Michael Townsend

Researcher @ Giving What We Can
Working (0-5 years experience)
1192Seaforth NSW 2092, AustraliaJoined Oct 2018


Researcher at Giving What We Can.


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. 

Excited to see this :) 

I particularly want to highlight that anyone in Sydney who might use the office should apply!

I downvoted this because it is implicitly encouraging highly uncooperative and illegal behaviour, without having:

  • much self awareness about how uncooperative/illegal this would be, and
  • a serious engagement with the downsides of doing this (only gesturing at 'backlash'). 

Though this was posted was a question, its analysis made it a very leading one, and it violated a norm I think there is (or at least think there should be) of being extremely cautious around advocating for doing uncooperative and illegal things (like throwing food at expensive paintings). Perhaps if it were just a question, I wouldn't downvote it, but even then I think it would be appropriate to at least show a decent attempt at generating reasons why you wouldn't want to do this kind of thing.

That said, here's my answer:

  • I have a general prior that behaving uncooperatively often has costs that aren't worth paying. In this case, this could: 
    • tarnish EA's reputation across the board
    • making growing the movement more difficult
    • associate many of its other robustly good but sometimes counter-intuitive suggestions (like "donating to effective charities is a really great way to do good!") with illegal behaviour.  
  • And in the case of AI, it's particularly difficult because:
    • what action would it be encouraging, exactly? in the case of the Vietnam war/climate, it's likely clearer what the demand is. I worry if the demand was 'generally be more safety-conscious!' then (assuming it doesn't completely backfire, making being 'safety-conscious' a less desirable thing) I think it's more likely to lead to people making 'safety-conscious noises' than actionable change.
    • the arguments for why AI is a risk are far more complicated/less viscerally appealing than the arguments against the Vietnam war/climate change (at least now there's a greater consensus around climate issues). This kind of behaviour therefore seems more likely to be interpreted as wacky and fanatical. Whereas I take it the path to impact here is signalling moral seriousness. 
    • other reasons specific to AI around being seen as uncooperative (imagine if AGI labs became nervous to hire people associated with EA). 

I appreciate this is your first post/question - I really don't intend this to be discouraging of asking questions/participating on the Forum! It's a norm on the forum to explain downvotes, and I wrote this because I thought it'd be helpful to you/others to explain why I (and perhaps some others) downvoted this.

All the best,


Thanks for sharing this! What's the basis for believing this is inspired by WWOTF? I couldn't see anything about this after clicking the link. 

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