Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Donations 2019

For the sixth year, I remain committed to using at least 10% of what income I earn to support the organizations that I think best make the universe a better place, and to talking about it on this blog. Here are my thoughts at the end of 2019.

These specific organizations I'm supporting are, in relative terms, mostly unchanged from 2018. The biggest changes are:

  • Marginally more saving / investing for later donation opportunities (including the potential for political contributions in 2020).
  • Because of the above, marginally less donor lottery.
  • The Good Food Institute replacing The Humane League.


Compared to years past, I spent relatively more time thinking about donations this year. This reflects a few things:

  • I'll be giving more as my income grows and my personal savings reach more comfortable levels, so I expect to get more value from making an X% better decision.
  • I felt that some of the available opportunities were more difficult to think about but still worth considering (such as political donations), and spent some time considering them.
  • I got excited about certain organizations I was considering and spent a bit more time learning about them, specifically.

I certainly don't think that this process has left me with more expertise than people who take this very seriously, and I expect that my heavy reliance on my local network has biased my outlook in ways I don't completely understand. I'm not claiming that my thoughts here are authoritative or finished in any sense; I'm mostly trying to support a culture of sharing and building on each others' opinions, however complete or incomplete they are.

The rest of this post covers logistics and personal tax considerations (1a), current thoughts on donor lotteries (1b), current thinking about political donations (1c), a high-level summary of my donations this year (1d), details and thoughts on the specific charities I’m supporting this year (2a, summary), and further reading in the form of evaluators' reports and others' personal writeups (throughout, and 3).


I continue to think that donor-advised funds are a really helpful tool for making donations logistically easier. This year I'm donating primarily cash to my DAF (and then regranting to charities in early January), as I don't have long-term appreciated assets suitable for donation. I mentioned last year that I was researching and experimenting with tax-efficient investing for altruism; those experiments are still ongoing, though I expect to have a clearer picture by mid-to-late 2020.

My tax situation is complicated a bit by details involving living abroad, in ways I won't get into here. For tax-related reasons and other reasons, I believe it makes sense for me to do my marginal saving and investment in personal accounts, rather than in my DAF directly; I still intend to donate an equivalent amount of these saved / invested funds in the long run.


I still believe in my arguments in last year's post -- that in many-to-most situations, for many-to-most people thinking carefully about giving, donor lotteries are an efficient way to allocate the effort applied to making good donation decisions.

Given this, I consider entering CEA's 2019 donor lottery an option competitive with marginal donation opportunities I know of, and I'm making an entry as a show of support (though smaller than last year's). The largest thing stopping me from contributing more is concern that some opportunities in 2020 may be involve supporting not-officially-charitable organizations (see next section), and so I'm electing to save / invest marginal resources instead.


In 2020, the US electorate will be making some relatively important decisions about the next 2-6 years of US government. From high-stakes races to under-funded smaller campaigns which can be influenced relatively cheaply, it might be an unusually good time to try to make the world better by supporting political campaigns to change people's minds about specific candidates.

I'm not sure yet whether I'll consider these political opportunities competitive with conventional charity in terms of good-done-per-dollar; I still have a lot to think about here.

It's relevant here that the US places limits on the (direct) campaign contributions of individuals, generally in the thousands to tens-of-thousands of dollars. (I expect that more-direct contributions are more likely to be spent as intended, rather than funging against political operatives' other goals.) These limits are differently-sized for different political races, but they generally mean that there's benefit to small-to-medium-sized donors being ready to make political donations in the coming year, since the largest donors might be limited by regulatory limits.

I'm not yet sure what the best opportunities in this space will look like, and I don't have specific plans to commit to now, so I'll account for these in 2020's donations analysis (if I end up making them and counting them as "effective" donations at all, which I may not).


Regardless -- as in years past -- I want to give some nontrivial allocation of resources to organizations that can use them this year, as an exercise in thinking for myself about giving (and to ensure my own ongoing commitment to give). I'm splitting my donation into differently-sized chunks that try to reflect my thinking about compelling(-to-me) ways of doing good (as I have in the past). As a friend put it a few years ago:

As small givers (at least, relative to some) our biggest value lies not in the use of the money itself, but in the information value of the costly signal our donations give and in the virtues we cultivate in ourselves by giving. (...)

Practically speaking, I'm directing the majority of my 2019 donation pool to fighting global poverty (2a.i) and supporting non-human animal welfare in the near future (2a.ii), a substantial minority to other organizations I think are doing valuable longer-term and speculative work (2a.iii, 2a.iv), a small amount to CEA's 2019 donor lottery as an indication of my support (1b), and saving/investing much of the rest of my resources currently available.

As in past years, I'll characterize the size of each donation as 'large', 'medium', and 'small'. These qualifiers are not comparable to my uses of the same words in 2017 and 2018; they've been re-normalized for generally larger donations this year versus previous years. In each section, I'll try to link to what I think are the best resources for further reading about that cause area.


(global poverty)

Large donation to GiveWell (unrestricted funds), fighting global poverty and disease to help humans living today.

My position here remains little changed from 2017 (or indeed from 2014); I remain convinced that, among organizations working to make life better for humans living today, GiveWell's top charities are some of the best-researched, highest-impact "sure bets".

I note that GiveWell's 2019 recommendations come with a much stronger suggestion to donate to GiveWell for regranting (versus donating some split directly to charities) than they did in previous years:

The top charity we model as having the highest impact per additional dollar can change throughout the year. To inform our understanding, we ask our top charities to provide us with updated information on an ongoing basis. For example, a top charity may share that it has found new opportunities for impact, such as the potential to work in a new country with a significant need for its program.

In addition, top charities typically receive funding from GiveWell donors and other sources on an ongoing basis. We update our expectations of how much additional funding charities need each quarter by incorporating funding they have received since our last allocation of "Grants to recommended charities at GiveWell’s discretion." (...)

I find this argument compelling and want to normalize a practice of donating funds for GiveWell's discretionary regranting, rather than donating directly to charities (as I have in some years, at their recommendation). So I'm donating directly to GiveWell, rather than their recommended charities. (This is unchanged since 2015, but I wanted to talk explicitly about it, since I don't think I have in previous posts.)

Technically, GiveWell recommends donations "to GiveWell earmarked for regranting". But, as in the past three years, I feel best making my donation to GiveWell with no restriction on its use, as I trust GiveWell’s discretion to support its own operations where necessary and regrant excess funds to opportunities to save and better human lives, as per their excess assets policy. So I'm giving to GiveWell's discretionary funds.

(animal welfare)

nb: In late May of 2020, I recommended a grant of additional funds from a CEA donor lottery pool to GFI-APAC and GFI-Europe. I later wrote up my thoughts on GFI in 2018-19 Donor Lottery Report, pt. 1.

Large donation to the Good Food Institute (split between GFI Europe and GFI Asia–Pacific), supporting the science, technology, and public policy to replace industrial animal agriculture and all its harms.

GFI is a global group of affiliated nonprofits that supports the development and mainstream deployment of food products that replace farmed animal products. Their executive director, Bruce Friedrich, is fond of explaining their primary goal as "consigning industrial animal agriculture to the dustbin of history as quickly as possible".

In contrast to many animal welfare organizations, their primary approach is fundamentally economic, rather than attempting to persuade consumers and suppliers with moral suasion. I, intuitively, think this is a good idea -- and I'm excited and optimistic about what I've seen of GFI's theory of change, strategic approach, operational vision, and staff.

GFI Europe has a time-sensitive opportunity to position itself to influence the decisive period in determining the EU's regulation for plant-based and cultured meat, which could either go well or...very badly. (cf. the EU on GMOs.) They're currently two full-time employees working out of Brussels, but they're looking to expand aggressively, and after talking with some GFI folks about their plans, I'm optimistic about their leadership and strategic plan.

GFI APAC is in a slightly different place -- they've got a multiple-FTE staff and ongoing plans in-flight across many countries -- but I'm also excited about what I've heard about their plans and potential scope (considering just how many people there are in the region).

I should note my choice to earmark my GFI donations for specific regional affiliates, rather than letting GFI allocate themselves, as it runs counter to the approach I was recommending for GiveWell in the previous section. (For reference, ACE estimates that a marginal dollar to GFI moves an expected $0.28 to international affiliates.) Why did I choose this?

Three major reasons:

First, I currently understand the state of the Europe and APAC affiliates better than the US organization or the overall picture of GFI, and insofar as my donation is manifesting a personal judgment on the margin, I can much better judge these two than I can GFI as a whole. (For what it's worth, I haven't yet tried to form a detailed picture of other regional affiliates or the umbrella organization, so this isn't really a negative judgment on anyone but me and shouldn't be taken as such.)

Second, what I've heard and thought about these two regional affiliates (specifically, their leadership and their plans) has made me excited about their opportunities to do good. I weakly suspect that some of the things that make me think this are under-considered on the margin (especially the focus on goals outside the US), so I'm happy to push that judgment into my donation.

Third, I understand that GFI is hoping for regional affiliates to eventually become largely self-supporting (even as they continue to collaborate closely with each other), so that they're each able to build more direct and stable relationships with better-informed donors. This is a move that I'm happy to support -- and to play my part, I'm happy to directly support the two affiliates whose plans I understand the best.

It's very possible that my thoughts on these considerations will change in the future, but this reflects where they are now.

If it's not clear, I'm overall really excited about GFI as a global organization -- and more excited about supporting them now than I was about the animal-welfare organizations I supported in 2018. If I'm still this positive on them a few months from now (and after talking with GFI folks and potential critics a bit more), I might have longer thoughts to write up publicly [ry: see 2018-19 Donor Lottery Report, pt. 1], but I don't want to drag it out at this time, since they've only seriously been on my radar for a few months, and there's plenty of time for my opinions to resolve more clearly.

(far future)

Small donation to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, conducting basic research on intelligence alignment to make better lives for humans in the future.

Smaller donation to Ought, also conducting basic research on intelligence alignment to make better lives for humans in the future.

Unfortunately, the beliefs I describe here are mostly intuition, impressions, and vague pre-arguments not yet organized enough for a public explanation. Watch this space (read: later posts) for updates, maybe.

I've done some thinking and talking with trusted non-experts in the area of AI risk, and I've updated marginally away from thinking that organizations in this space are under-resourced for their current opportunities. I've got a lot of uncertainty around this, and I still expect that there will be valuable opportunities to give to improve far-future outcomes, but I'm making relatively smaller donations in this space for now, in the hopes of making more-informed and more-effective donations later.

That said, I'm not sure how soon "later" will come, since my impression is that getting properly up-to-speed with the current state of the space would involve a lot of investment of effort. (See Ben Henry's writeup, which covers seventeen organizations supporting AI Safety research alone.)

It's possible, given this scale, that it is (or is going to become) inefficient for outside donors on my scale to even attempt to understand this landscape and that I should instead be investing time and thought in finding informed individuals whom I trust to make good decisions.

I'm not at a point where I plan to do that for this year, though, and I currently feel more confident about my (limited) judgments of these two organizations than I would about anyone I could delegate my decision to. (That said, if I had to pick someone's judgment to defer to, it would be the Long-Term Future Fund, who come pretty close.)

So, for now, MIRI and Ought are the two organizations that I feel vaguely best about after (ongoing) high-level conversations with non-experts and what little I've read online. I know less about Ought as an organization, but I'm interested to see people I trust recommend it as a research organization with a focus on practical and applied research and an approach somewhat different from MIRI's.


Medium donation to 80,000 Hours, supporting efforts to grow the effective altruism community.

Small donation to the Centre for Effective Altruism, providing continuing support to the effective altruism community.

The details of my thinking about funding 'meta-EA' organizations have shifted slightly since I started donating to CEA two years ago. They're probably not done shifting. But my current thinking is that, if the most valuable opportunities to make the world better aren't clear now, then the best preparation for "later" is to invest in growing the community of people looking for opportunities to help.

All things considered, I consider donating to the Effective Altruism Meta Fund a strong option. Those of the fund managers I have spoken with have seemed thoughtful and well-equipped to take a strategic view on doing good in the world, and their track record of grants seems to me well-considered and generally exciting.

That said, I'm not donating directly to the EA Meta Fund. Rather, I'm donating to two organizations that they have funded in the past and who have relatively large funding gaps. I notice that the Meta Fund has given substantial grants to 80k and CEA in the past year; my rough best guess is that my donations are effectively funging against the EA Meta Fund's last dollar, freeing up their dollars to allocate elsewhere if they choose.

The main reason why I'm donating directly instead of giving to the Meta Fund is that I've had the opportunity to form a somewhat independent judgment of 80k and CEA's work, and want to express some personal vote of confidence in them (on top of the Meta Fund's backing). In slightly different circumstances, though, I could easily imagine giving my donation for this category to the Meta Fund instead.


If you have somehow gotten to this part of the page and are still looking for an actionable (clickable) breakdown of all the above information, here are some pitches for things you might want to do:

  • If you don't want to go through the exercise of thinking about where to give, CEA's donor lottery will mean you probably won't have to -- and will make better decisions if you ever do.
  • I care about helping humans living today in straightforward ways, as effectively as possible; I'm supporting GiveWell.
  • I care about reducing the harms of animal agriculture, including farmed animal suffering (with benefits on climate and human health); I'm supporting the Good Food Institute. I'm supporting two specific regional affiliates, but I could imagine just giving to GFI instead.
  • I want some people to be working on understanding the potential harms and challenges of transformational AI; I'm mostly torn between supporting the Long-Term Future Fund and two orgs I know something about (MIRI and Ought).
  • I think some people should be growing the ranks of people working alongside us; I'm mostly torn between supporting the EA Meta Fund and two orgs I know something about (80k and CEA).

How I am breaking down my donations for this year:

  • Smaller donation to Ought, supporting basic research on intelligence alignment to make better lives for humans in the future.
  • Small donation to the Centre for Effective Altruism, providing continuing support to the effective altruism community.
  • Small donation to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, supporting basic research on intelligence alignment to make better lives for humans in the future.
  • Small contribution to a donor lottery run by CEA.
  • Medium donation to 80,000 Hours, supporting efforts to grow the effective altruism community.
  • Large donation to GiveWell (unrestricted funds), fighting global poverty and disease to help humans living today.
  • Large donation to the Good Food Institute (split between GFI Europe and GFI Asia--Pacific), supporting the science, technology, and public policy to replace industrial animal agriculture and all its harms.
  • Primary allocation to (non-DAF) saving and investment, enabling future donation opportunities.

Size words are not comparable to my uses of the same words in 2018.


Charity evaluators' reports:

Personal writeups, roughly in the order I saw them: