Part II - Give Now or Give Later

Recently, Giving What We Can staff sat down with Holden Karnofsky, the co-founder of GiveWell. The goal was to try and critically explore GiveWell's methodology, research approach, and recommendations. The full interview can be downloaded as an MP3.

Giving What We Can's aim was to act as lawyers, not judges, to help GiveWell smooth over any potential flaws and become more accurate. In playing the 'devil's advocate', Giving What We Can might come across as more negative and skeptical than is their actual view of GiveWell.

Ultimately, these conversations are valuable because GiveWell relies on people to challenge them but, often enough, there are not enough feedback loops in the world of philanthropy. Giving What We Can's recommendations will also be improved, since we rely heavily on GiveWell's research. Likewise, it should benefit the thousands of people who donate based on GiveWell's recommendations and the hundreds of people who have taken Giving What We Can's pledge.

You can find the first part of the interview here.

Rob: As GiveWell is moving into different kinds of interventions (migration, catastrophic risk, etc.), do you worry that you might bring over too much skepticism because of the work you’ve done in the past on completely different areas?

Holden: There is a risk on both sides and we’re aware of it.  And I think the bigger risk is on the other side – not bringing in enough skepticism.  For example, global health has a really good track record – it’s quantifiable, measurable, and accountable.  The track record of people trying to do things that rely on specific views on how very low probability events will affect the very far future has a really bad track record.

Donors are afraid that GiveWell is good at understanding interventions with lots of evidence and accountability, but that when GiveWell moves into evaluating politics or asteroid impacts, one can’t know nearly as much, and GiveWell will underestimate their own uncertainty because they’re still thinking about global health.

I’m excited about politics and existential risk reduction.  I probably could give to more of these “blue sky” things when we have better recommendations, but I’m concerned that I’m just being crazy and overconfident.

Rob: Do you think there is a 50% or higher chance that GiveWell will find something twice as high impact as malaria within the next, say, five years?

Holden: I do, though again I’m worried about being crazy.  I don’t think we can make a really quantified or irrefutable case, so we expect people to use their own judgement calls.  GiveWell will move to just putting up information about different areas and explaining what Holden thinks and where he gives his money, but we’ll tell people they’ll have to decide for themselves because it will come down to very intangible judgements.

I personally think this highly measurable stuff is just not as high impact as this “blue sky” stuff, as long as the “blue sky” stuff is done right.  I assume it’s easily to do badly and therefore gets a bad reputation, but it could be done well and be at least an order of magnitude better than global health interventions.  But that’s just my guess, and I don’t know if Elie Hassenfeld would agree with me.

Rob: My impression is that Elie probably doesn’t.  But I basically share that outlook.  Therefore, I’m personally holding on to my money rather than donating it, because I expect that soon we’ll find a much more high impact place to put it.  I’d be curious to know if you are holding your money as well, and whether you think others should do the same, at least in the short-term.

Holden: I’m not holding on to my money.  I’m donating at a regular pace.  We wrote about this in “Give Now or Give Later?”. I think giving itself is a mechanism for learning.

Let’s think about this two ways.  First, you’re a big donor with your own foundation and your own staff.  At that point, giving regularly allows you to continue to gain access to the things you are giving to and continually re-examine your hypotheses in a way you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.  But I agree that foundations shouldn’t be giving out nearly as much now as they ought to when they finally understand enough.

A small donor won’t have this level of access.  But they can give to GiveWell’s top charities because it allows GiveWell to gain that level of access.  See our post that “Giving to GiveWell’s Recommended Charities Helps GiveWell”, because people will engage with GiveWell much more if GiveWell can demonstrate more money moved, and this will greatly improve our ability to find higher impact interventions.

Rob: I agree that’s true, but my guess is that consideration is outweighed by the chance of us finding something many times better.  Though there’s value in learning, there’s probably more value in holding on to your money.  Aren’t we kind of biased toward giving people advice that they should give more, because it’s better for our organisations.

Holden: There are issues about psychology when making recommendations about giving – for example, people who save might not always follow through.  I’m not concerned about this for myself, but I can see it being an issue for some people.  GiveWell takes a strategy of always saying what we think and not adjusting our advice for this psychology.

I disagree with your reasoning because if the whole effective altruist community were thinking your way, GiveWell’s input would be zero, and we couldn’t find opportunities better than the Against Malaria Foundation.  And most of our donors are considering this and won’t just continue to give regardless.

Rob: I definitely think that some people should be giving.  But given that you’re moving potentially $10M a year, I don’t think that adding an extra $100K is worth the cost in terms of not being able to later fully fund even better interventions.

Holden: I think it is worth the cost.  Of course, it’s not quite linear – the first few million is definitely more important.  But when you’re recruiting or talking to a charity, the bigger the amount of money GiveWell moves, the better.

And there’s still a concern that if you think this and restrict your money, others will follow, and GiveWell’s money moved will go down.

Paul: One response to these issues of psychology and having a credible impact down the line so charities will engage with you is to encourage people to donate to donor advised funds with a governance structure that charities can understand.  If GiveWell moved a few million dollars less directly to top charities, but had that few million dollars in a donor advised fund for “blue sky” projects, it’s not clear to me that this would decrease your ability to evaluate these “blue sky” projects.

Holden: I think that’s a reasonable observation, but it gets into questions of psychology.  If GiveWell could replace all the donations moved to top charities with donations to a donor advised fund, and emphasized the size of our assets rather than the size of our money moved, we would do this.  But if we could only do this for half our donations, things get more complicated.

Also, many people don’t understand what donor advised funds are.  It would need to belong to an organization in order to be useful and this is difficult to explain to people and it’s not very credible.  Keeping it simple is better.

Paul: How has the $1M for GiveWell Labs worked in gaining access to the sort of charities you talk to?

Holden: The $1M didn’t matter much at all because we started working closely with Good Ventures.  Good Ventures is accomplishing what you’re saying because they give to show they are serious, but they’re giving a small fraction of what they’ll eventually be giving.  And this is credible because people know about the size of their endowment.

As long as our relationship with Good Ventures stays strong, we’ll be able to gain access.  But being able to say that the “effective altruism” movement is a real movement and being able to say that the movement is recruiting lots of people and moving millions of dollars from individuals is very helpful to GiveWell.