Cross-posted to the EA Forum. If you want to leave a comment, you can post it there.

Last edited 2015-09-24.

In this essay, I provide my reasoning about the arguments for and against different causes and try to identify which one does the most good. I give some general considerations on cause selection and then lay out a list of causes followed by a list of organizations. I break up considerations on these causes and organizations into five categories: Size of Impact; Strength of Evidence; Tractability; Neglectedness/Room for More Funding; Learning Value. This roughly mirrors the traditional Importance; Tractability; Neglectedness criteria. I identify which cause areas look most promising. Then I examine a list of organizations working in these cause areas and narrow down to a few finalists. In the last section, I directly compare these finalists against each other and identify which organization looks strongest.

You can skip to Conclusions to see summaries of why I prioritize the finalists I chose, why I did not consider any of the other charities as finalists, and my decision about who to fund.

## TL;DR

I chose these three finalists:

Based on everything I considered, REG looks like the strongest charity because it produces a large donation multiplier and it directs donations to both MIRI and ACE (as well as other effective charities).

# General Considerations

## Purpose of This Document

To date, my thinking on cause prioritization has been insufficiently organized or rigorous. This is an attempt to lay out all the considerations in my head for and against different causes and organizations and get some clarity about who to support.

This is originally inspired by conversations with Buck Shlegeris about the importance of cause prioritization, which he makes a good case for here:

(Buck makes some non-obvious claims here but I agree with the main thesis that we should spend more effort on cause prioritization.)

EAs spend a tenth as much time discussing cause prioritization as they should. Cause prioritization is obviously incredibly important. If given perfect information you could know that you should be donating to [cause area 1] and you’re actually donating to [cause area 2], then you are doing probably at least an order of magnitude less good than you could be, and I’m only even granting you that much credit because donating to EA charities in [cause area 1] might raise the profile of EA and get more people to donate to [cause area 2] in the future.

If EAs were really interested in doing as much good as they could, then they would want to put their beliefs about cause prioritization under incredible scrutiny. I’m earning to give this year, and I plan to give about 25% of my income. If I could spend a month of my year full time researching cause prioritization, and I thought I was 80% likely to be right about my current cause area, and I thought that this had a 50% chance of changing my cause area from my current cause area to a better one if I were wrong about cause prioritization right now, then it would be worth it for me to do that. […]

AI safety is attracting considerably more attention: Elon Musk has donated 10 million, and other donors or grantmakers may put more money into the field. This is still fairly uncertain, and I don’t want to count on it happening; plus, I expect MIRI to have a better idea of which problems matter than most AI researchers or grantmakers (MIRI researchers have been working full-time on AI safety for a while), so funding MIRI probably matters more than funding AI safety research in general. I’m concerned that FLI did not make larger grants to MIRI; this reflects negatively on MIRI’s potential room for funding. I suspect FLI is being too conservative about making grants, but they have more information than I do, so it’s hard to say. This is one of my primary concerns with MIRI. I’ve tried to find out more information about FLI’s decision, here but their grantmaking process involved confidential information so there’s a limit to what I can learn. ## Future for Humanity Institute (FHI) and Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) Both of these organizations are potentially high value, but representatives of both organizations have claimed that they are not currently funding constrained. Neil Bowerman from FHI: I would argue that FHI is not currently funding constrained….We could of course still use money productively to hire a communications/events person, more researchers and to extend our runway, however at present I would suggest that funding x-risk-oriented movement building, for example through Kerry Vaughan and Daniel Dewey’s new projects, is a better use of funds than donating to FHI for EA-aligned funding. source Sean O hEigeartaigh from CSER: We’re not funding constrained in the large at the moment, having had success in several grants. We have good funding for postdoc positions and workshops for our initial projects. Most of our funding has some funder constraints, and so we may need small scale funding over the coming months for ‘centre’ costs that fall between the cracks, depending on what our current funders agree for their funds to cover – one example is an academic project manager position to aid my work. source Both of these people posted comments on a Facebook thread after Eliezer said these organizations were funding-constrained. Apparently a good way to find information about an organization is to make public, incorrect claims about it. Edited 2015-09-21 to add: The fact that these organizations claim they don’t have room for more funding makes me more confident that they’re optimizing for actually reducing existential risk rather than optimizing for personal success. If one of them does become substantially funding-constrained in the near future, I consider it fairly likely that it will be the best giving opportunity. ## Future of Life Institute FLI organized the “Future of AI” conference on AI safety and funded AI research projects that cover a somewhat broader range than MIRI’s research does. It has future plans to expand into biosecurity work but at the time of this writing it has not gotten beyond the early stages. ### Size of Impact I expect the median FLI grant to be less effective than the same amount of money given to MIRI, but due to its breadth it may hit upon a small number of extremely effective grants that end up making a large difference. That said, the broader approach of FLI looks more reasonable to fund for someone who doesn’t have strong confidence that MIRI is effective at reducing AI risk. Some of FLI’s AI grants are probably highly effective. However, I find some of them concerning. Some of the research projects attempt to make progress on inferring human values. If the inferred human values are harmful (more specifically, they do not assign sufficient value to non-human animals or other sorts of non-human minds), the AI could produce very bad outcomes such as filling the universe with wild-animal suffering. I think this is more likely not to happen than to happen, but it’s a substantial concern, and it’s an argument in favor of spreading good values to ensure that if AI researchers create a superintelligent AI, they give it good values. I do not have the same concern with MIRI: I have spoken to Nate Soares about this issue, and he agrees that encoding human values (as they currently exist) in an AI would be a bad idea, in part because it might give insufficient weight to non-human animals. ### Room for More Funding FLI recently received10 million from Elon Musk and an additional $1 million from the Open Philanthropy Project. From Open Phil’s writeup: After working closely with FLI during the receipt and evaluation of proposals, we determined that the value of high quality project proposals submitted was greater than the available funding. Consequently, we made a grant of$1,186,000 to FLI to enable additional project proposals to be funded.

It sounds like Open Phil gave FLI exactly as much money as it believed it needed to fund the most promising research proposals. This makes me believe that FLI has no room for more funding. Even if FLI had wanted to fund more grants, I don’t believe I could actually allow them to do so.

### Learning Value

ACE does research and publicly publishes its results, so I believe donations to ACE have particularly high learning value. Peter Hurford has argued “when you’re in a position of high uncertainty, the best response is to use a strategy of exploration rather than a strategy of exploitation.” I expect donations to ACE to produce more valuable knowledge than donations almost anywhere else, which makes me optimistic about the value of donations to ACE. In particular, I expect ACE to produce substantially more valuable research per dollar spent than GiveWell.

## Animal Ethics (AE) and Foundational Research Institute (FRI)

Both these organizations do high-level research and values spreading for fairly unconventional but important values like concern for wild animals. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these turned out to be the best place to donate, but I don’t know much about their activities or room for more funding and I’ve had difficulty finding information. The only thing I can see them publicly doing is publishing essays. While I find these essays valuable to read, I don’t have a good picture of how much good this actually does.

A note to these organizations: if you were more transparent about how you use donor funds, I would more seriously consider donating.

## Giving What We Can (GWWC)

I’m skeptical about the value of creating new EAs because the 2014 EA survey showed that the average donation size was rather small. However, Giving What We Can members are probably substantially better than generic self-identified EAs because GWWC carefully tracks members’ donations. I can’t find any more recent data, but from 2013 it looks like members have a fairly strong track record of keeping the pledge.

At present, only a tiny fraction of GWWC members’ donations go toward GCR-reduction or animal-focused organizations, which may be much higher value than global poverty charities. Based on GWWC’s public data, it has directed $92,000 to far-future charities so far (and apparently$0 to animal charities, which I find surprising). If we extrapolate from GWWC’s (speculative) expected future donations, current members will direct about $287,000 to far-future charities. That’s less than GWWC’s total costs of$443,000, but the additional donations to global poverty charities may make up for this. But I’m skeptical if GWWC will have as large a future impact as it expects to have (a 60:1 fundraising ratio seems implausibly high), and it’s not clear how many of its donations would have happened anyway. I know a number of people who signed the GWWC pledge but would have donated just as much if they hadn’t. (I don’t know how common this is in general.) Additionally, I don’t see a clear picture of how donations to GWWC translates into new members. GWWC might raise more money than Charity Science or Raising for Effective Giving (both discussed below), but I have a lot more uncertainty about it which makes me more skeptical.

These various factors make me inclined to believe that directly supporting GCR reduction or high-learning-value organizations will have greater impact that supporting GWWC.

## Charity Science

Charity Science has successfully raised money for GiveWell top charities (it claims to have raised $9 for every$1 spent) through a variety of fundraising strategies. It has helped individuals run Christmas fundraisers and created a Shop for Charity browser extension that allows you to donate 5% of your Amazon purchases at no cost to you. It has plans to explore other methods of fundraising such as applying the REG model to other niches and convincing people to put charities in their wills.

### Size of Impact

Right now Charity Science focuses on raising money for GiveWell top charities. Its fundraising model looks promising–it tries a lot of different fundraising methods, so I think it’s likely to find effective ones–but I expect that the best charities are substantially higher-impact than GiveWell top charities, so this leads me to believe that donations to Charity Science are not as impactful as donations to highly effective far-future-oriented charities. I spoke with Joey Savoie, and he has considered doing research on effective interventions to help non-human animals. This is promising, and I may donate to Charity Science in the future if it ever focuses on this, but for now its activities look less valuable than ACE or REG (see below).

Edited 2015-09-16 to add: Carl Shulman points out that Charity Science’s 9:1 fundraising ratio substantially undervalues the opportunity cost of staff time, so the effective fundraising ratio is less than this. This looks like a bigger problem for Charity Science than for the other fundraising charities I consider.

### Room for More Funding

Based on Charity Science’s August 2015 monthly report, it looks like it could use new funding to scale up and broaden its activities. It has enough ideas about activities to pursue that I believe it could deploy substantially more funds without experiencing much diminishing marginal utility.

### Learning Value

Donations to Charity Science will likely have high value in terms of learning how to effectively raise funds. I’m uncertain about how valuable this is; I feel more confident about the value of learning about object-level interventions and I’m somewhat wary of movement growth as a cause, largely for reasons Peter Hurford discusses here.

## Raising for Effective Giving (REG)

### Size of Impact

In 2014, REG had a fundraising ratio of 10:1, about the same as Charity Science’s. I am somewhat more optimistic about the value of REG’s fundraising than Charity Science’s because REG has successfully raised money for far future and animal charities in addition to GiveWell recommendations. For details, see REG’s quarterly transparency reports. In the conclusion, I look at REG’s fundraising in more detail (including how much it raises for far future and animal charities) to try to assess how much value it has.

### Strength of Evidence

Edited 2015-09-21.

The case for REG’s effectiveness appears pretty straightforward: it has successfully persuaded lots of poker players to donate money to good causes. Along with other movement-building charities, REG faces a concern about counterfactuals: how many of REG-attributed donations would have happened anyway? I believe this is a serious concern for Giving What We Can–many people who signed the pledge would have donated the same amount anyway (I’m in this category, as are many of my friends).

REG’s case here looks much better than the other EA movement-building charities I’ve considered. REG focuses its outreach on poker players who were previously uninvolved in EA for the most part. Even if they were going to donate substantial sums prior to joining REG, they almost certainly would have given to much less effective charities.

REG is small and has considerable room to expand. They have specific ideas about things they would like to do but can’t because they don’t have enough money. I expect REG could effectively make use of an additional $100,000 per year and perhaps considerably more than that. This is not a lot of room for more funding (GiveWell moves millions of dollars per year to each of its top charities), but it’s enough that I expect REG could effectively use donations from me and probably from anyone else who might decide to donate to them as a result of reading this. REG receives funding through the Effective Altruism Foundation (EAF), but you can donate through REG’s donations page and the funds are earmarked for REG you can donate to EAF (formerly known as GBS Switzerland) and earmark your donations for REG. ### Learning Value Added 2015-09-17. REG looks less exploratory than Charity Science so it probably has worse learning value, but it’s still pursuing an unusual fundraising model with a lot of potential to expand (especially into other niches). REG appears to have fairly strong learning value, and I want to see what sorts of results it can produce moving forward. ## Other Organizations I know of a handful of other organizations that might be highly effective, but I don’t have much to say about. For these, I don’t have a strong sense of whether what they do is valuable, and they look sufficiently unlikely to be the best charity that I didn’t think they were worth investigating further at this time. I have included a brief note about why I’m not further investigating each charity. • Global Priorities Project: insufficiently transparent about activities • 80,000 Hours: unclear whether it has a positive effect • Direct Action Everywhere: evidence of effectiveness is too murky • Nonhuman Rights Project: weak evidence of effectiveness, unclear what partial success looks like • EA Ventures: insufficiently transparent about who gets money # Conclusions I have selected three finalist charities that are all plausibly the best, but they are in substantially different fields and therefore difficult to compare. ## Brief explanations for charities I’m not supporting Here I list all the charities I considered but are not finalists and briefly explain why I have chosen not to support them. • GiveWell-recommended global poverty charities: small effect size relative to GCR reduction • ACE-recommended veg outreach charities: small effect size relative to GCR reduction; weak evidence • FHI, CSER: limited room for more funding • FLI: weaker case than MIRI; concerns about encoding human values; Open Phil will fill room for more funding • Future Open Phil-recommended GCR interventions: Good Ventures/other donors may fill room for more funding; money now is worth substantially more than money in a few years • GiveWell/Open Phil: Good Ventures will fill room for more funding; less valuable than ACE • Animal Ethics, Foundational Research Institute: too much uncertainty about whether they’re doing anything effective • GWWC: unclear value • Charity Science: raises for less effective charities than REG ## Finalist Comparison I have narrowed the list of considered charities to three finalists: Here I give the advantages of each of them over the others. ### In Favor of MIRI over ACE • GCR reduction probably matters more than helping animals in the short term or spreading concern for animals, and AI safety looks like the most important and neglected GCR. ### In Favor of ACE over MIRI • I have a little more confidence that ACE leadership is good at achieving its goals. • ACE has better learning value. Due to the nature of its work, its activities produce a lot of new information, and ACE researchers are trying hard to make this information high-value. • ACE looks more funding-constrained, and animal welfare will probably continue to be an unpopular cause for longer than AI safety will. Similarly, funding now could do a lot to help ACE expand, whereas MIRI has stronger momentum. ### In Favor of REG: Weighted Donation Multiplier Edited 2015-09-17. To get an idea of the value of REG’s fundraising, I looked at the charities for which they have raised money and assigned weightings to them based on how much impact I expect they have. I created two different sets of weightings: one where I assume AI safety is the most impactful intervention (with MIRI as the most effective charity) and one where I assume animal welfare/values spreading is highest leverage (with ACE as the most effective charity). The AI model reflects my current best guesses, but I created the animal model to see what sorts of results I would get. This table shows how much money REG raised in each category over its four quarters of existence to date (in thousands of dollars), taken from its lovely transparency reports: Name 2014Q3 2014Q4 2015Q1 2015Q2 Total GBS 18 126 4 30 178 ACE 0 25 0 0 25 animal (veg) 0 100 0 0 100 speculative 0 25 0 20 45 MIRI 0 0 0 53 53 Other 20 93 53 50 216 Total 38 369 57 153 617 I used these fundraising numbers and assumed REG’s expenses through 2015Q2 are$100,000, extrapolating from 2014’s expenses of $52,318. For my two models I used the following weights: Category AI-Model Weight Animal-Model Weight GBS 0.2 0.2 ACE 0.5 1 veg advocacy 0.2 0.3 speculative 0.3 0.5 MIRI 1 0.2 Other 0.1 0.1 • Veg advocacy includes charities that promote vegetarianism and meat reduction. All charities in this category were ACE recommendations or ACE standout charities. • Speculative includes unconventional organizations that share my concern for non-human animals, including Animal Ethics and the Nonhuman Rights Project. • Other includes everything else; most of this money went to GiveWell top charities. For GBS, I conservatively assume that all money directed toward GBS goes to activities other than REG (and I give these activities a weight of 0.2). Accounting for GBS funding going back to REG involves some complications so to be conservative I ignore any compounding effects that occur this way. It’s not unlikely that categories in this model vary much more in effectiveness than the weights I have listed here. I decided to keep all the weights relatively close together because I do not have strong confidence about how much good each of these categories do. I might be able to make an inside-view argument that, say, MIRI is 1000x more effective than anything else on this list, but from the outside view, I shouldn’t let such an argument carry too much weight. In the AI/MIRI model, I found that$10 of REG expenditures produced about $16 of weighted donations; in the ACE/animal model, every$10 spent produced $15 of weighted donations. This means that$10 to REG produced about $16 in equivalent donations to MIRI in the first model, and$15 in equivalent donations to ACE in the second model.4

When we weight the charities that REG has produced donations for, its fundraising ratio drops from 10:1 to a much more modest 1.5:1. Donating to REG instead of directly to an object-level charity produces an additional level of complexity, which means my money has more opportunities to fail to do good. A 1.5:1 fundraising ratio is probably high enough to outweigh my uncertainty about REG’s impact, but not by a wide margin.

But there’s another argument working in REG’s favor. I have considerable uncertainty about whether it’s more important to support values spreading-type interventions like what ACE or Animal Ethics does, or to support GCR reduction like MIRI. GCR reduction looks a little more important, but it’s a tough question. The fact that REG produces a greater-than-one multiplier using both a MIRI-dominated model and an ACE-dominated model means that if I donate to REG, I produce a positive multiplier either way. If I choose to donate to either MIRI or ACE, I could get it wrong; but if I donate to REG, in some sense I’m guaranteed to “get it right” because donations to REG probably produce greater than \$1 in both MIRI-equivalent and ACE-equivalent donations.

I don’t want to put too much value on this fundraising ratio because there are various reasons why it could be off by a lot. It appears to show that REG fundraising is valuable even if you discount most of the charities it raises money for, which was my main intention. This alone is not sufficient to demonstrate REG’s effectiveness to my mind, but its leadership looks competent and its model has reasonably strong learning value.

A caveat: just because REG has raised a lot of funds for MIRI and animal charities in the past doesn’t mean it will continue to do so. But it raised these funds from a number of different people and over multiple quarters, so this is good reason to believe that it will continue to find donors interested in supporting MIRI and ACE/animal charities. Additionally, Ruairi Donnelly, REG’s Executive Director, has said to me in private communication that REG is meeting with more donors who want to fund far-future oriented work and that he hopes REG will move more money to these causes in the future.

There’s a concern about whether REG will continue to raise as much money per dollar spent as it has in the past. I expect REG to experience diminishing returns, although it is a new and very small organization so returns should not diminish much in the near future. I don’t have a strong sense for the size of the market of poker players who might be interested in donating to effective causes. It looks considerably bigger than REG’s current capacity so REG has some room to scale up, but I don’t know how long this will continue to be true. If REG’s fundraising ratio dropped to 5:1 and it didn’t increase funding to far-future charities, I would probably not donate to it; but it seems unlikely that it will drop that much in the near future.

## Decision

Edited 2015-10-17 after making the donation to REG.

Based on all these considerations, it looks like Raising for Effective Giving is the best charity to fund. My main concern here is falling into a meta trap. One possible solution here is to split donations 50/50 between meta- and object-level organizations. If I were to do this, I would give 50% to REG and 50% to MIRI. But I believe the EA movement could afford to be more meta-focused right now, so I feel comfortable giving 100% of my donations to REG.

After publishing this post, I spent one month talking to people about it and considering the issues involved. Nothing substantially updated my beliefs on cause selection during this period, so I directed my entire donation budget to REG.

## How to Donate

Edited 2015-10-17.

You can donate to REG by visiting its donations page and specifying that you want to give 100% of your money to REG operating expenses. If you click through to the next page, it will give you instructions on how to donate based on what country you’re in.

If you live in the United States, you can make your donation tax-deductible by giving to GiveWell and asking it to forward the money to REG.

## Where I’m Most Likely to Change My Mind

• Values spreading might be more important to fund than GCR reduction.
• REG might not have as large a donation multiplier as it appears to.
• Many of the charities REG directs donations to might be worse relative to the best object-level charity than I assumed, so donating directly to the best charity would have greater impact.
• Current far-future-focused interventions might have too-weak evidence supporting them.

I’ve had conversations with people who believe each of these, and while I’m unpersuaded right now, I find their positions plausible.

# Notes

1. REG’s fundraising ratio is less than 1:1 for both MIRI and ACE, but I still consider it more valuable than direct donations to either MIRI or ACE individually. I explain why in the section on Raising for Effective Giving and in the conclusion.

2. How to assess whether a person gives adequate concern to non-human animals could be the subject of an entire additional essay, but I don’t have a clear enough picture of how to do this to write well on the subject. My general impression is that people who claim to care about animals but have some justification for non-vegetarianism probably don’t actually care as much about animals as they say they do. They sometimes claim that the time and effort spent not eating animal products could be better spent donating to efficient charity (or something), but then don’t make trivial but hugely beneficial choices such as eating cow meat instead of chicken meat. I’m somewhat more convinced by people who eat animals but donate a lot of money to charities like The Humane League; I understand that vegetarianism is harder for some people than others, but actions signal beliefs more strongly than words do.

3. Eric Herboso used to work at ACE as the Director of Communications; he’s currently earning to give while volunteering for ACE part time.

4. It’s probably a coincidence that both models ended up with about the same weighted fundraising ratio. MIRI received about as much funding as ACE plus speculative non-human-focused charities, so these balance out in the two models.