Things I Learned by Spending Five Thousand Hours In Non-EA Charities

Link post

From late 2020 to last month, I worked at grassroots-level non-profits in operational roles. Over that time, I’ve seen surprisingly effective deployments of strategies that were counter-intuitive to my EA and rationalist sensibilities.

I spent 6 months being the on-shift operations manager at one of the largest food banks in Toronto (~50 staff/​volunteers), and 2 years doing logistics work at Samaritans (fake name), a long-lived charity that was so multi-armed that it was basically operating as a supplementary social services department for the city it was in(~200 staff and 200 volunteers). Both orgs were well-run, though both dealt with the traditional non-profit double whammy of being underfunded and understaffed.

Neither place was super open to many EA concepts (explicit cost-benefit analyses, the ITN framework, geographic impartiality, the general sense that talent was the constraining factor instead of money, etc). Samaritans in particular is a spectacular non-profit, despite(?) having basically anti-EA philosophies, such as:

  • Being very localist; Samaritans was established to help residents of the city it was founded in, and now very specialized in doing that.

  • Adherence to faith; the philosophy of The Catholic Worker Movement continues to inform the operating choices of Samaritans to this day.

  • A big streak of techno-pessimism; technology is first and foremost seen as a source of exploitation and alienation, and adopted only with great reluctance when necessary.

  • Not treating money as fungible. The majority of funding came from grants or donations tied to specific projects or outcomes. (This is a system that the vast majority of nonprofits operate in.)

  • Once early on I gently pushed them towards applying to some EA grants for some of their more EA-aligned work, and they were immediately turned off by the general vibes of EA upon visiting some of its websites. I think the term “borg-like” was used.

Over this post, I’ll be largely focusing on Samaritans as I’ve worked there longer and in a more central role, and it’s also a more interesting case study due to its stronger anti-EA sentiment.

Things I Learned

  1. Long Term Reputation is Priceless

  2. Non-Profits Shouldn’t Be Islands

  3. Slack is Incredibly Powerful

  4. Hospitality is Pretty Important

For each learning, I have a section for sketches for EA integration – I hesitate to call them anything as strong as recommendations, because the point is to give more concrete examples of what it could look like integrated in an EA framework, rather than saying that it’s the correct way forward.

1. Long Term Reputation is Priceless

Institutional trust unlocks a stupid amount of value, and you can’t buy it with money. Lots of resources (amenity rentals; the mayor’s endorsement; business services; pro-bono and monetary donations) are priced/​offered based on tail risk. If you can establish that you’re not a risk by having a longstanding, unblemished reputation, costs go way down for you, and opportunities way up. This is the world that Samaritans now operate in.

Samaritans has a much better, easier time at city hall compared to newer organizations, because of a decades-long productive relationship where we were really helpful with issues surrounding unemployment and homelessness. Permits get back to us really fast, applications get waved through with tedious steps bypassed, and fees are frequently waived. And it made sense that this was happening! Cities also deal with budget and staffing issues, why waste more time and effort than necessary on someone who you know knows the proper procedure and will ethically follow it to the letter?

It’s not just city hall. A few years ago, a local church offered up their recreation space for us to run an emergency winter shelter in – an incredibly generous move on their part, as using a space as a shelter puts a lot of wear on it. They made the offer only to Samaritans, and would not have made it to any other org. But we had good reputations for treating the unhoused well, and for cleaning after themselves when they move out of temporary spaces that were donated to them for use, so we got an exception.

Several companies with good reputations of their own and deep expertise on topics we weren’t as familiar with also approached us to do pro-bono work, both for their staff to get some fuzzies and to improve their own reputation as ethical companies who give back to the community.

Samaritans also leveraged their reputation proactively. Recently, we established a respectful and novel way of supporting the homeless in our city. The solution (in short, tiny homes on public land) would have been deadlocked for possibly years if the organization’s name didn’t grease the wheels significantly on many fronts. The city was eager to work with us, the NIMBYs were reluctant to come out against us, and the city’s unhoused community had a level of trust in us that made them willing to leave their established encampments.

I can see how it’s unfair for Samaritans to have gotten this kind of special treatment from everyone, and it’s the exact same dynamic that leads to entrenchment of older and less efficient institutions over newer ones. However, these dynamics are inevitable in any system or industry, and hard to overcome with brute cash. I am not very thrilled about having this take, but I think it may be worth figuring out how to gain similar kinds of advantage or leverage these dynamics for EA causes.

Sketches for EA integration

Thinking of money as a universal means of exchange slightly less. Money can buy many goods and services, but not all of them. I know it sucks for nerds to hear that reputation (popularity) is important but I think it’s unfortunately a real thing, and not just on the margin.

Thinking more about what actions and trade-offs EA organizations should take such that they’re beloved institutions in 25 years’ time – and if such a thing is worth it to pursue.

2. Non-Profits Shouldn’t Be Islands

Effective altruists consider the overall neglectedness of a cause area in terms of total field capacity, but when it’s time to donate, they support specific charities within that space. This approach makes sense, but it risks missing the bigger picture. Multiple organizations working on parts of the same problem can achieve more collectively than one big charity alone.

The non-profits I worked at communicated closely with community partners. This is good for the people we help. For example, knowing which shelters still have beds open (and what restrictions they impose around couples, pets, and drug use) when our own beds are at capacity so we can send people with very limited means for travel to places that can take them. Or which nearby food banks are open late if people arrive 5 minutes after we closed.

It’s also good for us, the service operators. It leads to better resource allocation and decision making on a community-wide scale. People who need the help of one charitable organization often need the help of other ones (e.g. food banks, affordable housing, job search support, and possibly translation support to access the above). When someone comes to your non-profit for a service, you can direct them to other services that they need.

When I operated the seasonal tax clinic, I can often see through people’s financial information when participants were eligible for benefits that they are not getting. I was trained in being able to spot this information by another non-profit that was focused on increasing benefits access for all Canadians. Providing assistance for benefits applications was out of scope for the tax clinic, but I was able to integrate a very streamlined path for referring people out to get those additional benefits at basically zero cost to us. I really don’t want to sound like I’m bragging here; it’s less that I was able to do that as much as there was a concerted effort by all community organizations to cross-train and communicate with each other to maximize the help that we can all provide to the community with the least amount of effort.

We were also able to take advantage of specialization, such as providing supervised injection sites for harm reduction purposes with staff trained by the non-profit that was focused on harm reduction specifically. Having another org provide training once every month or two was a lot more cost effective than having to have our own specialists.

Sketches for EA integration

Evaluate single charities slightly less, and [non-profit + government] networks for specific regions or cause areas slightly more, and think of possibly shoring up weak links. When evaluating new cause areas and how to best approach them, think about potential groupings of charities instead of single charities.

One question I often see on EA grant applications is something along the lines of “if we gave you 10x the money you requested, what would you do with it?” I think another useful question to ask could be something like, “what is your fantasy partner/​complement organization?” Lots of nonprofits are doing their thing and they have no intentions to expand to do an entire other thing, and if you give them more money they will just do more of their own thing. But I’d bet that a lot of them have recurring problems just outside of their own scope that they would love having another org to refer out to, and a sense of what those problems are could be useful for the EA community as a while.

3. Slack is Powerful

This was a really interesting lesson from Samaritans. Because we had staff for what were basically 20 semi-autonomous organizations doing almost uncorrelated things, we ended up with a lot of organizational slack. Different parts of the organization underwent crunch at different times, and people were temporarily re-allocated to smooth out the spikiness regularly. If you’re an organization of like 20 people and you can occasionally, with minimal friction, harness the efforts of 20 more people who are aligned with you, you can do some really significant barn-raising moves that you couldn’t if you were just an organization with 25 FTEs.

The coolest example I participated in was when 30 people from various departments showed up to help move an emergency shelter we were running from one location to another. The work included deep cleaning the previous space and the new space, doing last minute construction work in the new space, packing and unpacking a bunch of cot beds, sleeping mats and bedding, a boatload of laundry, re-assembling all of the beds and making them, moving in all of the kitchen supplies and sundry, setting up the phone system, and dozens of other miscellaneous tasks. What would have taken a week to do if it was just shelter staff ended up taking only two days, which was great for the people who were depending on us for shelter. In addition to this, the shelter folks were relatively well rested despite the ordeal and able to continue their work without burning out.

Sketches for EA integration

Thinking more about what sorts of resources can be constrained besides money. I know, I know, the EA thing is about how money beats other interventions in like 99.9% of cases, but I do think that there could be some exceptions – especially when it comes to staffing.

Creating a group of EA free agents that can be allocated/​rented to EA-aligned non-profits? One thing that might make sense is to have lawyers/​payroll/​HR people on retainer on hand to consult with fledgling nonprofits who aren’t big enough to hire them full-time.

4. Hospitality is Pretty Important

People won’t use your service if it seems impersonal and cold, even if, like, their livelihoods depend on it? Samaritans had a policy where we try to help people as much as we can and say no as infrequently as possible. As a result, people line up for up to six hours a day, or come back three or four days in a row, to use Samaritan’s services. While we’re drowning in this demand, competing service providers which are as close as a 5 minute walk away had no wait times.

This didn’t really make sense to me as we were helping with some pretty urgent things. Things like emergency benefits applications so a person can make rent and not get evicted, or helping new refugees find jobs before their savings run out.

Despite all this, trying to refer people out was a pretty futile practice. A lot of them will come back a few days later and say stuff like “I’m here because Samaritans are the only ones that will actually listen to my problems”.

From this, I’ve realized that it’s actually really important to make the people you help feel comfortable – especially since a lot of them likely had terrible experiences with other service providers previously.

Sketches for EA integration

Have nonprofits that are public-facing, and EA infrastructure orgs, care more about customer service.

This take is so basic that I honestly feel a little dumb giving it. But honestly yeah, I now think that organizations that are interfacing directly with the public can increase uptake pretty significantly by just strongly signalling that they care about the people that they are helping, to the people that they are helping. Be warm, caring, convivial presences.

Final Thoughts

Effective altruism aims to avoid the pitfalls of human brains and traditional charities by using optimized, data-driven approaches as much as possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of EAs see my takes here as a slippery slope to warm glow thinking and wanton spending that needs to be protected against.

My goal is that this post provides insight into why many relatively well run, non-EA organizations adopt these strategies. They recognize that reputation, relationships and culture, while seemingly intangible, can become viable vehicles for realizing impact. And when implemented responsibly, based on evidence, I think there’s room for compatibility with EA.

To be clear, I don’t actually expect that most of the strategies outlined here will pass muster when thrown into the cost-benefit analysis machine, most of the time. On the other hand, if there exists no marginal case in which they are useful at all, that would also be pretty surprising to me.

I hope that it’s clear that I am not aiming to strong-arm EA towards these practices; I only want to bring them to the community’s attention because I think they’re pretty neat. Better understanding of diverse approaches will only benefit this community, making it stronger, wiser and more able to do the most good.

Thanks for reading <3