There's a role for small EA donors in campaign finance

post by Rachel Shu · 2021-11-03T07:28:48.402Z · EA · GW · 12 comments


  Why should you give?
  Where should you give?
  When should you give?
  Specific places to donate
  Proposals for further work

TLDR: if the title is all you needed to hear and you want to make a contribution, please check out this form!

In the past, earning to give has been a well-publicized way to participate in the effective altruism community. However, effective altruism currently has a funding overhang [EA · GW], which means the marginal value of money donated by small donors has diminished significantly, at least in most cause areas. If this leaves you wondering where to put your money, consider that election campaign contributions might be a way in which you can have a substantial impact as a small donor, which to my knowledge has not been discussed substantially on this forum before. Due to campaign contribution limits, many small funders outperform a few large funders.

(Note: Most of this post will discuss the situation in the U.S., which is what I know, and unfortunately for non-U.S. readers, foreign nationals cannot donate to candidates for any public office in the U.S. If you live in a democratic country that has campaign contribution limits, you might consider presenting the campaign finance situation in your country in the comments or in a separate post.)

Why should you give?

Where policy choices greatly impact wellbeing (such as in the recent pandemic), there are few other ways to influence outcomes as direct as placing aligned individuals in public offices.

In the United States, campaign finance regulations at the federal level cap individual donations towards candidates for public office, intentionally creating a structural bias towards small donor contributions. The contribution limit to candidates contesting in federal elections is $2,900 per individual (or corporation) as of 2021, meaning this is one area in which large funders do not have an advantage. Campaign finance laws vary from state to state, and each state has its own contribution limits (some allow unlimited contributions). A table of all 50 states' contribution limits can be found here.

Where should you give?

You can donate to candidates in states, counties, or municipalities in which you do not reside; this applies to both local and federal elections. In fact, many superstar candidates receive a majority of their financing from out-of-state donors. For effective altruists, this means that you are able to contribute in whichever election where you judge your money will matter most. You also do not have to donate to only a single candidate in any given race; instead, you can donate to all of those which satisfy a given policy preference.

Contributions may matter more in down-ballot (state and local) elections, which are in general less publicized, have lower total funding, and are otherwise neglected relative to the presidential election. Some smaller elections are especially neglected, because their locales are "solid red/blue" and are therefore rarely contested, or are contested only in the primary. This provides an opportunity for an effective altruist to have even more leverage, if you are willing to consider contributing funding to non-local candidates affiliated with either (or neither) major party who are aligned with your priorities on non-partisan topics (c.f. Robin Hanson's "Pull the rope sideways").

Money donated to candidates substantially outperforms money donated to Super PACs (which cannot themselves contribute to candidates). The majority of campaign spending from both candidates and Super PACs is on advertising. Federal law entitles candidates for any public office to the "lowest unit charge" for broadcast advertising airing within 45 days ahead of a primary or 60 days ahead of a general election, although in practice this is complicated. Super PACs are not entitled to this rate, and often pay 3-10x as much for comparable advertising slots. You should therefore consider maxing out your contributions to candidates you support before donating to Super PACs, which can receive unlimited funds and therefore can be supplied equally well by a few large funders as by many small funders.

When should you give?

You also can have unusual leverage by making an early contribution. A candidate who is successful at fundraising early in a campaign cycle signals to analysts, media outlets, and Super PACs that they are a viable contestant. Even if your preferred candidate does not win, their platform is more likely to be adopted as an outcome of that election.


Admittedly, it's much more difficult to price the impact of campaign contributions than it is to price the impact of contributions to interventions in global health and development or in farmed animal welfare. Even leaving aside other cause areas, the positive correlation between funding and winning an election is fairly loose. Donald Trump won the 2016 Republican presidential primary despite spending less than his opponents. Michael Bloomberg lost the 2020 Democratic presidential primary despite personally spending over $500 million, nearly equivalent to all his competitors put together. Once again, the situation may be substantially different down-ballot where races are more neglected, and where unusual opportunities can be identified.

Specific places to donate

Elizabeth Edwards-Appell is seeking to assist potential candidates and has asked for sign-ups if you are willing to be contacted in the near future about contributing. Please fill out her form here!

Most U.S. candidates and committees now accept online donations. Democrat candidates and committees take donations on ActBlue, while Republicans take donations on Winred.

Proposals for further work

Some ideas, would love to see more in the comments:

Thanks to Elizabeth Edwards-Appell for suggesting this post's topic.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Charles Dillon (Charles_Dillon ) · 2021-11-03T09:47:24.957Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I strongly dislike claiming that "there's a role for small EA donors in campaign finance" in a post which makes essentially no argument for the intervention's effectiveness.

Maybe there's a role, but assuming there is seems like wishful thinking. GiveDirectly still has a plausible funding gap in the hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars, so one should at least make the case that it might be better than that.

Replies from: Daniel_Eth, HStencil
comment by Daniel_Eth · 2021-11-06T01:55:37.157Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree more nuance in the headline would have been better (eg., if it included the word "potentially" to say "There's potentially a role for small EA donors in campaign finance"), but note that's effectively what the body of the piece says, such as here: "consider that election campaign contributions might be a way in which you can have a substantial impact as a small donor" (emphasis added).

Replies from: Charles_Dillon
comment by Charles Dillon (Charles_Dillon ) · 2021-11-06T08:54:22.928Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

See my reply to HStencil above.

comment by HStencil · 2021-11-06T03:29:30.955Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

If the concern is that donations don't have any impact on electoral outcomes, there is a good bit of high-quality social science research indicating that television advertising, at least, does, particularly (as OP notes) in down-ballot races. If the concern is that it nonetheless isn't worth its cost, that's plausible, but I don't think OP said anything to suggest strong grounds to believe campaign donations beat GiveWell's Maximum Impact Fund, nor (I assume) would most readers leap to that conclusion, given the unique depth and rigor  of GiveWell's research process and the far greater difficulty of modeling cost-effectiveness in politics. The thrust of this post seems to be more that this is something worth  considering, which seems like a fair assessment, particularly given the extent of preexisting EA activity in this area (and the reasonable argument that there are decreasing returns to scale).

Replies from: Charles_Dillon
comment by Charles Dillon (Charles_Dillon ) · 2021-11-06T08:53:42.484Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think this is a disingenuous motte-and-bailey argument.

The OPs suggestions aren't to 'look into whether this might be effective, build some models of cost effectiveness, and compare against existing opportunities'.

They are 'donate to some of the candidates Elizabeth Edwards-Appell recommends', 'form lists of good candidates', 'set up an EA funding bloc for candidates' and 'devote resources to training EA candidates'.

Replies from: HStencil
comment by HStencil · 2021-11-06T16:29:11.885Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Answering the question of whether a candidate is “good,” might well (at least on certain EA world views) be sufficient to answer the question of whether donating to the candidate would be (sufficiently) cost-effective (given evidence that 1) donations matter for getting elected, and 2) getting elected allows one to influence policy). Consider the case of a candidate running on a longtermist platform. My impression is that when longtermist grantmakers evaluate giving opportunities in existential risk mitigation, their decision process is much closer to “determine whether the opportunity in question has a reasonable chance of improving humanity’s longterm trajectory within a range of broadly acceptable costs” than to “conduct a thorough, systematic, GiveWell-style cost-effectiveness analysis.” I would think that roughly the same principles that apply to donations to organizations that lobby Congress for better biosecurity policy apply to donations to candidates for Congress who strongly favor better biosecurity policy. This seems to be the thinking behind OP’s post. The back-of-the-envelope intuition here is pretty straightforward; insisting on a GiveWell-style CEA in its place reads like an isolated demand for rigor.

Replies from: Charles_Dillon
comment by Charles Dillon (Charles_Dillon ) · 2021-11-06T17:54:23.875Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

If you can point out where I asked for "a Givewell style CEA" I might agree that it was an isolated demand for rigor.

I didn't do that, however. Instead, I asked for an attempt to make the case that it could be better than GiveDirectly - I didn't specify how one might make the case or any level of rigor at all.

What I was imagining was a basic back of the envelope sketch of how this intervention might be cost effective, which I don't think OP provided.

The supposed motivation for the post was EA having a funding overhang - in that context asking how it compares to another intervention which can potentially absorb near limitless amounts of money without diminishing returns seems totally reasonable to me.

comment by evelynciara · 2021-11-03T14:45:17.810Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Should you donate to individual campaigns or funds like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC)? I figure that the DSCC would have experts with better information about where campaign donations would have the most impact, much like EA Funds, but I don't know how they work.

Also, for what it's worth, the post introducing Guarding Against Pandemics [EA · GW] also talks about campaigns being a comparative advantage for small donors:

Unlike many EA priorities, because of campaign finance limits of $5,000 per person in donations, political giving is bottlenecked by the number of donors in addition to the total dollar amount available. This means the impact of small-dollar donations is disproportionately high in this area.

Replies from: Daniel_Eth
comment by Daniel_Eth · 2021-11-06T02:11:44.109Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

DSCC's goals are just to elect democrats – they don't consider, for instance, how different democrats differ on EA criteria such as biosecurity. Donating to particularly aligned candidates (especially in primaries) is probably higher value than donating to existing (non-EA) funds.

Replies from: evelynciara
comment by evelynciara · 2021-11-06T15:07:17.717Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

True! A lot of policies I favor (like climate action) are easier to enact when Democrats have a majority in the relevant legislature, but one could have a Democratic majority and still be held up by a single Democratic politician who opposes climate action (Joe Manchin).

But finding candidates who are competitive and support the policies you value could be difficult for individuals because it requires you to have information on races across the country. So I think there's a role for PACs etc. to select candidates on behalf of donors.

comment by NunoSempere · 2021-11-07T21:09:16.865Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'd be curious about considerations such as those in this post being paired with kbog's more thorough comparisons of political candidates [EA · GW].