Jon_Behar

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Should EA Buy Distribution Rights for Foundational Books?

Thanks for doing this, hadn't thought to use the Wayback machine. Really cool to see the quantitative perspective line up with our qualitative impressions!

Should EA Buy Distribution Rights for Foundational Books?

I took a look at the Goodreads data. Unfortunately it’s pretty messy and I don’t think it’ll be much help in understanding the popularity of the new book. Goodreads does distinguish between the different editions, but it’s clear from reading the reviews that some people are reviewing the old book but talking about the new one. And the interface won’t let me see total reviews across all copies by year, so we can’t see if that number has spiked.

Looking past the Goodreads data, I think it’s safe to say that the launch of the new edition was a success. TLYCS is on a much improved growth trajectory (including moving a record $18.2 million in 2020), new donors are telling us that they found us through the book (more so than prior to the relaunch), other organizations like GWWC are also seeing improvements they can trace to the book, etc. Some of this is discussed in TLYCS’s 2020 annual report, which just came out.

Of course some of this impact is because we released a new book, but I’m very confident that it helped a lot to make it free. It’s hard to believe that some people contributing impact weren’t enticed by the free offer and/or would have been put off by a financial cost. “Read this book” is an easier pitch than “buy this book.”

Owning the rights also gives us a lot of flexibility we wouldn’t have if we went the normal publishing route. We can do whatever we want in terms of cutting up the content into pieces to distribute via various channels, we can do translations on our own schedule, making future updates/additions to the ebook, etc.

My take is that owning the rights to foundational books or other IP has a lot of potential for EA. And for anyone considering this I'd say the earlier you figure out that you'll be giving the book away for free the better, as you'll need to have a distribution plan and may want to shape some of the content accordingly.

A Research Framework to Improve Real-World Giving Behavior

Sorry about that, fixed now. Thanks for the heads up!

Opportunity for EA orgs: $5k/year in ETH (tech setup required)

They want to stick with registered US charities for this initial round, to keep the grantmaking logistics simpler. 

I believe down the road, when FF has built up some grantmaking experience, they'd like to widen things up. 

Responses and Testimonies on EA Growth

TLYCS’s experience definitely suggests growth, not stagnation. Between 2014 and 2019, money moved increased at a compound annual growth rate of 75%. Web traffic did flatten out, but mostly after we started focusing more on offline fundraising.

Opportunity for EA orgs: $5k/year in ETH (tech setup required)

I asked my contact at Fugue Foundation about this, and here's their response: 

We list information about our corporate structure on our website at the link below. We are incorporated in Arizona and await word from the IRS regarding our 501c3 application. Indeed, as a private foundation, and one that specifically lists privacy protection as one of our core principles, we do try to maintain a certain distance with online identities. I will certainly speak with any of the organizations that are selected to receive the grant.

https://fuguefoundation.org/docs/mission.html#incorporation

What are the most common objections to “multiplier” organizations that raise funds for other effective charities?

Thanks to everyone who voted and commented! It was helpful to learn more about how EAs think about multiplier orgs, and I hope it was helpful to hear my perspective from inside one of those orgs. 

Here are my biggest takeaways from the discussion, apologies that it took me so long to post this:

  • Somebody is likely wrong: either multiplier orgs are pursuing strategies that don’t work, or those strategies do work and donors are missing out on leverage. If EAs can learn more about which statement is true, there’s a real opportunity for improvement. In theory there could be a middle ground where multiplier orgs are pursuing strategies that work at their current scale and marginal multiples are close to one, but it seems unlikely that all/most multiplier orgs fall into that category.
  • If you look at the history of multiplier orgs in EA, I think it’s clear that at least for some of them the model has worked. REG seems like a pretty clearcut case study of an organization that has spent very little money to move a lot of money to highly effective charities from donors who almost certainly never would have heard of those charities without REG.
  • By a large margin, people’s biggest objection to multiplier orgs is that they don’t trust the multipliers those organizations are reporting. People mentioned a variety of concerns about the reported numbers, including that they aren’t counterfactually adjusted and that they think the marginal return on new donations is likely to be lower than the historical average return. And this may create a reinforcing dynamic, where EAs aren’t excited about multiplier orgs because they get the sense that other EAs aren’t excited about them.
  • There are very high barriers to entry to getting a better understanding of the multiplier space (In other words, I think this area is quite vetting constrained.) There are a lot of different organizations, lots of different methodological considerations, and inconsistent reporting across multiplier orgs (e.g. money moved numbers may or may not be counterfactually adjusted). It would be hard enough for one person learn enough to make an informed decision; it’s completely unreasonable to expect everyone to learn this much on their own. (Note: it's not clear to me that comparing multiplier orgs is harder than, say, comparing movement building orgs; my sense is that both areas are vetting constrained.)
  • The most sophisticated potential funders for meta orgs (Open Phil and the EA Infrastructure Fund) have actually supported about a dozen different multiplier organizations. However, it’s unlikely that these two funders alone can support a thriving ecosystem of multiplier orgs, given that Open Phil only considers a narrow subset of multiplier orgs and that the Infrastructure Fund’s funding capacity is quite low relative to the what a thriving ecosystem would need. 
  • The multiplier ecosystem is diverse enough such that there may well be an organization out there that addresses your biggest concerns about the space. For example, if you’re worried that people might not keep the GWWC pledge, Founders Pledge’s legally binding pledge could be interesting. Conversely, if you’re worried that FP’s founders will give to ineffective charities, GWWC could be a good option. REG is extremely efficient but is relatively hard to scale, while TLYCS has a more scalable model but is willing to sacrifice efficiency in pursuit of that scale (i.e. TLYCS is more likely to pursue a strategy we think will cost $10 million and move $100 million [10x leverage] than we would be to pursue a strategy that would cost $1k and move $100k [100x leverage].) I’m not trying to argue here that one model is superior to the other, my point is that the universe of multiplier orgs is broad enough to appeal to a lot of different types of donors. 
  • I get the sense many EAs don’t realize just how terrible a “minimum viable product” is, and how significantly an MVP can be improved with dedicated work. In the context of multiplier organizations, I think there’s a misperception that a basic website with limited maintenance is good enough, and that this misperception drives the concerns people have about marginal impact being lower than average impact. The empirical evidence is at odds with the preference for MVP models, based on the experiences of orgs like RC Fwd, GWWC, and TLYCS. TLYCS is a pretty clear example because we essentially used the website + volunteer model from ~2009 through mid-2013, before switching to paid full time staff. When we made the switch, web traffic (which had been flat for 4 years) started increasing and continued to do so, and money moved has steadily grown ever since (and is probably >25x higher than it was in the MVP years). 

 

Outcomes I’d like to see going forward:

I’d love to see someone write up an overview of the multiplier space, similar to Larks’ annual AI Alignment Literature Review and Charity Comparison. Consolidating information would make it much easier for donors to engage with the space. Something as simple as a list of organizations with a few sentences about their work, their multiplier data, and links to more info would go a long way. (Ideally this would be done by someone who doesn’t work at a multiplier org; I’ll post this as a volunteer project on EA Work Club.)

I’d hope that overview would encourage more EAs dip their toes in the water by making a small donation to one or more multiplier orgs and/or subscribing to their mailing lists (I just did this to put some skin in the game). This is less about the actual money, and more about making it more likely you’ll stay informed about their work going forward. The more you do that, the more you’ll be able to make your own informed decision about whether their model is working.

A final note… While I’d love to see more people donating to multiplier orgs, I’d hate to see donors naively donating to the organization with the highest multiplier or otherwise incentivizing multiplier orgs to prioritize maximizing their short term multiplier. Ideally, both donors and organizations will prioritize strategies that maximize long run impact, and prioritize the magnitude of that long run impact (money moved – expenses) rather than the efficiency of that impact (money moved / expenses). For donors, I’d recommend asking 1) “do I believe in the strategy?” and 2) “do I believe the team can execute the strategy?”

A ranked list of all EA-relevant (audio)books I've read

There's also an EA classic available as an audiobook: The Live You Can Save (the fully updated 10th anniversary edition) is  freely available (in audiobook or ebook format) making it a book to share with people you think might find it interesting.

What are some potential coordination failures in our community?

Search engine optimization.

Based on my very limited understanding, links are critical for SEO (though not as important as a few years ago). So conventions like “EA blogs should generally have blogrolls (i.e. lists of links to related blogs)” or “references to organizations (e.g AMF) on the EA Forum should generally link to them” would probably help the entire community.

What are the most common objections to “multiplier” organizations that raise funds for other effective charities?

These sophisticated donors’ support of such a wide range of multiplier orgs supports the idea that there could be a lot of leverage out there to be had. If that’s true, it also has some interesting implications for the “it’s hard to get a job at an EA org” discussion that’s been going on for a while, most recently here.

Here's a simplified thought experiment. Let’s say you invested $1 million in the orgs listed above, allocated proportionally to their current size (not all that far off from what the infrastructure fund has actually done, but we’ll use stylized numbers to keep the math simple). Salaries are typically the biggest expense for multiplier orgs, so let’s say $800k flows through to hiring new people. Assume $100k/year per new person and that’s 8 new hires. If 75% of those jobs go to people in the EA community, that’s 6 EA’s getting the sorts of jobs that are immensely desireable and immensely scarce.

If the multiplier model really works, $1 million will be a small fraction of what’s needed to build a flourishing system multiplier orgs with models spanning research (e.g. GiveWell, ACE), fundraising for targeted causes (e.g. TLYCS, OFTW), fundraising for targeted donors (e.g. Founders Pledge and REG), and country-level organizations that provide tax deductible giving (e.g. RC Forward, EA Netherlands). If you built that ecosystem, you’d quickly create dozens of new roles. So if the multiplier model works at scale, you’ll move a ton of incremental money while also making real headway on the issue of EA jobs being scarce. (To be clear, I don’t think we should fund multiplier orgs so EAs will be able to get the jobs they want, I’m just saying that would be a nice added benefit if the multiplier model works and another reason to investigate whether it does work.)

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