Friday, March 13, 2015

How to talk about giving

Recently someone asked me about much to talk about effective giving. Some thoughts:
  • Blogging (or other forms of writing) are nice because reading is optional. If I write a blog post and link to it on Facebook, my Facebook friends can either choose to go read it or not. If they're not interested in the topic, it's not awkward in the same way that it could be in conversation. Because I'm not afraid of seeming pushy, I end up saying more in writing than I would in person, with the result that people who are interested can easily find what I have to say on the topic.
  • There's value to just casually mentioning that giving is something you do and that's important to you. I think of it kind of like vegetarianism - if you didn't know any vegetarians, it would probably seem like a weird and difficult lifestyle. But once you are in an environment where you know several vegetarians (for many of us, this happens in college), it starts seeming much more feasible and normal. Likewise, if you've never met anyone who gives 10% of their income, that might seem like a freakishly large amount, but once you know a couple of people who do it, you might start to consider it yourself.
  • For people with a tight budget, I think donating even a token amount every year is valuable because it lets you talk about your decision. You can say to a friend, "I try to donate some every December, and I was trying to figure out where to give this year. I was reading about [xyz charity] and found out [interesting fact], so I think I'll go with them because..." etc. 
  • I know a few people whose strategy is to talk about their favorite causes as much as possible and try very hard to persuade people. It's not necessarily a bad strategy  the Mormons have done very well for themselves by having a lot of earnest conversations with a lot of people  but I also think it's okay to take a more relaxed approach. 
  • If you're excited and ardent about this, it's fine to come across as excited and ardent, but please be careful of looking like a crackpot or obnoxious.
  • Please don't exaggerate your data. I've seen people using very low estimates for the cost to save a life, usually ones that are years out of date. GiveWell used to be a bit more forward with estimates like "It costs $X to save a life with mosquito nets", but after they found serious mistakes in even the best data out there, they're less more cautious about that kind of statement. You should be cautious, too. If you're slinging around numbers like $800 from an essay written years ago, and the current best estimate is more like $3,500, you're not helping the situation.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Thomas Cannon


I grew up hearing about Thomas Cannon, the "poor man's philanthropist" of my home town. He was a postal clerk known for leaving $1000 checks to strangers. Recently I received a book about him (thank you, David!) and have been enjoying reading about his life.

After his death in 2005, the Washington Post wrote:
He gave away more than $150,000 over the past 33 years, mostly in thousand-dollar checks, to people he read about in the Richmond Times-Dispatch who were experiencing hard times or who had been unusually kind or courageous.

Mr. Cannon supported his wife and himself, their two sons and his charitable efforts on a salary that never topped $20,000 a year. As one of his sons recalled, "There was nothing special about our home life. He went to work every day, helped us with our football and baseball, made sure we were taken care of." 

When he retired from the postal service in 1983, he and his wife lived in virtual poverty on his pension. "We lived simply, so we could give money away," he told the Times-Dispatch this year. "People say, 'How can you afford it?' Well, how can people afford new cars and boats? Instead of those, we deliberately kept our standard of living down below our means. I get money from the same place people get money for those other things."


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

2014 charity recommendations

GiveWell's charity recommendations for 2014 are out! They are recommending:
Giving What We Can recommends a similar list, with the substitution of Project Healthy Children rather than Give Directly.

I think GiveWell's process is the most rigorous in the field of poverty (process described here).  Giving What We Can also explains their process, so you can see if their value system might be closer to yours. If you believe animal welfare work is most important, Animal Charity Evaluators are the only people I know making recommendations in that field.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Hosting an effective altruism discussion

(Edit: Xio points out that there's a more complete post about these resources on the EA forum.)

Recently a friend and I were talking about hosting effective altruism meetups in our respective cities. If you're considering hosting a gathering for people to discuss effective altruism, how do you get started?

First, find out who's already in your area. Here's a list of upcoming events, Giving What We Can chapters, and The Life You Can Save groups. There's also a map of individual EAsmaybe you'll find someone near you.

If you'd like to host a gathering, this document has some ideas from different people (including me). If you've ever hosted an EA meetup, please add your thoughts to this document.
How to host an effective altruism meetup

If you want to start a group at a university, Ben's writeups are especially well-done:
Thoughts on outreach
Student group notes

Jeff talks about how to start a discussion at work:
Effective altruism at your work

This is probably an especially good time of year to host a gathering, since so many people donate in December. GiveWell expects to publish their 2014 charity recommendations by December 1, so consider organizing an informal gathering a little after that. Maybe just sending out an email and staking out a table in your workplace's lunch room for those who want to discuss charity selection.

I've also found that a lot of good conversations happen one-on-one when someone says, "I'm passing through Boston! Want to meet up for coffee?" Take a look at the map of EAs, add yourself to it, and consider having a chat with people near you or near where you travel.



Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Aim high, even if you fall short

Let’s say I believe it would be good for my health to go running every day. But I quickly realize that I don’t want to run every day, and that realistically I’ll only run a few times a month. It’s embarrassing to think of myself as being inconsistent, so perhaps I decide that running isn't actually good for my health after all. In short, I come up with new beliefs to suit the action I was already planning to take.

It's obviously silly to come up with new "facts" for the sake of convenience. Is it any better to come up with new moral beliefs for the same reason?

Sometimes I hear people say, "It seems reasonable to believe that people on the other side of the world matter as much as anyone else. But if I believed that, I should be trying a lot harder to help them, and that would require drastic changes to my life. So that's why I don't believe we have the same responsibility to help everyone." This way their actions are consistent with their beliefs—or at least, their beliefs are consistent with their actions.

Let’s take the question, “Is it wrong for me to eat meat?” Upon hearing the question, I immediately translate it as, “Do I want to stop eating meat?” The answer to that is, “No, I want to keep eating it.” So it’s tempting to answer the first question as, “No, animals don’t really suffer, so it’s fine for me to eat meat.” Very tidy.

Inconsistency, in addition to feeling icky, opens you up to criticism. People love to catch vegetarians eating things they’re “not supposed to,” while catching an omnivore eating a turkey sandwich gives no such pleasure. People love to criticize Peter Singer because he wrote an essay saying we should give money to poor people rather than buying new clothes and cars for ourselves, and yet he personally doesn’t wear rags or live in a hovel. (People rarely talk about the fact that he would find it harder to work as a professor and would persuade fewer people if he wore rags.)

And yet people might accomplish more good if they were willing to set high goals and fail sometimes. Give yourself permission to go partway. I’ve often heard people say, “I couldn’t be vegetarian because I’d miss [particular food] too much.” I felt that way about ice cream. So I spent a summer eating vegan - except for ice cream. It was morally inconsistent, and it felt much less morally pure to say, "I'm eating vegan ...um, except for ice cream," but it resulted in me eating far fewer animal products than I usually did.

And maybe if I'm honest about what I believe is right, someone else with more willpower or different life circumstances will be persuaded and go farther than I will. Certainly Peter Singer has persuaded many people that giving money is a good thing to do, even if he hasn't given away every last penny of his own.

In the end, it’s about what your goals are. Is your goal to be able to take pride in how consistent you are? To be irreproachable because your standards for yourself are low enough that you can easily meet them? Or is it more important to be honest about your moral beliefs and actually make some progress toward them, even if you don’t get everything done as well as you would like to?

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Donating as a student

Today I was talking with some undergraduates, and the topic of how to manage donations while in school came up. When you're taking on student loans, it can seem like a bad time to be giving money away.

Reasons to donate now, even in small amounts:
  • It keeps you in the habit of giving. There will always be a reason to delay — student loans, a mortgage, a child. If you're ever going to donate, you might as well start now.
  • It keeps you in the loop. If you need to decide where to donate each year, you end up looking at the latest charity recommendations. And you're thinking about your values and how you want to go about picking a place (or places) to give.
  • It lets you talk to others about your choices. Better to be able to mention “this great charity that I support” than “this great charity that I’m going to support . . . eventually.”
Some more thoughts on the student years:
  • Invest in yourself. It's worth it to spend extra money or time if you will gain useful skills, experiences, and connections. (Not that this means spending years backpacking in Europe. I always think of Bill Cosby's sketch on finding yourself.)
  • Value your time, not just your money. Katja Grace writes a good post on Using Time Effectively as a Student.
  • This is a time in life when people and experiences are probably much more important to you than material things. After school, keep your needs small rather than ramping up your spending.
  • Keep good relationships with your family. It’s not worth fighting with your parents about small expenses in order to donate a little more.
  • You probably have some money you spend on clothes, entertainment, etc. Consider donating a portion of that. For example, the Giving What We Can pledge asks students and other people without their own income to donate 1% of their spending money.
  • Tweak your budget once a month, or once a semester, or once a year.  Experiment to find what works for you.
  • This is a great time to join or start a group on effective altruism. Organizing gets a lot harder after you don't have friends and classmates all living on campus together. See if there's a chapter of Giving What We Can or 80,000 Hours near you. Or consider organizing something of your own, even if it's just talking with people over coffee.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

When intuition isn't good enough

Recently I was at a talk given by Rachel Glennerster of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty
Action Lab (JPAL).  In speaking about cost-effectiveness, she gave examples from
several different education interventions in Africa:

1) merit scholarships for girls
2) free primary school uniforms
3) providing information to parents on how schooling increases income
4) deworming through primary schools

All the interventions sounded pretty good to me. I could see how all of them might increase the number of years children spend in school.

But JPAL compared randomized controlled trials of each intervention, and when they looked at the additional years of education you get for the cost, these are the results:

Source: JPAL
This isn't perfect information: the studies are from different countries, and as with any studies, there's some uncertainty. But it's a lot better than relying on guesswork.

In retrospect, it makes sense that parents would prioritize schooling if they know more about education's economic benefits to their children. But I can make up just-so stories for why any of these would be the most effective. You could have presented me with any of those interventions, told me it was a great method to get children more schooling, and I would have found it believable.

(In fact, the Madagascar study tested whether it works better to give parents statistics about children's expected earnings or to have "role models" speak to parents about how education benefited them. The role model intervention is more common, based on the theory that impoverished parents with poor literacy aren't able to understand statistics. But the study indicated that they are able to understand the information given, and that it actually works better than having role models speak to them.)

These studies go beyond asking "Does it work?" That's a good starting place  after all, some interventions don't work at all  but it's not enough. Everyone from small donors to government policymakers needs to know about cost-effectiveness. Unless we have infinite money, we need to know where our money will go the farthest so we can start there. If we have $100 to give, there's a big difference between buying school uniforms (which we expect to result in less than one year of additional education) and providing information to parents (which we expect to result in over twenty years of education!)

This is why research is important. I'm glad there are people out there like JPAL getting more information so we're not just guessing.  

You can hear Rachel Glennerster's talk and others from the Good Done Right conference here. Apologies for the occasional baby sounds in the background, which are my daughter.