My Effective Altruism Timeline

August 10th, 2013
beginnings, ea
How did I get into this "effective altruism" thing? Summary: first altruism, then effectiveness.

I met Julia in early 2007, but didn't end up talking about altruism until some time in the fall. She brought up her views on charity as a weird financial quirk of hers that might make it difficult for us to live together. I didn't consider changing my views on giving then, but was sure we'd be able to work something out so we could live together without financial conflict.

Over the next year or so we talked about many things, and whether we had an obligation to help other people came up repeatedly. I'd never really considered it before. I got interested in how people decided how much to donate and had several long discussions with other friends over the course of that summer. I wasn't fully convinced at the time, but I was wondering whether anyone had really thought through the implications the severity of global poverty.

At the end of 2008 I read Peter Singer's Famine, Affluence, and Morality (1972) and after more discussion with Julia and others decided that when I finished paying back my student loans I'd start donating. I wrote up a blog post to commit myself and sent off my first donation to Oxfam in April 2009. (Julia had picked Oxfam and started to donate to them in September 2008, and started working for them in November.)

At this point I was convinced and committed on the "altruism" side, but hadn't given much thought to effectiveness yet. I wasn't against it or anything, I just had assumed that a good organization would prioritize properly and be doing the things that most needed doing. In as much as I was optimizing, it was all minimizing spending to maximize donations. I wish this list had existed then so I might have prioritized better.

In June 2009 Julia discovered GiveWell's site. She sent me an email:

I'm unclear on how to rate charities. One is the percent of funds that go to programs rather than fund raising or administration. That one's pretty easy to find out about a given organization. Another is how useful their mission is—I'd rather support a mediocre international aid organization than an excellent horticultural society. That one I can pretty much gauge myself. But the hardest is how well they accomplish what they set out to do. I assume that larger organizations, while they might spend more on fund raising (which is how they become large in the first place), can also work more efficiently than small ones. But there's really no data on this. All organizations have some success stories or pictures of smiling people they like to feature, but there's no way to tell how typical that is.

Give Well is a new site that I find interesting, because it tries to use that third evaluation tactic. The charity it rates best is described as saving lives for about $1000 each. The estimate for Partners in Health is $3500. There's a chart of some others, with the lowest being $150-2,000.

I wrote back:

The metric cost-per-life-saved seems good in that it's measurable, to some extent, and highly comparable across charities. But it's bad in that we can really only measure it for direct actions, like vaccinations. What is the cost-per-life-saved of education? Of agricultural research? They have numbers, yes, but it's much too hard to calculate them.

I didn't think about efficacy very much beyond this until June 2010 when I ran into Jonah Sinick at a wedding of a mutual friend. We talked some about giving and charity, and he made a case for GiveWell's approach, following up with an email that night. I read through their site and the "effectiveness is tractable" light bulb started to glow in my head a little.

(Jonah also put me in touch with Dario Amodei who was trying to put together an "effective altruism" community, though the term didn't exist yet. We skyped with him, but for some reason the idea of a community felt off. I'm not sure why, and I really like that now there are other people to talk to, but at the time it seemed like a strange thing to do.)

Julia and I started talking about potentially earmarking our donations to Oxfam to be for monitoring and evaluation. We met with people from Oxfam, asked a bunch of questions, and decided that we thought Oxfam should be spending more on evaluation than they currently were. (I asked them what discount rate we should be applying to giving, they didn't really know. But other questions got good answers.) At this point I was sold on effectiveness being important, but thought that the dynamic of the charity market meant the best approach was strong internal evaluation.

In the next few months I was getting more sold on GiveWell's external evaluation approach. I joined their mailing list in December 2010 and started trying to figure out if Village Reach, their top charity at the time, was doing more good per dollar than Oxfam. Julia was still working at Oxfam, however, so this was kind of awkward. We were both very attached to Oxfam, having been donating to them and generally liking what we knew about them.

Luckily we didn't have to change our minds immediately: Julia started saving for social work school and I switched to a job where I'd be donating later, which meant delaying donations for about a year. By the time we started writing cheques again, at the beginning of 2012, we were detached from Oxfam enough to look at things somewhat more fairly, and started giving to GiveWell's top charity. (I changed my mind sometime between this post and this one.)

(Reading this process there's not much separation between "GiveWell" and effectiveness. We're starting to get more diversity in people trying to answer the question "where can my money most improve the world" but in mid 2011, when the above ends, GiveWell was the center of the smart-giving movement.)

[1] Some of these conversations were a little unfair. I was working at a summer camp, and had the loan of a small sailboat. When my friends would visit as campers I would offer to take them out sailing. Out in the middle of the lake, their ability to escape from socially awkward difficult moral questions sharply diminished, I'd ask them how they thought about their obligations to others. Did they donate? How did they decide how much? Did it bother them that people were dying of easily preventable causes when they had the means to help?

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