Michael Townsend

Researcher @ Giving What We Can
Working (0-5 years experience)
1447Seaforth NSW 2092, AustraliaJoined Oct 2018


Researcher at Giving What We Can.


Thanks for writing this!

How much easier/more difficult do you think it would be to evaluate these interventions from a subject well-being point of view, like the kind HLI use

My intuition is that these interventions might be undervalued when looking at effects in terms of the economic/health outcomes that GW/OP use, because I expect they miss a substantial amount of the benefits these interventions might bring.[1]

  1. ^

    More exactly: any framework is going to only capture a fraction of the outcomes of any given interventions. I suspect that the benefits of interventions protecting against VAWG are going to have a smaller fraction of the benefits captured by the health/economic outcomes GW/OP use, than interventions like distributing bednets, cash transfers, and deworming. This is purely intuition though! 

Hi Ludwig, thanks for raising some of these issues around governance. I work on the research team at Giving What We Can, and I’m responding here specifically to the claims relating to our work. There are a few factual errors in your post, and other areas I’d like to add additional context on. I’ll touch on:

  1. Our recommendations (we do disclosure conflicts of interest). 
  2. The Longtermism Fund specifically (payout reports are about to be published).
  3. Our relationship with EVF (we set our own strategy, independently fundraise, and have little to do with most organisations under EVF). 

#1 Recommendations

With respect to our recommendations: They are determined by our inclusion criteria which we regularly link to (for example, on our recommended charities page and on every charity page). As outlined in our inclusion criteria, we rely on our trusted evaluators to determine our giving recommendations. Longview Philanthropy and EA Funds are two of the five trusted evaluators we relied on this giving season. We explicitly outline our conflict of interests with both organisations in our trusted evaluators page.

We want to provide the best possible giving recommendations to our donors. Unfortunately, given we are very connected to the effective giving ecosystem — and as you highlighted, part of EVF — this is regularly in tension with avoiding conflicts of interest. We did our best this giving season to highlight these conflicts, and justify why we chose the evaluators we did, but we want to do better next year (we touch on this in our most recent announcement of our new research direction). 

#2 The Longtermism Fund

The fund will disclose all of its spending in regular payout reports. Its first report will be released shortly (by the end of today! It’s been in production over the past weeks).

As shared in our announcement of the fund, the fund is a collaboration between Giving What We Can and Longview. We (GWWC) are responsible for the communications around the fund; Longview are responsible for the grantmaking and research.

We also publicly committed to sharing reports outlining the funds grants in our announcement of the fund.

#3 Relationship with EVF

Giving What We Can initially helped create EVF’s predecessor (CEA) back in 2011, alongside 80,000 Hours — read more about its history here. In short, EVF currently provides GWWC with:

  • Operational support (e.g., finance, legal, HR) via EV Ops. 
  • Board of Trustees (of which each organisation has historical had its own “Active Trustee” who has worked closely with the respective organisation’s leader on strategy and management). 
  • Shared privacy policy (this facilitates a single sign-on for GWWC, EA Forum and EA Global). 
  • Some limited shared communications and facilities (e.g., some shared Slack channels, Notion spaces, and access to Trajan House—though nobody at GWWC currently uses this).

Importantly, GWWC independently:

  • Fundraises for its core expenses (i.e., we independently seek funding to pay for our staff and costs). 
  • Sets its own strategy (we work as a team consulting GWWC members and other stakeholders to decide how we can have the most impact), does its own hiring, etc.  See our most recent strategy update  where we were seeking community feedback on our plans.
  • Independently choose its approach to giving recommendations — we receive no benefit for recommending organisations within EVF; historically, we err on the side of avoiding this due to perceived/potential conflicts of interest). 

Happy to clarify any of the above.

You might be interested in donating to the Patient Philanthropy Fund.

It's at the stage where it makes small grants (~1% of its total portfolio per year) but is primarily investing its funds with the aim of growing them.

I think fees make sense for investment funds because it increases their incentive to make a profit for their customers. But I don't think a straightforward fee for charitable funds would increase their incentive to have an impact (though perhaps it would increase their incentive to convince donors they are having an impact - but this is still a 'trust based arrangement').

That said, I take your point about the problems with trust based arrangements! I feel in the ideal world, charitable funds are funded proportional to the quality of their grants. To some extent, this is what already happens (often these funds are themselves funded by a different funder after conducting some kind of evaluation), but it's often not public. I'm hoping that Giving What We Can's work evaluating the evaluators will help provide additional accountability and help donors make a more informed choice about which funds to trust.

I agree that providing accountability to evaluators is a real challenge. I don't have much more to add right now, other than we really hope our work will help!

As for your last point -- at least from a simple expected-value perspective,  I'm not sure you should care too much about other lottery participant's values. The idea is that by donating to the lotter, you're not increasing the expected amount of money other participants influence. Of course, there could be other reasons to not want to participate in lotteries with people whose values you don't share.

Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

I think there’s a strong theoretical case in favour of donation lotteries — Giving What We Can just announced our 2022/2023 lottery is open!

I see the case in favour of donation lotteries as relying on some premises that are often, but not always true:

  • Spending more time researching a donation opportunity increases the expected value of a donation.
  • Spending time researching a donation opportunity is costly, and a donation lottery allows you to only need to spend this time if you win.
  • Therefore, all else equal, it’s more impactful (in expectation) to have a 1% chance of spending 100 hours to decide where $100,000 should go than it is to have a 100% chance spending 1 hour to decide where $1,000 to go.
  • And donation lotteries provide a mechanism to do the more impactful thing.

Some of these don’t hold for many donors, and there are some additional considerations which undermine the value of lotteries:

  • Some donors may not feel confident that they can do much better with more time invested. They may even feel averse about the amount of money they’d affect if they won(even if ex-ante they influenced $X either way). They stand less to gain from donations lotteries because of this.
  • Choosing to donate to a donation lottery is not costless. For example, it may take a similar amount of time/resources to evaluate which fund they think is highest impact, as it would to understand and trust donation lotteries. This takes away some of the advantage of a donor lottery.
  • For some donors, there’s there may be more advocacy potential in giving to a fund supported by a reputable evaluator, than a donation lottery.
    • I’d like to flag that I’m a little more reticent about putting too much weight on this consideration. Leaning too much into ‘advocacy potential’ (rather than just doing what’s straightforwardly effective) seems slippery. But I think it’d be a mistake to ignore this consideration.
  • A substantial amount of our traffic comes from people who are completely unfamiliar with effective altruism (e.g.., people who just googled “Best charities” or just used our “How Rich Am I?” calculator) and I think funds are a better option for most of this audience (though perhaps for EA Forum users, it’s a different story, so I really appreciate pushback here!).

Overall, I think if Giving What We Can changed its default recommendation from funds to donation lotteries, we’d be having less impact. 

Though we see funds as the best default option, we would like to provide additional guidance on when it makes sense to choose other options. I’ve made a small edit to the version of this post on our website to acknowledge that donor lotteries could be a compelling alternative. My sense is that donor lotteries would be a better option than funds for someone who:

  • Understands the arguments in favour of a donor lottery, and also the mechanisms for how it works.
  • Would be able to donate cost-effectively if they spent more time on their decision.
  • Would be able to spend that time in the event of winning.

I also have a few thoughts about this comment in particular:

For example, I think it would be healthy if funds were accountable to a smaller number of randomly selected donors who had the time to investigate more deeply, rather than spending <10% as much time and being more likely to pick based on a quick skim of fund materials and advertising/social dynamics/etc. And it seems like there's no way to escape from that regress by having GWWC evaluate evaluators, since then the donor must evaluate GWWC's evaluations. From this perspective a donor lottery is really like a "free lunch" that's hard to get in other ways.

Speaking personally, I’d also prefer fewer donors conducting deeper investigations of funds than a larger number conducting more shallow investigations. I think this is a very good consideration in favour of donation lotteries.

Speaking on behalf of Giving What We Can: though our work “evaluating the evaluators” will inform our recommended funds and charities (to provide a stronger basis for our recommendations) we are also motivated to make it easier for donors to choose which evaluators and funds they rely on by providing resources on the values implicit in their methodology + pointing to some potential strengths/weaknesses of their methodology.

Put another way, our vision for next year is to help:

  • Provide strong default options for donors, with a reasonable justification for those defaults. (i.e., they’re supported by a trusted evaluator who we investigated).
  • Provide the tools for donors to choose the best fund or charity given their values and worldview.

Really cool that you and your friend are meeting up on NYE to do this :)!

RE how to structure your thinking, Giving What We Can's recommended charities page and the donation platform contains a few additional charities and funds. We also generally recommend giving via funds (though I think there are some benefits to trying to do your own research!).  

Hi Vasco, great question :).

There are a few considerations that might be relevant here:

  • A lot here hinges on the extent to which donations to the LTFF are fungible with large funders (like Open Philanthropy). To the extent it does funge, then your donation might end up being as cost-effective as their last dollar, regardless of which year you give it. 
  • Another point: the LTFF at all points likely funds everything above a certain 'bar' of cost-effectiveness. But that bar should change based on the best information at the time (i.e., the bar might lower when there is a lot of funding available; it might increase when there's not; it may also change depending on how 'on fire' the world appears to be). I'm much less confident about this point, but it makes me think that, to the extent you trust the grantmakers to be well-informed, you shouldn't worry too much about the timing of your donation. They always have the option of saving it -- I don't believe they have a requirement to disberse all their grants each year. 

Hey Bruce, these are some great considerations! 

The Patient Philanthropy Fund (PPF) is a fantastic option if you find the arguments behind patient philanthropy compelling. In my view, one of the biggest arguments against patient philanthropy is the idea that, in practice, you may fail to donate the money after all. I like that the PPF is removes yourself from the equation here. I also like that there are also (what seem to me to be) reasonable governance-mechanisms to ensure that the money will end up being donated. 

That said, I don't have a strong view about the merits of patient philanthropy compared to giving now. You can read some of the arguments here. I (very tentatively) take the view that on the margin, philanthropists are already saving too much, and are failing to sufficiently scale up their giving. This makes me think that marginal patient philanthropy is less cost-effective than marginal donations. But... I'm not sure this is the right way to think about this. There could be something different about the PPF (which is saving intentionally, and with an attempt to do so wisely) compared to most philanthropists who are saving more haphazardly. 

You mentioned something else - whether to save some % now and give some % now. I think that's a good question. My hunch here is that it's exceedingly unlikely that a mixed portfolio is maximising expected value. Happy to say more about this if you're interested, but this has been a long comment already :) thanks for the great points.

I love reading the responses in this thread :)!

I'm also a GWWC pledger, and throughout most of this year I've donated on a monthly basis to:

I'm now updating this to also include the Longtermism Fund.

I also reserve some funds to do more active (very small-scale) grantmaking. For example, I supported the 0.7% campaign and have made several smaller contributions to support local EA community building work. 

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