What Small Weird Thing Do You Fund?

post by Yonatan Cale (hibukki) · 2021-11-25T11:15:07.532Z · EA · GW · 19 comments

This is a question post.

Everyone's talking [EA · GW] about [EA · GW] how small donors can have a high impact because we can notice things that billionaires missed.

Well, let's share those small things with each other!




answer by Cullen_OKeefe · 2021-11-27T01:29:40.820Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Last year, when Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee won the Nobel Prize, I spent about $175 to give away copies of Poor Economics to any Facebook friend that wanted one. I was inspired by posts like this one [EA · GW].

This year, I heard about Legal Impact For Chickens, and their model of change made a lot of sense to me. I was able to donate $20,000 (about 1/3 marginal FTE), which the President said tipped their funding situation to the point where they could start hiring.

answer by Ramiro · 2021-11-26T15:17:57.592Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Last year, I took part in crowdfunding a ventilator for intensive care for Covid-19 in Brazil. I believe it was a mistake - I'd better have donated to GD. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but I learned from this experience that I underestimated relevant points:

a) I wanted to feel important;

b) I gave a great weight to the fact that EA and rationalist friends (people I usually trust) were doing it, too, but I neglected that we were probably being affected by the same biases; 

c) None of us had previous experience in funding similar risky projects. However, we did analyze their credentials, and we had someone who understood ventilators and said that, though the project wasn't as impactful as we first thought, it was likely still worth funding - because funding for research totally vanished in Brazil.

d) my direct interaction with the team asking for funds probably made me overestimate their case;

e) Everyone was doing similar projects back then. I took it as a sign that it was a good idea. I was so wrong: I didn't realize the context had changed - the area got way less neglected, it attracted people whose projects  were in other areas, or that usually wouldn't be worth funding, and the low-hanging fruit was already being picked by large donors.

My point is that I failed to update my priors. If someone shows up today talking about how they can save thousands of lives in the next pandemic by lowering the costs of this particular medical procedure, they probably have thought about it deeply (possibly passionately) and put some skin in the game; they might be overestimating the general risk, but not so much their ability to deliver the product (before others do). If they do this after the pandemic started, they are (if not a total maverick) likely someone who used to do something else which is not being funded anymore because everyone is focused on the current catastrophe.
Concluding, though I still think there are impactful "weird things" that only I can fund out there, they are mixed with lots of bad fruits, and I'm rarely particularly skilled in telling the difference - actually, I realize that I might be particularly bad at doing so when some emotions get involved. I became an EA, and routinely check this Forum, not because I hope someday to be as impactful as Dustin Moskovitz, but because I can share this epistemic burden with others - or just outsource it to an expert I might trust.

comment by Yonatan Cale (hibukki) · 2021-11-27T19:47:23.145Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
  1. Inspiring
  2. May I ask where this leaves you? For example, are you going to try similar things in the future?
Replies from: Ramiro
comment by Ramiro · 2021-11-28T00:40:49.509Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
  1. Thanks.
  2. I'm considering writing a post to step into Todd vs. AppliedDivinityStudies fray on small donors. Maybe I'd be willing to do something similar in the future but... it'd be interesting to discuss it with more people first, perhaps someone with more experience in funding weird things
answer by Ramiro · 2021-11-26T20:41:03.059Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

A not-so-weird thing I’m considering to fund – except this is not EA at all.

I’ve recently read this piece (in Portuguese – from a very respected magazine) about this Haitian refugee who has a crowdfunding campaign to bring her children to Brazil. I also checked her bio in other media outlets.

She still needs around U$ 3,000 – roughly what AMF would need to save an additional life, in some calculations[1]. But life expectancy in Haiti is 64y, and its HDI is .51 – against 75.8y and HDI of .74 in Brazil; besides, it’s particularly higher in Porto Alegre (where she lives), I have to take into account the additional welfare of reuniting a family (kids without a mother probably don’t fare well in Haiti[2]), so I think that moving her kids would entail no less than 30 additional expected QALY, which I consider roughly equivalent to what people mean when they say “AMF saves a life for $3k.” Thus, helping this woman seems to be, according to this back of the envelope calculation, as worthy as donating to AMF in the long run.

Except that I found many other similar crowdfunding pages (e.g., here, here, here, here…) with similar projects which stalled before filling 30% of their budget. What drove my attention to J., instead of the others, is that the magazine made her case salient and confirmed it’s legit - if not for that, I’d be indifferent between helping her or any other Haitian in a similar situation. But it turns out that none of these immigrants will achieve their goals this way: they are competing for scarce resources, but would be better-off if they could coordinate, pool their donations and establish a procedure (maybe a lottery) to decide who is going to get their kids back.

Donating to J. is not scalable; I’d prefer to help solve this coordination problem. I am still thinking about how. On the other hand, I estimate I spent about three additional hours thinking about this problem – which I wouldn’t have done if I’d just donated to an EA charity.


[1] I am using a very old and not super high quality source, but I am not pretending this is an accurate CBA.

[2] On the other hand, they've already survived earlyinfancy, so this difference in life expectancy shouldn't be that large. But I am not going to compare mortality tables after all this.

answer by alexrjl · 2021-11-25T12:36:27.682Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I have previously offered to pay for therapy for another member of the community*, and would do so again if the situation arose. I think many people can feel worried/awkward/bad about spending money on their own health, especially mental health, so making this sort of offer can be really worth doing when the situation arises.

I've had people make the same offer to me, and think that the offer made me seek therapy sooner than I otherwise would have, and that this was a great decision.

*In both cases, no money actually changed hands, but the offer was genuine, not just made as a signal. 

comment by HowieL · 2021-11-27T22:24:26.312Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I've also done this.

answer by EdoArad · 2021-11-26T04:56:01.196Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I thought about donating to PlayPumps, just to make sure that our best anti-example is still spinning around

comment by GidonKadosh · 2021-11-28T17:11:19.513Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm conflicted about whether I should upvote or downvote this

answer by freedomandutility · 2021-11-25T17:15:50.921Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This opinion is mine and doesn't represent EA:

I would fund Soch (https://youtube.com/c/SochYoutube), a Vox-like Indian YouTube channel which sometimes presents a technocratic / academic perspective on Indian politics and news so that they can do more of that, and AltNews, an Indian anti-fake-news fact-checking website to expand their work.

This would be with the idea of decreasing populism in India.

I think this is suited to small donors because the effects of these seem ridiculously hard to measure or estimate, even with back of the envelope calculations. But I guess I could also consider funding small experiments to see how effective these mediums are at informing people.

answer by jasonk · 2021-11-25T17:52:53.733Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I don't think it counts as weird, but we've donated to and plan to continue donating to Agriculture Cellulaire France (https://agriculturecellulaire.fr/) and The Modern Agriculture Foundation (https://www.modern-agriculture.org/).

These are both relatively small organizations in the cell ag space that I think are doing interesting things and have a lot of potential. I think they're getting overlooked by other donors.

answer by Mathieu Putz · 2021-11-27T09:44:59.745Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Great question! Guarding against pandemics do advocacy for pandemic prevention and need many small donors due to legal reasons for some of their work. Here's an excerpt from their post on the EA Forum:

While GAP’s lobbying work (e.g. talking to members of Congress) is already well-funded by Sam Bankman-Fried and others, another important part of GAP’s work is supporting elected officials from both parties who will advocate for biosecurity and pandemic preparedness. U.S. campaign contribution limits require that this work be supported by many small-to-medium-dollar donors.

I haven't donated yet myself, in part because I did my yearly donations before learning about them. But I also only know very little about the organisation, so this is not an endorsement — it just felt like a very good example of something where small donors could plausibly beat large ones.

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/Btm562wDNEuWXj9Gk/guarding-against-pandemics [EA · GW]

comment by jared_m · 2021-11-27T10:51:16.976Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Agree that GAP is a great cause for small U.S. donors! Their team is approaching the opportunity in a sophisticated way. 

We've given to GAP twice this fall, and expect to give more this winter / next year.

answer by Yellow · 2021-11-28T03:05:42.993Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I would highly recommend anyone who is interested in funding small things keep tabs on Charity Entrepreneurship as well as every charity they incubate.

answer by lukefreeman · 2021-11-25T22:17:10.289Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Not all that weird, but a lot of my giving over the years went to personally subsidising meta things such as participant fees for academic studies on EA topics, EA events (dinners for speakers, food for groups, ads to promote outreach events, seed funding for conference etc) and operational funding shortfalls (e.g. credit card fees, accounting costs for EAA). CEA does provide much more community building and conference support now though and places like Rethink are funding more studies.

answer by Yonatan Cale · 2021-11-25T11:32:28.654Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

[This opinion is mine and doesn't represent EA]


I fund an Israeli Facebook Blogger who improves the level of conversation about economics and politics. [Hebrew link]


What problem does this address?

  • As a toy example: Some rich person passes a law forcing every citizen to send the rich person $1 every year. No citizen alone has enough of an incentive to change this law (it's only $1), but they would totally be happy to coordinate somehow.
  • As a realistic example: There are minimum-price regulations, coupled with high import taxes that prevent competition from other countries, resulting in high (government regulated) prices for everyone (including poor people), which create profits for very specific factory owners.
  • But wait, it's worse: It's not only that people don't fight this problem, they don't understand it. They think these regulations are a good thing, giving "job security" for the factories. [Which is also true, but a small part of the picture]
  • This is a bigger pattern: Politicians offer things and [almost] nobody talks about "how much does it cost" or "what are the second order effects".  This blogger writes about those costs and second order effects, and I think this is changing how many people look at politicians (at least around economic policy, trying to affect other things as well), and politicians respond to public opinion.
  • Lately, a crowd funded lobby group [Hebrew link] has sprung up to coordinate the opposition to these laws. I donate there too.
  • As a bonus, I think this person promotes high quality discussions online. He says when he believes he's wrong. He comments to people arguing with him often looking for a crux, and at least not just yelling. This is not trivial today, especially in politics (!) and even if some of his object level opinions turn out to be wrong, his meta level somewhat reminds me of Scott Alexander (who I donate to as well).


How expensive is this? Well, he's a student, so not so expensive

answer by Linch · 2021-12-06T00:07:53.313Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I attempted to commission this report [EA · GW] by Michael Dickens, though for tax and logistical reasons, no money has exchanged hands so far. 

Y0u can see my initial project pitch here.

answer by splinter · 2021-12-05T23:06:53.107Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm thinking about 2021 giving now, and in addition to the usual suspects, I've been considering the following:

The Happier Lives Institute. I think the work they are doing is potentially high-leverage, and according to Michael Plant, as of one month ago [EA(p) · GW(p)] they hadn't met their 2022 funding goal.

Pro Publica. This one actually is funded by billionaires, so I don't think it counts as small or weird. Nevertheless I have had a sense for a while that Pro Publica punches above its weight in terms of bringing meaningful attention to otherwise under-valued topics I was reminded of this recently when I read the book The Alignment Problem that highlighted some Pro Publica's work in the area of AI risk.

answer by sortega · 2021-12-02T19:07:25.157Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm a Patreon patron of Jaime Gómen Obregón, a fellow Spaniard that is doing independent work to make public data actually usable. His projects include tools to cross-check electoral lists with public contracts that help uncover political corruption and increase transparency.


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