A certificate of impact (also known as an impact certificate) is a kind of altruistic instrument at the center of a funding model proposed by Paul Christiano. Certificates of impact attempt to harness the benefits of the price system in altruistic contexts, where prices are usually unavailable.

On this model, altruistic work receives some or all of its funding after completion rather than beforehand. Once an individual or organization completes work with a positive social impact, they can apply for a certificate of impact. They can then sell this certificate to another organization or individual. Following the sale, the new certificate holder can claim credit for the impact of the project, and the organization that carried out the project must acknowledge that they have sold its impact.

This scheme has been proposed and tested by some members of the effective altruism community. They argue that the scheme is better than funding incomplete projects, because it allows for payments by results rather than by effort, which better incentivizes those running the project to do a good job. They also argue that awarding certificates of impact might be simpler and clearer than pre-funding projects.

Recently, a number of related funding models have been proposed.

In early May 2021, the organization Noora Health—which implements educational programs for mothers of newborns in South Asia—launched a non-fungible token (NFT) which may in some respects be regarded as a certificate of impact. The auction opened with a list price of $2.5 million, and computer scientist and tech entrepreneur Paul Graham—a long-time supporter of the organization—placed the winning bid of ETH 1337, at the time worth $5.23 million.[1][2] A difference between this use of NFTs and certificates of impact as conceived by Christiano is that those bidding in the NFT auction are paying for the prospect of future impact, whereas an impact purchase is a transaction involving the transfer of past impact.

In late July, a group of authors in collaboration with Vitalik Buterin proposed a model called retroactive public goods funding.[3] The model consists of a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO), called "the Results Oracle", that funds projects considered to have high social value. The funding is done retrospectively rather than prospectively, by assessing the value of the project after it has been completed. Once the Results Oracle evaluates a project, it can send the reward to the person or group responsible for the project or, alternatively, it can use the funds to establish a price floor for a token associated with the project. As the authors note, rewarding via a project token in effect creates a prediction market for the amount of funding the Results Oracle will decide to allocate to the project, and allows the same project to be funded multiple times, or by other sources besides the Results Oracle.

Further reading

casebash (2020) Making impact purchases viable, Effective Altruism Forum, April 17.

Christiano, Paul (2014) Certificates of impact, Rational Altruist, November 15.

Christiano, Paul & Katja Grace (2015a) Why certificates?, The Impact Purchase.
An explanation of the benefits of certificates of impact.

Christiano, Paul & Katja Grace (2015b) Certificates of impact, The Impact Purchase.

Hoffman, Ben (2016) Minimum viable impact purchases, Compass Rose, August 29.

Kuhn, Ben (2015) I just sold half of a blog post, Ben Kuhn’s Blog, April.
A good intuitive description of the idea of impact purchase.

Linsefors, Linda (2020) The case for impact purchase | part 1, Effective Altruism Forum, April 14.

Rose, Eli (2020) Do impact certificates help if you’re not sure your work is effective?, Effective Altruism Forum, February 12.

effective altruism funding | markets for altruism | prize

  1. ^

    Noora Health (2021) Save thousands of lives, OpenSea.

  2. ^

    Graham, Paul (2021) An NFT that saves lives, Paul Graham’s Website, May.

  3. ^

    Wang, Jinglan et al. (2021) Retroactive public goods funding, Ethereum Optimism Blog, July 20.