After a few quiet years, Giving What We Can (GWWC) has been significantly ramping up its activities and has a lot planned moving forward, starting with a partial merger with EA Funds and a significant marketing push.
We wrote this post to contextualise our new strategy and plans. In summary:
- A lot has changed since we launched in 2009, but we still wholeheartedly believe in creating a culture where giving effectively and significantly is the norm.
- We have ambitious plans to achieve this, and you can help.
Things have changed… a lot
Cast your mind back to 2009. Barack Obama is sworn in as US president amid a global financial crisis, mRNA vaccines haven't yet had a clinical trial, and Jeopardy! and Go world champions are still human. Though the term 'effective altruism' would not be invented until 2011, the movement had just begun.
That was the year Giving What We Can was founded as the first international community of effective givers, and it would soon go on to found the Centre for Effective Altruism alongside 80,000 Hours. At that time, Giving What We Can was almost exclusively focused on global poverty, and funding was scarce for both the movement and the organisations it supported. The idea that a single billionaire (or even a few multimillionaires) would join seemed like a far-off ambition.
Pictured: Our cofounder, Toby Ord, personally sending letters to people who signed The Pledge.
Fast forward to 2022: over 7,000 people from 94 countries have signed The Pledge, over 1,000 people have reported 80,000 Hours significantly influenced their careers, and the community has much better funding (primarily due to a small number of wealthy donors).
Another significant change is cause prioritisation. In 2009, Giving What We Can and the nascent effective altruism (EA) movement were almost exclusively focused on global health and development. Today, we now also emphasise causes that safeguard the long-term future and improve animal welfare.
These changes bring challenges. In a movement that values impartiality and a commitment to doing the most good, it can be difficult to coordinate among people with different worldviews, and potentially wildly different ideas of what "doing the most good" means in practice. As the movement has grown, so have problems with donor coordination (for example, of fungibility, timing of philanthropy, etc.), and the increase in funding from large donors changes the relative value of an individual's time versus their money.
But these changes also bring significant opportunities. Increased funding, movement growth, and worldview diversity allow us to be much more ambitious in our efforts to be a force for good. This is exciting!
For us at Giving What We Can, it means we might just have a shot of achieving our mission to make giving effectively and significantly a cultural norm. We've gone from once being the biggest part of the Centre for Effective Altruism to being a smaller project with no full-time staff. But we're now reignited: we're back to publishing cause area research summaries, we're conducting our first ambitious marketing campaigns, and we're directly processing donations .
This post aims to provide an overview of our role, strategy, and plans in the context of our mission, the current landscape of effective altruism, and the future we are striving for.
We still believe in promoting effective giving in 2022
Giving What We Can's mission is to make giving effectively and significantly a cultural norm.
We mean this quite literally: our goal isn't just to marginally increase the amount of money going to effective charities — we're aiming to make meaningful cultural change.
Here's what we imagine:
- It's 2030 – Ted Bonne is with his family celebrating Thanksgiving, discussing where they were each planning to donate for Giving Tuesday. His uncle, slightly tipsy, interrupts the conversation: "Whoa, whoa, hold up — sure, in the past bed nets were pretty cost effective, but rates of malaria are so much lower now, and did you see the latest paper on the long-term effects of cash transfers?" Sofia rolls up her sleeves — here we go again!
- It's 2050 – Entrepreneur Beth Bayseoff has just sold her startup for 10 billion dollars. Her friend suggests that she should keep the money for herself and her future lineage. Beth laughs, saying that sounds like something a monkey might do if it found a large stash of bananas.
- It's 2070 – Yuvanna Noel Harare is a young historian looking to learn more about how the industry of impact-focused charity evaluators began. Like most people she knows, she and her family give at least 10% of their income to charity, and she's quite well-read about the current best donation opportunities. When she sees the early cost-effectiveness estimates from GiveWell, she wonders: "How on earth could it have ever been so cheap to save a life?"
- It's 2200 – The concept of donating money no longer makes much sense, given the widespread rational compassion that means all our abundance is fairly distributed.
We're aware this is an extremely ambitious vision, but we think it's worth pursuing. Every step towards it has strong positive direct and indirect effects — and if we succeed, we believe the world will be a significantly different, and better, place.
We think that there is a strong case that working on this mission should remain a meaningful part of effective altruism's portfolio.
We think this for three reasons:
- We believe we can make meaningful progress towards this mission.
- This progress can have considerable direct impact through the money it moves to effective charities.
- This progress can have considerable (though harder to measure) indirect impact — which likely outweighs the direct impact from a longtermist point of view.
We think Giving What We Can's promotion of effective giving is therefore a robustly good thing, which is valuable from multiple plausible worldviews.
1. We think we can make progress
Despite how ambitious our vision is, we don't see any strong, systematic reason putting it out of reach.
Though our goal is to have a cultural norm of giving effectively and substantially, we're not starting from scratch. There is already a significant culture of giving: Americans in 2020 donated $471 billion USD. That money is already on the table , and increasing the proportion that goes to effective charities would be an enormous success in its own right.
What's more, we think we can affect this culture, in part because:
- Somewhat arbitrary ideas around charity (like the overhead myth) seem like they have an outsized impact on giving.
- Practices around giving seem like they vary significantly by culture — we think the world we're aiming for is within what's culturally possible.
One powerful idea in the charitable giving space is the overhead myth. We couldn't find estimates of just how big an effect this idea has in dollar terms, but findings about donor's overhead aversion and the success of Charity Navigator and Charity Watch (charity evaluators that use the proportion of overhead spending as a key metric of efficiency) speak to its impact. What if cost effectiveness was as influential? What if it was substantially more influential? And why couldn't it be?
The amount people give also seems culturally contingent. Consider tithing: the practice of giving 10% of one's income away. Similar practices exist in other religions, such as Zakat, which involves donating 2.5% of one's income. These practices — though widespread — vary in their norms about how much to give. As one extreme, consider that Myanmar has a per-capita GDP of $1,400 USD and yet is the world's second-most charitable country — in large part due to a high population of Theravada Buddhists who have a strong norm of regular giving.
The fact that there are already examples of such generous cultural practices makes us think that Giving What We Can's vision, though ambitious, seems achievable. In fact, The Giving What We Can Pledge was somewhat inspired by these practices, and we've already had success at secularising them and emphasising giving to high-impact organisations.
We're also not alone: we're part of a wider effective giving community with similar goals. Consider the success of GiveWell, which in 2020 moved $244 million USD, and the successes of Founders Pledge, One For The World, The Life You Can Save, and Momentum, among others.
We believe that with good reasoning and experimentation, we can reach people who are already aligned with our mission (and just don't know it yet) and, more importantly, change hearts and minds.
2. Direct impact of money moved
Our success will increase the amount of money moved to effective charities, which we believe will have a significant impact.
Since 2009 our pledged members have donated over $250 million USD. Just last year, our pledged members reported donating $22.7 million USD (so far) and an additional $41.2 million USD was donated by non-members (under the EA Funds brand).
Even with big donors at play, this amount isn't negligible — the amount donated since 2009 to Against Malaria Foundation alone is estimated to have saved several thousand lives — and we anticipate this amount growing significantly over the following years.
How much impact marginal donations have depends significantly on both your worldview, and where those donations go. From a neartermist worldview, donations can have a cost effectiveness on the order of $4,500 USD to save a life. Our researcher, Michael Townsend, argued that, from a longtermist worldview, longtermists should expect their donations to be even more cost effective.
Therefore, we think that from both longtermist and neartermist perspectives, the amount of money Giving What We Can can move to charity constitutes a significant part of our impact — but just how much of our impact might vary depending on your worldview. Our best guess is that it likely makes up the largest portion of our impact from a neartermist point of view, but that the indirect effects are proportionally bigger from a longtermist point of view.
3. Indirect impacts
One of the distinguishing features of Giving What We Can is that we don't just aim to move money (although this is important) — we also want to promote positive values, advocate for effective altruism, and help spread information about the best ways people can improve the world.
3.a. Advocating for effective altruism
Giving What We Can, and effective giving more broadly, has a track record of recruiting and retaining highly engaged effective altruists.
Donating to effective charities is a significant entry point into effective altruism. In the 2020 EA Survey, 21% of respondents reported that Giving What We Can was important for them getting involved in EA.
Though we're excited about effective giving being an important part of effective altruism, we aim to be clear that that's not all it is. For example, in our new cause pages we regularly highlight other ways people can be involved — whether through their careers (we're excited to send users to 80,000 Hours!) or change in lifestyle choices (such as encouraging plant-based diets).
We also aim for our content to be a great place highly engaged effective altruists can send their friends to. At its core, effective giving is pretty straightforward: there are problems in the world, and donating to the most effective charities can be an impactful way to help solve them. We think that message alone can be enough to get people interested in the details of effective altruism (which of course, are much less straightforward).
3.b. Improving effective altruism culture
We foster a culture of moral seriousness, action-orientation, and optimism. Our community demonstrates that effective altruism is tangible, it's something that most people can incorporate into their lives, it's a community that cares about taking action. We think this improves the health of the community.
3.b.i. Supporting effective givers improves EA community health
Elitism, inaction, and lack of growth are some of the biggest sources of dissatisfaction within the EA community, according to the EA survey. GWWC can help here because we are specifically focused on providing a way that almost everyone can take action and contribute to the project of EA. GWWC also has one of the highest positive-to-negative ratios for involvement in EA (i.e. many more people found GWWC had a positive effect on their involvement than those who felt it had a negative effect and few other organisations had higher ratios).
We also think that the people who do get involved in the EA community through effective giving demonstrate desirable qualities — such as being genuinely altruistic and willing to take action, instead of only armchair theorising. This helps keep the community grounded.
It also demonstrates to the outside world that we are serious about doing good — donating significantly is a hard-to-fake signal that we care: it's putting our money where our mouth is. This seems especially important in the current environment — which, from an outside perspective, might seem focused on billionaires and project ideas that are less legibly about helping others. The fact that there's a significant part of the community doing something concrete, visible, and frankly, admirable, goes a long way in building goodwill.
And it's not just about how EA appears. Right now, EA is a movement of people who care, and care a lot. As the amount of funding the movement has increased, so too will the amount of attention it gets, and this can have some downsides. There is currently a lot of trust and goodwill within the community, which is in part possible because of how legible people's motivations to do good are — there aren't many highly engaged effective altruists who got involved for the money. We think we shouldn't take this for granted. We're not sure exactly how much risk there is to this current goodwill between EAs, but we hope effective giving can be a partial defence against future challenges.
3.b.ii. Giving effectively can improve community epistemics
For many effective altruists, thinking about where to donate to charity was how they discovered effective altruism. Founding figures like Toby Ord, Will MacAskill, and Holden Karnofsky all grappled with the question: "Given how many problems there are in the world, where can my money do the most good?" It's an extremely difficult question, but it's an excellent example of why careful reasoning and evidence are needed if we're interested in helping others as much as we can.
Thinking hard about where your donations can do the most good can be a fantastic way to build the epistemic abilities of future (and current) EA community members. There are many difficult questions to answer, like:
- Where can my donation do the most good?
- Which cause should I support?
- Which areas have room for more funding?
- Should I defer to this evaluator, or another one, or should I defer to anyone at all?
And there's something about actually giving your own money away that sharpens the mind, and makes you really care about getting the answer right. We want to provide guidance, but we also want to encourage people to think about these questions themselves, and provide them the tools to do so.
3.b.iii. Retaining people in the effective altruism community
In addition to improving the health and enthusiasm of the community, we think effective giving is a way people can stay involved — regardless of where they're at with their career. This is reflected in some of the results from past EA Surveys:
- ~14% of respondents reported that GWWC was one of their three largest influencers for their ability to have a positive impact.
- GWWC was one of the top ways people stayed engaged with EA.
- The GWWC Pledge and donating 10%+ of income were two of the activities most engaged in by engaged effective altruists.
- In 2019, 38% of effective altruists were planning to earn to give as their career path.
We think it's great to see more effective altruists pursuing direct work, but we also think it's important that those who donate as their main path to impact at any point are able to remain highly engaged in the community.
3.b.iv. Promoting positive values globally
We see ourselves as part of the broader push within effective altruism to increase rational compassion. As we continue on our mission, we can see we're doing incremental amounts of good, but we also want to be ambitious. We think there's some chance that we can succeed in causing a significant cultural change, like the kind we described above, and that this could be extremely impactful.
The benefit of pursuing this ambitious goal is that there's value in incremental nudges in this direction. In general, we think that:
- Involvement in effective giving pushes people to have higher levels of compassion for others who may be distant in time, space, or evolutionary history.
- Effective giving involves taking action to improve the world, rather than adopting a culture of passive despair.
- There's value in thinking about how you can best help, it is epistemically challenging, and requires the kind of rational thinking we want to foster.
And though this might sound intangible (raising the question how exactly will this translate to impact?), we think there are likely going to be tangible results. Given the history of GWWC, we're more likely to first succeed with people with influence: either those in policy roles or who are unusually wealthy. Consider that Sam Bankman-Fried (who, as of this update, is the wealthiest person who identifies as part of the effective altruism movement) was the 1,906th person who took The Pledge. Promoting the above values for these people might be hugely valuable.
For example, it could be a very significant win if some significant proportion of politicians signed The Pledge — and those who didn't felt some pressure to do so. This could push towards more cosmopolitan policies, and an increase in politicians who think from an impact perspective (or at least purport to), rather than not even being in the game of making an actual difference.
Promoting positive values is the indirect path to impact we find hardest to measure, but it is something our team is very excited about.
3.c. Indirectly moving money to effective charities
Giving What We Can directly moves money to effective charities through our pledgers and on our website, but we also indirectly move money. This is very difficult to measure, and we suspect these kinds of second-order effects are smaller than the first-order effects. But just as an example, multiple people within our team report that they have (sometimes significantly) influenced the giving of others, in ways that can be somewhat causally traced back to GWWC, but would never show up in GWWC's reported metrics.
It is plausible that the vast majority of money moved to charities will be done by an extremely small fraction of extraordinarily wealthy people. This implies that the best thing to do, from the point of view of raising funds, is to directly reach out to these people. It probably is, and there are organisations like Founders Pledge and Longview Philanthropy that do a great job of that. But we also think the existence of GWWC — and the fact it's publicly supported by thousands of ordinary people — can help with those efforts. Just how much it helps is extremely unclear to us. But the idea is that, in a world where effective giving is a widespread concept and GWWC is more of a household name, we expect the pressure for extremely wealthy people to donate their money effectively will increase.
So far we've only focused on our positive impacts, but there are also ways we might accidentally cause harm if we're not careful.
Some of our key concerns include, but are not limited to:
- Failing to have sufficient impact to make up for the opportunity cost of our work.
- Poorly communicating ideas around effective altruism.
- Inadvertently steering members away from direct work.
- Adding to, instead of reducing, unhealthy attitudes towards money within the effective altruism community.
We intend on discussing these concerns and how we plan on addressing them in an upcoming pre-mortem. Our current draft is here, and we'd welcome any input.
Our 2022 strategy and planning document outlines our upcoming plans in support of our mission to make giving effectively and significantly a cultural norm.
These plans boil down to inspiring, educating, and mobilising a community of effective givers:
- Educate donors about high-impact causes and how to approach effective giving so that they can maximise their impact.
- Provide the tools and infrastructure to make effective giving easy.
- Foster an effective giving community that shares resources and inspires others.
- Inspire people to pledge to give effectively and significantly.
Read more about our strategy and plans here.
As of 16 March 2022, we currently have a funding gap of ~$1.45 million USD and are looking for both one-time and ongoing funders to support our activities to expand our reach and impact (as described above). If you are interested in contributing to this work, you can donate directly or get in touch with our executive director to discuss in more detail.
You can also support us by:
- Reviewing our work: please contact our researcher Michael Townsend if you are interested in this.
- Contributing to our content: if you are a writer or creative who would like to contribute to our published content, please reach out to our content & research associate Julian Hazell. In many cases we can reimburse reviewers and contributors for their time.
- Joining our team (we're hiring!): we are currently hiring a software engineer, seeking expressions of interest for a senior researcher and executive assistant, and welcome any general expressions of interest.
- Introducing us to potential funders and advocates.
- Volunteering with us.
- Sharing our ideas.
The donation portal currently branded as EA Funds is now managed by the GWWC team and will be rebranded in April to reflect this. The four EA Funds will continue to focus on grantmaking, while GWWC will focus on fundraising.
However, an estimated 86% of giving is loyal and unlikely to change in the short term. This only serves to reinforce the importance of starting with non-loyal (often younger) donors and having much longer time horizons. We have some programs specifically targeted at getting these ideas to people at a younger age (e.g. our Charity Elections program).
Giving What We Can does not claim to have counterfactually caused the total value of these donations — as many members would have donated without the pledge — so we cannot naively extrapolate our “donations caused per dollar spent” from this figure (it would likely be an overestimate). Though, on the other hand, many members who donate do not report their donations. This is something we’d like to address with our new donation platform and improved experience for members, but not something we’ve looked into estimating exactly.
More specifically, we expect the number of members to grow quickly, but it might take longer for the total dollar amount to grow, given that there were a small number of unusually large donations in 2021.
These are only tentative guesses; in the future we will be interested in reasoning through these guesses to help us understand where we think most of our impact is coming from, but right now it is not our priority.
Note: We’re not claiming Giving What We Can was counterfactually responsible for Sam Bankman-Fried’s success — just that Sam highlights the kind of highly influential person who is unusually likely to be part of Giving What We Can.