AMA: We are Jon and Kathryn. We work with The Life You Can Save. Ask us anything!

post by TLYCSAMA · 2020-01-21T19:29:25.716Z · EA · GW · 20 comments


  We are Jon Behar and Kathryn Mecrow-Flynn, and we work with The Life You Can Save (TLYCS).

Hi, all!

We are Jon Behar and Kathryn Mecrow-Flynn, and we work with The Life You Can Save (TLYCS).

The Life You Can Save curates some of the most impactful charities in the world and makes it easy to donate to them. Our mission is to help change the culture of giving in affluent countries, and to increase donations to nonprofits that dramatically improve the lives of people in extreme poverty. The Life You Can Save was founded by Peter Singer to advance the ideas in his 2009 book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. In 2019, our team launched the 10th Anniversary Edition – The Life You Can Save. Since the launch last month, the book has been downloaded over 15,000 times, and The Life You Can Save has acquired almost 10,000 new subscriptions. (You can download a free ebook or audiobook here). We additionally manage The Giving Games Project of The Life You Can Save. Giving Games are experiential philanthropic exercises during which participants learn by doing, giving away real money to charities engaging in critically important work.

Recently, we have been primarily focused on building distribution partnerships to continue to maximize the potential impact of the book launch, reviewing and preparing an Annual Report with impact data on the Giving Games Project, and assisting to run Giving Games at a number of educational and corporate groups.

We will answer questions throughout the week, likely in a block on Thursday and Friday. Looking forward to it and thank you!

EDIT: We are happy to answer questions until Aaron unpins us :) When he does, please just reach out to me (Kathryn) at Thank you ever so much!


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2020-01-23T09:44:32.471Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

What did the recent book project teach you about working with celebrities? Did anything really surprise you?

Also, regarding the celebrity readers: To what extent did they seem interested in effective giving/EA principles, vs. just doing a good thing for a good cause that they happened to hear about? (No need to name names, but I'm curious about the rough distribution of viewpoints if you got a sense for that.)

comment by Jon_Behar · 2020-01-23T19:57:29.261Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

These aren’t really surprises, but the experience reinforced a couple of things: celebrities are really busy, and they have a huge reach (e.g. 1 instagram post from Kristen Bell led to over 1000 people downloading the book and subscribing to our newsletter.)

At least a few of the celebrities seem interested beyond seeing us as a random good cause. As an example, Michael Schur really engaged with the intellectual substance of the book in the foreword he wrote for the new edition. And that probably shouldn’t be surprising, as his show The Good Place is essentially oriented around some similar themes.

comment by Nathan Young (nathan) · 2020-01-23T13:38:48.807Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

What are some things that everyone at TLYCS knows that typical EAs might not?

comment by KathrynMecrow · 2020-01-23T20:04:37.952Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is a great question that definitely sent me down abit of a rabbit hole and possibly diverts a little from my role at The Life You Can Save. I have personally been involved in the EA community to varying degrees since stumbling into an operations role at The Future of Humanity Institute back in 2016 before really having a good idea of what Effective Altruism was. As I am sure you can imagine, this led to an interesting couple of months while I got up to speed. Generally speaking, I have moved away from referring to myself and others as “Effective Altruists” as I much prefer the approach outlined by Helen Toner back in 2014 where she describes Effective Altruism not as an ideology but as the question of “How can I do the most good with the resources available to me?” I, personally, share Helen’s concern, at the time, that presenting Effective Altruism as an identity leads to questions of who fits in and what standard of behavior one needs to maintain to meet the bar. On tendency, I refer to myself as interested in Effective Altruism or sometimes as a member of the Effective Altruism community. Throughout my involvement but particularly recently when I founded WANBAM (the Women and Non-Binary Altruism Mentorship), I have updated that that seeing EA as an identity is really susceptible to invoking a hefty dose of imposter syndrome even in cases where it is obvious that the person is adding a huge amount of value to the EA communty/ its core focus area. I personally know a number of people who share this sentiment and might not identify as Effective Altruists (the noun) for these reasons. As such, I would be slightly reluctant to straw man “a typical EA.” The closest I would be prepared to go is to say that at the root of Effective Altruism is a commitment to doing what you reasonably can to make the world a better place and prioritizing a commitment to being guided in this pursuit not by assumptions of what seems best but through utilizing evidence and a depth of rigor I have never encountered before in comparable communities. These characteristics are shared by my team who while incredibly ideologically and demographically diverse, all share these foundational commitments.

comment by Jon_Behar · 2020-01-23T20:02:09.501Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Most of the people on The Life You Can Save’s team have significant experience in the for-profit sector, which I think is relatively rare in the EA community. Charlie Bresler, our Executive Director, used to be the President of the Men’s Wearhouse. And before I served as COO for an extended period, I spent ~10 years in the finance sector at Bridgewater Associates. So I think those experiences helped shape The Life You Can Save’s culture. For instance, I think due to the diversity of the backgrounds of our team members, we may engage with a significantly more diverse range of stakeholders on a day-to-day basis than many “typical” organizations in this field. The advantage of this is that it provides us with a variation and depth of expertise to draw upon when we are making strategic decisions about our organization’s mission and approach.

Additionally, our team is also, generally speaking, older than most of the EA community. I’m not sure I can point to specific things that causes us to know about, unless I go with a tongue-in-cheek answer like “what the 1980s were like”.

comment by ianps · 2020-01-22T12:15:04.125Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Does TLYCS plan to update recommendations for climate-related organizations, or investigate new ones?

comment by Jon_Behar · 2020-01-23T19:58:01.777Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is something that’s definitely on our radar screen due to climate change’s outsized impact on people living in extreme poverty. We also think it’s a cause area that’s of interest to donors (both our existing donor base and others). However, it’s unlikely that we’ll move forward on this until we have the capacity to add dedicated staff for charity assessment.

comment by Khorton · 2020-01-22T17:11:58.046Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Do you still recommend any charities or do you leave that to Givewell?

comment by Jon_Behar · 2020-01-23T19:58:25.576Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

We recommend a significantly broader set of charities than GiveWell, which is an intentional strategy to offer donors a wider range of options. That said, in the near-term any additions to our list are likely to come from GiveWell. We had been sourcing new recommendations from Impact Matters as well, but they’ve recently pivoted away from the in-depth “impact audits” we’d been relying on and toward much shallower reviews of many more charities. We’ve written up our selection process in more detail here.

Down the road, we’d like to add dedicated staff to work on charity assessment. The primary obstacle to this is lack of funding. We expect this staff would curate research from GiveWell and other sources more than doing primary research. We think dedicated staff would be helpful in expanding our list into cause areas where there’s donor demand (e.g. education and climate change), developing an overall fund and funds for specific cause areas, and offering more concierge services to high net worth donors.

comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2020-01-23T09:43:02.049Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

What are some of the services that TLYCS has provided to HNW donors who seek advice from the organization? Do these ever include bespoke research for donors interested in a certain area? Or references to other research organizations?

(For example, if someone contacted you to say they were interested in helping animals, or reducing nuclear risk, what might you tell them?)

comment by Jon_Behar · 2020-01-23T19:59:05.129Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

We’ve worked with HNW donors to determine which of our recommended organizations are the best match for the donors’ specific values and causes of interest. So far we haven’t done any bespoke research for donors, though this is definitely an area we expect to expand into in the future.

We’ll sometimes get inquiries about causes outside our scope. Where possible, we refer them to EA resources, such as ACE for animal welfare and Founders Pledge’s research on climate change. (We also have links to those two organizations at the bottom of our charity selection methodology writeup in a “beyond global poverty” section).

comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2020-01-27T10:49:29.130Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

How does TLYCS evaluate its own impact as a "meta" charity? If you imagine the sentence "we expect that giving $10 to us generates $X in giving across our portfolio of charities/other EA-aligned charities", what would X be, and how did you come up with that number?

Sub-questions related to this (no need to address them all!):

  • Could you describe how you decide whether to attribute giving/other positive events to your own counterfactual influence?
  • How (if at all) do you track later giving by participants in your Giving Games?
comment by KathrynMecrow · 2020-01-27T21:02:26.126Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Great question, thank you, Aaron :) The main metric we use is “Net Impact” which is the money we moved to our recommended nonprofits minus our operating expenses. As a secondary metric, we look at our “leverage factor” or “multiplier.” This is the ratio between our money moved and our expenses. To give an example of why we prioritize our net impact, we would rather spend $1 billion to move $5 billion (Net Impact = $4 billion, Multiplier = 5) than spend $100 to move $1,000 (Net Impact = $900, Multiplier = 10).

In 2018, we moved ~$5.25 million to our recommended nonprofits and spent ~$460,000. Our net impact was ~$4.8 million and our multiplier was ~11. We’re still in the process of calculating our 2019 financials, but we know we have seen significant growth. Our money moved should be at least $11 million, and we expect our multiplier to around 15x. Based on the last two years, we estimate a $10 donation to our operating budget would generate ~$110-$150 in donations to our recommended charities.

For money moved, we count donations that are made through our site and directly to our recommended charities citing us as an influencer. We generally consider our numbers to be conservative, as we expect some of the donations we influence to be unreported. We discussed how we think about counterfactuals at length in the appendix to our 2017 annual report.

With respect to tracking impact from Giving Games, we plan to publish an annual report with analysis of our data soon.

comment by Ula · 2020-01-24T11:42:04.466Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I have heard that TYLCS prepared a great event promoting the book in London (the guest list was small but amazing, the venue as well - so I heard). So I was wondering how much time was spent on preparing the event? How much money did you spend on it (stuff hours + venue/catering costs)? And what are the tips on putting a great guest list (like i.e. you want to funders, influencers, experienced EAs in the same room in the same time - that is super tough). Basically, I would like to know more on promoting via this kind of events. Do you think money wise it's worth it? How do you judge if it was a success or not? And how you did it?

comment by KathrynMecrow · 2020-01-24T18:49:12.058Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Excellent question, thank you! I am delighted to hear that people enjoyed the event. Our objectives were primarily to celebrate the progress since the initial launch of The Life You Can Save in 2009, further strengthen our relationships with our networks, and create new ones. As an organization we place a huge value on these relationships as much of what we do relies on them to be successful. On attendees, I think this is an example of a positive consequence of the diversity of the backgrounds of our team members that Jon mentioned above. Our organizing team contacted their networks which led us to a mix of attendees all of whom were excited to be there. Personally, I spent around 10-20 hours, primarily during EA Global in London, inviting people and asking my networks for advice. Including people already involved and leaders of the EA community meant that we had a group of really enthusiastic attendees who were willing to discuss what they find inspiring about effective giving and Effective Altruism and guide attendees who were perhaps earlier in their journeys. Our London-based recommended nonprofits also attended which allowed us to highlight the practical consequences of our work which is natural to lose sight of if you aren’t doing direct, in-country work. Since the event, we have had a significant amount of great feedback, including from our largest donor which is obviously really important for us. I also like to think that people will reach out to us in the future more willingly now they know more about our team and guiding values but I think it probably a little too soon to tell. We have some new leads coming out of the event, but expect it to take time to learn what the results might be. On costs, we spent £5,425 hard costs. There are other costs that you mention like staff time. An incredibly back-of the envelope calculation would be <£10,000. Overall, we are pleased with the event, learnt alot, and, of course, are very grateful to our networks for helping make it a success.

comment by Ula · 2020-01-27T14:12:37.839Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Wow, this is a really helpful reply! Thank you very much!

comment by Sebastian Schwiecker (EA-Basti) · 2020-01-22T21:51:43.279Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Why do you recommend Oxfam but not The End Fund (recommended by GiveWell)?

comment by Jon_Behar · 2020-01-23T20:00:17.231Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Here’s how our Oxfam information page describes why we recommend them. (FYI, on each charity’s information page we have an FAQ explaining our recommendation).

We recommend Oxfam for donors who want to support a large, multinational organization working to fight global poverty in a wide variety of ways and in a wide variety of places. Because Oxfam is so large, including them as a recommended charity also significantly expands the tax-deductible giving options and program locations we can offer our global audience.
Due to the breadth and scope of its work, Oxfam’s impact is inherently difficult to measure and attribute, but we believe that some hard-to-measure work, like advocacy, can be a powerful way to help people in extreme poverty. Full disclosure: Peter Singer is a member of Oxfam America’s Leadership Council, an unpaid advisory body of significant Oxfam donors. Peter’s wife, Renata Singer, was employed by Oxfam Australia in the 1990s as their publications officer.

The fact that we don’t recommend The End Fund definitely shouldn’t be interpreted as a negative assessment of their work. Rather, it relates to your other question [EA(p) · GW(p)] about the “paradox of choice.” We recommend SCI and Evidence Action (which runs Deworm the World), and generally don’t want to recommend many charities performing similar interventions without a compelling reason, as we think this will be confusing to donors.

In some cases, we do think there’s a good reason to have multiple charities performing similar interventions. For instance, we added Malaria Consortium to our list (which already included AMF) when GiveWell rated the former’s marginal cost-effectiveness as higher than the latter’s. We also have multiple food fortification recommendations which were added at the same time, and which we didn’t feel like we had good reason to distinguish between, but once those were already on our list we declined to add the Food Fortification Initiative when GiveWell later added it as a standout charity.

As the previous examples show, there’s some path dependency to our list (i.e. the order in which we add charities matters). This reflects our belief that 1) all else equal, we want our list to be simple for donors with minimal overlap and 2) we think removing a charity from our list because we added a similar one that might be slightly better would send an inappropriately negative signal about the charity we removed.

comment by Sebastian Schwiecker (EA-Basti) · 2020-01-22T21:50:30.819Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

If I get it right you target not only EAs but also "the average donor". In this case have you ever thought that it might be confusing to offer so many charities and that this could lead to a paradox of choice kind of situation? Eg several charities working on deworming (an intervention "the average donors" probably has never heard of before).

comment by KathrynMecrow · 2020-01-23T20:05:32.481Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is another excellent question. I think before I became involved with The Life You Can Save (TLYCS) and the Giving Games Project, I personally underestimated how much “the average donor” decides where to donate at least partially based on an interest in or personal connection to a particular issue. Given these considerations, The Life You Can Save present our recommended nonprofits with diverse focus areas, types of interventions, and location of operations. Jon goes into more detail about why we sometimes recommend nonprofits which overlap on one or more of these factors above but some of the steps we take to avoid overwhelming our donors are:

1. We present our recommended nonprofits on our site structured on the menu bar under key issue areas, for example, creating economic opportunities, helping women and girls, and ending hunger and malnutrition.

2. We have developed a search mechanism which allows donor to filter nonprofits by the type of impact they have, the country they work in, and their tax deductibility status.

3. We recently added an “All Charities Appeal” which allows donors to make a single donation to support all our recommended organizations. This appears to be quite popular with donors. Over time (when we have the capacity to add dedicated charity assessment staff), we would like to move this toward more of an actively managed fund, and add sub-funds for donors who want to support multiple organizations working in the same cause area (e.g. women and girls).

4. We have developed an impact calculator which allows donors to compare the estimated cost-effectiveness of different interventions.

5. We additionally place a high value on making our nonprofit write-ups as simple, concise and well-presented as possible. An example is here.

6. We prioritize the creation of relationships where large donors trust our recommendations and larger donors contact our donor advice team to discuss the option space.

I think these tools and approaches enable a significantly easier and more accessible donor experience. This is so far backed by our latest statistics on the usability of the new website, which we launched in December 2019, alongside the tenth anniversary edition of The Life You Can Save.