Podcast interview #3

Giving Multiplier Interview with Joshua Greene

10 min read
12 Aug 2021

We recently spoke with Joshua Green, a renowned psychologist and author of the book Moral Tribes. He recently co-founded Giving Multiplier along with a Giving What We Can member Lucius Caviola.


Giving Multiplier aims to make it easy to introduce people to effective giving by adding bonus money onto their donations if they include highly effective charities alongside their favourite ones. Giving What We Can members get a special higher matching rate to share with their friends and family.

Lucius Caviola and Joshua Greene (along with Stefan Schubert) also recently published 'The Psychology of (In)Effective Altruism' which covers some of the research that led to Giving Multiplier.

Here's Joshua explaining how Giving Multiplier works:


How does Giving Multiplier work?

So you go to givingmultiplier.org, and after you get a little bit of an explanation about what the thing is all about, the first thing you do is pick a charity that speaks to your heart. One of your personal favourites, right?

And then the next thing you do is you get a list of highly effective charities that have been evaluated and endorsed by organizations like GiveWell, which focuses on finding the best charities for global health and poverty, Animal Charity Evaluators that works on animal charities to reduce animal suffering, and Founders Pledge also has provided evidence for the climate change charity that we're supporting. So you get one of these nine highly effective charities that serve different causes, and you get little explanations about each of those and what they do and why it's important. And you pick one of those.

So now you've got your two charities, the one you picked and the one you took from our list.

And then you decide how much you want to give and how you want to divide your gift between those two. And the more you give to the highly effective charity that we recommended, the higher the matching rate. But whatever you do, as long as you give at least 10% to one of the charities that we pick, you get an additional bonus added on top of both donations.

And then, after you've made your donation, you have the opportunity to pay it forward and support the system so that other people can do what you just did.

What research led to its development?

So for a while, I (and others in my lab) have been trying to understand what it takes to persuade people to give and to give more effectively when they're making charitable donations. For a long time, we tried what seemed like the most obvious strategy to us: to try to convince other people the way we ourselves were convinced.

So I was convinced long ago when I read the philosopher Peter Singer's famous article 'Famine, Affluence, and Morality' in which he compared the predicament of charitable giving or the opportunity of charitable giving to like walking along, and there's a child who's drowning in a pond, and you can save their life at relatively little costs.

It's not zero cost because you might muddy up your clothes, but a relatively small cost compared to saving someone's life. And then Singer famously says: well, there are opportunities out there in the world where you can see save someone's life for the cost of replacing whatever clothes you're wearing.

You should do that. And as a young man, I thought, "you're right, I should do that". And I started doing that, at least to some extent. And so, the natural thought was to try to make the same argument to other people. And what we found is that there's a small number of people who are highly susceptible to this argument: and we go, "yes, of course, why didn't I think of that?", right?

But most people may think it's an interesting philosophical puzzle. They're not necessarily moved to really act on that and change the way they use their resources.

And so recently working with Lucius Caviola, who's my collaborator in the lead on all of this research, we had a different idea, which is instead of trying to persuade people: instead of doing what you're doing, give and give to the most effective charities, the ones that pull the most children out of the metaphorical drowning pond. We have this simple idea, which is just: instead of telling people to do that, instead of what they're doing, say, "why don't you do both"?

Why don't you pick a charity that you love that really speaks to you? Maybe it's something, you know, related to poverty or children, you know, in your neighbourhood or who are like you in some way.

But then also look at the research and choose a charity that is likely to do an enormous amount of good with relatively little money.

And so we presented this in experiments to people and what we found was that a lot of people were very happy to make this kind of split donation where they pick one that speaks to their heart, and they pick one that makes sense to their heads based on their understanding of the research. And they're willing to do that.

And then we did some follow-up experiments where we thought, well, huh, if we incentivize people, if we say, "Hey, we'll add 20% on top if you do this", then even more people were happy to do that. We didn't know if that would backfire or something like that, but it turns out no people were like, great. If you're going to add to my donations, I'll give even more.

And finally, we found that if we asked people after the fact, we said: "Hey, you agree to make this donation, and we added some money on top, would you take some of what you gave and contribute it to a fund which would then pay for matching funds for other people, so you can pay it forward just the way you got these extra bonus dollars for your donation, would you give some bonus dollars to somebody else?"

And we found that not everybody, but a fair number of people, were willing to do that. And enough that it looked like this whole thing could be self-sustaining that there'd be some donors who are willing to provide matching funds that encourage other people to donate and donate more effectively.

And so we put all this together, and we were like, well, it seems like this should work. So we thought we'd give it a try in the proverbial real world.

And so, with the help of some very generous web developers, we created Giving Multiplier, which gives people the opportunity to make these kinds of split donations, where you give one from the heart and one from the head, so to speak, and then you get money added on top. And if you want, you can support the whole thing so that it can keep going.

And it's been successful beyond our wildest dreams in this less than a year that it's been, it's been running.

What have been the results since it launched in November 2020?

So we launched this at the beginning of the giving season, and since then, we've raised over half a million US dollars. And actually, up to around now, I think we're up to about $600,000 total. That's not a huge amount in the grand scheme of philanthropy, but if you're using that money effectively, you know, $600,000 use that effectively, and it can do an enormous amount of good.

We're delighted with how generous people have been and how many people have supported it. The other thing that was just this wonderful surprise, even though it was what we predicted based on the research, is that it has been entirely self-sustaining.

So, you know, everyone's heard of charities having matching funds where they say, oh, we're running a matching campaign where if you give this, this other donor will match it. But it's always a kind of external angel donor. Who's sort of in cahoots with the charity as part of the promotion.

But what we have here is regular people who are finding the site on their own, being those angel donors, doing what we call 'micro matching', and that's a fundamentally new thing as far as we know in charity, and it's made it so that the system is self-sustaining that there are enough people who are willing to pay it forward and support and incentivize other people to make donations in order to cover those incentives that bring them in.

So it's just been this wonderful virtuous circle. I hate to say this, but you know, several people say, "gosh, this sounds like a Ponzi scheme". And like structurally, it does have certain kinds of elements in common with a Ponzi scheme, but with a Ponzi scheme, you know, it all runs out at some point where everyone's looking to get more money out of it and then someone's left empty-handed, but this has this inverse pyramid structure where it is grows and grows, but there's no reason why it has to end, or anyone has to be disappointed in the end. On the contrary, the natural end is when you know global poverty has been eliminated. So we're not, not there yet, but it's it creates this wonderful virtuous circle.

(Luke: A big pay it forward scheme.)

Yes, pay it forward.

How have most people discovered Giving Multiplier?

So it's been a mix of things. There was a really great article in Vox by Sigal Samuel, who did a lovely job of explaining it. Lucius Caviola, who I mentioned, wrote a really great piece about it with Peter Singer in his syndicated column. Lucius and I also had an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. And then there were a lot of just super helpful people who helped spread the word on Twitter. But it's, so it's mostly been, you know, a little bit of media and a lot of word of mouth.

(Joshua later added that his conversation on the Waking Up app with GWWC member Sam Harris has also led to a lot of new donors discovering Giving Multiplier)

What is the special offer for the GWWC community?

Yeah, so people who are a part of Giving What We Can already get the idea of giving and giving effectively.

But what we're hoping is that members of the community can use Giving Multiplier as a really nice, friendly, positive way to introduce other people to effective giving by having a kind of offer that meets people where they are and isn't telling them to stop doing something that they already want to do.

It says, look, whatever you love, whatever you want to support, that's great. Keep doing that, but also consider supporting these charities that really do an enormous amount of good per dollar.

I think that's a very friendly way to bring people in, and to sweeten the deal a little bit, we are offering a higher matching rate to Giving What We Can members and their friends and family, the people that want to spread it too. So we will offer a 60% match for giving entirely to an effective charity, and for a 50/ 50 split, we'll offer a 30% match, and then there are different rates in between. And you can see when you go to the website, you can adjust the little slider. So hopefully, that opportunity will sound like a heartwarming good deal to people.

(If you haven't recieved an email with your special matching code, you can use this one.)

What are the plans for Giving Multiplier in the future?

Well, right now, we can only offer people charities registered in the United States. And that's because our whole website is actually made possible by our wonderful partners at every.org. So we are working on giving Every the capacity to make donations outside of the United States. And so we hope to expand to Canada, the UK, and Australia, and then outside the English speaking world. So that's hopefully international soon. And I should say you can still donate outside the US; you just don't get the tax benefits from donating because these are the US versions of these charities.

And then the other thing is we're working on setting up a system so that people can make a recurring donation. We were delighted to see that a lot of people said: "Hey, how can I do this every month?". So hopefully there'll be greater opportunities for people to give more widely around the world and more regularly.

Any closing thoughts you'd like to add?

It's been great to have the opportunity to share these thoughts with the Giving What We Can community. There's no group of people who I admire more than the people who've made this commitment to making the world as much better as they possibly can.

I hope that Giving Multiplier can be a useful tool for bringing more people into this circle of effective giving and doing as much good as possible. And looking forward to seeing what people do with it. Thanks so much for giving me a chance to share these ideas.

Thanks to Joshua for joining us - don't forget to share GivingMultiplier.org using the unique one emailed to you if you're on our mailing list (if you haven't recieved an email with your special matching code, you can use this one.)