Giving money to an altruistic project (for example, a charity) increases the amount of useful work that can be done by that project—this is a social return on the money donated. If an area exhibits diminishing (marginal) returns, then the social return on each additional dollar will decline as they give more to the project.
The monetary difference between a project receiving nothing and it receiving $500,000 is obviously the same as the monetary difference between it receiving $4.5m and it receiving $5m. However, the theory of diminishing marginal returns suggests that in terms of the amount of good done, the difference between a project receiving nothing and receiving $500,000 is probably bigger than the difference between it receiving $4.5m and it receiving $5m. So if there are diminishing marginal returns, a project will get more good done with their first few dollars than with their last ones.
This point does not only apply to charities and money: it can also apply to other kinds of funding opportunities (e.g., individuals, universities, scientific research programmes, think tanks, nonprofit organisations) and other kinds of resources (e.g., time and labour). However, it is unclear to what extent diminishing returns apply in different areas. Owen Cotton-Barratt gives an overview of the variety of cases it seems to apply to. However, Michael Dickens, for instance, argues that there are no detectable diminishing marginal returns in animal advocacy or work on existential risk.
If charities face diminishing marginal returns, it may make sense to only fund them to a certain level: beyond that we say they have no additional room for more funding. Given that organizations and areas may face different returns to additional labour than they do to additional capital, it may be worth considering whether they are more talent- or funding- constrained (though there are also ways that framing could be misleading).
Dalton, Max & Owen Cotton-Barratt (2017) Selecting the appropriate model for diminishing returns, Centre for Effective Altruism, May 23.
Sets out some considerations for choosing between different models of diminishing returns.
Khan, Anu & Rachel Baxter (2021) Why we say ‘funding opportunity’ instead of ‘charity’, Founders Pledge, February 22.
Cotton-Barratt, Owen (2015) Part 4: The law of logarithmic returns, Global Priorities Project, February 6.
Dickens, Michael (2016) How should a large donor prioritize cause areas?, Philosophical Multicore, April 25.
Benjamin Todd (2018) Think twice before talking about ‘talent gaps’ – clarifying nine misconceptions, 80,000 Hours, November 12.
Arden Koehler & Keiran Harris (2020) Benjamin Todd on what the effective altruism community most needs, 80,000 Hours, November 12.