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Suggestions for Individual Donors from Open Philanthropy Staff - 2019

Last year, the year before, the year before that, and the year before that, we published a set of suggestions for individual donors looking for organizations to support. This year, we are repeating the practice and publishing updated suggestions from Open Philanthropy program staff who chose to provide them.

The same caveats as in previous years apply:

  • These are reasonably strong options in causes of interest, and shouldn’t be taken as outright recommendations (i.e., it isn’t necessarily the case that the person making the suggestion thinks they’re the best option available across all causes).
  • In many cases, we find a funding gap we’d like to fill, and then we recommend filling the entire funding gap with a single grant. That doesn’t leave much scope for making a suggestion for individuals. The cases listed below, then, are the cases where, for one reason or another, we haven’t decided to recommend filling an organization’s full funding gap, and we believe it could make use of fairly arbitrary amounts of donations from individuals.
  • Our explanations for why these are strong giving opportunities are very brief and informal, and we don’t expect individuals to be persuaded by them unless they put a lot of weight on the judgment of the person making the suggestion.

In addition, we’d add that these recommendations are made by the individual program officers or teams cited, and do not necessarily represent my (Holden’s) personal or Open Phil’s institutional “all things considered” view. Also, I just want to note that per our policy we’re no longer publishing all potentially relevant relationships.

Suggestions are alphabetical by cause (with some assorted and “meta” suggestions last).

Criminal Justice Reform – recommendations by Chloe Cockburn, Jesse Rothman, and Michelle Crentsil

Note: The CJR program has a limited budget and many grantees we would support more generously if we could. Accordingly, the rest of this section will omit the “Why we aren’t fully funding it” section.

The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls

What is it? The National Council, founded and led by Andrea James, convenes, trains, connects, and drives policy campaigns with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and girls around the country. Their work ranges from hyper-local work (sometimes supporting groups that cover just a few blocks) to national. They focus on the incarceration of women, the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population. Their work also affects the larger field, as campaign tactics and strategies tested here can be expanded to the whole, and women are a more sympathetic population to start with in moving transformative changes.

Why we recommend it: Andrea and her team, who are all formerly incarcerated, are in deep relationships with emerging leaders around the country. We think that they are best situated to identify the strongest leaders and efforts meriting support in this rapidly growing area of the field. For example, thanks to the Council, we met Dawn Harrington of Free Hearts and have supported that group. We feel very aligned with the National Council on commitment to impact, and trust them to make better decisions than we would in this area, and in so doing to lift up more groups that we and other major donors could fund at higher levels. Money to the National Council will increase their capacity to make subgrants and in other ways support emerging groups and leaders. We think that even small contributions will go a long way.

How to donate: Here’s a link to donate to the Council. If you’re interested in making a large (>$10,000) contribution, it’s helpful if you can contact us to help you and the organization manage contribution logistics.

Life Comes From It

What is it? Life Comes From It is a grants fund supporting restorative justice, transformative justice, and peacemaking work around the United States. Grants are limited to $25,000, and decisions are made by a circle of highly experienced practitioners. Chloe worked with restorative justice leader Sonya Shah to set up the fund after it became apparent that the restorative justice and related fields are nowhere near developed enough to be prepared for the types of political victories in favor of reform that groups around the country are fighting for and winning. The fund takes requests from many dozens of groups and will grant ~$900,000 in 2020, with funds raised from multiple donors. Chloe is the administrator of the fund but does not make grant decisions.

Why we recommend it: The practitioner circle that’s running the fund reports that they have more good opportunities for funding than they have resources, and that they would like to increase their funding to some existing grantees. They are the only potential source of funding for many groups that, in the future, are going to be at the forefront of implementing larger scale alternatives to jail and prison. Just as with the National Council, we are happy to see extremely qualified people, who are very close to the ground on their issue, and whose goals we are aligned with, make these decisions where funding goes.

How to donate: Here’s the link. If you’re interested in making a contribution over $5000, it’s helpful if you can email Sonya (link on the donation page) to make sure there are no hiccups in processing.

Worth Rises

What is it: Worth Rises identifies and challenges predatory corporate practices in prison and jail systems. Executive Director Bianca Tylek uses her background on Wall Street to focus on financial leverage points to change harmful practices. They have produced a good report on the thousands of companies profiting off of current systems, and have in the past year led an extremely successful campaign to challenge Securus, one of the largest prison services companies (which charges extraordinarily high rates for phone calls from jail and prison). As a result of their efforts, the private equity firm that owns Securus has been singled out by the press on multiple occasions, in ways that have (according to Worth Rises) substantially impacted their bottom line and ability to raise funds from major investors; Platinum is now restructuring the company to preserve its value. This has implications not only for the cost of phone calls, but for all private companies in the criminal justice space, the vast majority of which are owned by private equity.

Why we recommend it: Worth Rises has shown that it can have extremely leveraged impact on its targets. It’s a very satisfying organization to support in terms of watching a $100k contribution have a $100 million (or more) impact on the valuation of a harmful company. We think Bianca is an extremely capable leader and can do more with more. We note, however, that we think it will take a few more steps for them to have a clear impact on decarceration, but there are strong prospects for accomplishing that.

How to donate: Here’s the link to donate.

Farm Animal Welfare – recommendations by Amanda Hungerford, Lewis Bollard, and Persis Eskander

Wild Animal Initiative

What is it? The Wild Animal Initiative publishes research on wild animal welfare, raises awareness of wild animal suffering, and works to build an academic field for this research.

Why we recommend it: We think that wild animal welfare is a very important and neglected issue — there are trillions of wild animals alive at any time, yet almost no funding goes to evaluating and improving their welfare (as distinct from conserving their species or habitat). We’re not sure if there are any opportunities for improvements that are both clearly beneficial and tractable, but think the magnitude of suffering argues for doing more research to see if there could be. The Initiative is pursuing a promising research agenda and strategic plan, and have clear room for more funding. (Note that Persis Eskander co-founded Wild Animal Initiative before joining Open Philanthropy, and no longer contributes research.)

Why we haven’t fully funded it: We’re not currently funding non-academic research in this space.

How to donate: You can donate online here.

Sinergia Animal

What is it? Sinergia Animal is a Latin American group with a history of success securing cage-free commitments in that region (Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, and Chile). Sinergia has recently expanded its operations to Southeast Asia.

Why we recommend it: Southeast Asia is home to a large numbers of farmed animals, but receives relatively little attention from many donors and advocates. Sinergia has sought to fill that hole by working on cage-free corporate campaigns in Thailand and Indonesia, in collaboration with national organizations.

Why we haven’t fully funded it: We’ve made grants to Sinergia Animal for their work in both Latin America and Asia, but are constrained by how much of their budget we’re comfortable being.

How to donate: You can donate online here, or for gifts >$5K, secure tax deductibility by donating via ACE (email Heather Herrell).

Other policy causes – recommendations by Alexander Berger

Center for Global Development

What is it? The Center for Global Development (CGD) is a think tank based in Washington, D.C. that conducts research on and promotes improvements to rich-world policies that affect the global poor.

Why I suggest it: I see CGD as the leading U.S. think tank focused on global development and as being unusually well-aligned with Open Phil’s values around the importance of evidence-based policy and cost-effectiveness (as well as, obviously, placing great weight on the prospects of the global poor). I think it has an unusually strong track record of impact, likely justifying its historical budget many times over. I don’t have a clear sense of what impact marginal funding is likely to have but see CGD as generally very worthy of support.

Why we haven’t fully funded it: We gave CGD $1M/year for 3 years this June, and we also fund their migration program specifically. With general operating support for a mature institution like CGD, we don’t see a particularly obvious point of declining returns, though it is likely that at some point it would begin to save resources for the indefinite future rather than spending more reasonably soon. However, in the long run, we would guess that CGD benefits from having a diverse base of donors, and we would prefer not to provide so much support that CGD might become reliant on us.

How to donate: Donate here.

International Refugee Assistance Project

What is it? The International Refugee Assistance Project is a legal advocacy organization that works to ensure safe resettlement options for refugees.

Why I suggest it: I think IRAP has been an effective advocate for expanding various legal channels for refugee resettlement to the United States, most notably in championing the special immigration visa for Iraqis and Afghans who worked with the U.S. military. They also played a key role in causing the protests against the travel ban at U.S. airports in early 2017, and have had a number of successes with litigation. They have grown rapidly over the past few years. I don’t know of any other group that I regard as similarly promising in terms of cost-effectively expanding opportunities for people from low-income countries to be able to safely move to high-income countries.

Why we haven’t fully funded it: We gave IRAP $1 million of general operating support at the beginning of 2019. However, we’re especially uncertain about the amount of funding we’ll dedicate to our immigration policy program in the long run, and are accordingly reticent for IRAP to become too dependent on our funding.

How to donate: Donate here.

California YIMBY

What is it? California YIMBY (short for “yes-in-my-back-yard”) is a relatively new advocacy organization devoted to increasing the supply of housing in California.

Why I suggest it: California YIMBY is the most prominent group aimed at changing California state policies to allow more housing, which we see as a promising philanthropic opportunity because California has the worst housing supply problems nationally, which contributes to high poverty rates for low-income people and foregone economic growth. California is large enough that state policy reforms could make a meaningful dent in the national problem, but state policy reforms are not necessarily vastly harder here than in other places. Between reducing rents and allowing more people to be able to move to or remain in high-wage areas, we roughly estimate the social value of each new home in coastal California to be in the low hundreds of thousands of dollars, which means that even a very small improvement in the state’s housing policies could deliver a high return.

Why we haven’t fully funded it: We gave CA YIMBY $1M/year for two years in April, and don’t want to be their dominant funder.

How to donate: Donate here. Note that CA YIMBY is a 501c4, not a 501c3, so your donations are not tax-deductible. Donating here may be relatively more attractive for you than others if you don’t itemize your deductions.

Scientific Research – recommendations by Chris Somerville and Heather Youngs

Engineers Without Borders

What is it? Engineers Without Borders is an international organization that organizes and deploys teams of volunteer engineers to carry out engineering projects that empower underserved communities throughout the world to meet their basic human needs. The volunteers work with communities to create appropriate and sustainable solutions for their infrastructure needs.

Why we suggest it: We encountered this group while investigating solutions for off-grid refrigeration, and we were impressed by the basic concept and model.

Many of the health and quality-of-life problems around the world are due to lack of infrastructure such as lack of clean water, poor sanitation, inefficient use of fuels for cooking, and lack of refrigeration, which impacts medicines and food storage. Engineers Without Borders (EWB) has chapters in 65 countries and provides a gathering point for tens of thousands of engineers, including more than 10,000 engineering students and many tens of thousands of established engineers. It responds to requests for engineering project support from governments, international NGOs, United Nations agencies, local communities and other institutions who lack access to the necessary technical resources to address the engineering challenges facing some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. EWB recruits engineers who volunteer their time to work on the ground in needy communities around the world. We see EWB as both potentially very cost-effective and empowering in ways that do not duplicate other organizations. We also like that, upon returning to their home regions, EWB volunteers retain knowledge and connections to the communities where they have served and can provide an ongoing source of technical innovation and advice.

Why we haven’t fully funded it: We currently support a project focused on designing off-grid refrigeration, and are just beginning to evaluate other opportunities. We see a very large need for improved infrastructure.

How to donate: Donate to the international organization here and the USA chapter here.

Assorted recommendations – by Claire Zabel

Organizations supported by our Committee for Effective Altruism Support

What is it? Within the space of longtermisteffective altruist organizations, there are several organizations we fund using a committee mechanism. These are organizations we think may be doing a lot of good, but have unusually intangible or difficult-to-assess activities and/or outputs. That’s a large part of why we decided to experiment with a committee mechanism for funding the organizations, and it’s also one of the reasons (coupled with the growing size of the organizations) that we prefer not to be too large a fraction of the organizations’ budgets.

In this recommendation, I am attempting to speak for the committee rather than as an individual (and I ran this post by the other committee members prior to sending it).

The organizations are:

Why we suggest it: We think 80,000 Hours, CEA, and FHI are all reasonable donation targets for individual donors who find the case for longtermist effective altruism compelling.

80,000 Hours and CEA provide a variety of services to the larger EA/longtermist communities, largely at either a fairly high quality level, or at a level we think is on a positive trajectory. We think providing these services well is highly valuable to building up the field of people working on longtermism and effective altruism, a goal which we think could, if achieved, play a critical role in multiple cause areas we prioritize.

FHI does a wide variety of activities, and our best guesses about the expected value of their work varies substantially between those, but we likewise think that the average presents a fairly good giving opportunity for a longtermist donor.

GPI houses philosophy and economics research about global priorities at Oxford University. We hope that this will result in more thoughtful attention to global priorities in these fields, and, in the long run, facilitate more thoughtful approaches to thinking about how to do good. GPI’s current research is primarily focused on longtermism.

The cases for MIRI and Ought likely require a couple of additional premises: one needs to (a) find the case for working on reducing the risks from transformative AI plausible and (b) think their specific approaches are worth supporting. However, if you hold those beliefs, then we think they present fairly compelling donation opportunities.

Why we haven’t fully funded it: Our views on why we don’t want to fully fund these organizations, and organizations in general, are sometimes difficult to convey. There are a few reasons we don’t want to fully fund these organizations:

  • We think there are other donors who are interested in and fairly well-positioned to evaluate the relevant organizations, and so it’s feasible for those organizations to fundraise from other funders.
  • We generally don’t like to be too large a proportion of an organization’s budget when we believe that the previous condition holds. This is a heuristic-driven preference that doesn’t have a single easy-to-offer explanation, but a couple of things driving it are:
    • A desire to avoid an organization’s being too dependent on us, especially when we don’t plan to put commensurate effort into evaluating it and holding it accountable. Being in this position can raise the stakes on our view of the organization beyond what we feel is appropriate, given the amount of time we’re putting into assessing it; it can also make it overly difficult for us to wind down support if we become less enthusiastic about the organization in the future.

    • A desire to avoid a situation in which Open Philanthropy’s being interested in an organization actively discourages other donors from giving to it.
    • A preference for organizations to have multiple funders paying attention to them and critically evaluating them, on the view that different funders will often notice different relevant considerations.
    • (Note that we don’t have a hard-and-fast rule on this front. We will sometimes be comfortable providing the overwhelming majority of an organization’s support when conditions apply such as: (a) we are highly confident in the organization and/or our ability to assess its outputs and progress; (b) we are highly confident in our ability to exit if we become less enthusiastic; (c) we are supporting a relatively early-stage organization at a relatively low level in the hopes it will pull in more support later; (d) we feel there are no other realistic sources of funding.)
  • Many of these specific organizations are expanding quickly, and if we fully funded them and didn’t encourage them to cultivate relationships with other funders, that might come at a (substantial) cost to the amount of funding we reserve for other forms of longtermist giving.

How to donate:

  • You can donate to 80,000 Hours here
  • You can donate to the Centre for Effective Altruism here
  • You can donate to the Future of Humanity Institute here
  • You can donate to the Global Priorities Institute here
  • You can donate to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute here
  • You can donate to Ought here

Personal suggestions

Last year, Luke shared some suggestions that I (Claire) think continue to be good suggestions for individuals interested in effective altruism/longtermism:

Within the domains I understand best (transformative AI safety and strategy, effective altruism community-building, and improving institutional decision-making), several of the best funding opportunities I’ve seen in previous years now have less room for more funding than was previously the case, in part due to receiving funding from Open Philanthropy.

As a result, my personal donation strategy is to fund a mix of the following:

  • Small one-time opportunities that seem (to me) to have higher expected value than Open Philanthropy’s last dollar, and for which I have lots of context that would be more time-consuming to communicate to another funder than the monetary cost can justify. An example would be to buy a new laptop for a likely high-impact person who I know well and who is low on savings because they are transitioning to a higher-impact career and had an unexpected financial setback.
  • One or more of the Effective Altruism Funds.
  • The EffectiveAltruism.org donor lottery.

My hope is that, as the effective altruism community’s stock of well-trained grant investigators (at Open Philanthropy and elsewhere) begins to “catch up” to the amount of available funding (from Open Philanthropy and others), even better funding opportunities will be identified. I am confident that better funding opportunities for individual donors exist, but for the most part, I do not have the time to identify and vet them. That said, for a variety of reasons I prefer to donate at least once per year rather than hold my money for future opportunities. If you have similar views and values to me, and want to donate soon rather than hold your funding, you might want to follow the strategy outlined above.

Comments

In the most recent update to their article “What’s the best charity to donate to?”, 80,000 Hours seems to be arguing that donations to Open Phil grantees may potentially be leveraged (and therefore better giving opportunities ceteris paribus), because they increase the amount of money that Open Phil can grant while remaining below a given fixed proportion of a given org’s budget, and some Open Phil grants are constrained by this requirement. Does Open Phil agree with this reasoning? It does sound from the above post as though some grants are indeed limited by Open Phil’s desire to avoid becoming an org’s dominant funder.

Hi Taymon, thanks for reading. Though we do agree with this reasoning directionally, it’s worth noting that the proportion of an organization’s budget we are willing to fund is not “fixed” per se and can vary across grantees, across and within focus areas, and over time.

Because our considerations are more of the shape of “we don’t want to be an organization’s dominant funder” or “we don’t want a grantee to be overly dependent on us,” a single small donor on the margin may not change our funding calculus by herself, and so shouldn’t necessarily look at a donation to an organization that we support as “leveraged” or “matched” in a direct, measurable way.

A better way to think of this dynamic would be that we consider a grantee’s non-OP funding as a factor in our assessment of their sustainability, and we weigh their other funding streams when deciding our funding levels – and in some cases feel our support should be limited by the principles above. So individual donors can, cumulatively, impact our decisions.

Hope this helps!

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