Blog post

'Giving Games' and Giving What We Can: an Interview with Jon Behar

7 min read
15 Jan 2014

Jon Behar left a lucrative job at an investment management firm to pursue dreams of running philanthropic projects. Behar runs a startup called "A Path That's Clear" which uses a model called "Giving Games". These games are run at colleges and other areas around the world and engage people in discussions about effective giving.

Rob Wiblin and I sat down to interview Jon Behar and learn more about Giving Games. Here's what we learned:

  • "Giving Games" are a way to get people engaged in discussing effective philanthropy by asking them to chose where to give a pot of money from two pre-selected choices;
  • These games can be used to experimentally test why people don't give more effectively and find ways to encourage them to give more and give better;
  • Donating to Giving Games could be an option to leverage an existing donation to a GiveWell top charity.

How would you describe "A Path That's Clear"? What does it do?

Our mission is simple and consistent with the mission of "Giving What We Can" - encouraging people to both give more generously and more effectively than they otherwise would. I aim to accomplish this by running "Giving Games", which is just a very simple way to engage people in conversations about effective giving. We gather people together and have a conversation about which charity they would like to give to from a few pre-selected options. The group is also given real funds to make a real donation, which gives participants a sense of ownership over the decision and also engages them in a conversation that encourages them to take a strategic approach to giving.

So far we've run about 25 Giving Games, most of which have taken place at colleges, though several were online and in other settings.

What makes this model appealing?

I see the model as a way to experimentally test why people fail to give effectively and see if we can find any methods to get them onto giving effectively. A Path That's Clear can test these things as hypotheses. Maybe people are afraid of putting up their own money? Well A Path That's Clear provides the money needed to make the decision. Maybe people don't have easy access to high-quality information on effective charities? A Path That's Clear can provide that information. Maybe people just think that "charity begins at home"? We can test that by running a Giving Game with a local non-profit and a non-profit working in the developing world.

What are some of the results of the Giving Games?

Right now, we're looking at the decisions players make to see if they actually give to more effective charities and see if they are thinking more about strategic giving. We do this through post-game surveys that ask players about their experiences and then also by getting feedback from the moderator of the Game.

The actual results of the Games are encouraging - in nearly all the games, the players have selected the more effective charity. But more importantly, players are indicating that their experience in the Game has changed how they think about philanthropy; they resolve to do more research and think about impact the next time they personally give.

We've also taken audio recordings of the Giving Games so I can listen in and the conversation flows freely. One of the driving factors for this is that we're not just getting a random group together, but rather a group with lots of existing social ties (club, sports team, dorm room floor, class) that are already comfortable with each other.

How has the model changed, if at all, in response to these trials?

We started out pitting the Against Malaria Foundation against, not another charity, but rather the option of letting players keep the money themselves. In this game, people chose AMF, but this decision was probably too obvious and the discussion was not as deep as we would have hoped. Once we decided to make the conversation about two different effective charities or about testing critical notions like "giving begins at home", we found the conversations started really going somewhere.

What's your plan for scaling this up? Who are you going to target? And what is your plan for making this sustainable?

In the long-term, I'd like to institutionalize this process at as many schools, universities, and workplaces as I can, though our main focus is on colleges and universities. I want to embed this conversation about how one can do the most good and make this part of the college experience.

We ran a Giving Game at Brandeis University with 25 students as part of their orientation process. That could serve as a pilot to hopefully making the Giving Game or this type of discussion part of the welcoming process of all students. I have started to very recently partner with The Life You Can Save to run Giving Games under their brand. I also have a few other leads and I'm optimistic we'd be able to get other donors out there. Lastly, I also intend to run an experiment soon with some economists at George Mason University who study giving behaviour. We'll do a Giving Game in a laboratory setting without a social component, because the social component makes it very difficult to control for variables. We're going to try and test some of the really basic assumptions of the model.

What's nice about the model is that anyone can run a Giving Game. Any donor who wants to leverage their giving by running a Giving Game can do so. I want to encourage as many people as possible to take the idea and run with it.

How do you intend to pay this? Including costs of running?

Initially I'd been funding this out of pocket, but I'm excited about this partnership with The Life You Can Save which opens up a lot more resources. I think that the bulk of the cost will be covered by donations, especially once we get up to scale. Luckily, I think there are a lot of people who would potentially donate to Giving Games. Anyone who is already thinking of donating to a GiveWell top charity can accomplish the exact same donation while also funding us, basically for free, leveraging their impact.

Does the amount of money on the table affect things?

Not much. It does need to meet some sort of threshold to get people interested, usually in the $50 to $250 range. However, in an activities fair, for example, even asking people to decide about a dollar was enough to get them to engage.

What would cause you to give up with Giving Games? Do you have an exit strategy?

Ultimately, the hope is that we'll get people to give more and give better. I need to trust the data to see if we actually do that. If we do five experiments and they all indicate that Giving Games turn people into, say, selfish misanthropic people, I need to respect that. I want to be very conscious as we're setting up the impact measuring systems to measure both the potential positive impacts and the potential negative impacts as well. Therefore, I think we need to get better at systematically measuring our actual impact. The surveys we have in place are nice, but then you have to trust self-reports, and our surveys aren't long-term enough. The logistics here are difficult because we're talking about people in their teens and twenties and we care about how people will give over the next 60+ years.

Something I'd like to do is to get some actual donation tracking set-up, but this introduces privacy concerns. The bottom line is that we're going to have to come up with clever ways to get real-time windows into those long-term dynamics. I think this will be a continual process of ramping up and it will really be ongoing, basically have already been started in the past. The experiment at George Mason that I mentioned earlier will be a big step in the right direction and hopefully even this coming academic year we'll have significantly more ability to measure what we're doing.

What do you think is the greatest weakness of the approach?

I think there's a potential for crowding out. There is the problem of people giving better but giving less, which is a consistent finding in the existing literature. My gut feeling is that it is not going to be an issue and crowding out will be quite minimal because you're concerned about crowding out not in the immediate aftermath, but rather over the participants' lifetimes. Given that most participants have a positive reaction to the game, I don't expect it to be a big issue, but it merits closer investigation and hopefully the George Mason experiment will shed light on that.

Have you had any success getting people to become Giving What We Can members or 80,000 Hours members through the games?

Occasionally we run Giving Games through Giving What We Can chapters where the chapter reaches out to random groups of students and asks them to participate. Generally, we've found that this does get those random people interested in participating in their local GWWC Chapter. But we don't have any evidence further than that and we don't know anyone who's taken the Pledge as a result of a Giving Game.

Can other people get involved in "A Path That's Clear"? If so, how?

They can email or get in touch through the contact us form. We love to get inquiries and we're eager to talk to folks and get people as involved as we can.