Alex Semendinger

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If EA is no longer funding constrained, why should *I* give?

There have been a few posts discussing the value of small donations over the past year, notably:

  1. Benjamin Todd on "Despite billions of extra funding, small donors can still have a significant impact"
  2. a counterpoint, AppliedDivinityStudies on "A Red-Team Against the Impact of Small Donations"
  3. a counter-counterpoint, Michael Townsend  on "The value of small donations from a longtermist perspective"

There's a lot of discussion here (especially if you go through the comments of each piece), and so plenty of room to come to different conclusions.

Here's roughly where I come out of this:

  • What's the relevant counterfactual? Many of these comment threads turn into discussions about earning-to-give vs direct work, but if you have $1000 in your hand, ready to donate, that's not the relevant question. Rather, you should ask, "if I don't donate this, what would I do with it instead, and how much impact would that have?"
  • You say "I know that professional grant makers think that last-dollar funding is not cost effective because they aren't funding more projects, but aren't out of dollars." I think this frames the issue incorrectly. It's not that big funders know that other projects aren't cost-effective, it's that they don't currently have enough projects that clear a certain cost-effectiveness bar. But crucially, that bar is still far above zero!

This means

  • there are probably many opportunities that are just as cost-effective that they haven't found (potentially you have information they don't that you could exploit; see this section of the above ADS post)
  • marginal donations should have a cost-effectiveness at worst just below that bar, which means you're only doing a little worse than the big funders. (This point taken from Benjamin Todd here.)