I don't write about it much on this blog, because it it's slightly awkward to talk about, and I'm a small little mind that isn't used to fighting against hyperbolic discounting. But I remain committed to donating at least 10% of my income to the organizations that I think best make the universe a better place, and to talking about it on this blog. Here are my thoughts for 2017.
These reflect a relatively small amount of thought, reading and discussion with people in the Effective Altruism community, and effectively no independent research. I don't expect that I'm particularly advantaged in evaluating charities, and so my opinion-forming strategy this year has mostly been to seek out the opinions of better-advantaged friends who I believe share my values, ask for their thoughts and reasons, and attempt to understand them.
However, I want to support a culture of sharing and building on each others' opinions, and to that end, I'm sharing my thoughts on my donations for this year, to create common knowledge about organizations that I believe deserve support and to share considerations to which I am sympathetic or find persuasive.
Disclosure: Some of the friends who have helped me form my opinions here work for, or are on the boards of, some of the charities I'm giving to.
I discuss tax considerations unique to 2017 (1a) and logistics for donating (1b), my general approach to identifying charities (2), the specific charities I'm supporting this year (3a, 3b, summary), and further reading in the form of evaluators' reports and personal writeups (4).
To many people, the 2017 tax environment gives larger incentives to donate than will 2018's. For some people, these are small; for others they can be quite large. (None of following is tax, legal investment advice.)
Tax rates are dropping slightly, but this is mostly a small effect; changes to the standard deduction and treatment of state and local taxes are worth understanding, and may significantly affect the effective tax advantage of donating in 2017 vs 2018. Ben Kuhn's 2014 posts on Donation bunching for tax savings and Giving away money: a guide are still great in their basic points; their math is slightly changed by the standard deduction rising to $12k, deductions for state taxes being capped at $10k, and rates generally coming / bracket thresholds going up.
Your situation may vary, but no matter the amount you're donating or the causes you're supporting, consider making any donations that you plan on making in 2018 in 2017 instead, either by donating a correspondingly larger amount in 2017, or by setting up a Donor Advised Fund (which I'll explain next).
Due to some details specific to my situation, my marginal tax rates are dropping quite a lot in 2018, and I've decided to donate as much in 2017 as logistically feasible.
I'm donating all my present net worth (apart from a small amount of emergency savings, and some illiquid investments) to a personal Donor Advised Fund that I set up last week, in order to maximize my 2017 deductions. I used Vanguard Charitable, as I use Vanguard for my personal investments (and this makes transfers of stock easy), but Fidelity and Schwab's DAFs are also easy to set up and well-recommended.
Here's an example of how a DAF works:
- I open an account, "The Ross Rheingans-Yoo Fund", at Vanguard Charitable. I am the 'advisor' of the Fund, though not its owner (it's owned by Vanguard Charitable, a charitable organization).
- I donate assets (cash, appreciated stock/mutual fund shares, and any more exotic assets I care to) to The Ross Rheingans-Yoo Fund, and deduct those donations from my 2017 tax bill.
- At any later time, I can 'advise' the Fund to make a grant to a charity that I specify. So long as the specified organization is actually a charity, Vanguard Charitable will make a grant as advised. Even though I have control over where the dollars are going, this isn't considered a donation from me, since I've already turned the assets over to a charitable fund (and taken my deduction at that earlier time).
The structure of "donate now; decide later" is a especially good fit for 2017 -- even if you don't know which causes you'll want to support in the future, you can commit to donating many years' worth of donations now, take your deduction, and sort out the grants in the future.
DAFs generally have minimum amounts to open and for further contributions, and minimum grant sizes:
|Fidelity||$5k min.||no min.?||$50 min.|
|Schwab||$5k min.||$500 min.||$50 min.|
|Vanguard||$25k min.||$5k min.||$500 min.|
(You don't need an investment account with the same company to open a DAF, though transferring stock within the same company is often easier.)
Setting up a Vanguard DAF took me less than 15 minutes (plus the time to mail a check); I expect other providers' processes are similarly easy. If you're pretty sure that you'll be donating >$5k somewhere within the next several years (especially if you don't know where yet), you should strongly consider just setting one up.
(Incidentally, a DAF can make it easier to donate appreciated stock or mutual fund shares -- which saves you from paying any capital gains taxes on the donated shares -- to a single account, and then split the proceeds between whatever organizations you like. Donating long-held (>1yr) stock or other capital assets can be a significant tax savings, as you can take a deduction of the same size if you had sold the stock and donated the proceeds, but also don't pay any capital gains taxes. Making this process easier is a nice perk of having a DAF.)
Historical notes, since I missed writing them up at the time:
In 2015, I donated 9% of my adjusted gross income to GiveWell for regranting to its top charities, and 1% to support GiveWell's operating expenses. (At the time, GiveWell's recommended marginal allocation was 100% to the Against Malaria Foundation.)
In 2016, I donated 10% of my adjusted gross income to GiveWell for unrestricted use. (At the time, GiveWell's recommended marginal allocation was 75% to the Against Malaria Foundation and 25% to the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative.)
I'm interested in using my dollars in the way that makes the most good possible. One difficulty is that I don't know how to weigh various types of arguments about how to identify "most": I'm not sure know how to weigh (a) scientific evidence about specific interventions against (b) convincing arguments about important-seeming causes which can't be studied quantitatively or (c) claims about meta-opportunities to grow the number of effective altruists in the world, turning my $1 into >$1 of (discounted) future donations.
I'm also uncertain about precisely what 'good' is; specifically, I'm not sure how much I care about (a) humans living today in comparison to (b) humans living a long time in the future and (c) non-human animals. (To be clear, I care about each of these groups; I'm just not sure how to prioritize and balance their needs, given my limited resources.)
One thing that I'm not very confused about is how to value different groups of humans today -- I stand by the belief that all human lives are valuable, and that I want to make the most lives the most better; this means that who I support when I help humans living today is driven primarily by who can be most easily helped with the fewest dollars (since that's what makes my limited funds make the most good possible). I hold the same position with regard to humans the same distance in the future.
I'm less certain about how I value non-human animals of different species, specifically regarding whether (and how much) I care more about helping animals with more capacity for complex experiences. (This is pretty much what drives my uncertainty about how I value humans vs animals in the first place.)
In addition to my various axes of uncertainty, I'm making made the conscious decision to skew my giving choices towards more direct work (rather than only meta-EA organizations) and toward more immediate interventions (rather than those only focusing on the far future). Even in cases where I'm not convinced that more direct, or more immediate, interventions are superior right now, I want my decisions to cash out to some solid levels, to provide some backstop against recursive spirals and other kinds of meta-instability.
To break my decision paralysis (and to avoid too much anchoring my future selves to a cached version of my decision), I've split my 2017 donation into (a)"small" donations to express my support of some giving opportunities that I think are excellent, and which I want to retain a feeling of personal investment in, but which I do not believe are the best bets for most good per dollar, and (b) "large" donations to put the bulk of my direct resources behind the very few interventions that I think are the best bets for most good per dollar.
Small donation to GiveWell (unrestricted funds), fighting global poverty to help humans living today.
In past years, I've primarily donated to GiveWell for regranting to their top charities, as I've been impressed by the quality and the rigor of their investigations into charities in the area of global poverty. I remain convinced that, among organizations working directly to make life better for humans living today, GiveWell's top charities are some of the best-researched, highest-impact "sure bets". My lean away from GiveWell and its recommendations is not driven by an opinion that their work is any less dependable or exciting than it has been historically; rather, it is driven by my changing ideas about what the most important problems are or might be.
As in the past, I've made my donation to GiveWell with no restriction on its use, as I trust GiveWell's discretion to direct it to support necessary GiveWell operations and/or regrant the remainder to their top charities. Their current recommendation is that the marginal donor support the Against Malaria Foundation (70%) and the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (30%). I feel excellent about supporting these organizations again, and would be even more happy if GiveWell decides that my dollars could be better spent somewhere better instead -- say, if they updated their opinion of another one of their top charities or standout charities fighting global poverty.
Small donation to The Humane League, supporting non-human animal welfare.
I've been impressed by the scale of THL's victories in corporate campaigns, leveraging a relatively light budget in a short time ($3mln over ~2 years since receiving significant OpenPhil grants) to achieve large-scale commitments to concrete improvements in farmed chicken welfare from major food service corporations.
In their 2017 charity recommendations, Animal Charity Evaluators writes about THL:
The Humane League has built an especially effective corporate outreach department that has achieved substantial progress for millions of animals over the past year, often through collaborative campaigns with other advocacy groups. Additionally, they have helped create the Open Wing Alliance, a global coalition of animal advocacy organizations with the potential to scale their effective strategies around the world. They’ve shown consistent growth in their expansion of local offices and international branches, and now have strong leadership guiding Humane League Labs—where they are aiming to produce meaningful research to help animal advocacy charities. (...)
I don't consider myself particularly informed about the differences between ACE's top charities -- Animal Equality, The Good Food Institute, and The Humane League -- but prefer a single donation to one of the three to splitting my animal-welfare donation, to avoid logistical hassle.
My THL donation includes a $1,000 donation I made as part of Facebook's Giving Tuesday promotion.
I considered directing a fraction of my donation for animal welfare to Animal Charity Evaluators to support their work that led me to my decision, but it appears that they have little room for more funding in the immediate term, so I have not.
Large donation to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, making better lives for humans in the future.
I'm far from certain, but my best guess for the most important problem facing us today is in lowering the probability that powerful artificial intelligence agents with goals misaligned with human flourishing are developed or allowed to develop. MIRI is one of the few organizations rising to this task, and along the way has cashed out pieces of their work into concretely useful contributions to the project of making humanity better; from Zvi Mowshowitz's donation writeup:
The paper that convinced OpenPhil to increase its grant to MIRI was about Logical Induction. That paper was impressive and worth understanding, but even more impressive and valuable in my eyes is MIRI’s work on Functional Decision Theory. This is vital to creating an AGI that makes decisions, and has been invaluable to me as a human making decisions. It gave me a much better way to understand, work with and explain how to think about making decisions...
MIRI does basic research into how to think. We should expect such research to continue to pay large and unexpected dividends, even ignoring its impact on AI Safety. (...)
To support similar work at another promising organization, I'm also making a small donation to the Future of Humanity Institute. The work that most excites me from FHI is their Governance of AI Program, which is considering how geopolitical and economic factors surrounding the initial development of transformative AI affect the resulting world outcomes.
I don't have very strong opinions on the relative effectiveness of MIRI and FHI at this time.
Large donation to the Centre for Effective Altruism, supporting efforts to grow the effective altruism community.
Of all of the meta-EA organizations, I've had the most extensive personal contact with present or soon-to-be officers and employees of CEA. I mention this not because I find it a good way to choose an organization to support, but to contextualize it when I claim: They include some of the most thoughtful, effective, clear-minded people I could hope to have working on growing the EA community.
Promoting effective altruism is no worthy goal for its own sake, but I believe (based largely on conversations with people I trust -- about both general considerations and specific projects) that there are significant returns to be had in supporting the growth of the movement now, and that CEA has the organizational capacity to (1) deploy funding to resolve obstacles tying up significantly larger sources of funding and sources of value and (2) effectively reach potentially sympathetic people not yet aligned with EA.
My expectation (formed on my own guesses and rough calculations) is that, within 18 months, the bulk of the dollars that I donate to CEA will be applied to create opportunities for EA projects or fix problems tying up value to EA projects of greater worth than direct support would have counterfactually accomplished.
My CEA donation includes a $1,000 donation I made as part of Facebook's Giving Tuesday promotion.
Summary (and links to donation pages):
- Small donation to the Future of Humanity Institute, making better lives for humans in the future.
- Small donation to GiveWell (unrestricted funds; likely regranting to 70% Against Malaria Foundation and 30% Schistosomiasis Control Initiative), fighting global poverty to help humans living today.
- Small donation to The Humane League, supporting non-human animal welfare.
- Large donation to the Centre for Effective Altruism, supporting efforts to grow the effective altruism community.
- Large donation to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, making better lives for humans in the future.
Charity evaluators' reports:
- GiveWell | Our top charities for giving season 2017
- OpenPhil | Suggestions for Individual Donors from Open Philanthropy Project Staff -- 2017
- Animal Charity Evaluators | Updated Charity Recommendations: December 2017
Personal writeups, roughly in the order I saw them:
- GiveWell | Staff members’ personal donations for giving season 2017
- OpenPhil | Staff Members’ Personal Donations for Giving Season 2017
- Don't Worry About the Vase | I Vouch for MIRI and Don't Worry About the Vase | The Story CFAR (Zvi Mowshowitz)
- JeffTK | 2017 Donations (Jeff Kaufman and Julia Wise)
- (I'll try to update this space as more come in.)