Two (very different) kinds of donors

This post describes a very simple and very important distinction between two kinds of donors/​two kinds of donations.

I apologize if the content of this (short) post is obvious to you. Repeated experience has led me to believe that it is not obvious to many people, and can sometimes be something of an epiphany for them, so it seems worth sharing in linkable form. A disagreement that is tightly analogous to this one is currently wrecking my parents’ marriage, for instance, and they each independently found this to be a concretely useful metaphor.

There are (at least) two very different kinds of donors, and they give very different kinds of donations, and they do not always tag themselves or their donations as such. In part, this is because many people are unaware that [the other kind of donor] exists at all, and so they don’t know that they need to identify themselves as being of a particular type. Both types, in my experience, assume themselves to be the default.

The first kind of donor is donating to the mission. They attend a CFAR workshop, for instance, and enjoy themselves immensely, and believe that the experience will be valuable for others. They want [more of that], so they donate to CFAR.

Whether they say so explicitly or not, they are donating to cause [more of that]. They believe and expect that their money will be used in ways which are legibly about causing [more of that]. Thus, while they may not actually earmark their donation in any particular way, if CFAR’s books were to become public, they would expect to see expenditures like:

  • Venue costs

  • Food and catering costs

  • Subsidies for promising workshop attendees

  • Salaries for instructors and other staff

  • Continuing education for instructors and researchers (e.g. conference fees, program tuition, travel expenses directly related to such)

  • Staff retreats (for curriculum development)

I call these donors “legibles.”

The second kind of donor is donating to an agent. They attend a CFAR workshop, for instance, and enjoy themselves immensely, and believe that the experience will be valuable for others. They think to themselves “the people who caused this to happen are doing something good in the world. I want to see more stuff like this. I want to unlock these people, so that they are free to pursue their ambitions.”

Whether they say so explicitly or not, they are delegating. They believe and expect that the people they’ve given money to will be better at using that money than they would themselves (at least for those particular marginal dollars). They have no particular expectations about how their money will be spent.

I call these donors “patrons.”

Imagine that for some reason, an organization like CFAR uses donor dollars to purchase fifty rubber dildos.

(This example is deliberately chosen to be a specific kind of “outrageous.” To be clear, nothing like this ever happened with CFAR money to the best of my knowledge; this is a hypothetical and I’m using CFAR as my example org simply because I worked there (and learned about the distinction between different kinds of donors while working there).)

Legibles, if they discover this fact, will be shocked. They may very well feel personally betrayed. They may demand an investigation, and in their culture they are entirely correct to do so. If they discover multiple other purchases that are similarly wildly divorced from “the sorts of things one would reasonably expect are involved in developing and running applied rationality workshops,” they may demand their money back, or call for the firing of various executives, or launch a campaign to have CFAR dissolved.

Patrons will not be shocked. They may be curious. They will very likely be confused. But their overall response will be “I have no idea what CFAR needed fifty rubber dildos for … some kind of social experiment? … but anyway, I trust that there’s a reason, and I don’t feel the need to go chasing after it.”

They might lose this faith if it later turns out that they hear the reason, and it doesn’t make sense after the fact, especially if this happens three or four times. But even then, they will tend to simply stop donating money, as opposed to feeling actively betrayed and wanting some form of restitution. They’re starting from a prior of “this money will be well-spent by virtue of the fact that the person spending it is wise and reasonable in the ways I care about.” They expect every bit as much responsibility as the first donor, but they do not expect legibility.

Legibles believe they are, in essence, making a purchase. Turning dollars into CFAR workshops, or rationality essays written, or birds-saved-from-oil-spills, or doctors-paid-to-cure-diabetes.

Patrons believe they are making an investment. They are gambling, in the same way that one gambles when one puts money into a small tech startup. They are hoping for something great, and will be only normal amounts of disappointed if what they get in return is nothing.

(Note that a given donor can be either kind on different days, or when giving dollars to different people or different projects.)

If you are seeking donations, or grants, or funding of any kind, it behooves you to know which kind you are seeking.

If you are giving donations, or grants, or funding of any kind, it’s helpful to know, and to be able to clearly state, which kind you are offering, so that e.g. the person you gave a support grant to knows whether they owe you some kind of tangible product at the end of it, or not.

A lot of misunderstandings and disappointments can be solved with clear(er) and (more) accurate expectations.