agree with the general sentiment of figuring out more what the landscape looks like. As an analogy, some people begin college thinking they know what they'll major in; many of them end up changing their minds by the middle of sophomore year. Same thing with donations. Even after many years thinking about this topic, I'm still making significant updates to my assessments as I learn more.

That said, I don't think it's likely that one charity differs from another by more than 1000 times, except in rare cases (http://utilitarian-essays.com/robustness-against-uncertainty.html#why-even-out). That said, they can probably differ by 10-100 times, and this still makes it really important to think more about where to give.

Great post, Peter. :)

The link for .impact should point to http://www.dotimpact.im. Sorry for the typo.

I'm glad you're happy with MIRI's lean nonprofit intentions, but as I recently explained, we haven't implemented much of those plans yet: http://intelligence.org/2013/12/20/2013-in-review-operations/

I'll be saying more in future posts about our plans for 2014, and my views about research methodology.

I've been following the MIRI blog and I look forward to hearing more. The workshops also seem like a potentially valuable model for learning more about producing Friendly AI work. I'd like to hear more about how those workshops are being used to learn and what has been learned sometime, if you have the time to write that up.

Thanks for your comment and keep up the good work.

That's a totally understandable position, and yet it starts looking like "paralysis by analysis." Given all the uncertainties, do you honestly think that in 10 years' time the choice of which charity(ies) to fund will be significantly clearer than it is today? I have my doubts. There will always be the possibility that there's some as-yet undiscovered opportunity that's better than the ones available. You could almost turn this sentence from your post: "It’s very easy to do things and not learn about them and end up spinning in circles, especially with theoretical work." into this sentence: "It's very easy to learn about things and not do anything, and end up spinning in circles, especially with theoretical work."

There are parallels here with other fields where evidence is incomplete, contradictory, and difficult to obtain. For example, in the field of human diet there are strong factions arguing that the optimal diet is a paleo diet, a low-carbohydrate diet, a high-carb/low fat diet, and a few dozen other varieties of diets. Each diet has evidence to back it up, and each diet has been shown to be effective, at least in the short term, for promoting health and avoiding obesity. But none of the evidence is conclusive, and there is a lot of contradictory evidence for each diet. In a case like this, you can't say "I don't know what the best diet is, therefore I won't eat anything until the picture is clearer," because you'd die of starvation several decades before the answers become clear. Instead, you pick a diet that to you seems to have the strongest weight of evidence (or the strongest intuitive arguments in favour of it), and follow it, recognising that you're taking a risk and that time could end up proving you wrong.

I think the cost of not donating now is that real people whose lives could be helped by your donations are not getting that aid. Yes, you might be able to help even more people in the future if you wait to donate to a more optimal charity, but the optimal charity can never be chosen with 100% certainty and you could spend the rest of your life waiting for the right moment when you feel confident enough that your're doing the most possible good.

I'm probably painting this much more extremely than you're viewing it, but I'm sceptical that there will ever be universal agreement on the "best" causes or the "best" charities, and at some point you may want to embrace imperfection and perhaps settle for not literally doing the most good but the most good given the information currently available.

> Given all the uncertainties, do you honestly think that in 10 years' time the choice of which charity(ies) to fund will be significantly clearer than it is today?

I think it will be significantly clearer in 2-3 years. GiveWell only started fairly recently; for charities outside of GiveWell's field of vision, especially those that focus on non-human animals, serious charity evaluation (i.e. Effective Animal Activism) has existed for less than two years IIRC.

We're learning rapidly, and we still have a lot to learn. In all likelihood, there exist opportunities much better than the ones we currently know about.

> the optimal charity can never be chosen with 100% certainty

True, but I may have 20% confidence in my current favorite charity and believe that by next year I will have 40% confidence in my favorite charity. That's an expected-value return of 100% in one year, which is worth waiting for. (I just made up those numbers, but I expect reality to look something like that.)

I endorse the response that Michael Dickens gave. I also just wrote an essay "When Do I Expect Good Giving Opportunities to Improve?" - http://www.everydayutilitarian.com/essays/when-do-i-expect-good-giving-opportunities-to-improve - that is a more lengthy and thorough reply to your comment.

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