Cameron_Meyer_Shorb

Deputy Director of Wild Animal Initiative

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How do you decide how much to donate in “user fees” for free services?

Thanks so much for sharing your perspective! That’s basically what I’ve been doing so far.

But I’ve started feeling the urge often enough that each appreciation donation makes me worried about my overall approach to appreciation donations — which seriously distracts from the warm fuzzies I was trying to buy in the first place.

Animal Welfare Fund: Ask us anything!

I would think if an organization had operational constraints, it would still have room for more funding, just the funding would be spent on expanding operations.

Great point!

Animal Welfare Fund: Ask us anything!

tl;dr: I don't think "slow and steady" growth is a problem, only "slow and unsteady" growth.

speed of hiring - an organization can only spend money to hire and expand so quickly and maybe they are already saturated

Actually,  I don't think expansion speed alone should be considered a factor in room for more funding. If there are no mission constraints or relative timing constraints, should it matter to me when the organization spends my money? If not, why not donate now so they'll have more to use once they are no longer saturated?

I was trying to define operational constraints more narrowly, to include only the kind of growth that actually threatens the effectiveness of the org. I'm not sure exactly what this would look like. Perhaps if an org currently has promising programs, but is growing in a way that I think will create problems for them, then I would worry they won't be effective by the time they are no longer saturated.

Animal Welfare Fund: Ask us anything!

Hi Max!

I may not have much to add, because I know you've thought a ton about this and I'm obviously not on the AWF panel. But for what it's worth, here's how I would rate those categories, in descending order of expected impact:

  1. Research to inform future interventions
  2. Advocacy to raise concern about the subject
  3. Current interventions to improve wild animal welfare

Most of all, I think we should be measuring projects by how they contribute to the formation of a movement around wild animal welfare. That points in a slightly different direction than if we just think about the direct impact of a particular project. For example:

  1. Research: Developing methods or concepts might catalyze further research better than simply developing technologies or species-specific knowledge.
  2. Advocacy: Appealing to conservation organizations ("grasstops") might build coalitions quicker than appealing to the general public ("grassroots").
  3. Current interventions: Conceptually simple interventions on somewhat likable species (e.g., rat contraception) might attract more resources to the cause than counterintuitive interventions on alien species (e.g., humane insecticides), even if the latter would have more impact in the short term.

Feel free to reach out if you want to bounce around ideas! cameronms@wildanimalinitiative.org

Animal Welfare Fund: Ask us anything!

Hi Michael and Abraham!

The answer depends on which type of longtermism we're talking about.

As an organization, Wild Animal Initiative is committed to the position that animals matter equally regardless of when they exist. 

That is, we exist to help as many wild animals as we can as much as we can. All else equal, it doesn't matter to us whether that happens in our lifetimes or in the long-term future, because it feels the same to the animals in either case. We're not in the business of warm fuzzies -- despite the warmth and fuzziness of many of our clients.

In practice, because there are so many wild animals in the far future, that leads us to think about the far future a lot. It's the main reason we're laser-focused on supporting the growth of a self-sustaining academic field dedicated to improving wild animal welfare. As far as we can tell, that currently seems like the most reliable vehicle for institutionalizing an ethical and scientific framework capable of continuously serving wild animals' interests.

Several of our staff also believe that our decisions should primarily work backward from what we think would be best ~1000+ years from now. But we haven't committed to that as an organization.

This position has been called "strong longtermism." It's something we plan to consider further.

Even though it's not our official position, strong longtermists might still choose to donate to WAI -- because they believe we have the most promising theory of change, because they believe we're the most funding-constrained of available longtermist projects, or for other reasons.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear from anyone who has ideas on what we might do differently if we were to adopt a strong longtermist position.

Animal Welfare Fund: Ask us anything!

My guess is that the EA AWF's grantees almost always have room for more funding. In addition to the reasons I think effective orgs generally tend to have room for more funding, the EA AWF does an excellent job highlighting neglected orgs in neglected areas.

I think the grantees least likely to have room for more funding are individuals, teams of less than 4 people, and high-impact projects within lower-impact organizations. But these are also the cases where it tends to be easiest to cold-call the grantee and get the full answer in a quick call. For example, an independent researcher could tell you "I'm doing this alongside my PhD so I really can't actually take on more projects" or "My last grant just ran out so I can keep working on this new project as long as I can pay for it."

Note that my reasoning might be motivated by the fact that I work for an org that receives substantial support from the EA AWF (Wild Animal Initiative), and part of my job includes fundraising. Hopefully my perspective contributes more than my bias detracts!

Animal Welfare Fund: Ask us anything!

I'm sure others have much more considered thoughts on how to evaluate and communicate room for more funding, but here are some I've been musing on.

I've found it more productive to frame the question in the negative: "Why wouldn't this charity have room for more funding?" 

I think that's because it only takes a few things to constrain a charity's growth, but when the org has room to grow, there are many directions it can grow. So when I try to think of the ways a charity could grow, I'm almost always going to underestimate the number of opportunities the charity itself has identified. For example, I might think a charity has exhausted the opportunities for a certain kind of campaign, but it probably wouldn't occur to me that they could make all of their campaigns much more effective if they hired an operations staffer with Salesforce expertise.

Starting with the negative framing, there seem to be only a few kinds of constraints a charity can have other than funding. Probably not exhaustive, but here's my list:

  • Mission constraints: Do I generally expect this charity to do high-impact work? If I'm only excited about a few of their projects, then it's less likely that marginal donations will counterfactually increase those projects.
    • Note that questions of program constraints (e.g., "no more states they could run ballot measures in") often reduce to questions of mission constraints (e.g., "if they run out of states to do ballot measures in, will they identify another high-impact program to launch?").
  • Talent constraints: Is the charity able to hire people good enough to continue their high-impact work?
  • Operational constraints: Does the charity have enough administrative bandwidth to hire staff or expand programs without straining their systems so much that their effectiveness suffers?
  • Relative timing constraints: Are there comparably cost-effective charities with much more urgent and important funding needs?
    • Note that I don't think timing should be considered a constraint independent of the needs of comparably cost-effective charities. If a charity already has enough funding to, e.g., hire as many staff as it has the capacity to hire in the next two years, then additional funding now will allow them to plan for hiring in the third year and optimize their current plans accordingly.
Animal Welfare Fund: Ask us anything!

Funding is also a major constraint in wild animal welfare.

At Wild Animal Initiative, our core objective is to establish a self-sustaining academic field dedicated to improving wild animal welfare. This welfare focus is a major paradigm shift from the naturalness focus that currently dominates conservation biology and related disciplines.

That means one major constraint is the availability of interested scientists. Many researchers need to be persuaded before they can develop relevant projects.

However, we've been finding that we consistently underestimate the number of scientists who don't need any persuasion at all. Plenty of people pursue careers in wildlife sciences because they love wildlife the same way they love their pets: they just want animals to be happy. Then there are the people who pursued careers in wildlife sciences for other reasons, but devoted themselves to helping them after seeing wild animals suffer in their labs or in the wild. (One such researcher was so radicalized by her experiences studying flying snake biomechanics that she eventually became our executive director.)

Funding is the main thing keeping these scientists from researching the highest-priority wild animal welfare questions. Often, they have to put aside their welfare concerns to focus on projects that appeal to traditional conservation funders. Sometimes they manage to fund welfare research by appealing to funders' other priorities. These compromises tend to lead to suboptimal projects (e.g., exploring high-cost ways to improve rare species' welfare, rather than low-cost ways to improve common species' welfare). And even the best welfare projects funded by traditional funders tend to have limited impact, because the conservation spin makes it harder for other scientists to recognize the work and contribute to a cohesive research agenda.

More funding would give these scientists the support they need to come out of the woodwork. Eventually, Wild Animal Initiative would like to start a research fund we can use to issue calls for proposals on key themes in wild animal welfare. We're also really excited about the possibility of the EA Animal Welfare fund supporting academic wild animal welfare research. It's a big enough space that we're years away from funging each other, but it's still worth noting that the EA AWF will be a better funder for many projects that WAI could be, including:

  • Small scoping projects
  • Projects that need funding quickly
  • Projects outside the natural sciences, especially policy and social science projects
Animal Welfare Fund: Ask us anything!

[Observations from inside the charity pipeline]

As Mikaela said, the EA Animal Welfare Fund has a lot of leverage to strategically diversify the effective animal advocacy movement:

The EA Animal Welfare and ACE Recommended Charity Fund sometimes act as a pipeline, where a nascent project will seek support from the EA Animal Welfare Fund before growing into a more established charity that receives support from the ACE Recommended Charity Fund. One example of this pipeline is Wild Animal Initiative, which has received EA Animal Welfare Fund grants since 2017 (under the name Wild Animal Suffering Research), and became an ACE Top Charity in 2020. 

I'm lucky enough to work for Wild Animal Initiative, and I can confirm that the EA AWF's support was essential to establishing enough of a track record that ACE could evaluate us. Without that funding, ACE just wouldn't have much to evaluate, and whatever we might have accomplished could not have been accomplished nearly as professionally.

As a former donor to the EA AWF, it's really important to me that it keep playing this role as the beginning of the high-impact project pipeline. So we're taking care to design a fundraising strategy that allows the EA AWF to dial down their funding for us as soon as possible. Over the next 2-5 years, we plan to grow a donor base rooted more and more in the broader wildlife advocacy movement. We'll need the EA AWF's support to get there, but once we get there, we're looking forward to freeing up more funding for fledgling ventures.

Animal Welfare Fund: Ask us anything!

[Adding some unoriginal thoughts on risky donations]

As Mikaela said, which fund you donate to depends in large part on how safe/risky you want your donations to be:

In contrast, the EA Animal Welfare Fund tends to donate to more numerous, often earlier-stage projects that are higher-risk and, arguably, higher-reward.

When I first got involved in EA, I thought "high-impact donations" obviously had to be "safe donations."

Over the past several years, I've changed my mind. I now think EAs should generally lean toward riskier donations than the average donor, for three reasons:

  1. Preferring safety too strongly can be irrational. As this article on risk aversion concludes, "it may be best for altruists to be approximately risk-neutral overall."
  2. Neglected causes are both especially likely to be high-impact and especially likely to be relatively risky to work in. In order to pick low-hanging karmic fruit, you may have to start a new charity or try a new method. They might not be the safest bets, but they can still be good bets.
  3. Non-EA donors tend to be risk-averse. That means those relatively risky projects in neglected cause areas are likely to stay neglected until risk-neutral donors support them. In other words, EAs have a comparative advantage in making relatively risky donations. 

I think all that makes the EA Animal Welfare Fund an incredibly exciting place to donate to. So much karma to pluck, and so few plucking it!

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