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October 2017 Open Thread

This post aims to give blog readers and followers of the Open Philanthropy Project an opportunity to publicly raise comments or questions about the Open Philanthropy Project or related topics (in the comments section below). As always, you’re also welcome to email us at [email protected] if there’s feedback or questions you’d prefer to discuss privately. We’ll try to respond promptly to questions or comments.

You can see our previous open thread here.


Hi - these are two questions I wrote when Luke Muehlhauser did an AMA on his Animal Consciousness Report, but were more about OpenPhil’s organisational plans than the report itself, so I saved them for here. In an earlier blog post “Technical and Philosophical Questions That Might Affect Our Grantmaking” Luke mentions five major areas, of which one is the question of moral patienthood that the Consciousness report looks into a section of. Why did OpenPhil focus on moral patienthood first? Also, what other areas are you researching, and on what timeline might we expect similar reports to come out on the other topics? I’m especially interested to hear about work pertaining to cross-cause cost-effectiveness comparisons. Secondly, in the report, Luke mentions a potential program he could run to try to do foundational research on consciousness, involving a programming team and making predictive models of the mind. I understand there was some discussion of going ahead with this plan. I’m curious as to the state of this?

Ah, I’ve just been linked to this by a friend:… Which I believe tells me that the consciousness agenda was less tractable than expected and that it won’t be continued in part for that reason. (If there were any other interesting reasons why I’d be interested to hear them.)

Hi Ben, here’s a quick snapshot of where we are on the topics listed in this post.

#1 (Cross-cause cost-effectiveness comparisons) - we aren’t planning or working on any in-depth investigations/reports on these topics.

#2 (Making decisions under different kinds of uncertainty) - we have a draft blog post of some updated thoughts on these topics. It aims to surface some of our intuitions rather than break new ground. If someone did an in-depth investigation of some subtopic here, it probably wouldn’t be redundant with anything we’re working on.

#3 (Worldview diversification) - we’re actively working on this and expect to do an in-depth writeup.

#4 (Philanthropic coordination theory) - we aren’t planning any in-depth report or investigation here. We have a few approaches that we use in different situations on an ad hoc basis.

Since becoming an LLC, how has your thinking evolved around non-501(c)3 activities? Are all of these activities ad hoc for now, or is there some system behind them? Are you actively looking into making more for-profit investments and/or political donations?

Jacob, we generally try to be agnostic re: whether things are 501(c)(3) or not as we’re searching for giving opportunities. So we haven’t changed our approach much, except to remove some restrictions.

Thanks Holden! My instinct is that using the same decision-making process for non-profits and for-profits has some pretty big downsides, though is probably fine for 501(c)4s. 1. If you expect to make some return on for-profit investments, benchmarking them against pure grants doesn’t seem appropriate. E.g. a grant to Impossible Foods would be significantly different from OP’s point of view than an investment, since you can re-grant your returns. This applies even if you invest somewhere expecting to make a loss. The simplest solution to this, I guess, is to convert all investments into grants: an $X investment = an $X grant to the organisation + ($X * expected return * discounting factor) to GiveWell charities. Or if you just squint at it, = $X grant to the organisation + $X grant to GiveWell charities. Maybe you’re doing this already. 2. I could imagine the frame of “giving” is not the best frame to find high impact opportunities that are structured as for-profits. Other useful frames might be: companies working in areas OP thinks are important, that are unappealing to most investors due to being high risk, long term/illiquid, or lower than market expected return with large positive externalities. (Impossible Foods would have qualified on one or more of these, probably.) You could choose a group of companies from the last few decades you would have wanted to invest in early, and choose a group you wouldn’t have, and backtest how your decision-making procedure would have done in those cases. My sense is OP has done a good job of informal backtesting with non-profits grants, from looking into past successes in the history of philanthropy, but that the picture with for-profits looks quite different.

Jacob, to clarify, the change to an LLC hasn’t significantly affected our ability to recommend investments; 501c3’s can make investments.

Otherwise, I mostly agree with your analysis. We generally look for any opportunity to contribute to progress on our focus areas that cannot be justified on a pure for-profit basis. If we encounter investments fitting this description, we can analyze them as if they were grants, using a framework similar to what you laid out. We don’t think we have a comparative advantage in for-profit investing, so we generally try to use standard/conservative approaches to estimating likely financial returns.

Thanks Holden. That makes sense!

Hello Holden, and people reading, I’m going to paste an old comment to another post of few months ago and will add few lines. Thanks Hello Holden, Since a couple of months I began to study the world of philanthropy. Obviously for a personal need. I love your project because I think is going closer to the real needs of people. I can see that a lot of donors or foundation are focused to give away money, but not always to trustables or useful causes. As not US citizen, I think this way of donate is due to your taxes regulation, maybe. By the way I think that there is a niche of people needing help that is not being covered by charity causes, expecially in others part of the world. I understand that philanthropy cannot help the right here and now, and I see the amounts of money you and the other guys are moving to fund long terms and world changing causes, but what about the people with desease emergency, small or big causes, people in economic trouble…last year in Italy a lot of people commited suicides for not be able to pay taxes, in Mexico where I’m leaving now, 8 years old kids are working in the street, people asking loans with 80% of interest. I can tell you that here in Mexico is very hard find help, no charities, no foundations. The question here is why you can’t have a look to cases like these in crowfounding sites, I understand that you need trust the people who you give, but do you think is impossible to create a structure or organization to help people before they make something crazy, or desperate?? I’m not saying to open youcaring or gofundme or similar platform and just give, but maybe check to these people on any form could be something helpful. I saw previous comments and all you people looks very expert in the giving world. Unfortunally in this moment I’m on the other side, in a very bad situation and maybe, very selfishly, I don’t understand the billions of dollars given to foundations or organizations for space travel, animals, politics, foundations that fund organizations that fund project for fund foundations (obviously I’m not talking about you guys, I think you are trying to do the best). Look I’m not saying that this things will not save or help the world or a lot of people in a couple of decade maybe, but what about the families needing help for pay medical bills, people who lost its house, people who made errors in its life like me. Why not create an organization for human welfare. I tried to get help but what I found are organization for help the after, (I’m always talking of Mexico), the organization for help widows and orphans, for people in jail, I did not even found a bloo… telephone number to talk about my situation, I’ve opened a crowdfunding but it’s not working at all. Even in crowdfunding sites it looks like if there is an underlying business for feature and promote some post among others. Well, I just tried to express my thinking and to share a little my problem, I know I made errors in my life, but in the current picture of philanthropy and charities, it looks like I don’t deserve any help. Thanks for reading and sorry if this comment is not appropiate in this contest,

If tomorrow, the total amount available to OpenPhil to distribute went up by ~20x, do you have any initial reactions as to what extent that would change your activity and plans? My belief has been that it would have a highly significant impact, but others think it’s more likely that you would proceed largely as you do given the current amount of funds available.

I think the immediate impact would be small. Our priority right now is to continue at approximately our current level of grantmaking while trying to improve our processes and frameworks along a number of dimensions, before scaling up intensively. I think the eventual impact would be significant, though, as we’d eventually either need to build a much larger organization or seek out new kinds of giving approaches/opportunities that could absorb much more than what we currently focus on.

Thanks for the response; that’s informative.

I noticed ‘alcohol policy’ in the US policy cause spreadsheet. Are you looking into policy on other addictive “things” - e.g. sugar, smartphones/certain websites? The incentives of capitalism seem strongly aligned with more addiction, so it seems that this will increase over time, so if you view it as a problem, may be important to examine earlier on. Robert Lustig has written an excellent book on this topic: “The Hacking of the American Mind.” The book also touches on some topics that I believe relate to human flourishing - or at least informed me on certain things that I previously believed contributed to m personal+others flourishing, but I now believe don’t. If you’re curious, his podcast on FT Alphachat is a good introduction and summary of his ideas:

Since posting my question I’ve realized a slight modification I’d like to make. I suppose my questions are mostly of the form of ‘what evidence would you like to see that would increase your level of investigation into [X]?’ In this case, what evidence would you like to see that would increase your investigation into other addictive things, like social media websites, sugar, etc?

What is the limiting factor that would lead to a higher level of criminal justice reform grants? (From what I can see on the grants database, it seems like there was around $18mm of crim justice grants in 2016 and $6mm so far as of the 10th month of 2017, obviously excluding any non-public grants. I wonder why it is not higher given the priority of crim justice reform.) If there was ~$140mm in 2018 of highly value aligned crim justice reform grantees that seemed to have strong ROI projects where the projects may not be funded otherwise, would open phil be likely to recommend $140mm of grants, or are there certain internal upper limits?

From the Good Ventures vision and values statement: “Together, we can help humanity thrive.” To what extent would you say that Open Phil’s vision is also to help humanity thrive? If it’s to a large extent, has open phil done a research report on what “thriving” means and what leads to thriving? e.g. is thriving approximately equal to high “well-being” (long term happiness / life satisfaction and short term happiness / positive/negative feelings) in the view of open phil? If so, have you done a “weighted analysis” on what factors lead to more well-being/thriving - particularly weighting which things have substantial effects on well-being vs small effects? One thing I (vaguely) recall reading from Homo Deus was the suicide rates increasing in Korea as it became more prosperous. Does open phil worry about doing things that are “progress,” but that don’t actually increase people’s “happiness?” How do you plan around that? Would Open Phil continue to prioritize an area if it knew that it wouldn’t have direct or indirect large effects on the collective well-being of humanity? I vaguely recall reading something that implied cash transfers may not have increased the collective well-being of the recipients, because it increased the well-being of some but reduced the well-being of others by an equal or larger amount.

Additionally, what would make you/open phil increase your level of investigation into what ‘thriving’ is, what factors lead to it, and when/where progress that doesn’t increase happiness?

It seems like, for people/groups where increasing collective well-being / flourishing is a goal, the above questions may be crucial considerations

What is the most helpful thing people outside of Open Phil can do to help Open Phil, in your view?

I strongly believe that the transparency from Open Phil will have large benefits for the world. Are there any other things that Open Phil could be writing up and making public that may result in useful things that you’re currently not planning to make public, but would consider making public?

(I should add, my first sentence was intended to imply that I believe the existing level of transparency is already exceptionally good and I believe will have large benefits for the world. Given this, I wonder if even more things can be transparent.)

In a past thread you noted value aligned grantees as a limiting factor to Open Phil’s progress. To what degree have you thought about / done a research report on ways that funding could be used to increase the amount of value aligned grantees in the future? EA community funding may contribute to this, though it seems like there may be other methods of investing money today that could impact the supply of high quality opportunities and value aligned potential grantees in the future.

What would make you/open phil investigate [ways to use funding to increase the medium & longer-term supply of future value aligned grantees] more deeply?

Regarding the ‘improving democracy’ area. It seems that a large number of people have become more interested in political involvement since the 2016 election. Has Open Phil considered having impact via connecting those potential candidates with people in the EA community, and/or educating them on EA? I realize that open phil wouldn’t do the work directly, but I wonder if a “request for proposal” could be put out and expect that some EA organizations may try to do this. On a related note, what has led open phil to not put out (that I recall) any requests for proposals?

What would make you/open phil investigate [ways to align existing and incoming politicians that are likely to have capacity to allocate large amounts of resources, with EA/the concept of doing good most effectively] more deeply? (And of course with all of these it’s fine if the answer is nothing, i.e. maybe in this case open phil’s view is strongly that even if these people wanted to be EA style with their allocation, they would have institutional things that prevent them from doing so, or something else, etc.)

“Addiction is the disease of the 21st century.” As related to an earlier comment of mine, it does seem that capitalism’s incentives are very much aligned with more addiction, and so we will see more addiction, some of which will be negative and impede people’s ability to live a happy/healthy life. I imagine some of these addictions and dependencies in the future will be to things we are not yet heavily exposed to. I also believe that it should be possible to find general purpose addiction treatments, e.g. things that work similarly well for smoking addiction as they do for alcoholism as they do for smartphone addiction. Existing general and specific addiction treatments from what I can tell are shockingly bad, in terms of their % success rates. (E.g. look at the research into addiction treatments for smoking - as far as I can tell, the best I could find in the literature had a ~32% success rate) Would open phil consider doing a shallow investigation into more effective addiction treatments?

Modify the last question to: What would make you/open phil investigate [more effective general addiction treatments] more deeply? Side note, as best as I can tell, 12-step programs don’t appear to be particularly effective by my definition of effective:,,

It seems like the incentives of ad driven companies are aligned with increased polarization. (Us vs them content seems to be good for clicks/shares) While we’ve obviously had us vs them narratives for a long time, it does seem to be somewhat different now in terms of scale, frequency, and speed to reach people. Separately, it seems that a fast path to notoriety/fame is to promote us vs them polarization, for everyone from political commentators to YouTube influencers. I’m currently pessimistic on this trend, and don’t see obvious ways of reversing it. That said, I haven’t “done the work” and researched it thoroughly, and so there’s no reason why my pessimism should be accurate. Would open phil consider looking into polarization as driven by ad-based business models and the desire for fame/status at a shallow level?

Modify to: What would make you/open phil investigate [polarization in the media/politics/online] at a shallow level?

“This post aims to give blog readers and followers of the Open Philanthropy Project an opportunity to publicly raise comments or questions about the Open Philanthropy Project or related topics (in the comments section below).” From Open Phil’s perspective, what is the goal or ideal outcome of these threads?


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