Co-founder of Charity Science, a nonprofit that runs multiple projects, including Charity Science Health (a Givewell incubated charity) and Charity Entrepreneurship (a program to help new charities get founded).

Wiki Contributions


AMA: Tim Ferriss, Michael Pollan, and Dr. Matthew W. Johnson on psychedelics research and philanthropy

1) Where do you see untapped opportunities for nonprofit entrepreneurs in the space of mental health?

2) What role do you see entrepreneurs (vs. established organizations) play in this field, including incubation programs like that has incubated mental health charities before?

3) How do you assess the potential of new mental health treatments for the Global South? Is this sufficiently prioritized and do you see particular roadblocks to rapid adoption?

Why start a family planning charity? (Founders needed)

Hey Larks, thanks for the great comment. I think it gets at some key assumptions one has to consider when evaluating this as an intervention. We didn’t end up going into that in this post, but happy to cover it below.

I both see the scenario in which the benefits outweigh the costs (the one in which we are happy to incubate this charity), and I also see scenarios where the costs are higher than the benefits (in that case we wouldn't recommend it). Specifically: 

Existing people get the benefit of building relationships with these new people.

When you consider the context of the families that an intervention such as this would be impacting I think the benefits you layed out are a lot smaller (to the point they do not largely change the calculation). They are typically families with large family size (my expectation is that the 4th child or grandchild does not carry the same weight as the first, particularly when it comes to long term support of the family). 

Division of Labour - whereby people specialise in one specific area they become more efficient at it. The larger the population, the more specialisation it can support.

They are also typically in low-income jobs with limited specialization (often family planning is most needed in families earning income from primary agriculture). I expect that averting unwanted pregnancy frees up the income of the household to spend on the current family, e.g. on more education opportunities or a more nutritious diet that has further positive flow-through effects on the family. I think this same education confounder also cross-applies to creating more artists and scientists. It's not at all clear to me that net higher population vs higher average education but smaller families would result in this.   

Many things have increasing returns to scale, and so are more efficient with larger populations 

Although I have some sympathy for the economies of scale arguments, I think depending on the country the efficiency effects of having a very young or rapidly growing population trade off against this in quite an unfavourable way. I also think there are less economies of scale in less connected and more rural settings. (E.g. things like electricity or water have limited scale in these locations.) I also expect these benefits to be quite small relative to the current factors we consider.  

It is of course possible that these benefits might be outweighed by the costs outlined in the report. But we cannot simply assume  that this is the case. 

When we are modelling cost-effectiveness on that sheet we are not aiming to take into account all of the externalities, but rather compare between interventions within family-planning, so you probably won’t find them there. We would use a different methodology to take them into account. But I take your point about the broader cost-benefit considerations. 

 As life is good for most people, this is a major advantage. They get to experience the joys of playing and growing and love and all the other good things in the world.

I do think you have hit on the really key assumption that can change one’s model of family planning though. “Life is good for most people”. We spend a considerable amount of time and work thinking about it and I agree that there is a lot of moral and epistemic uncertainty around the issue. It is probably the hardest thing to take into account when it comes to the assessment of moral weights of various outcomes. Depending on how one takes it, it can either result in 60 years equivalent of utility or disutility. However, I think again we have to look at the population very closely. Populations that do not have access to family planning information or counselling are more likely to have lower happiness levels. The country our last family planning charity chose to work in is Nigeria, where the average happiness goes up and down between 5 and 6 out of 10. Another country we recommend is Senegal, where the numbers are even lower. But I would say even this data is not precise enough as even within countries populations without access to family planning are typically far lower income than average. Also, the child whose existence would be prevented would be a child the family would prefer not to have, and this seems likely to have an effect on the average happiness of both the child and the family. We know the SD of happiness in Nigeria is pretty large ~2.5 (this variation is also typical across other locations). It's hard to know exactly what happiness that person would have over their life. It could easily be in the 3-4/10 range. If you think a year lived at 3-4 is net positive and something you would want to create more of, then indeed this is a huge factor against family planning. If you think its net negative then its a huge factor in favour. I think this is one of the key ethical questions. It comes down a lot more to do with positive vs negative leaning utilitarianism and how you view various weightings of subjective well being. This is a factor we considered a lot when thinking about it and although I think there are defendable different perspectives our team generally came down on the side of this effect being a net positive for family planning (some more info here). 

I do think we could have made improvements to the report to make some of these judgement calls more clear and bring people's attention to the factors that affect the analysis significantly. We do tend to discuss these considerations and outline when the results of the general judgement about family planning may differ according to some ethical or empirical differences in much greater depth with incubatees who are considering working in these areas and it’s indeed a complex issue, because of this we have typically found it it easier to discuss it in conversation rather than in writing. I agree that the report could have been better written to take that into account. 

Why EA meta, and the top 3 charity ideas in the space
  1. Your intuitions are right here that these skills are not unique to EA, and I am generally thinking of skills that are not exclusive to EA. I would expect this training organization not to create a ton of original content so much as to compile, organize and prioritize existing content. For example, the org might speak to ten people in EA operations roles, and based on that information find the best existing book and online course that if absorbed would set someone up for that role. So I see the advantage as being, more time to select and combine existing resources than an individual would have. I also think that pretty small barriers (e.g. price of a professional course, not having peers who share the same goals, lack of confidence that this content is useful for the specific jobs they are aiming for) currently stop people from doing professional training. And that the many common paths to professional training (e.g. PhD programs) are too slow to readily adapt to the needs of EA. I would generally expect the gaps in EA to move around quite a bit year to year. 
  2. I think certification or proof of ability is a non-trivial part. The second half of our Incubation Program puts the earlier training into action through working on projects that are publicly shareable and immediately useful for the charity. I would guess that a training focused organization would also have a component like a capstone project at the end of each course. 

I would also note that I think just giving EAs the ability to coordinate and connect with each other while learning seems pretty valuable. A lot of EAs are currently ruled out of top jobs in the space due to not being “trusted” or known by others in the EA movement. I think providing more ins for people to get connected seems quite valuable and would not happen with e.g. a local Toastmasters.

Lessons from my time in Effective Altruism

I think the majority of unusual empirical beliefs that came to mind were more in the longtermist space. In some ways these are unusual at even a deeper level than the suggested beliefs e.g. I think EAs generally give more credence epistemically to philosophical/a priori evidence, Bayesian reasoning, sequence thinking, etc.

If I think about unusual empirical beliefs Charity Entrepreneurship has as well, it would likely be something like the importance of equal rigor, focusing on methodology in general, or the ability to beat the charity market using research. 

In both cases these are just a couple that came to mind – I suspect there are a bunch more.

Lessons from my time in Effective Altruism

"I now believe that less work is being done by these moral claims than by our unusual empirical beliefs, such as the hinge of history hypothesis, or a belief in the efficacy of hits-based giving. " 

This is also a view I have moved pretty strongly towards. 

Why EA meta, and the top 3 charity ideas in the space

Thanks for this – I checked out the full list when the post went up. 

We will be researching increasing development aid and possibly researching getting money out of politics and into charity as our focus moves to more policy-focused research for our 2022 recommendations. 

We also might research epistemic progress in the future, but likely from a meta science-focused perspective.

We definitely considered non-Western EA when thinking through EA meta options, but ended up with a different idea for how to best make progress on it (see here).

For-profit companies serving emerging markets I see as a very interesting space but a whole different research year from EA meta. Maybe even outside of CE’s scope indefinitely.

I do not expect us to research Patient Philanthropy, Institutions for Future Generations, Counter-Cyclical Donation Timing or Effective Informational Lobbying in the near future. 

In general, I do not expect our research on EA meta to be exhaustive given the scope. I would be excited to see more ideas for EA meta projects, particularly ones with quick and clear feedback loops.

Why EA meta, and the top 3 charity ideas in the space

Indeed I have seen that post. I would be keen for more than one group to research this sort of area. I can also imagine different groups coming at it from different epistemic and value perspectives. I expect this research could be more than a full-time job for 5+ people.

Five New EA Charities with High Potential for Impact

Good question. We keep the information updated on room for funding on this page.

Why EA meta, and the top 3 charity ideas in the space

Indeed these sorts of issues will be covered in the deeper reports but it’s still valuable to raise them!

A really short answer to an important question: I would expect the research to be quite a bit deeper than the typical proposal – more along the lines of what Brian Tomasik did for wild animal suffering or Michael Plant did for happiness. But not to the point where the researchers found an organization themselves (as with Happier Lives Institute or Wild Animal Initiative). E.g. spending ~4 FT researcher months on a given cause area. 

I agree that a big risk would be that this org closes off or gives people the idea that “EA has already looked into that and it should not longer be considered”. In many ways, this would be the opposite of the goal of the org so I think would be important to consider when it’s being structured. I am not inherently opposed to researching and then ruling out ideas or cause areas, but I do think the EA movement currently tends to quickly rule out an area without thorough research and I would not want to increase that trend. I would want an org in this space to be really clear what ground they have covered vs not. For example, I like how GiveWell lays and out and describes their priority intervention reports.

What areas are the most promising to start new EA meta charities - A survey of 40 EAs

Our current plan is to publish a short description but not a full report of the top ideas we plan to recommend in the first week of Jan so possible applicants can get a sense before the deadline (Jan 15th).

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