Giving What We Can, 80,000 Hours, and Meta-Charity

Disclaimer: I’m somewhat nervous about posting this, for fear of down-voting on my first LW post, given that this post explicitly talks in a positive light about organisations that I have helped to set up. But I think that the topic is of interest to LW-ers, and I’m hoping to start a rational discussion. So here it goes…

Hi all,

Optimal philanthropy is a common discussion topic on LW. It’s also previously been discussed whether ‘meta-charities’ like GiveWell — that is, charities that attempt to move money to other charities, or assess the effectiveness of other charities — might end up themselves being excellent or even optimal giving opportunities.

Partly on the basis of the potentially high cost-effectiveness of meta-charity, I have co-founded two such charities: Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours. Both are now open to taking donations (info here for GWWC and here for 80k). In what follows I’ll explain why one might think of Giving What We Can or 80,000 Hours as a good giving opportunity. It’s of course very awkward to talk about the reasons in favour of donating to one’s own organization, and the risk of bias is obvious, so I’ll just briefly describe the basic argument, and then leave the rest for discussion. I hope I manage to give an honest picture, rather than just pitching my own favourite idea: we really want to do the most good that we can with marginal resources, so if LW members think that giving to meta-charity in general, or GWWC or 80k in particular, is a bad idea, that’s important for us to know. So please don’t be shy in raising comments, questions, or criticism. If you find yourself being critical, please try to suggest ways in which GWWC or 80k could either change its activities or provide more information such that your criticisms would be addressed.

What is Giving What We Can?

Giving What We Can encourages people to give more and to give more effectively to causes that fight poverty in the developing world. It encourages people to become a member of the organisation and pledge to give at least 10% of their income to the charities that best fight extreme poverty, and it provides information on its website about how people can give as cost-effectively as possible.

What is 80,000 Hours?

80,000 Hours provides evidence-based advice on careers aiming to make a difference, through its website and through on-one-one advice sessions. It encourages people to use their careers in an effective way to make the world a significantly better place, and aims to help its members to be more successful in their chosen careers. It provides a community and network for those convinced by its ideas.

What are the main differences between the two?

The primary differences are that 80,000 Hours focuses on how you should spend your time (especially which career you should choose), whereas Giving What We Can focuses on how you should spend your money. Giving What We Can is focused on global poverty, whereas 80,000 Hours is open to any plausibly high-impact cause.

Why should I give to either?

The basic idea is that each of the organisations generates a multiplier on one’s donations. By giving $1 to Giving What We Can to fundraise for the best global poverty charities, one ultimately moves significantly more than $1 to the best global poverty charities. By giving $1 to 80,000 Hours to improve the effectiveness of students’ career paths, one ultimately moves significantly more than $1’s worth of human and financial resources to a range of high-impact causes, including global poverty, animal welfare improvement, and existential risk mitigation.

How are you testing this?

Last March we did an impact assessment for Giving What We Can. Some more info is available here, and I can provide much more information, including the calculations, upon request. As of last March, we’d invested $170 000’s worth of volunteer time into Giving What We Can, and had moved $1.7 million to GiveWell or GWWC top-recommended development charities, and raised a further $68 million in pledged donations. Taking into account the facts that some proportion of this would have been given anyway, there will be some member attrition, and not all donations will go to the very best charities (and using data for all these factors when possible), we estimate that we had raised $8 in realised donations and $130 in future donations for every $1’s worth of volunteer time invested in Giving What We Can. We will continue with such impact assessments, most likely on an annual basis.

We have less data available for 80,000 Hours, but things seem if anything more promising. A preliminary investigation (data from 26 members, last May) suggested that the average member was pledging $1mn; 34% of were planning to donate to existential risk mitigation, 61% to global poverty reduction. Member recruitment currently stands at roughly one per day. 25% of our members state that their career has been ‘significantly changed’ by 80,000 Hours. A little more information is available here.

Why might I be unconvinced?

Here are a few considerations that I think are important (and of course that’s not to say there aren’t others).

First, the whole idea of meta-charity is new, and therefore not as robustly tested as other activities. Even if you find the idea of meta-charity compelling, you could plausibly reason that most compelling arguments to new and optimistic conclusions have been false in the past, an so on inductive grounds treat this one with suspicion.

Second, you might have a very high discount rate. Giving $1 to either GWWC or 80k generates benefits in the future. So working out its cost-effectiveness involves an estimate of how one should value future donations versus donations now. That’s a tricky question to answer, and if you have a high enough discount rate, then the investment won’t be worth it.

Third, you might just think that other organisations are better. You might think that other organisations are better at resource-generation (even if that’s not their declared aim). Or you might think that it’s better just to focus on more direct means of making an impact.

Finally, you might just have a prior against the idea that one can get a significant multiplier on one’s donations to top charities. (One might ask: if the idea of meta-charity is so good, why don’t many more meta-charities exist than currently do?) So you might need to see a lot more hard data (perhaps verified by independent sources) before being convinced.