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aeschenkarnos comments on Efficient Charity: Do Unto Others... - Less Wrong

130 Post author: Yvain 24 December 2010 09:26PM

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Comment author: aeschenkarnos 25 December 2010 02:09:46PM 0 points [-]

Only if you assume that (a) donors are actually aware of an 85%:15% split in the charities' disfavor; (b) approve of that. I would expect the naive assumption to be on the order of 90%:10% in charities' favor, but maybe that's just me.

Now, their donation pages for separate charities eg http://www.givewell.org/international/top-charities/villagereach/donate do state that the donation is direct to the charity, which is .a good thing.

So it's "I'm willing to take your money for me, but if you want to give it to X, give it to X directly" vs "I'm willing to take your money for me to split between me and X, or you can give it to X". Now on the face of it, that looks like X would get more money in the second scenario, as you point out. However there is an inherent naive assumption there that the split will be fair to X. If Donor A wanted to give $50 to Charity Navigator and $50 to charities through Charity Navigator, A has to give those amounts separately. If A wants to give $50 to Givewell and $50 to charities through Givewell, A may be tempted to just give $100 to Givewell under the assumption that Givewell will split it $50/$50. I suggest that donors who assumed that Givewell will be splitting at 50%/50% or better, have been if not deceived, at least permitted to operate under a false assumption where the one who could correct the assumption (ie, Givewell) benefits from not doing so. I think the split with potential breach of trust is more ethically dubious than the known split.

I'll admit that it's possible that Givewell have cleaned their act up since 2007. But they seem to have a significantly higher online profile than Charity Navigator, while also seeming to have a smaller number of charities rated and smaller amount of money donated due to their influence, which "smells funny" (or if you prefer, triggers heuristic estimates of suspiciousness) to me.

Comment author: alexanderis 26 December 2010 01:00:52AM *  6 points [-]

I don't know what metric you're using to determine whether CN or GiveWell has a significantly higher online profile, but "charitynavigator.org" returns ten times as many hits on Google as "givewell.org"

No doubt about it, Charity Navigator evaluates more charities, but they're able to do so because they use a substantially less rigorous methodology. They carry out a fundamentally different function: they're a watchdog group, aiming to avoid fraud, while GiveWell conducts research to try to find excellent charities, a much more difficult task. (Looks like Yvain makes this point above).

Because it's younger and appeals to a smaller group of people that want to maximize their impact, GiveWell moves substantially less money than Charity Navigator (though it's growing).

Edit: I've been a fan of the GiveWell project for quite some time, and have an informal agreement to join GiveWell as an employee in mid-2011. I'm a student and was commenting simply on my own behalf, without any discussion with GiveWell. After Holden commented, I emailed him to say that I had commented, and he recommended that I disclose my plan to work for them.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 25 December 2010 05:15:48PM 4 points [-]

"we may use these funds for operating expenses or grants to charities, at our discretion" (source: http://www.givewell.org/about/donate ) This does not imply "we will treat the charities fairly" at all. It implies nothing about the numerical split.

My quick attempt to find charity navigator's favorite charities: http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=topten.detail&listid=100 There are several universities drowning in money on this list. That does not sound very efficient. Looking for an explanation, they seem to care too much about % operating expenses and so on, and not enough about real impact.

Doing the same for GiveWell (looking at US to make it more comparable): http://www.givewell.org/united-states/top-charities We have two charities. Both are evaluated based on marginal impact and measured effectiveness. The second, KIPP, is an extremely "cool" program.

Conclusion: It appears as though GiveWell recommends more efficient charities with better criteria. GiveWell also seems to behave in a manner that sounds better to Internet geeks, for example with their mistake list. This is sufficient explanation for their Internet popularity.

Comment author: shokwave 25 December 2010 03:09:41PM *  4 points [-]

It is possible that Donor A may choose to donate fully to GiveWell for many reasons, including a prior assumption that it's 50:50 or better without checking easily available facts. This reflects badly on Donor A, not GiveWell, and does not in any way make a case for calling GiveWell "ethically questionable". The most you could possibly say is "GiveWell does not overly pander to the lowest common denominator enough" but these people are already donating their money to Make a Wish foundation or something equally silly.

I belabour this point because charities run solely on their appearance as ethical, and to the extent that your comments deprive GiveWell of possible donations on the basis of spurious claims, you're doing a bad thing.

Comment author: HoldenKarnofsky 29 December 2010 04:39:24PM *  16 points [-]

This is Holden Karnofsky, the co-Executive Director of GiveWell. As a frequent Less Wrong reader, I'm really glad to see the thoughtful discussion here. Thanks to Yvain for calling attention both to GiveWell and to the general topic of effective giving.

First off, much of this content overlaps with our own, so people interested in this thread might also find the following links interesting:

I'm mostly posting to clarify a few things regarding the concerns that have been raised about GiveWell (by aeschenkarnos).

  • We regret the astroturfing that aeschenkarnos brought up. This incident is disclosed, along with other mistakes we've made, on our shortcomings list , which is accessible via a top-level link on our navigation bar.
  • Regarding the split between grants to charities and funds spent on our own operations:
    • Early in our existence, we relied on making grants of our own to charities. We weren't able to point them to any benefits that would come from our recommendations (since we were new and had no track record of influencing donations), so rather than inviting them to be reviewed, we invited them to apply for grants (subject to certain conditions such as public disclosure of application materials). Grantmaking is no longer important to our process and we no longer solicit donations to be regranted, though we still occasionally receive them. That explains why the % of our funds spent on grants has fallen a lot, though it hasn't hit zero.
    • At this point, we actively solicit donations to GiveWell only when dealing with institutional funders or with people who have a relationship with us. When dealing with the general public, we put the solicitation on behalf of recommended charities - rather than ourselves - front and center. Our top charities page, linked prominently from our front page and navigation bar and in other places throughout the site, links to "donate" pages for top charities ( here's the one for our top-rated charity VillageReach ) that allow us to track donations, but otherwise take no part in the donation process (the money does not touch our bank account). These "donate" pages also are linked from charity reviews. The only way to get to the "Donate to GiveWell" page is under "About GiveWell." If donors make a considered decision to support us rather than our top charities, we want them to be able to do so, but our site is designed to push the casual user to our top charities.
    • In 2009 we tracked ~$1 million in donations to our top charities as as result of our research, while our own operating (non-grant) expenses were under $300k. We expect 2010 to have a higher "donations to top charities" figure on similar operating expenses. We are still new and hope the ratio will improve substantially over time.
    • We have a policy of regranting unrestricted funds if our reserves go above a certain level; we don't believe in building a massive endowment for ourselves. This is the only condition under which we regrant unrestricted funds. We don't want donors to fear that we might blindly pile up reserves without limit (we won't), but we don't want to get into all the details of our "Excess reserves" policy on the Donate page, so we went with the language: "we may use these funds for operating expenses or grants to charities, at our discretion."
    • Bottom line - grantmaking used to be an important part of what we do but it isn't now; the % of our funds spent on grants is not a meaningful figure.
  • Regarding Charity Navigator:
    • I believe Yvain is correct to say that Charity Navigator does not evaluate effectiveness (and admits this) and that GiveWell does. See also this recent New York Times article on planned changes at Charity Navigator and Charity Navigator's disclosure of the full details of its current methodology.
    • I agree with alexanderis that "number of charities rated" is higher for Charity Navigator primarily because its research is not as in-depth. I believe Charity Navigator would agree with this as well.
    • I believe that Charity Navigator has a significantly higher profile than GiveWell, overall, and know of no evidence suggesting otherwise. However, GiveWell does have a higher profile within certain communities, including Less Wrong. I attribute our higher profile on Less Wrong to specific individuals including Michael Vassar, Anna Salomon, Carl Shulman, Razib at GNXP, and multifoliaterose. I don't believe any of these individuals have plugged GiveWell in ignorance of Charity Navigator (in fact I have probably discussed the differences specifically with each of them).

We've worked to find the best, most cost-effective charities (in terms of actual impact per marginal dollar) and write up all the details of our analysis. We welcome more comments and questions about our work, whether here, on our blog, or via email.

Comment author: aeschenkarnos 09 January 2011 08:37:13AM 7 points [-]

Alright. You've given an explanation here that seems reasonable to me, and you've continued to run GiveWell for significantly longer than I would have expected if you were just in it for yourselves. For what it's worth, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and I wish you well in your mission.