My Q1 2022 donation to Free Migration Project

by vipulnaik23 min read25th Dec 2021No comments

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I'm planning to make a donation of 3,000 USD to Free Migration Project (FMP) in January 2022. This blog post goes in some detail on my reasoning. [EDIT: The donation was formally made on Tuesday, January 4, 2022 via ACH, as planned.]

https://vipulnaik.com/blog/my-q1-2022-donation-to-free-migration-project/ is the post's canonical location (but does not accept comments). I'm cross-posting to openborders.info here (given that FMP works in that area) as well as the EA Forum here (given that some of my decision-making process was guided by principles similar to effective altruist principles). Borrowing from Larks' AI alignment reviews, I use #openborders and #eaforum for portions particularly relevant to the readerships of those sites.

Sections:

  • Background of where I am with respect to donations
  • Brief description of Free Migration Project
  • Some considerations specific to my relationship with Free Migration Project
  • Some background thinking motivating this donation
  • Reasons for amount
  • Reasons for timing
  • Potential future donations
  • Thoughts on fundraising dynamics

Background of where I am with respect to donations

In a November 11, 2021 post on another donation, I wrote extensively about where I currently am with respect to donations. The TL;DR is that right now, I'm only looking at time-sensitive donation opportunities that beat fallback donation targets (such as the EA Funds and the GiveWell Maximum Impact Fund), and I'm not being super-proactive in identifying these opportunities.

I am also limiting my budget to 1,000 USD per month starting July 2021. As of January 2022, the total amount I can spend would be $7,000 (for 7 months) of which I already spent $1,000 on the previous donation. My donation to FMP thus uses up $3,000 of the remaining $6,000, still leaving an unallocated $3,000 that would roll over to increase the budget for potential future donations.

Brief description of Free Migration Project

I'll quote the entirety of FMP's Mission and History page, rather than writing my own description which would likely be less accurate:

Free Migration Project represents immigrant clients in their legal proceedings, provides legal support and training to organizers and advocates, engages in public education and outreach, litigates in the public interest, and advocates for fair and open immigration laws.

Free Migration Project represents clients in public deportation defense campaigns and provides legal and strategic support to undocumented organizers fighting for immigrant rights. We believe that working with undocumented clients to elevate their stories and struggles has helped to educate the public and engender support for undocumented communities in Pennsylvania and beyond.

Free Migration Project envisions a world where free movement of people is the legal norm. We call for recognition of a human right to migrate and the abolition of deportation.

Founded in 2016, Free Migration Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

You can also take a look at FMP's 2021 Annual Report for a more concrete picture of FMP's program work.

Some considerations specific to my relationship with Free Migration Project

I served on the Free Migration Project board from May 2016 to December 2021 and have had past connections with its founder

I was one of the founding board members of Free Migration Project, attending its first board meeting in May 2016. I'm stepping down from the board at the end of December 2021, a little before my maximum of six years on the board would be completed.

I have known David (Dave) Bennion, FMP's founder, since 2013. I also wrote the email introducing Dave to Alexander Berger, then Program Officer for U.S. Policy at Open Philanthropy; this would ultimately result in a $24,000 grant from Open Philanthropy. I don't think the fact of me doing the introduction had much effect on FMP getting the grant (I also wasn't the person who originally had the idea of connecting FMP to Open Philanthropy).

[#openborders] In the proposal that David Bennion submitted for FMP, he mentions discovering openborders.info in 2013 as one of the influences that led him to start FMP. I had originally started openborders.info back in March 2012.

[#openborders] Back in October, I posted an excerpt from Javier Hidalgo's Unjust Borders that goes over some of this history rather coarsely, starting with Bryan Caplan's blogging that influenced my decision to start openborders.info.

I donated in December 2019 to discharge my "board member" obligation

In December 2019, I made a $3,000 USD donation to Free Migration Project. I described my reasons for the donation on my donation history page:

I see it as the equivalent of sending $500/year for 6 years, which is the duration of my board tenure. There isn’t a very specific reason for the timing, other than the fact that at the end of the year, I’m thinking about donation opportunities and in particular looking at donations that I have some sense of “obligation” to make. [...] I’m not planning to make a followup donation in the near future, since this donation discharges my responsibility; any further donation decisions will be based on the same sort of extensive analysis that I subjected my EA Hotel donation to.

As a board member, I have access to private information and this influences my decision somewhat

As a board member, I have had access to a lot of private information about Free Migration Project. None of this private information is inconsistent with, or even surprising given, public information. However, the private information does give me a clearer picture of the organization that outsiders don't have, which gives me more confidence about some things.

In an ideal world, I might want to summarize the private information into nuggets that can be disclosed publicly and run them by FMP before publishing; however, the time constraints I currently have for this post don't permit that. However, I can describe some of the kinds of information I have access to, that influence my decision to donate, that an outsider wouldn't have access to:

  • Information on foundation funding received by FMP, including the names of foundations, and in many cases the amount and the timing of commitment and disbursement (only a subset of this information is public)
  • Access to FMP's strategic plans and some of the legal and tax filings
  • Access to board meeting minutes (as well as my memory of having attended the board meetings) that includes summaries of FMP's program work, fundraising challenges, and more, at various points in time over the past six years
  • Access to various evaluations done by board members and staff of the executive director
  • Information on FMP's budget and finances

I will not have continued access to further board updates starting 2022, and any additional information I have access to will be through explicit sharing by FMP with me.

I would say the most crucial piece of private information I have is around the current financial state of the organization, which gives me a clearer sense of the value of marginal donations.

As a board member, I was asked (not required!) to contribute to FMP's end-of-year fundraiser

For various reasons (increased staff size meaning a larger annual budget for 2022, some delays with foundation funding being disbursed), FMP is holding a larger end-of-year fundraiser than usual, targeting $20,000 (this is only a small portion of their annual operating expenses; it's just an amount that was considered a reasonable goal for an end-of-year fundraiser). As a board member, I was asked to think of ways to contribute.

The most common, and the suggested, way for board members to contribute was to run fundraisers. For various reasons, my preferred mode of contribution was to donate directly rather than run a fundraiser; I describe my thinking on this point later in the post.

The "ask" made of board members did not significantly affect my decision to donate or of how much to donate. I feel that I have already discharged my basic financial obligations as a board member with my December 2019 donation, and if I had ultimately decided against the donation, I would not have felt bad about this. However, some of the backdrop (that led to the ask) did influence my decision.

Some background thinking motivating this donation

My reasons for thinking of FMP as worth supporting

[#openborders] My main reason for supporting Free Migration Project is that it is one of the few organizations (and the only one I clearly know) that supports freedom of movement as its core mission. As the person who started openborders.info, I think this is an important cause, and I think even the existence of FMP helps continue to generate visibility for this super-important cause. This provides a kind of lower bound on FMP's value; even if I were completely unconvinced by the value of FMP's program work, FMP's total budget is so small in the grand scheme of things that it seems, from a big-picture philanthropic perspective, that it more than pays for itself.

[#openborders] In terms of activities, the main thing FMP does to directly promote open borders is organize the Open Borders Conference. I reviewed the 2021 conference and overall think the conference is pretty good. I did a little thought experiment a while ago -- could something like the Open Borders Conference exist without FMP? I think it could, but it would probably be harder to organize, and it would likely fluctuate more year-to-year based on the whims of individuals involved, rather than being a steady part of the landscape.

Existence value and the Open Borders Conference are my two main reasons. I also mentioned a few other points in my Open Borders Action Group post, but I still haven't fully wrapped my head around how to assess the direct, object-level impact of FMP's legal representation work and its activism on beneficiaries. If you want to dig into this yourself based on public information, check out FMP's 2021 annual report.

[#eaforum] I'm reasonably confident that the direct impact on beneficiaries is positive and cost-effective (in the crude sense that benefits to beneficiaries exceed costs of program work), but have no idea how it stacks up against other philanthropic activities that help people. In general, in my mind, justifications based solely on direct impact on beneficiaries need to clear a very high bar given the alternative of GiveWell top charities, for reasons similar to what Open Philanthropy described here. But I haven't done too much analysis of FMP's activities to the point where I could say anything concrete about them beyond these general priors.

For my donation, thus, I strictly considered only the two things I could get a grip on: existence value, and the Open Borders Conference.

FMP has room for more funding

FMP is a small organization and has a small budget. It currently has only three full-time employees. So it doesn't need a lot of money.

However, as of the time of my donation, it is meaningfully short on funds. Part of this is due to some foundation funding that had been committed but not disbursed yet. Part of this is because FMP's staff had expanded from a size of one (two years ago) to a size of three, and the fundraising operation had not scaled appropriately.

One other factor is that with the replacement of immigration hardliner Trump by the more moderate Biden, much of the money that would have funded migration-related activism has dried up, as donors have chosen to focus on other causes. Since my interest in free migration is more long-term and not related specifically to the margins of US federal politics, this seems like the right time for donors with my mindset to step in.

Reasons for amount

My donation budget

As I mentioned earlier in the post, I am accumulating a donation budget of 1,000 USD per month starting July 2021. By January 2022, I will have $7,000 accumulated, of which I've spent $1,000 so far, leaving $6,000. However, I'm making the decision and commitment in December, so in my mind I was really playing with only $6,000 - $1,000 = $5,000.

The donation budget sets an upper bound; I believe that there's a decent chance that I will identify better donation targets in the coming months, and do want to leave some of my donation budget for those better targets. That partly explains why I am not spending the entirety of the $6,000 or $5,000.

I would say that my donation budget is one of the main reasons I didn't donate more, but a greater donation budget wouldn't translate directly to the same increase in how much of a donation I would make. I did a little thought experiment and estimated that I could go up to $5,000 if my donation budget were around $15,000, and up to $10,000 if my donation budget was around $50,000. This brings me to the next topic, the marginal value of funding. (Basically this is trading off the known value of FMP against the value of future opportunities and the likely funds I will need in order to be able to fund those opportunities).

Marginal value of funding for FMP

The amount I have chosen falls well within the range where marginal funding directly helps FMP with its goal of continued existence, which is necessary for its existence value and its ability to sponsor the Open Borders Conference (the two reasons I want to donate to it).

Since I limited my investigation to the range of values that I was actually likely to donate, I don't have a very clear sense of the marginal value of substantially larger amounts of funding, nor is this the right post to go over that. But I can say the following:

  • I do suspect diminishing returns in donations to FMP to quite an extent (for my goals of existence value and ability to sponsor the Open Borders Conference), and I do think $3,000 is enough to see at least some meaningful change in the slope of the marginal value curve. So the first $3,000 I donated are much more valuable than the next $3,000.

  • The investigation I did would make me confident of donating up to $10,000 if my donation budget were not constrained, even taking into account other funds FMP expects to raise. After $10,000, I wouldn't be sure this is a clearly time-sensitive opportunity that beats out fallback donation targets (which are actually pretty good value-for-money, so this is a high bar). To be clear, $10,000 is way less than the amount FMP needs for its budget. And also, my investigation scope was limited to looking at the kind of funds I actually expect to give.

One takeaway for other donors: if you're fully aligned with me and less constrained than I am on donation budget, I think donating up to $7,000 total would be great. I don't expect to influence more than 2-3 people, so donating up to $1,000 should be safe; even if 3 people ended up donating $1,000 based on this post it would still be well under the $7,000. If you're thinking of donating more than $1,000, I recommend getting in touch with FMP and doing your own marginal value calculation based on the most up-to-date information at the time of your donation.

Reasons for timing

FMP's financial situation

One of the main reasons for the timing is FMP's financial situation. I already described some general aspects of this in an earlier section "FMP has room for more funding". I can't go into further details, but basically I do believe this is one of those relatively rare times in the organization's history where the value of donations is high.

My donation budget accumulation

As I mentioned earlier in the post, I am accumulating a donation budget of 1,000 USD per month starting July 2021. By January 2022, I will have $7,000 accumulated, of which I've spent $1,000 so far, leaving $6,000. This gives me room to make donations.

My exit from the board

Even before being apprised of the financial situation, I had been considering making some sort of donation to mark my exit from the Free Migration Project board at the end of 2021, as a sort of "parting gift". However, this consideration is minor in the scheme of things.

Maturing of background investigation

I have been thinking off and on about related topics and collecting information over the past few months. Around December, I felt I had enough information to make a case (to myself) for a donation.

[#openborders] My Open Borders Conference 2021 review can be thought of as one public-facing piece of such background investigation; so can my post on understanding Open Philanthropy's migration policy work. My work on the timeline of immigration detention in the United States and the Berks County Residential Center was also for the loosely related goal of understanding the space. I also had a number of private conversations, mostly in November 2021, and most of them not directly related to FMP, to build understanding of the space.

Tax considerations favored deferring the donation to January

Content warning: technical section, highly specific to US income taxes, people in high-tax states, and people within some income brackets. This section can be skipped without loss of context.

My only donation in 2021 was not tax-deductible in the United States. Thanks to the SALT deduction cap of $10,000, and the fact that my California state taxes are over $10,000, the total deductions I can take if I itemize deductions are $10,000 + charitable donations. The standard deduction for 2021 is $12,550 and the standard deduction for 2022 is $12,950.

Donations to FMP are tax-deductible.

So we can run the two scenarios:

  • Scenario 1: I donate $3,000 to FMP in 2021. I get to itemize deductions, since my itemized deductions of $10,000 + $3,000 = $13,000 exceed the standard deduction of $12,550. I save $13,000 - $12,550 = $450 in taxable income (so something between $100 and $200 in taxes).

    However, for 2022, I start from scratch, and my first $2,950 of donations are not tax-free since that's what's needed to make my itemized deductions reach the standard deduction threshold.

  • Scenario 2: I donate $3,000 to FMP in 2022.

    In this case, for 2021, I just take the standard deduction of $12,550. I don't get benefits of extra deductions.

    For 2022, since $10,000 + $3,000 = $13,000 exceeds the standard deduction of $12,950, I itemize my deductions. I save $50 in taxable income, which is between $10 and $20 in taxes -- not a big deal. But now, all further donations in 2022 are tax-free.

So if I'm planning to donate $X in tax-deductible donations in 2022 (over and above this FMP donation), my total saving, across both years, over the standard deduction works out to:

Scenarios Case X < 2,950 Case X >= 2,950
Scenario 1 450 450 + (X - 2,950) = X - 2,500
Scenario 2 50 + X 50 + X

After some further math, we find that if X >= 400, then Scenario 2 is preferable to Scenario 1. So if I expect to donate at least $400 in 2022 (over and above this $3,000 FMP donation), I expect to save on taxes by deferring to 2022. The amount I save on taxable income is X - 400 for X up to 2,950, and for larger X it's just 2,550 USD.

The intuitive explanation for this:

  • Let's say that the standard deduction didn't change across years. Then it would always make sense to engage in donation bunching (aka donation bundling), so that as much of your donations as possible are working to reduce your taxable income. Since I didn't make other donations in 2021 but might in 2022, this argues for deferring to 2022.

  • However, the standard deduction increases each year, so that is an argument for donating earlier so as to benefit from having more of a reduction in taxable income from exceeding the standard deduction.

  • Combining both of these considerations, we see that the amount we plan to donate in 2022 needs to exceed the standard deduction increase from 2021 to 2022 (namely $400) in order for us to benefit from deferring to 2022.

Although I'm not totally sure, I actually do expect that I'm likely to donate at least $400 in 2022 excluding the FMP $3,000 donation, so it makes sense to defer. With that said, if I ended up donating less than $400, I would not be devastated. I'm unlikely to deliberately change my donation behavior to get past the $400 point just to prove my past self right.

I did confirm that deferring from December to January did not meaningfully affect FMP's finances

In general, tax considerations are only a minor factor in my donation decisions. In fact, neither my Q1 2019 EA Hotel donation decision nor my most recent donation were tax-deductible for me, but I made them. FMP is tax-deductible, and if considerations on the FMP side led me to believe that there was a significant benefit from donating sooner, I would have done so.

However, based on the information I had, I concluded that donating in January -- as long as I committed and communicated the donation in December -- would be good enough.

Potential future donations

A lot depends on other donation opportunities I might find

It's possible that over the coming months, I will find other donation opportunities that I consider a more meaningful use of my donation budget. I'm not committing anything to FMP beyond this donation; moreover, since I am exiting the board I won't have any obligations of any sort.

I would want to understand FMP's role in spreading the idea of free movement and open borders better

If I were to donate to FMP in the future, or to recommend to others to donate more to it, one thing I'd like to nail down is a better picture of how exactly FMP is spreading the idea of free migration and open borders, and how successful it has been. I might have further conversations with Dave on this point in the coming weeks and months, and might write more about this (even if I don't make a further donation, as long as I think there's enough value in what FMP is doing to be worth bringing to the attention of others).

Thoughts on fundraising dynamics

FMP's overall fundraising strategy

[#eaforum #openborders]

I can't comment too much on the details of FMP's overall fundraising strategy, but I will say that the bulk of FMP's funding at present does not seem to come from avid open borders believers or the effective altruist community or its penumbra. The funding pattern seems to be reasonably similar to what you would expect of a migrant rights organization; even more specifically, of a migrant rights organization based in the Philadelphia region.

Given FMP's staff expansion in the last few years, the organization needs to, and is working to, expand its fundraising to keep pace with its size. I expect the bulk of this expansion to be with the same sort of donor base that has sustained FMP so far. Most of these donors have fairly different terminal values than I do; also, instrumentally, the fundraising techniques that will work with these donors will be different from the things that would appeal to me.

The role of donors more broadly similar to me (interested in open borders, some connections to effective altruism in the sense of interest in doing the most good) will likely depend on the extent to which FMP is able to make the case for how its activities help promote open borders more broadly. I expect to get a better understanding of this in 2022.

The alternative approach of running fundraisers

Many others on the board are running or considering running end-of-year fundraisers for FMP using Facebook fundraisers; I heard that other board members were using Stack for fundraisers. Here are two of the fundraisers: Jamila Hammami, Jasmine Rivera. Two of the board members are also running a trivia night fundraiser.

Doing a fundraiser did not personally sit well with me (though I wish the best of luck to those running them). I'm articulating below some of my reasons, that are partly personal and partly general epistemic considerations:

  • [#eaforum] I generally favor making fewer, larger donations that have a lot of thought in them, over several smaller donations: This is based on a more nuanced version of the one charity argument (amazingly enough, the linked post I wrote over 12 years ago, back when I was a much less sophisticated thinker, still seems to be one of the best expositions I know on the subject). The world of donations, in particular in the effective altruist sphere, has evolved a lot since that crude argument, but I think the general crux -- the idea that we should keep directing donations to the top charity at the relevant margin until the margins change enough -- still applies.

    While we can imagine some charities, such as the local soup kitchen, where the marginal calculus changes after a few hundred dollars, most moderate-sized charities won't have the margin change at those small amounts. As a rule of thumb, I set a minimum of $1,000 per donation and generally think in multiples of thousand when thinking about how the marginal value of donations may change. If my donation budget were under $1,000 (which it isn't right now, but was at some points in the past), I would allocate it all to at most one charity.

    I know of three kinds of exceptions to the rule favoring larger donations:

    • Donations as gifts: As I noted in my earlier post, I would cap such donations at three times the private benefit to me. Donating to FMP doesn't really fit in this category.

    • Donations as compensation for effort answering questions: In the past, I've had cases where I talked to a nonprofit about donation, but became less excited about donation after thinking and talking more. However, I want to reimburse the nonprofit for the effort of talking to me. A donation of a few hundred dollars seems appropriate for this sort of case.

    • [#eaforum] Donations coordinated with multiple other donors, e.g., as part of something like a S-process: As Andrew Critch explains in a video, S-process funding with multiple funders takes turns allocating small portions of each funder's budget in decreasing order of marginal value. For organizations that all funders are similarly excited about, this process spreads out the funding for the organization across funders. The key is that an individual funder isn't going completely before or after other funders. So the marginal value of each additional unit of funding from an individual funder changes not just due to that funder but due to the funds from other funders.

      If there are several highly similar funders participating in a S-process, all of whom have very similar marginal value functions, this process could lead to smaller per-funder allocations from individual funders to the organization.

      This donation is not part of an explicit S-process, nor can I identify even any implicit S-process-like mechanism here. Also, I as a donor have very different marginal value functions from most of FMP's donor base.

  • One possible argument for fundraisers is that they raise awareness of the organization (FMP), and some of those participating in the fundraiser may form a direct relationship with FMP and donate more in future years. I think this is plausible but unlikely if I ran a fundraiser (given my friend group), though the consideration might be more plausible for some of the others running fundraisers.

    However, I am trying to raise awareness in other ways; for instance, with my Open Borders Action Group post and with this blog post you're reading right now. If anything, I think making a donation sends a more credible and convincing signal, though that was a very minor consideration for me when deciding to donate.

  • In some cases, the pressure to contribute to fundraisers works on a reciprocal basis: I donate to your fundraisers, you donate to mine. Since I generally don't donate to others' fundraisers, this reciprocal basis doesn't really apply to me.

Conclusion

All in all, I am pretty satisfied with my decision to make a $3,000 donation to FMP after writing about it in more depth. I encourage highly aligned donors to make $1,000 donations even without further investigation, and to connect with FMP for the latest fundraising information if they are interested in donating more.

My next step would be understanding more clearly the role that FMP plays in spreading the message of open borders. Such an understanding might influence me to donate more in the future. I might also write more publicly about my understanding in 2022 or later as I acquire more understanding (even if I end up not donating further). However, it's possible I become more interested in other donation opportunities in the future and decide not to investigate this further.

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