Icosian Reflections

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Donations 2021

This post describes my thoughts, at the end of 2021, about donating money to make the universe a better place. I remain committed to using at least 10% of what income I earn to do so.

This year is the first time since 2017 that I'm substantially changing my approach to donations. In 2017, I shifted my focus from mainly global poverty/health to a mix of global poverty, animal welfare, long-term future, and meta EA. This year, I'm shifting to a mix of global poverty, animal welfare, and explicitly 'exploratory' categories.


(1a)

Perhaps the most important long-term development in effective altruism in 2020 and 2021 has been the crypto boom, which has moved at least $30 billion of wealth to committed effective altruists. (The most widely visible of these is Sam Bankman-Fried, CEO of FTX.) I would roughly estimate that the top ~ten self-identifying EAs now have plans to move at least $45 billion of donations to EA causes in the next ~30 years -- even in the case that all of their various business investments mostly stagnate at current valuations.

That's a lot of money.

Given this landscape, my goals as an EA donor this year were (1) to move my personal focus to finding and supporting things that I expect existing large donors to have difficulty finding, evaluating, or supporting, and (2) to use my giving to 'set up' for having a larger impact later, by exploring things that I can understand and recommend more widely if they turn out to be more promising than expected.

I fully expect to honor my 2016 pledge to direct 10% of what income I earn to making the universe a better place. However, it seems increasingly likely that the best way for me to best honor that pledge will be to give to things that are not (yet) widely recognized as EA in terms of evidence-backed-impact-per-dollar. I'm excited to see where this will take us.


(1b)

For the first time since 2017, I'm making a significant adjustment to the categories I use to think about giving.

One thing that isn't changing: I expect to continue giving to directly addressing global poverty. I believe that this is important to making my long-term commitment to the EA project sustainable over the span of decades, as I've discussed previously. I believe, as I have since 2014, that the best way to do that is by supporting GiveWell. I also expect to continue supporting the Good Food Institute in their quest to "consign industrial animal agriculture to the dustbin of history as quickly as possible", for similar reasons.

This year, I'm not giving material amounts to any organizations working on AI safety, or to 'meta' organizations supporting the EA community. I continue to believe that these areas will be valuable ways to improve the world, but I also believe that the widely-recognized organizations in these fields could be fully funded by donors who are more informed about them than I currently am. In the past, I've been happy to give in these areas as a way of showing a personal vote of confidence -- but I now feel that it's more important to focus on comparative advantage and strategic planning, more than of signaling.

The balance of my personal donations, this year, are going to categories that I'm labeling as 'exploratory' (at least for now). My current level of confidence in the effectiveness of these donations is somewhere between "I believe that this is among the most effective things I can support; I don't think I could convince you of that fact" and "I don't know if this makes sense, but I won't know until I try; I think that the gamble is worth it".

The exploratory categories I'm giving to in 2021 are (1) global progress studies and (2) politics. (Further explanations of these categories and my donations within them are in sections below.) I would expect/hope to find 2-3 new categories under this subheading in 2022, though I don't yet know what they'll be.


(2a)

The categories I discuss in this section are: Covid-19, global poverty, animal welfare, AI safety / EA infrastructure, global progress studies, and politics. (The following section briefly discusses the CEA donor lottery.) The qualitative sizes describing each donation align with my descriptions in 2020 and 2019, but not with pre-2019 size descriptions.

I continue to recommend the use of a donor-advised fund to anyone making more than two charitable (non-political) gifts a year, whether or not to EA causes. I continue to recommend the CEA donor lottery to anyone who wishes they had significantly more time to think about their donations.


(covid-19)

No donations to Covid-19-related opportunities at this time.

This section is here mainly to note that, in February 2021, I directed the $143,600 remaining in the 2018-19 donor lottery fund -- and also gave a medium-large personal donation -- to Fast Grants, to support global efforts to effectively address the ongoing pandemic.

When I last wrote about Fast Grants in late 2020, I was very happy with the results of their early-2020 grants (mRNA vaccines, monoclonal antibodies, spit tests...) but concerned about decelerating opportunities for further deployments.

By February 2021, global vaccinations were going okay-well, but the world was definitely not doing enough strain sequencing. (Zvi's 2021-02-25 covid post mentions "the English strain" and "the South Africa strain"; this was slightly before we started calling them Alpha and Beta, and was a few months pre-Delta...) I and some other funders at the Funding Rational Actors Promptly Pandemic Endowment wanted to make an additional bet on "more strain sequencing from Fast Grants, please".

In hindsight, this ended up being a Very Good Idea and I feel embarassed for not trying to pull down lots of additional funding from more of my friends at the time. If there was something that Fast Grants was doing that I currently believed in as much as I believed in strain sequencing in February 2021, I would probably have zeroed everything else in this post and sent all the funds there. As it is, there's nothing in that set -- and I don't think it makes sense holding funds when we have the opportunity to raise from large donors if an opportunity does arise.

I dearly hope that 2022's post will not need to have a Covid-19 section, and that this fact will be so natural it will not even bear mentioning. [ry: I wrote that sentence before omicron broke, and now I still dearly hope it, but I no longer believe it.]


(global poverty)

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

This is a smaller-sized donation than last year's, basically because of the reorientation described above. I also continue to believe that reducing massive amounts of farmed animal suffering is likely 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.

In a November blog post, GiveWell projected that marginal funds given in 2021 will most likely be distributed in 2023 or 2024, once their ability to cost-effectively direct funds has scaled up. If I were giving a substantial amount to GiveWell, I would think more about the implications of this timetable -- but, as it is, I find it simplest to give now and accept that most of the impacts of these funds will be effective several years from now.


(animal welfare)

Medium 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 remain very excited about GFI for all the reasons that I was in 2020 and for all the reasons that I directed the first tranche of 2018-19 donor lottery funding to them. It remains unclear to me whether cultivated meat will ultimately end up being cost-competitive with farmed meat, and -- even given that fact -- I am very excited that GFI is pursuing their agenda in an attempt to figure it out.


It's worth mentioning that Animal Charity Evaluators did not recommend GFI as a 'top charity' or 'standout charity' for 2021, as they had in previous years. As described in ACE's blog post on the recommendation change and their full review of GFI, this change was due to "reports from current and former staff that alleged both retaliation and fear of retaliation by GFI’s top leadership for voicing disagreements at the organization", which ACE found to be "reliable and substantial enough in their severity to not continue recommending GFI in 2021".

I don't have nonpublic information about these reports, and there isn't much more public information than what I quoted here. I expect to have further discussions with principals at GFI APAC, GFI Europe, and the GFI headquarters team, but have not yet had time to do so.

Assuming that the reports described by ACE were straightforwardly true, I would still strongly believe that the GFI Europe and GFI APAC teams (who I've had the most direct correspondence with) should continue existing and growing along their existing roadmaps. At this point, based on all the information I have, I'm happy to continue funding their operations while forming my opinion of the bigger GFI picture.


(other areas)

No donations to long-term future (including AI Safety) or EA infrastructure (previously "meta") at this time.

I continue to believe that these areas will be valuable ways to improve the world. I also believe that the widely-recognized organizations in these fields could be fully funded by donors who are more informed about them than I currently am.

In the past, I’ve been happy to give in these areas as a way of showing a marginal vote of personal confidence for the organizations involved -- but I now feel that it’s more important to focus on developing my own medium-term donation plans. These plans are likely to eventually involve supporting efforts to build the EA community and shape the direction of the long-term future, so I don't expect these segments to be going away forever.


(global progress studies)

Large donation to Emergent Ventures, jumpstarting high-risk, high-reward ideas that advance prosperity, opportunity, and wellbeing.

If Fast Grants was the "shotgun blast" approach for promising early work on Covid-19, then Emergent Ventures is the shotgun blast for early-stage stuff Tyler Cowen finds generically exciting. The announcement of the seventeenth cohort and announcements of previous cohorts gives you a pretty good sense of the thing.

This is not a donation opportunity that I can defend in any kind of quantitative EA terms (yet). Still, my opinion of Tyler is very high from my experience with Fast Grants, and my current instinct is that I would be very excited to multiply the size of Emergent Ventures a few times, just to see what would happen.


(politics)

Small donations to nondisclosed political opportunities.

I don't have a coherent medium-term strategy in this space yet. Given that fact, it doesn't make sense to share more details publicly at this point.

On the other hand, I am interested in having nonpublic conversations about opportunities in this space -- get in touch if you're interested.


(2b)

I continue to believe that donor lotteries are the best general-purpose tool for increasing the total amount of good done by a group of participants (regardless of whether they agree or disagree with each others' goals). My experience with CEA's 2018-19 donor lottery ultimately led to me having more-considered views on animal welfare opportunities, as well as the chance to evaluate -- and direct more than $350k to -- opportunities related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

I'm not participating in CEA's 2021-22 donor lottery, because I expect to learn things from my ongoing engagement with the exploratory categories, and I want to scale up my understanding of donation opportunities. As a consequence, I expect that I'll learn more in expectation by making a smaller donation for sure than if I had a small chance to make a larger and more considered grant.

If I were in a different position where I didn't already expect to have a lot of capacity to think more about donations in the coming years, I would be contributing to a relatively large donor lottery, so I could focus on the problem more (in the worlds in which I was selected to direct the funds).


(2c)

My personal recommendations to EA-interested donors reading this and interesting in improving the world in concrete ways with high probability are:

Summary of personal year-end donations:

  • No donations to long-term future, EA infrastructure, or Covid-19 (as of December 2021, but see below).
  • Small donations to nondisclosed political opportunities.
  • Medium donation to the Good Food Institute (split between GFI APAC and GFI Europe), supporting the science, technology, and public policy to replace industrial animal agriculture.
  • Medium donation to GiveWell (unrestricted funds), fighting global poverty and disease to help humans living today.
  • Medium-large donation (in February 2021) to Fast Grants, to support global efforts to rapidly address the ongoing pandemic.
  • Large donation to Emergent Ventures, jumpstarting high-risk, high-reward ideas that advance prosperity, opportunity, and wellbeing.

(3)

Charity evaluators' reports (in alphabetical order):

Personal writeups and other interesting posts (in alphabetical order):

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