My Faults My Own

Any human’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in humankind.

Donations 2020

Weird year, right? Still, some things don't change -- I remain committed to using at least 10% of what income I earn to make the universe better.

Here's how I'm thinking about doing that at the end of 2020.


(0)

Back in February 2019, I was randomly (yes, randomly) selected to direct $500k of funds from a donor lottery, and have spent a fair amount of time since then thinking about how to direct those funds most efficiently.

So far, I have recommended grants of $165k to the Good Food Institute in the spring, and just over $200k to a number of Covid-19 interventions in May and June. You can read about those grants here and here.

The work that I did to research and decide on those grants was most of the thinking about effective giving that I did this year; it's been written up elsewhere, and so this post will mostly not cover the same ground. (If you're just looking for new ideas from these posts, see "Relative opinions" from my donor lottery writeup and section 1 below.)


Summary of the rest of this post:

  • I provide a new reflection on why I expect to continue supporting a mix of 'solid' and 'speculative' causes for the forseeable future. (1)
  • I still recommend using a DAF. (I use Vanguard.) (2a)
  • I'm supporting the same organizations that I did last year, in comparable amounts. (2b, summary)
  • I made substantial one-off donations relating to the US November elections, which I will not say as much about as you probably want. (2b:politics)
  • As my budget for donations grows, I'm sending most of the year-over-year growth into entering another donor lottery, in the hopes of either (a) not having to think more about it, or (b) thinking a lot more about it and doing better than I did last time. (2c)
  • Like last year, I expect most of my donations that 'come from' this year to come from money that I'm investing for now.
  • I collect the evaluators' reports and personal writeups that I felt like collecting, in case you want further reading. (3) (There aren't many of them, maybe because personal blogs are dying? Sad if true.)

Let's get to it.


(1)

I had kind of expected that once I'd done enough research to grant the donor lottery funds, I'd have found a single organization that I liked well enough to spend nearly all of my donation dollars on. After all, isn't that the point of the donor lottery?

I'm coming to realize that it's more complicated than that in practice.

There's a genre of advice for effective altruists which says that, even though you could do even more good if you donated absolutely everything you could spare, it might be a bad idea to do so if it runs the risk of being personally unsustainable. Far better (the argument goes) to donate X%/yr for a long and consistent career than live on half as much for two years and run a material risk of burning out and drifting away entirely.

Personally, I'm not particularly worried about falling into the trap of unsustainable belt-tightening in my personal life -- I feel like I've more-or-less figured out how to live comfortably enough while keeping costs relatively compact.


What worries me far more is accidentally burning out my ability to believe in what I don't trust down to my bones. Because, even though most days I think that trying to change the course of the 'far future' is the most effective way to make the world better, I don't actually trust the whole chain of people who have convinced me of that -- not to the point where I could commit to walking into a room with them and not walking out until we shared the same opinions about all the relevant questions.

If I'm going to be here, year after year like I plan to, with a philosophical outlook that inevitably sways back and forth a bit over time, then I want all of the different threads of my intuition to feel at least satisfied with the path I'm on.

In this stance, I'm not alone -- the principals of Open Philanthropy chose (and choose) to allocate 10% of their total funds to 'straightforward charity', which they define as "Assess grants by how many people they help and how much, according to reasonably straightforward reasoning and estimates that do not involve highly exotic or speculative claims, or high risk of self-deception." In the 2018 OpenPhil post laying out this framework, Holden explicitly cites a colleague's statement to the effect of "Without a significant allocation to straightforward charity, I’d be far more nervous about the possibility and consequences of self-deception, especially since many of our focus areas are now quite ambitious." I strongly empathize with this concern.


I'm a trader by training, profession, and temperment, and I'm comfortable taking significant risks with things important to me in search of greater expected gains. I'm happy to make big, speculative bets in my charitable giving -- but I've realized that it's also important to the long-term sustainability of my plans that I diversify my giving with some things that feel unqualifiedly solid, righteous, and good. I'm trying to be the appropriate amount of "long-term greedy", as the saying goes.

In practice, this means that I expect to be giving material donations to straightforwardly helping humans living today, and to straightforwardly helping living beings living today -- regardless of my current (and evolving) thoughts on making the universe better in more-exotic ways, e. g. by affecting the long-term future, moving the needle on existential risk, or recursively growing the EA community. And I expect this to be the case for the forseeable future, not just "while I figure some things out".

Thoughts here definitely still evolving; check back in later, I guess.


(2a)

A donor-advised fund is a hack that makes donations easier in a few small ways. That's the whole pitch. This hasn't changed from 2017, nor have the details.

Example: I've got some stocks and ETFs that I bought in mid-2019 that have gained marked-to-market (weird year, right?), and so the tax-efficient thing to do is to donate them in-kind and re-invest from cash. A DAF means I don't have to line up a charity that can handle this -- they get liquidated automatically in my Vanguard Charitable account, on Vanguard's dime. Then, I can send the money to the right places sometime in early January.

This means that I don't have to stress about actually sending grants for a Jan 1 deadline, which is a pretty material win for my stress level around the end of the year. It also means that grantee organizations don't need to know how to handle stock gifts, since they just receive cash from Vanguard Charitable.

As a reminder for those following along at home: This is not tax advice, but strongly consider donating in-kind only those assets that have gone up in price since you bought them, and only assets that you've held longer than one year. For the ones that have gone down, you can sell them and mark a useful capital loss (and then donate the cash, sure), and the ones that have been held less than a year will be marked to the smaller of your going-in price and their current value, which might not be good for you. (Not a tax advisor, not your tax advisor, &c.)


As in past years, I'll characterize the size of each donation as 'substantial', 'large', 'medium', 'small', and 'smaller', to provide relative context. These qualifiers are roughly comparable to my uses of the same words last year, though they are not comparable with my writeups from 2018 or before.


(2b)


(covid-19)

No donations at this time. From my donor lottery writeup:

Two Covid-19 vaccines have demonstrated a ~95% efficacy rate, and are widely expected to receive US regulatory approval within the month. [ed: more are on the way.] If they do, and the efficacy numbers are anywhere close to correct, I expect that widespread global vaccination will be the most economically efficient response to the pandemic. If I knew of cost-effective ways of accelerating production or deployment of vaccines (or of encouraging more efficiently-targeted deployment), I believe such interventions would be massively important.

However, my impression is that most of vaccine-deployment policy in the US will be effectively dictated by government beaurocracy, and that influencing that policy will involve shifting a major partisan political dispute. (It's not at all clear to me at this point whether there are effective, funding-limited ways to accelerate vaccine deployment abroad, but if such opportunities existed, it seems plausible that they could be among the most cost-effective interventions targeting the lives of humans living today.)

[...]

Finally, for an outside perspective: GiveWell, in their November recommendations for 2020 giving, claims they did not find unfunded Covid-19 interventions that were more effective than their (non-pandemic-related) top charities. I have not independently reviewed their research. (...)

If I could go back in time and give money to an existing organization on March 1, I'd have given my entire annual donation to Fast Grants as soon as they called for funding. However, they're no longer soliciting funding at this time, and -- as above -- I don't think that they (or anyone else) represent a particularly compelling opportunity now.

Please let me know if I'm missing something interesting in this space.


(global poverty)

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

Over time, I'm becoming more comfortable with the idea that reducing massive amounts of farmed animal suffering might be the most pressing issue at hand for living beings living today. Still, I'd feel uncomfortable not giving a meaningful amount to the organization I most trusted to improve the lives of humans living today.

I continue to give unrestricted funds to GiveWell, trusting them to split funding between their own operations and regranting as they think best.


(animal welfare)

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

I've written up my thoughts on GFI in much greater depth in my donor lottery writeup post. Excerpt:

The primary mistake that I think the consensus evaluation makes regarding GFI: I expect the effective altruists most interested in animal welfare overestimate how compelling non-EAs will find moral suasion that assumes that animal suffering matters. To be clear, I do think that animal suffering matters and that such an approach can be effective -- but I believe the consensus of donors funding animal-welfare organizations will (on average) overestimate its effectiveness in, say, the harder-to-reach half of the general population. Most people are, in general, bad at modeling people not like them, and furthermore bad at understanding how bad they are at modeling people not like them.

By contrast, GFI's theory of change does not require that moral suasion will be effective in changing opinions regarding farmed animal products. I strongly suspect that the GFI-led effort could be successful in changing the world via supply-side economic levers even if consumer opinions about farmed meat don't materially change.

The organization's principals understand this and I believe they are explicitly playing for an endgame where replacements to farmed meat win on essentially economic terms. I consider the ability of the GFI leadership to take this (uncommon) perspective as a strongly positive indicator about their strategic sense, which I also expect to be underappreciated by the donor/evaluator consensus. (...)

Since the grant I recommended in the spring, GFI-Europe has grown significantly in size (now six staff) and played a role in lobbying to defeat proposed EU legislation that would ban labeling non-animal 'burgers'. GFI-APAC put out a number of industry research reports, organized a new conference, and saw the Singapore Food Agency approve Eat Just's cultivated chicken for sale to consumers.

I continue to think that GFI as a whole is the most promising organization I know of for reducing the harms of industrial animal agriculture -- and is the organization I am currently most excited to support, of all those listed in this post.

I also continue to suspect that within GFI, the international programs represent the most promising marginal opportunities for growth, so I'm again earmarking my donations specifically for the Europe and APAC affiliates. I won't be able to keep tabs on all of GFI for the coming year, but I expect to follow the work of GFI-Europe and GFI-APAC, and hope to be an unusually informed donor in years to come as well.


(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.

From my donor lottery writeup:

My preliminary review of the far-future funding environment revealed that there was a large existing pool of large donors who were relatively familiar with the large organizations in the far future space. Furthermore, I gathered that many of the effective altruists who have made recent fortunes in crypto-related enterprises are familiar with, and more positive than I am on, organizations addressing the far-future cause area.

With medium confidence, I expect this latter segment of donors to grow as the crypto business environment continues to resolve. This suggests that far-future causes will see increased coverage in the coming years, by donors more familiar with the space than I am likely to become without dedicated work. (...)

Thoughts here haven't changed in the last few weeks, though I think it's important as a matter of principle to put some of my donations behind the far-future organizations I'd back if I had to choose right now. With little to change my mind year-over-year, that's MIRI and Ought.

My general opinion towards AI risk and far-future causes has shifted slightly for the pessimistic -- but, on the other hand, my opinion of my former colleague Zvi Mowshowitz has gone way up on the basis of his Covid-19 recaps and commentary this year (arbitrary examples: 12/24, 12/17, 12/10, 11/12, 9/10, 6/11, 3/2).

Given my very positive opinion of Zvi, his I Vouch For MIRI was already the single most compelling piece of evidence I had for supporting MIRI; his clear thinking and writing on Covid-19 isn't a proof that he's right about MIRI, but it doesn't hurt in my book. MIRI gets to keep their donation slot here.

By contrast, my support for Ought is mainly my attempt to answer the question "If the leading organization in this cluster had fundamentally bad ideas that had derailed an entire community of AI Safety researchers, who else would be doing useful things in the direction of AI Safety?" People who are trusted by people I trust say that Ought is meaningfully different from MIRI in some ways that I don't understand, and that's worth something.


(meta)

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

I looked into 80k a bit in my research for donor lottery grants, and didn't find anything I particularly disliked -- which I consider weak evidence in their favor. I found it hard to thoughtfully evaluate their core value-add with any confidence, but someone I trust is both knowledgeable and bullish on them, and that earns some social trust with me. I also note in their favor that the EA Infrastructure Fund has repeatedly funded them, incuding as recently as July of this year.

Adding all of this up, they're my current best guess for the most-effective "try to grow the EA community" donation, outside of opportunistic opportunities identified by the EA Infrastructure fund. That said, I still generally feel like I'm at a comparative disadvantage at evaluating such organizations, as I said in my donor lottery post:

I found my initial conversations about EA-meta organizations difficult for me to draw actionable conclusions from. A large part of this difficulty was due to my physical and social distance from the Bay-area- and London-based communities of EA organizations. Furthermore, most people I talked with suggested that they found it difficult to evaluate the work of EA-meta organizations in an outside-view and evidence/results-based framework.

If the best options for understanding and evaluating EA-meta organizations involved inside-view qualitative assessments of their staff, principals, and qualitative effects in the community (and I did not have private information about any of the individuals or impacts), I felt at a comparative disadvantage in determining funding allocation to them. (...)

While I think that 80k is particularly compelling among the projects hosted by the Centre for Effective Altruism, I'm making a smaller donation to CEA, in thanks for their running donor lotteries for the community (see 2c). As this donation is specifically related to the donor lottery, I'm associating this donation with that section, below.


(politics)

Substantial political donations relating to the US November elections (specifics not disclosed).

I really don't have a lot to say here -- there were some November election contests that I thought, in a very back-of-the-envelope calculation, would be meaningfully better for the world if they turned out one way instead of the other.

I talked with some effective altruists who have thought much more about such things than I have; their recommendations for the most-effective political organizations made enough sense to me that, given the stakes, I thought they might be among the most valuable ways to make the world better (according to my beliefs).

It's not consistent with my giving commitments (as I chose to understand them) to only donate to pulling on partisan political contests, but I did/do think it was arguably right to give to certain campaigns I identified, and so gave, in total, a substantial donation at the time.

As a matter of personal policy, I won't publicly discuss the specific political campaigns I chose to support. (I'm willing to discuss details privately, from a position of mutual trust -- just not publicly, and not here.) I don't expect for this section to make a recurring appearance in these posts.


(2c)

I continue to believe that (personal feelings and attachments aside) contributing to a donor lottery is the single most effective mechanism for doing the most thoughtful good in the world (for ~all people who would like the chance to think more about how to do good more effectively). I made the basic case for them in 2018, and the details have not changed.

As for the "how", the Centre for Effective Altruism runs donor lotteries annually as a service for the community. Speaking as someone who has been selected to decide grants and worked to issue >$350k in that way, I have nothing materially bad to say about their operations and service.

The one minor concern I have with CEA's grant-issuing process is that their due diligence process -- which I personally would not require -- imposes a cost on grantee individuals or organizations not already receiving CEA grants (relative to making direct donations in an individual capacity). I'm not sure the exact magnitude of this cost, though I believe it to be small relative to the advantage of concentrating one's expected research work into fewer worlds where one controls more dollars.

I expect to have more in-depth reflections on my overall experience granting donor lottery funds at the conclusion of my writeup sequence. (currently: pt. 1, pt. 2)


The summary breakdown is nearly line-for-line the same as last year (except for the addition of one-off political donations and a larger donor lottery entry):

  • Smaller donation to Ought, supporting basic research on intelligence alignment to make better lives for humans in the future.
  • Small donation to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, supporting basic research on intelligence alignment to make better lives for humans in the future.
  • 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 Institue (split between GFI-APAC and GFI-Europe), supporting the science, technology, and public policy to replace industrial animal agriculture and all its harms.
  • Large contribution to a donor lottery run by the Centre for Effective Altruism (and a smaller donation to CEA themselves, for running it).
  • Substantial political donations relating to the US November elections (specifics not disclosed).
  • Primary allocation to continued (non-DAF) saving and investment, enabling future donation opportunities.

(Size words are comparable to my uses of the same words in 2019, but not in earlier years.)


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Charity evaluators' reports (in alphabetical order):

Personal writeups (in alphabetical order):

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