A summary of my donation decisions of 2018. Please see my previous posts from the year for more reasoning behind the tentative conclusions I draw here.
I’ve written about my general thoughts on prioritization in more depth earlier this year. This is a summary of the donations that have followed from that for me.
One of the themes of my in-depth prioritization post has been uncertainty over how optimistic we should be about being able to influence the future intentionally. And that analysis even explicitly ignored implications of the simulation hypothesis, namely, in slogan form, that most simulations may be run for a purpose and discontinued when they’ve served that purpose so that most of them are vastly more short-lived than the root universe. So if we’re in a simulation, then chances are that it is also comparatively short-lived.
If further research makes me more pessimistic about this potential, I expect to prioritize the animal rights space more highly since it seems that it is a space where short-term impact can be found and where a lot of very valuable preparatory work has already been invested. By “short term,” I mean in this context something like one or several centuries. I currently expect this short-term impact to be about two orders of magnitude more cost-effectively realizable than short-term impact through GiveWell top charities.1
I continue to recommend Animal Equality by default to donors who had never been exposed to effective altruist thought before. It strikes a good balance between being high impact and convincing to pitch in ten seconds, and it has the added benefit that I can easily transition from the pitch to a conversation about how to select charities using the research of Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE). Their Stuttgart office is also very conveniently located. I like to experiment with alternative formats – supporting Wild Animal Suffering Research (WASR) and the Foundational Research Institute (FRI) – at smaller conventions but don’t see sufficiently practical alternatives yet to be worth the risk of another switch. (We switched from my own charity to the Against Malaria Foundation and then to Animal Equality.)
Generally, I consider it a solid approach to short-term donation investment to follow the top charity recommendations of ACE, which will soon be renewed.
Among ACE’s standout charities, Open Cages strikes me as an unusually underfunded organization, though I don’t know whether that may have changed over the past year. I feel similarly positively about most other standout charities.
ACE itself is also an organization that I prioritize highly within the space. They’ve received a lot of unwarranted public criticism over the past year, so that I followed their fundraisers more closely to see whether I need to help fill a gap. Such waiting is not something I recommend in general since it makes fundraising unnecessarily slow and unpredictable for the charities. As detailed below, I’ve applied a better methodology when I supported FRI earlier this year.
Another great benefit of ACE is that they can investigate factors such as their criteria 6 and 7, “Does the charity have strong leadership and a well-developed strategic vision?” and “Does the charity have a healthy culture and a sustainable structure?” While the strategic vision may be similarly possible for outsiders to determine as most other of their criteria are (though also at great time cost), evaluating these two crucial criteria may require getting to know people at the organization personally or even working or volunteering for them. Such involvement would be prohibitively costly for most potential individual donors.
One organization that I wish to highlight that has not yet received the standout designation but that I’ve seen put out very interesting research over the past year or two is the Sentience Institute in the US, founded by Kelly Witwicki and Jacy Reese, the latter of whom has just published a book.
But I’m not quite pessimistic enough to prioritize such short-term campaigns just yet, so I also support organizations that seek to have a more long-term impact, by which I mean millennia and more. (After this stage, if we continue to exist, our ability to communicate with other civilizational clusters will likely deteriorate because of the distances between them, so that we’ll increasingly lose the leverage over the future that we now still have.)
I count as suffering risks not only those that result from a catastrophic event but also gradual developments that involve an exacerbation of suffering. Therefore there is really a substantive overlap between all spaces in this point, for example due to an exacerbation of animal suffering from space colonization.
Suffering risks, according to this wide definition, are for my moral system almost ipso facto the top priority, so the more interesting question is whether the particular activities that I can fund in this space are worthwhile.
The Foundational Research Institute (FRI) has some exciting new ideas in its pipeline that I want to make sure will come to fruition. At this point, its funding situation seems more secure, but earlier in the year this was much less certain because it was contingent on a few events that are influenced by randomness.
These events were mediated by donors who wanted to fund FRI. If these events turn out one way, the donors would support FRI sufficiently. Otherwise they would not.
It would’ve been easy to wait for these donors to either make their donation or not and then to decide on the basis of that information whether I wanted to donate, but that would first be a defection against them because I’d be unfairly exploiting their informational generosity and would secondly, over a longer time, encourage mutual waiting and leaving charities unfunded. (I’d always get to see all my favorite charities funded while they may not care about the charity that I fund from the money I don’t need to donate to FRI thanks to their donation and they don’t get to fund their other favorites.)
Ideally, I would’ve liked to resolve that by donating as much as they did in expectation, but that would’ve been hard to determine, I wasn’t privy to much of the necessary data, and I’m probably not rich enough either, so I needed a different solution. It also needed to be simple to make it more likely that it represented a decent Shelling point because I couldn’t communicate with the other donors. (I don’t know who they are.) My solution was to determine how much I would donate if it turned out that the funding gap had remained, and then to donate half of that right away and only make the second half contingent on the donation decision of the others.
Hence my decision to fund FRI with another four-digit donation (in CHF) in early 2018.
The charities in this space that I’m aware of are Wild Animal Suffering Research (WASR), Animal Ethics, and Utility Farm. WASR seems to be fairly well funded at the moment and I know relatively little about Utility Farm, so my attention has been mostly to Animal Ethics in recent months. Generally, they all seem to be so well coordinated that it may make sense to apply some lessons from my donor coordination methodology and support the space rather than the individual charity by filling funding gaps wherever they open. When several people coordinate in this fashion, all organizations can flourish and the impact is fungible between all donors or employees.
The recent focus on incentivizing academic research into welfare biologoy seems valuable to me. Animal Ethics has spearheaded it. Don’t be fooled by their strangely anonymous and sometimes rather dry website – they used to prioritize outreach to animal activists also through leafletting but have updated away from that approach. The leafletting report of Animal Charity Evaluators (basically, there’s still no evidence that leafletting has a net positive effect) and the general trend toward reaching out to thought leaders may have been causal factors. Animal Ethics’ updated budget for 2018 also reflects a strong shift away from the probably ineffective campaigns.
I’m very happy about this development but I also worry that none of the organizations in the space seem to base their prioritization on the important criterion which interventions can plausibly continue to have a positive effect on wild animals after human civilizational collapse. This omission may be owed to the very early stage of their work where capacity building is still a much greater concern, but even so I’ve seen disproportionately specific work come out of these organizations already, so they could just as well have looked into the very important long-term effects of possible interventions instead.
That said, I’ve supported WASR and Animal Ethics with four-digit donations (in CHF). (The first of which I transferred last year, for tax reasons, but took from this year’s donation budget.) I don’t currently prioritize this area anymore, but that may easily change again.
Over the course of the year, I’ve noticed that I have great difficulty deciding how to allocate my donations because the existing research on prioritization leaves me not only with as many preliminary questions as preliminary answers but with rather disorganized questions too.
My personal focus in my free time has therefore been to develop structures to organize and trade off the most important considerations in the space. Whether this is the most important thing to do is itself an open question, but it seems at least plausible to me, so that I want to invest the remainder of my donation budget to help researchers in this area off the ground.
So far, I’m aware of two groups in this space that might accept donations, the Global Priorities Institute (GPI) and Rethink Priorities (RP). I’ll wait to learn more about their respective funding gaps and update this post. So far, my guess is that GPI is much better funded than RP.
In most matching fundraisers it’s intransparent whether the matching donor or donors have a more or less explicit donation budget and will donate the same amount to a similar intervention whether or not the match ceiling is reached. Some matching fundraisers are set up differently so that the counterfactuals are transparent, but as a general rule, I ignore the matching aspect of matching fundraisers and advise charities and matching donors to champion transparency in this department. See also “Matching-donation fundraisers can be harmfully dishonest” and “Donation matching survey results.”
I’ve often split my donations between two to four recipients, which may not make any sense, but then again also doesn’t seem very costly.2 This is of course only true if the alternative where to select one at random. If I actually had a preference between them, I should donate all to the top favorite organization because in that case the subjective expected costs would otherwise be significant.3
The actual split above is because I don’t donate in any particular rhythm and changed my opinion a few times over the course of the year because I learned more and because the landscape changed. But even now I would probably select at random between two organizations if I don’t split my donation between them.4
My reasons include improving coordination (see the link above) and signaling5 (which I think is honest and transparent6), but I suspect that there is a strong emotional component where I’m too excited to resist supporting a very promising project. (But I would if I thought it came at a sufficient cost.)
I’m holding back on donating quite as much as I set out to donate because I don’t see any group that does exactly the things that I think it would be most important to do. If it emerges, I want to be able to support it, or otherwise found it myself.
That’s in base ten. In base two it’s six to seven orders of magnitude. ↩
The processing of the extra donation by operations and accounting at charities may cost some CHF 10–50 or so depending on how often it has to be forwarded and how much of the process is automated. ↩
I’ve also made exploratory donations of CHF 500 or less to signal that I’m seriously considering supporting an organization and it’s worth some staff time to engage with me more so I can learn more about it. I’m ignoring these here. ↩
The expected value given infinite intelligence, perfect rationality, complete knowledge, and no limits in time is probably not anywhere close to equal, but I don’t have those. In fact I have very little time. That leads to high variance, and then I can’t tell two options apart anymore. ↩
If I’m a charity and ten people apply for jobs and ten people ask questions about the organization to decide whether to donate to me, and all of these questions will take a lot of time to answer, then I will want to decide who is really serious about it and who merely wants to fulfill job center requirements or wants to donate CHF 10 if they’re convinced. Absent more information, I treat all requests equally, but if a high-quality cover letter, someone’s reputation, or an up-front donation tells me that they’re serious, I can allocate my time more efficiently. I want to give such costly, honest signals and hope it will enhance our internal coordination. ↩
Tom Sittler writes: “From a rule-consequentialist perspective, it may be better to always be fully transparent, and not to make donations decisions based on how they will affect what others think of us.” If this is true, it would be a decisive reasons for me not to split, but I think my approach is completely transparent according to my rule “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that everyone had known all along that you would act that way.” Also the expected value of deciding via unbiased coin flip and splitting equally is equal, so splitting is actually more transparent in that one extra organization can update on it. ↩