Posts

Brendon_Wong's Shortform 2022-08-29T10:21:37.876Z
EA-Aligned Impact Investing: Mind Ease Case Study 2021-11-15T15:57:20.191Z
How You Can Counterfactually Send Millions of Dollars to EA Charities 2020-12-24T02:50:14.631Z
EA could benefit from a general-purpose nonprofit entity that offers donor-advised funds and fiscal sponsorship 2020-06-27T00:16:58.808Z
EA Angel Group: Applications Open for Personal/Project Funding 2019-03-19T18:29:32.777Z
EAs and EA Orgs Should Move Cash from Low-Interest to High-Interest Options 2019-02-23T12:24:02.970Z
Requesting community input on the upcoming EA Projects Platform 2018-12-10T17:41:32.212Z
Ideas for Improving Funding for Individual EAs, EA Projects, and New EA Organizations 2018-07-10T06:12:29.993Z

Comments

Comment by Brendon_Wong on EA-Aligned Impact Investing: Mind Ease Case Study · 2022-09-21T01:17:48.850Z · EA · GW

Hi Inga, thanks for commenting!

First: I like the framework and the fact that you help to make impact vesting a viable option for the EA space. It indeed might open more opportunities for entering a multitude of markets and funding. Having a streamlined standard EA-aligned framework for this in the Global Health and Wellbeing Space could make the investment process more attractive (smooth), more efficient (options clearer and better comparable), and lead to better decisions (if the background analysis is high-quality). 

Thanks! I personally think that impact investing is an incredibly promising space for EA.

Might it be useful to add something like “neglectedness” of funding”? E.g. in the Mindease Case, I believe it was moderately likely (depending on the quality of the presented scaling strategy) that another investor would have jumped in to take the lead. There might be value in identifying and helping (1) ventures that have a promising impact prospect but low funding chances or (2) ventures that look like they might not have a promising impact prospect but since you have some rare specialists in the corresponding field, you know it is better than other options in the field. E.g. if Mindease had a really promising approach (evaluated by the specialists) to solve the low retention of users or the lack of sustainable effects of mental health interventions.

That's already included under "Investor Impact!" See  "funding probability." If I recall correctly, the 15% indicates that there's a ~1/6 chance this investment was counterfactually impactful, and that draws from the  much lengthier documents written by TPP that this writeup is based on.

The evaluation of neglectedness (of the solution/problem) seemed partly confusing to me. It is correct that lots of people suffering from mental health issues do not receive treatment. This is also true in HIC where digital solutions are widely available. The real neglected problem seems to be the distribution of these interventions and this has been hard for all companies out there offering services like that and is only possible if you adapt your service to the specifics of the different cultures and countries and then also tailor the distribution strategy. This means, that currently Mindease just does something in HIC that other apps such as Sanvello are offering already (maybe no additional value for people that in this calculation is added to the DAILYs) and does not have product or market strategy for LMIC - where it would be neglected. Convincing providers like Sanvello to offer their services in LMIC, and then just specializing in tailoring the product for people in a specific large country (e.g. Nigeria) as well as nailing distribution there, might be much more impactful. E.g. the UK-based charity Overcome does something along the lines of this. 

Did you read Hauke's analysis, or just our brief summary of it? Here's a direct link to the 3.5 pages covering neglectedness in Hauke's report. The extended TPP report covers several distribution strategies, which I personally believe to be very compelling and differentiated from existing apps, and some of them may resemble strategies you proposed. I do not recall if the full report is public, but Jon Harris would know the latest status.

Would it be useful also to add a “people’s time resources” needed to the equation? E.g. it is a difference if 10 or 30 EA spend their time working on this solution because they could also help to make an impact elsewhere.

I think that's an interesting idea! I haven't seen too many examples of that in EA analyses, but let me know if you find any on the EA Forum! I can think of a few difficulties associated with doing that and I'm not sure how people would overcome that, including establishing a counterfactual personal impact benchmark (what is the baseline impact of the EA that would have been hired?) and modeling the additive impact of additional team members (does going from 10 to 30 team members triple the impact? under what impact scenarios would that occur?). Also, not all team members would need to be "EAs" (what even counts as EA?), and I think that can also be hard to forecast and is somewhat dependent on the team and how things end up working out (whether people end up joining from within or outside EA).

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Ideal governance (for companies, countries and more) · 2022-09-02T09:23:33.288Z · EA · GW

I believe that governance is a technology. Thus, while there may be no "perfect" governance system, humanity's knowledge on it will improve greatly over time. That will improve the default governance models used (right now, representative democracy is a very common default with company shareholders, most developed countries, etc.) as well as humanity's ability to customize governance models to particular situation. Since representative democracy is so commonplace, I think making default models better will produce most of the benefit, rather than the adapting to the context as you mention.

Regarding getting there, as indicated in Holden's article, governance can be applied to many human systems, not just a government. Governments change, of course, but organizations change faster and emerge at a higher rate. Take public benefit corporations (PBCs) for example. Delaware (the most popular state for incorporation), passed  PBC legislation in 2013 and we already have PBCs IPOing.

There are also very creative ways to influence governments with technology. For example, in Taiwan, while the governance model hasn't changed, the government is deploying technologies like Polis to improve democracy, using it to effectively come up with policy proposals for potentially contentious issues that improve society and enjoy high consensus. I think that developing "add-ons" to entrenched governance models is a decent strategy, and it's one of the routes that our Civic Abundance project is taking.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on [Cause Exploration Prizes] Software Systems for Collective Intelligence · 2022-08-31T21:35:43.476Z · EA · GW

It's so cool seeing articles that align with what I've been wanting to see for years! Holden also recently wrote about governance but with a more external-to-EA lens (for example, to responsibly govern AI companies) rather than using better governance to solve issues in EA causes and within EA itself.

This work is very aligned with what Roote is working on (one of the organizations I help run) and our work on meta existential risk (although we don't explicitly name collective intelligence as a potential part of the solution for this problem). We think that improving governance and collective intelligence is very important. We're fans of the civic tech efforts in Taiwan and our building societal-level information and coordination software with our Civic Abundance project (we are looking for funding and trying to hire a project lead!). Among the things we've looked at is integrating with Manifold to experiment with futarchy (but in the context of an informational dashboard, not tied to the actual governance process).

We're very aligned with Web3 for social good (like Greenpilled) and Gitcoin. I personally believe that EA itself needs a better mechanism to fund public goods within the EA community, given that EAIF seems to commonly ask public goods projects to become revenue positive which, well, is usually not possible for public goods to do without becoming private goods. Very unfortunate.

I was not aware that there was any research on the specific implications of  collective intelligence on existential risk. I would have been excited to read a quick summary of the main points/findings or some hyperlinked articles.

Thanks for writing this!!

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Brendon_Wong's Shortform · 2022-08-30T05:57:49.827Z · EA · GW

Antigravity Investments Public Impact Log

This is an interim post sharing examples of Antigravity Investments' impact over the years. Organizations that have not explicitly consented to being named have had their details anonymized (we only asked CEA due to time constraints).

August 2022: One example of my ongoing correspondence with the EA operations team member is that I identified that an AI research organization with $6 million in cash could access yields of ~2.5% instead of 0% at their existing bank, which would generate another $150,000 for the organization every year on an annualized basis at essentially zero cost to themselves (at current interest rates).

April 2022: Agreed to help a relatively core EA organization administer $1M+ in a DAF because their existing advisor could not do it for free. The situation seems unlikely to move forward due to logistical problems with the DAF provider.

December 2021+: An operations team member that has worked at multiple EA- aligned AI organizations started an active correspondence with me regarding treasury cash management and operations in general. Questions included the base rates of defaults with various cash management options.

December 2020: GiveWell had their team investigate cash management, very likely directly as a result of my article directed specifically at them (see GiveWell's comment). Hopefully they have implemented it by now (we will likely be able to assess the impact in their 2021 Form 990 which is expected shortly).

Early 2020: A nonprofit that has assisted with certain EA endeavors committed $10M+ to one of our recommended cash management solutions, which later became $20M+ after they had tested it for a while and expanded into a second recommended cash management option.

2019: The Center for Effective Altruism started setting up a brokerage account at Vanguard after I reached out. According to their Form 990, they moved the majority of their funds into some form of interest-bearing account or investment during 2020. This may or may not impact CEA's fiscally sponsored projects like 80,000 Hours and Longview Philanthropy.

Mid-2019: A core EA charity was considering utilizing one of our recommended cash management for $1M+. They discovered that they had an agreement with their bank that required that they bank exclusively with that bank for a certain period. We explored alternatives like opening a brokerage account. The charity corresponded with their bank regarding their low interest rate, and as a result, the bank raised their interest rate.

2018: An animal charity committed $1M+ in assets under management to Antigravity with a below-market-rate fee.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Cause Exploration Prize: Distribution of Information Among Humans · 2022-08-29T19:05:29.118Z · EA · GW

This is a great article! Agree that the EA space doesn't have well-developed models for this. The two major organizations I am founding, Better and Roote, are both highly involved in this space.

Better is working on identifying, verifying, and distributing high-impact “informational interventions" for people and organizations, which corresponds to the theory of change of your BOTEC of people having better lives and organizations having higher effectiveness if they have access to optimal information. We're also developing knowledge management/collective intelligence software called Cosmic to help with that.

Roote is working on ideas that are related to your scalable/meta proposals. For example:

  • "Capable and “value-aligned” recommender systems in practically every area" - We are building Tweetscape, a general-purpose aligned recommender for Twitter
  • "An interested author writing a pop-science book on the topic" - We're authoring a book on how information spreads, What Information Wants, which is related to how humans exchange information, although maybe not specifically exchange value through information
  • We're working on societal information and coordination infrastructure with Civic Abundance to help groups align on the best actions to take to advance shared goals

Roote is actively hiring (and fundraising) so anyone interested is welcome to reach out!

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Brendon_Wong's Shortform · 2022-08-29T10:21:38.101Z · EA · GW

My Journey in Effective Altruism

My journey in effective altruism started after I stumbled across The High Impact Network (THINK) online in 2012. At the time, I was 14 and a first-year in high school. I reached out to THINK and interned at its parent organization for a week in summer 2013 and was invited to the very first EA Summit that summer. Due to a twist of fate, I had an international trip planned and couldn’t attend, which in retrospect might’ve resulted in my experience in EA going in a very different direction. After the summit, I was very shy and also still attending high school, so I didn't develop any network to speak of in the burgeoning EA movement.

I had a strong interest in social entrepreneurship and dabbled in various projects over the next few years. These projects included utilizing quantified self methods to help people improve their physical and mental health, connecting people in developing countries with higher-paying work opportunities via the internet, and helping animal charities like NutritionFacts apply for and/or utilize Google Ad Grants to spread awareness of plant-based nutrition to encourage dietary behavior change. I briefly worked on a venture called The Giving Basket to create freely accessible, zero-minimum donor-advised funds (DAFs) for everyone. These DAFs could be independently directed, directed via crowdsourcing mechanisms like voting, or directed via expert recommendations.

While I decided not to proceed forward with the idea, The Giving Basket involved investing the funds inside the DAFs before they were disbursed, thus increasing the total amount donated in expectation. That gave me the general idea of utilizing investing to increase the amount that people were able to donate. Thus, my next venture idea was born, Antigravity Investments. It was 2016, and I graduated high school and headed off to study at UC Berkeley. The original idea of Antigravity Investments was to help donors invest money before they donated it, much like The Giving Basket had intended. Over time, this expanded into helping people with investing in general (which would hopefully counterfactually increase the amount people could afford to donate if they were themselves better off), and later, helping institutions like foundations and nonprofits invest. The latter audience is where Antigravity Investments has derived the majority of its impact, counterfactually donating millions of dollars to charity in transparent and verifiable ways.

After years of work, Antigravity Investments met my threshold for success, but I faced considerable challenges executing it including finding enough vetting (especially in Antigravity’s later years) and funding. I spent some time working on trying to create infrastructure to solve those issues, including prototyping an EA Projects Platform (which would connect projects, evaluations, funders, and team members) and spinning up the first EA Angel Group. I also interned in product management working on big data and AI products (applying ACR, CRNNs, and other interesting technologies).

After that, I graduated college in 2020 in the midst of the pandemic. I started working as a product manager at Capital One, and on the side, explored high-impact ideas. I participated in the Longtermist Entrepreneurship Fellowship, where I worked on an idea we termed “GiveWell for Impact Investing.” This culminated in an article on the EA Forum demonstrating that impact investing could counterfactually generate impact to a degree that, in my opinion, could be comparable to or exceeding that of a donation depending on the specific opportunity at hand. This seemed revolutionary, but didn’t seem to make many waves, perhaps because the article was very conservative in its messaging.

I was still in an exploratory mode and briefly explored “prediction markets for good” (including variants similar to ideas that Manifold Markets has implemented) before settling on launching a general-purpose version of my previous ideas. I noticed that many of my ideas, like my idea to increase charitable funding or help charities better leverage Google Ads, were based on very simple yet very high impact recommendations. I decided to launch a research organization and startup studio called Better to identify, validate, and share such recommendations to help the EA community and the world at large increase well-being and well-doing (well-doing referring to the combination of effectiveness and altruism). A few months later, I discovered an opportunity to be the COO of an upcoming nonprofit called Roote working on societal systems change. Roote touches on many topics I'm excited about including reducing meta existential risk, improving governance, and improving upon capitalism, so I joined to cofound that as well!

These days, I'm busy jamming away at getting thought leadership and ventures at Roote and Better off the ground, and chatting with people to help them along in their own journeys as my network in and knowledge of EA, and social impact in general, has grown :)

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Announcing a contest: EA Criticism and Red Teaming · 2022-08-29T08:33:08.237Z · EA · GW

There is a section in the article that says:

Submissions must be posted or submitted no later than 11:59 pm BST on September 1st, and we’ll announce winners by the end of September.

(I nearly missed this as well)

Comment by Brendon_Wong on The Future Fund’s Project Ideas Competition · 2022-08-28T22:48:38.529Z · EA · GW

Sjir, you may be interested in Roote's work on meta existential risk!

Comment by Brendon_Wong on The Future Fund’s Project Ideas Competition · 2022-08-28T22:43:54.680Z · EA · GW

Seeing this late, but this is a wonderful idea! Will Roderick and I worked on "GiveWell for Impact Investing" a while ago and published this research on the EA Forum. We ultimately pursued other professional priorities, but we continue to think the space is very promising, stay involved, and may reenter it in the future.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Project: A web platform for crowdsourcing impact estimates of interventions. · 2022-04-24T20:38:27.990Z · EA · GW

I think that’s a good idea to reduce groupthink! Also, I think it can be helpful to uncover if specific individuals and sub-groups think a proposal is promising based on their estimates, since rarely will an entire group view something similarly. This could bring individuals together to further discuss and potentially support/execute the idea.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Project: A web platform for crowdsourcing impact estimates of interventions. · 2022-04-24T20:28:02.044Z · EA · GW

I think this is an excellent idea and one that I’ve wanted to exist for quite a few years now! My interest in this area stems from wanting to surface compelling strategies and projects that don’t receive sufficient attention because they’re not currently “trending” in the movement. By explicitly laying out theories of change and crowdsourcing estimates for each part of those theories of change, this makes it much easier for people to to understand proposals, identify how various people and groups in the community think about a proposal, and compare the expected impact of various strategies and projects against each other.

Right now, people submit ideas and projects on the EA Forum, but that doesn’t clearly translate to action. But if it’s pretty clear that specific individuals, sub-groups in the community, or the community at large think a theory of change is promising, I think this has the potential to greatly increase awareness and the likelihood of execution of promising proposals.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Ideal governance (for companies, countries and more) · 2022-04-07T18:49:28.111Z · EA · GW

I've been interested in the area of improving governance for a long time! On a societal level, there are some organizations and efforts in the space like One Project and RadicalXChange. Unfortunately I'm not aware of research that evaluates the efficacy of various governance models. I've been thinking about doing that for quite a few years. Doing that research is a high priority on Roote's backlog. We haven't tried getting funding for it yet, but it is somewhat related to our funded Civic Abundance and Web3 & Society initiatives. For example, for Web3 & Society, given the proliferation of alternative governance methods in Web3 as well as the transparent nature of decisions and performance results with DAOs, we can directly assess the efficacy of various DAO governance models.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on What general financial advising advice would you give to EAs? · 2022-04-07T18:40:15.093Z · EA · GW

There are a few articles and Q&As on the EA Forum, like Investing to Give Beginner Advice? There are also blog posts on EA personal blogs, in particular Brian Tomasik's Assorted tips on personal finance and Ben Kuhn's Giving away money: a guide. Appendix B of an article I wrote on improving nonprofit treasury management also covers investments. The 80,000 Hours article I linked to in Appendix B, Common investing mistakes in the effective altruism community, is also pretty good.

My opinionated TL;DR is that "investing to give" is useful for various cases including donating once-a-year on Giving Tuesday, longtermist investment funds, and of course standard personal wealth accumulation. The standard investment advice is to use low-cost ETFs to create diversified portfolios. The main tax tip applicable to EAs is to donate appreciated securities (assume someone is donating their earnings). In addition to standard investment advice, more advanced investors will use leverage/margin to increase the returns of low-volatility portfolios as Tomasik and the 80K article mention. IMO the best strategy, which no one really uses, involves using various evidence-based factors to select asset classes, which the 80K article briefly alludes to at the end. That's what sparked my initial interest in the investment space and why I launched an investment firm (I also do more standard stuff like optimal high-interest bank accounts and passive asset selection by popular demand).

I run Antigravity Investments, which is an EA-aligned investing firm. I've mostly been advising charities, but now that better technology is available like Altruist, I'm in the process of expanding to once again directly advise individuals (that's why the website has a temporary placeholder at the moment). Robo-advisors are good for people that want something standard, and there are a few firms doing evidence-based asset class selection. Alpha Architect is one such firm.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Predicting for Good: Charity Prediction Markets · 2022-04-06T08:05:58.268Z · EA · GW

Sweet! So originally I was trying a non-CFTC mechanism to launch a real-money prediction market, but then Kalshi got CFTC approval, and then it felt less impactful to launch a second real-money market whether via the CFTC or via other methods I was considering. Although Kalshi might not be launching markets around social impact questions so there’s probably still a social impact opportunity there.

Also, I looked into the costs and complexity, and it seemed pretty high. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to commit to doing it and ended up deciding on working on other projects that also seemed impactful like “GiveWell for Impact Investing.”

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Issues with centralised grantmaking · 2022-04-06T03:00:16.656Z · EA · GW

This is about intangible characteristics that seem really important in a grantee. 

To give intuition, I guess one analogy is hiring. You wouldn't hire someone off a LinkedIn profile, there's just so much "latent" or unknown information and fit that matters. To solve this problem, people often have pretty deep networks and do reference checks on people.

This is important because if you went in big for another CSET, or something that had to start in the millions, you better know the people, the space super well. 

I think this means you need to communicate well with other grant makers. For any given major grant, this might be a lot easier with 3-5 close colleagues, versus a group of 100 people. 

I see! Interestingly there are organizations, like DAOs, that do hiring in a decentralized manner (lots of people deciding on one candidate). There probably isn't much efficacy data on that compared to more centralized hiring, but it's something I'm interested in knowing.

I think there are ways to assess candidates that can be less centralized, like work samples, rather than reference checks. I mainly use that when hiring, given it seems some of the best correlates of future work performance are present and past work performance on related tasks.

If sensitive info matters, I can see smaller groups being more helpful, I guess I'm not sure the degree to which that's necessary. Basically I think that public info can also have pretty good signal.

So it doesn't matter how large your team is, there's no value getting 1000 grantmakers if you only need to know 200 experts in the space.

That's a good point! Hmm, I think that does go into interesting and harder to answer questions like whether experts are needed/how useful they are, whether having people ask a bunch of different subject matter experts that they are connected with (easier with a more decentralized model) is better than asking a few that a funder has vetted (common with centralized models), whether an expert interview that can be recorded and shared is as good as interviewing the expert yourself, etc., some of which may be field-by-field.

Someone has to kibosh this, and a set of unified grant makers could do this.

Is there a reason a decentralized network couldn't also do this? If it turns out that there are differing views, it seems that might be a hard judgement to make, whether in a centralized model or not.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Issues with centralised grantmaking · 2022-04-06T02:49:49.312Z · EA · GW

I agree! I was trying to highlight that because we're not sure that centralized funding is better or not, it would be a high priority to test other mechanisms, especially if there's reason to believe other mechanisms could result in significantly different outcomes.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Issues with centralised grantmaking · 2022-04-06T02:47:01.682Z · EA · GW

I recall reading that top VC's are able to outperform the startup investing market, although it may have a causal relationship going the other way around.

Yep, there's definitely return persistence with top VCs, and the last time I checked I recall there was uncertainty around whether that was due to enhanced deal flow or actual better judgement.

That being said, the very fact that superforecasters are able to outperform prediction markets should signal that there are (small groups of) people able to outperform the average, isn't it?

I think that just taking the average is one decentralized approach, but certainly not representative of decentralized decision making systems and approaches as a whole.

Even the Good Judgement Project can be considered a decentralized system to identify good grantmakers. Identifying superforecasters requires having everyone do predictions and then find the best forecasters among them, whereas I do not believe the route to become a funder/grantmaker is that democratized. For example, there's currently no way to measure what various people think of a grant proposal, fund that regardless of what occurs (there can be rules about not funding downside risk stuff, of course), and then look back and see who was actually accurate.

There haven't actually been real prediction markets implemented at a large scale (Kalshi aside, which is very new), so it's not clear whether that's true. Denise quotes Tetlock mentioning that objection here.

I also think that determining what to fund requires certain values and preferences, not necessarily assessing what's successful. So viewpoint diversity would be valuable. For example, before longtermism became mainstream in EA, it would have been better to allocate some fraction of funding towards that viewpoint, and likewise with other viewpoints that exist today. A test of who makes grants to successful individuals doesn't protect against funding the wrong aims altogether, or certain theories of change that turn out to not be that impactful. Centralized funding isn't representative of the diversity of community views and theories of change by default (I don't see funding orgs allocating some fraction of funding towards novel theories of change as a policy).

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Issues with centralised grantmaking · 2022-04-05T20:49:57.116Z · EA · GW

There's evidence to suggest that decentralized decision making can outperform centralized decision making; for example with prediction markets and crowdsourcing. I think it's problematic in general to assume that centralized thinking and institutions are better than decentralized thinking and institutions, especially if that reasoning is based on the status quo. I was asking this series of questions because by wording that centralized funding was a "hypothesis," I thought you would support testing other hypotheses by default.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Predicting for Good: Charity Prediction Markets · 2022-04-05T20:46:41.210Z · EA · GW

Cool, I considered a project in this space before in 2020! You mention "Prediction markets can allow traders to legally put in real money." Are you aware that the CFTC has permitted Kalshi to operate a real-money prediction market? I ended up considering launching a second version of Kalshi for real-money forecasting for impactful areas (including various paths to either go through the CFTC or bypas it with various mechanisms), so people would have a direct financial incentive to participate. This mechanism is one of several I considered if someone wanted to get a real-money prediction market spun up with greater ease than going through the CFTC, and subject to less restrictions. I am currently working on other projects, but if anything related to real-money prediction markets is something anyone is interested in discussing, feel free to reach out!

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Issues with centralised grantmaking · 2022-04-05T20:38:05.841Z · EA · GW

Isn't there a very considerably potential opportunity cost by not trying out funding systems that could vastly outperform the current funding system?

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Issues with centralised grantmaking · 2022-04-05T20:37:11.477Z · EA · GW

I agree with the issues related to centralized grantmaking flagged by this article! I wrote a bit about this back in 2018. To my understanding, EA has not been trying forms of decentralized/collective thinking, including decentralized grantmaking. I think that this is definitely a very promising area of inquiry worthy of further research and experimentation.

One example of the blind spots and differences in theories of change you mention is reflected in the results of the Future Fund's Project Ideas Competition. Highly upvoted ideas like "Investment strategies for longtermist funders" and "Highly effective enhancement of productivity, health, and wellbeing for people in high-impact roles," which came in at #3 and #4 respectively, did not win any awards or mention. This suggests that there is decent community interest and consensus around projects and project areas that aren't being funded or funded sufficiently by centralized entities. For those project areas, there are a decent number of people within EA , project leads, and smaller-scale funders (BERI, EA Funds, various HNWIs) that I am aware of that either believe such efforts are valuable and underfunded or have funded projects in those areas in the past. The specific grantmaking team at The Future Fund may have interests and theories of change that aren't the same as other grantmaking teams and EAs. It's definitely fine to have specialized interests and theories of change, and indeed everyone does, but the issue is only one set of those is coming through to decide how to allocate all of the Future Fund's funding. As you point out, that's basically guaranteed to be suboptimal.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Issues with centralised grantmaking · 2022-04-05T19:57:47.098Z · EA · GW

I see, just pointing out a specific example for readers! You mention the "hypothesis that relatively centralised funding is indeed best shouldn't be discarded prematurely." Do you think it's concerning that EA hasn't (to my understanding) tried decentralized funding at any scale?

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Issues with centralised grantmaking · 2022-04-05T19:53:37.471Z · EA · GW

Do you have any evidence for this? There's definitely evidence to suggest that decentralized decision making can outperform centralized decision making; for example, prediction markets and crowdsourcing. I think it's dangerous to automatically assume that all centralized thinking and institutions are better than decentralized thinking and institutions.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Issues with centralised grantmaking · 2022-04-05T19:50:22.429Z · EA · GW

Separate from any individual grant, a small number of grant makers have unity and serve critical coordination purposes, especially in design of EA and meta projects, but in other areas as well.

There are ways to design centralized, yet decentralized grantmaking programs. For example, regranting programs that are subject to restrictions, like not funding projects that some threshold of grantmakers/other inputs consider harmful.

Can you specify what "in design of EA and meta projects" means?

Most of the hardest decisions in grant making require common culture and communicating private, sensitive information. Ideas are worth less than execution, well-aligned competent grantees are critical. Also, success of the project is only one consideration  (deploying money has effects on the EA space and also into the outside world, maybe with lasting effects that can be hard to see).

EA has multiple grantmakers right now, and lots of people that are aware of various infohazards, and it doesn't seem to me like the communication of private, sensitive information has been an issue. I'm sure there's a threshold at which this would fail (perhaps if thousands of people were all involved with discussing private, sensitive information) but I don't  think we're close to that threshold.

I think the perception of who is a well-aligned, competent grantee can vary by person. More of a reason to have more decentralization with grantmaking. Also, the forecating of effects can also vary by person, and having this be centralized may lead to failures to forecast certain impacts accurately (or at all).

The post doesn’t mention how advisers and peripheral experts, in and outside of EA, are used. Basically, key information to inform grant making decisions is outsourced, in the best sense, to a diverse group of people. This probably expands grant making capacity many, many, times. (Of course this can be poorly executed, capture, etc. is possible, but someone I know is perceptive and hasn’t seen evidence of this.)

My sense is that this is still fairly centralized and capacity constrained, since this only engages a very small fraction of the community. This stands in contrast to a highly distributed system, like EAs contributing to and voting in the FTX Project Ideas competition, which seems like it surfaced both some overlap and some considerable differences in opinion on certain projects.

But what if the causal story is the exact opposite of this intuition? The people who have donated this money seem to be competent, and have specifically set up these systems. We’ve seen two instances of this now. The reason why there is money at all is because these structures have been setup successfully.

There have also been large amounts of funds granted with decentralized grantmaking; see Gitcoin's funding of public goods as an example.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Issues with centralised grantmaking · 2022-04-05T19:38:32.780Z · EA · GW

While it's definitely a potential issue, I don't think it's a guaranteed issue. For example, with a more distributed grantmaking system, grantmakers could agree to not fund projects that have consensus around potential harms, but fund projects that align with their specific worldviews that other funders may not be interested in funding but do not believe have significant downside risks. That structure was part of the initial design intent of the first EA Angel Group (not to be confused with the EA Angel Group that is currently operating).

Comment by Brendon_Wong on I feel anxious that there is all this money around. Let's talk about it · 2022-04-05T19:16:46.183Z · EA · GW

I haven't used Polis before, but from looking at the report, I believe that Groups A and B (I don't seem to see C) are automatically generated based on people with similar sentiments (voting similarly on groups of statements). It seems like Group A unconcerned about money and thinks more of it is good (for example, only 31% agree with "It's not that more money is bad, but is a bit unnerving that there seems to be so much more of it" compared with 88% in group B), and Group B is concerned about money, which includes everything from a concern around a small number of funders controlling the distribution of funding in EA to believing that personal sacrifice is an important part of EA (perhaps in contrast to wanting to offer people high salaries).

Typical caveats of it being a small and potentially unrepresentative sample size, but if I'm interpreting the data correctly, I think it's interesting that a lot of people seem to be concerned about money in general, rather than specific things. Perhaps there actually are more granular differences in opinion and there could be a way to highlight those more nuanced shared perspectives if the number of sentiment groups can be changed. Not sure what happened to Group C depicted in the screenshot.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on The Future Fund’s Project Ideas Competition · 2022-03-02T20:50:23.871Z · EA · GW

I was going to write a similar comment for researching and promoting well-being and well-doing improvements for EAs as well as the general public! Since this already exists in similar form as a comment, strong upvoting instead.

Relevant articles include Ben Williamson’s project (https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/i2Q3DTsQq9THhFEgR/introducing-effective-self-help) and Dynomight’s article on “Effective Selfishness” (https://dynomight.net/effective-selfishness/). I also have a forthcoming article on this.

Multiple project ideas that have been submitted also echo this general sentiment. For example “ Improving ventilation,” “Reducing amount of time productive people spend doing paperwork,” and “ Studying stimulants' and anti-depressants' long-term effects on productivity and health in healthy people (e.g. Modafinil, Adderall, and Wellbutrin).”

Edit: I am launching this as a project called Better! Please get in touch if you're interested in funding, collaborating on, or using this!

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Stress - effective ways to reduce it · 2021-12-21T21:07:29.012Z · EA · GW

Out of curiosity, what is the inclusion criteria for frontpage posts? Ignoring the broader global well-being considerations, if this is a "meta intervention" to increase the well-being/effectiveness of EAs, would that be "relevant to doing good effectively" which is the stated description for frontpage posts?

Comment by Brendon_Wong on EA-Aligned Impact Investing: Mind Ease Case Study · 2021-11-17T17:28:24.918Z · EA · GW

These are great points! FYI, jh is Jonathan Harris who runs TPP.

I'll preface my response by saying that I'm not an expert in this area; Will and I mostly focused on the impact investing side of things, and Hauke or someone on the Mind Ease team could likely provide a better response.

My understanding is that most popular apps (e.g., Headspace, Calm) offer free versions to people [including people in low- and middle-income countries]. I suppose MindEase would have an edge if it offers the full (premium) version for free, but it still seems quite difficult to compete with highly popular apps like Headspace/Calm. What do you think? And has this model of offering an app for free in low- and middle-income countries worked for any apps in the past?

I think that Headspace and Calm may not be the right reference points since they're not designed to tackle anxiety and depression, whereas Sanvello (formerly Pacifica) is. Headspace and Calm strike me more as "mindfulness apps" versus "mental health apps." For instance, it doesn't look like Mindspace and Calm feature any CBT exercises, whereas Sanvello does. I have paid access to Calm via my employer, and while I haven't used it much, it looks like all it has are guided meditations. Reviews of Headspace and Calm support my initial impression and mention that they just have guided meditation and music. I  expect that evidence-based practices specifically designed to target certain mental health conditions are significantly more efficacious than guided mindfulness meditations.

This distinction might've made it so that this Psychology Today review from 2019 mentions Sanvello as "the most popular" mental health app, ignoring Headspace and Calm. Regarding competition, it mentions that Sanvello has 2.6 million registered users, which is smaller than Headspace and Calm but still seems significant. It seems like other apps, including ones I've never heard of, have also been able to get decent user counts. For example, Moodpath reached 1 million downloads in 2019. Regardless of whether Headspace and Calm are competitors, Sanvello and other apps would still need to be competed against. Unlike other industries, like network effects with social media, I don't think that the major mindfulness/mental health apps have enough of a moat to prevent other competitors from emerging.

My understanding is that Headspace and Calm offer their vast majority of their content behind a paywall. The Headspace review I linked to suggests free users get access to one-third of a "Basics" (introductory meditation) course before they need to pay.

What constitutes releasing an app for free as "working?" It's commonly known that free apps get many more downloads and are the vast majority of apps on the iOS and Android app store, so I would expect that this would be a very effective user acquisition strategy (but perhaps not an effective monetization strategy, hence the social impact angle).

The Pacifica study that Hauke cites compares counseling alone to counseling + Pacifica. This seems like a comparison that would underestimate the effect of Pacifica. (It seems rather impressive that an app is able to have any effect above and beyond therapy, and I would imagine its standalone effect to be larger). Furthermore, I don't think Pacifica will be Mind Ease's main competitor-- Headspace and Calm appear to be much more popular than Pacifica (here and here), and they also focus on mindfulness/relaxation. Are there any estimates of Mind Ease's counterfactual impact relative to Headspace or Calm?

Sanvello (Pacifica) was likely selected because it is the most efficacious competitor in the same space. I'm not sure about how Hauke utilized the study findings in his report and his reasoning for doing so, so I'll have to defer to him on this. I'll let him know about your question!

It's worth pointing out that the report uses a very conservative counterfactual user impact estimate that is much closer to Foster's estimate than Hauke's estimate due to "principles of robust decision making under uncertainty."

Is the business analysis by Lionheart publicly available? (Apologies if you said this somewhere in your post).

It is not! TPP has not publicly released information containing private data from Mind Ease, which includes the business analysis and Foster's report. That's why the section on Mind Ease user data is not included in Hauke's report.

Thank you for the info about startups! I'm still a bit skeptical about the mental health app space in particular; are there any statistics about the percentage of funded health/mental health app startups that succeed?

There isn't too much information out there on startup success rates, and I'm afraid I'm not familiar with success data specifically about mental health apps!

Comment by Brendon_Wong on EA-Aligned Impact Investing: Mind Ease Case Study · 2021-11-16T18:44:05.425Z · EA · GW

Hi Robert, Foster's analysis currently isn't publicly available, but more details from Foster's analysis are available in TPP's full report on Mind Ease. To my knowledge, it was not stronger evidence that resulted in a lower efficacy estimate from Foster's research, but skepticism of the longer-term persistence of effects from anxiety reduction methods as well as analyzing the Mind Ease app as it is in the present—not incorporating the potential emergence of stronger evidence of the app's efficacy, as well as future work on the app. As one would expect, Mind Ease plans on providing even stronger efficacy data and further developing its app as time goes on.

As mentioned in our writeup, TPP used the lower estimate "because if Mind Ease still looks attractive in this "worst case," then it would definitely look attractive with weights that are less tilted towards Foster’s estimate," rather than skewing based on the strength of a particular estimate.  I think it's quite possible that Mind Ease's expected impact is considerably higher than the example conservative estimate shared in this writeup. Using different framings, such as the Happier Lives Institute's findings regarding the cost-effectiveness of mental health interventions, can also result in much higher estimates of Mind Ease's expected impact compared to GiveWell top charities.

I personally haven't spent much time looking over GiveWell's evaluations, but Hauke's full report "avoid[s] looking at individual studies and focus[es] mostly on meta-analyses and systematic reviews of randomized controlled trials." I'd expect that someone's assessment of Mind Ease's impact will generally follow their opinion of how cost effective digital mental health interventions are compared to getting no treatment (Hauke's report mentions that most people suffering from depression and anxiety do not receive timely treatment or any treatment at all, particularly in developing countries).

Comment by Brendon_Wong on EA-Aligned Impact Investing: Mind Ease Case Study · 2021-11-16T18:15:38.297Z · EA · GW

Thanks Sam! Great to hear this could be a valuable framework through which to view Dozy's impact from a philanthropic and investment perspective.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on EA-Aligned Impact Investing: Mind Ease Case Study · 2021-11-16T18:13:11.340Z · EA · GW

Hi Akash! Yep, I think Mind Ease's ability to attract users is certainly an important factor! I think of it as Mind Ease's counterfactual ability to get users relative to other apps (for example, since Mind Ease is impact-driven, they could offer the app for free to people living in low-income countries which profit-driven competitors are not incentivized to do) as well as Mind Ease's counterfactual impact on users compared to a substitute anxiety reduction app (for example, data in the cost-effectiveness analysis section of Hauke's report pointing Mind Ease potentially having a stronger effect on GAD-7 anxiety scores compared to Pacifica, a popular alternative, as well as the general rigor of their approach).

The active user estimates were modeled in TPP's full report on Mind Ease.  We provide a high-level overview of the data that was considered in the full report, which "included Mind Ease’s background and plans (including offering a free or discounted version of the app to low/middle income countries), historical downloads and active users, competitors, and financial details." The report leveraged Lionheart's business analysis, and based on my knowledge of information such as Mind Ease's historical user figures and strategic options like offering the app for free to certain populations, I think the report's user growth projections are reasonable (and those projections are only for the 25% "success" case).

As a reference point for the 25% chance of success, it's possible that many people's views on startup success are shaped by headlines like "90% of startups fail." However, the criteria for the startups that are included in the numerator and denominator of such success calculations can greatly affect the final number. Funded startups have higher success rates than one might expect. In our footnote on startup base rates which you may find interesting, "Funded ventures had a 76% survival rate (to 2010) and 27% "success" rate (exit or >75 employees)." The 25% success rate aligns very closely with the 27% success rate of funded ventures gaining over 75 employees or getting acquired in the study we cited. The study findings align with other research/reports I am familiar with.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on EA-Aligned Impact Investing: Mind Ease Case Study · 2021-11-15T20:09:26.137Z · EA · GW

Thanks for commenting! Our point is not only that VC markets are inefficient and thus the EMH may not apply, but also that the EMH is only a statement on the pricing of assets, and does not in fact imply that all available assets will be funded. Thus, it is possible for investments that offer market-rate returns to go unfunded and for the EMH to still hold.

Interestingly, in VC, investors and founders can actually negotiate the pricing for an investment round. Thus, it may be possible for most/all startups to produce market-rate returns if the valuation is tweaked (for example, founders getting less dollars per share than they are asking investors for in a priced round), but since many startups don't even get an investment offer, clearly not all market-rate investments are being funded.

Even if this is not the case, altruistic investors/impact investors are willing to make concessionary investments in which expected returns are lower than the market rate. For example impact investors give loans to nonprofits or disadvantaged communities at interest rates lower than the market rate, gaining both impact returns and financial returns, whereas for-profit investors may pass because they are only looking at financial returns.

In my opinion, it seems like the consensus is that primary market investments (like VC investing and loans directly to people and organizations) are much higher impact than secondary market investments, and I agree with this consensus. I think there may be the chance that creative secondary market strategies, like forms of shareholder advocacy, may have a counterfactual impact (the exact degree of which is unclear), but I haven't looked into it much yet.

"I'm interested in further research on this concept, and I'm not sure how much EA-aligned for-profits are already working on this."

Which concept are you referring to?

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Ben's Shortform · 2021-11-02T17:12:32.541Z · EA · GW

Thanks Hauke! Yep, at https://derisked.org/.

There's also James Norris at https://www.upgradable.org/.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Ben's Shortform · 2021-11-02T05:54:29.250Z · EA · GW

This is very exciting! Great to see the EA Infrastructure Fund is funding work in this space. I've been working on a similar venture called Better (your project is most analogous to our research division). Feel free to reach out if you'd like to hear about my experiences or discuss collaboration!

It would be interesting to see which areas of life/well-being you will evaluate. We have a breakdown on our website! And also your prioritization method. We've created one which we're calling ABCD—audience, (net) benefits, certainty, and difficulty—which involves estimating and then multiplying the factors together. Loosely resembles the ITN and RICE frameworks.

A 2% well-being improvement seems pretty conservative, perhaps intentionally. Lynette reported adding 16.4 extra hours per month (a 10% increase assuming 160 hours worked per month), although I believe this was through self-reporting and not time tracking, and may not include survivorship bias and other adjustments. Still, I'd hope things like lighting  adjustments are pretty high impact.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Coordination within EA: community & ecosystems · 2021-10-22T06:32:28.461Z · EA · GW

I completely agree, I've thought this ever since I joined the EA movement in 2013, and think this space (among others) is exceptionally neglected.

Some public examples of work I've done in this space include thinking about how to improve funder, project, and volunteer/team coordination as well as providing specialized services to the community. Given that this is a neglected area with little time and money available for people to make progress on it, I think it's no surprise that the space has "a large 'graveyard' of untried proposals or projects." I think the presence of such a graveyard is fairly indisputable, and with the current way coordination is done in the community, the only path forward appears to be greater advocacy for this area to receive more time and resources and/or improving coordination specifically among people that see this as a gap, both in terms of idea sharing and collaboration, and in terms of securing funding.

I continue to be interested in this area, and anyone who's interested in potentially collaborating is welcome to get in touch!

Comment by Brendon_Wong on EA Forum feature suggestion thread · 2021-10-04T12:51:11.970Z · EA · GW

I didn't know this was possible because the bio doesn't display when you are logged in and viewing your profile page, so perhaps displaying the bio itself with a button to edit it would be more obvious to users.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Starting a Small Charity to Give Grants · 2021-10-04T12:38:44.613Z · EA · GW

If the funds are disbursed directly from the charity on project expenses (a charitable purpose), rather than to the person for their general use (not a charitable purpose), it is possible to avoid taxes. For example, EA charities hiring personal assistants for academics.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Starting a Small Charity to Give Grants · 2021-10-04T12:36:21.861Z · EA · GW

You may be interested in my post on this topic! https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/mMu2BpRQ8oqtvEZjm/ea-could-benefit-from-a-general-purpose-nonprofit-entity. I mention your two use cases of enabling individual granting and tax-free investing as some of the benefits of setting up such an entity.

I haven't encountered a team/project specifically working on this (Rethink Charity's fiscal sponsorship mentioned in the article comments is probably the closest thing to this); let me know if you'd like to discuss further or collaborate!

Comment by Brendon_Wong on What should CEEALAR be called? · 2021-10-04T12:17:06.258Z · EA · GW

It could even be Altruistic Living and Building - Altruistic Labs! I feel like that name embodies what the organization does within it (enabling people to test various generally early-stage approaches to altruism) which would be a good idea whether the proposed name is an acronym or not.

Looking at similar organizations inside and outside EA (like Berkeley REACH) for naming inspiration also seems like a good idea.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on Has anyone found an effective way to scrub indoor CO2? · 2021-06-29T04:31:17.385Z · EA · GW

HVAC systems with outdoor air inputs (like DOAS) may be an effective way to reduce the buildup of CO2, VOCs, etc indoors in an automated and temperature-controlled manner.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on US bill limiting patient philanthropy? · 2021-06-27T11:22:41.776Z · EA · GW

I agree that this is a possible outcome (perhaps there would be loopholes in the law, foundations and DAFs would pursue other investment strategies like using leverage to achieve higher returns, or philanthropists would shift funds into alternative non-regulated entities), and if spending down endowments is the outcome, this certainly seems like it would have major ramifications on the entities subject to this regulation.

If these regulations persist in the long-run, I would imagine that patient philanthropy would transition to storing funds in other entities, like corporations, that are not subject to these regulations. Entities like corporations are not tax advantaged, so funding going into those organizations would be fully taxable. Investment gains might be fully or partially taxable (current regulations state that C Corps can only write off 25% of their total income for donations). A C Corp could switch to directly paying for products/services to avoid the limit of write-offs, or make those "purchases" through other entities like charities, so there would probably be ways to make the investment income non-taxable. Either way, the primary mechanism of impact for patient philanthropy—the effect of compounding interest over many years—would be preserved even if regulation to increase disbursements perpetually into the future were to pass.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on How You Can Counterfactually Send Millions of Dollars to EA Charities · 2021-01-14T00:12:56.538Z · EA · GW

Thanks for your response Catherine! It's great to hear that GiveWell is moving in this direction!

Makes sense regarding those three aspects of GiveWell's banking, and completely agree that our estimation methodology is likely in GiveWell's case to overestimate its average cash balance during the year. For the benefit of readers, as mentioned in our article, whether the estimate is accurate, too low, or too high will vary by charity and there is no way to increase the accuracy for an estimation methodology that works across charities due to the limitations of the Form 990 data.

Other commenters have mentioned that the federal funds rate is now close to zero. This article was primarily written before COVID-19 and the federal funds rate seemed like an appropriate and conservative benchmark at the time. I did not update the benchmark before the article was published because I received feedback from reviewers that the magnitude of the impact was large regardless of the exact interest rates. This is a sentiment that I agree with.

If the exact rate is literally 0% for the next few years (I did not intend for the federal funds rate to be used as a forward-looking estimate) that would indicate the benefit to charities is pretty low. I think a better proxy for the interest rate charities could have earned in the past and can earn now and into the future is Ally Bank's high-yield savings account rate. Ally Bank is a large institution and has over 10 years of historical interest rate data available. Their rate has historically been close to high-yield savings rates offered by most banks, and just a touch lower than the best options.

At this exact point in time, Ally Bank's rate is 0.5%. Here is the link to a historical rate chart with data since 2009: https://www.depositaccounts.com/banks/ally-bank.html#a305301. Ideally, GiveWell and other charities earning interest on U.S. dollar deposits should choose banking options that have historically earned and currently earn something close to this rate. Unfortunately, I do not think organizations can open accounts at Ally Bank at this time because they only cater to individuals, but there are many options for organizations out there that are competitive with Ally Bank's rate. We're happy to provide suggestions to GiveWell or any other organization.

As you can see from the chart, back when the federal funds rate was close to 0% after the 2008 recession, Ally Bank's interest rate hovered around 1%. That was one of the reasons my counterfactual impact estimate for GiveWell used a 1% rate. In retrospect, I should have elaborated on how I generated that estimate in the article itself.

I understand that factors like customer service, security, technology integrations, etc influence GiveWell's decision making around its banking needs. I have two thoughts on the matter.

Firstly, a high-yield savings account simply exists to maximize the yield on a nonprofit's cash, whereas a checking account accommodates most of an organization's banking needs. A checking account does not need to be selected on the basis of its interest rate, whereas this is much more important for a savings account, where an nonprofit's appropriate savings balance (e.g. most of its cash that isn't immediately needed) is stored.

Secondly, GiveWell and other charities can also select the option of having an account at a major brokerage firm such as Vanguard or Fidelity which may be more trustworthy and integrated with more options than a lesser know savings account provider (although FDIC insurance means that most regulated U.S. banking options are safe). Charities can hold these funds inside a money market account (offered by most brokerage providers as well as a lot of third parties), which is designed to not change in value, or another low-risk option. My article from last year contains more information on different options for charities, including analyzing the risk/security of both bank accounts and money market funds which you mentioned GiveWell is considering, as well as concrete guidance on selecting a brokerage account and the fund(s) to hold within it.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on How You Can Counterfactually Send Millions of Dollars to EA Charities · 2020-12-31T07:40:49.207Z · EA · GW

Thanks for commenting!

First, what specific options are available? As an individual I can open a high yield savings account with Ally (or I can  refer to NerdWallet for a list of other high yield savings accounts). But If I am running an NGO I can't legally use accounts intended for individuals, right? Could you provide a list of options?

Exactly, in most jurisdictions, NGOs must create savings accounts meant for organizations. In the United States, those accounts would be called business savings accounts. In the U.K., those accounts would be called charity savings accounts, but some business savings accounts might work depending on the terms and conditions.

For the U.S., here's a link to some examples of business savings account (online sources may be somewhat biased in choosing recommendations due to affiliate links, although this source seems decent): https://www.magnifymoney.com/blog/best-of/best-business-savings-accounts625269146/

Second, these ideas are fairly limited to cash held in USD in the United States, right? For organizations that have operations (and thus which keep funds) in other countries and other currencies, are you able to recommend any options? I am concerned that both the lack of high yield savings accounts in those countries and the cost of international transactions would prevent organizations from using this method.

The ideas expressed here are applicable to any country that has accounts or investment options available that pay more interest than the default accounts in use by most people/organizations. This likely holds true for most/all countries that have an established financial system.

In terms of offering recommendations, it would depend on the currency and country in question. The Flagstone option I mentioned in earlier comments works for GBP, EUR, and USD (they may be limited to UK-based clients, I don't recall off the top of my head). Feel free to mention specifics in a follow-up comment or email us at support@antigravityinvestments.com. I've historically researched the US, UK, and Canada, but I'll see what we can do if there's another country in question!

For countries that have less established financial systems, I agree, they may be unable to find a suitable alternative in their base currency that pays a high rate of interest, or be unwilling to take on currency risk and currency conversion costs by opening an international account likely denominated in another currency.

Besides opening an international account in USD, for instance at StoneCastle, an organization could also open an account at a brokerage firm that supports international clients like Interactive Brokers (I believe they support 19 currencies) and access various investment options. That is getting to a pretty high level of complexity though.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on How You Can Counterfactually Send Millions of Dollars to EA Charities · 2020-12-30T19:17:59.521Z · EA · GW

Thanks for taking the time to list those out Steve. I downvoted your comments because while I'm very happy to engage in this type of discussion with commenters, and have with others that have commented on this article, I feel like you are jumping to conclusions that things are "incorrect" or "misleading." In fact, many of your points are already mentioned in the article itself. Additionally, you are attacking my writing by making comments like something is "naive" which I feel is not conducive to a positive and intellectual discussion about this. You'll find that I've thought out the reasoning for all of the points you mention, either in the article itself, or because it's fairly easy to understand why.

Cash balance methodology

Dividing interest earned over the year by end of year cash is not an upper bound estimate interest

In the sentence directly above this quote, I explain what I mean by upper bound: "GiveWell’s total cash and investment income in 2019 was $26,260. GiveWell held investments in 2019, so using the full amount on Line 3 to estimate GiveWell’s interest on cash in 2019 likely overestimates GiveWell’s actual interest earned on cash in 2019."

I am saying that the number overstates the interest earned on cash alone because of the confounding effect of investment income. 

It's actually more like a lower bound estimate, because it implicitly assumes that the cash level at end of year was the same as the average cash level throughout the year.

The reason why this methodology is being used is stated in this first line of the article "This methodology is easy for anyone to replicate and is based on publicly available nonprofit financial statements (IRS Form 990) that all U.S. charities are required to file yearly."

The Form 990 does not include a better estimate of an organization's average daily cash balance. This is why I am calling this an "estimation" methodology.  In the "Estimation Methodology Caveats" section I cover this and other issues in depth (and I've already mentioned this to other commenters, who also brought up this valid point). A short quote: "The average of a nonprofit’s start of year and end of year cash could noticeably underestimate or overestimate a nonprofit’s actual average cash balance during the year because it only uses two days as data points..."

Since GiveWell is a grant-making organization that's a very dangerous assumption to make (and their 990 form shows them making ~$30m in grants over the course of the year).

GiveWell is used as an example—this analysis is meant to highlight the methodology, including its shortcomings, not be a deep dive into GiveWell itself. I don't have the data needed to estimate this better. Neither you nor I know how much money GiveWell actually holds during other times of the year. They receive funds year-round and need reserves on hand to pay operational expenses.

You acknowledge this in the next section, but then propose an equally questionable workaround

That is not correct, the workaround is, as I state in the article, meant to account for the confounding effects of money made from investments rather than cash holdings by only looking at the cash balance we know isn't earning any interest. This "workaround" has nothing to do with the cash balance issue you mentioned.

The same page shows that funds received in the final three months of 2019 were substantially greater than those received in the first nine months of 2019, which is another reason that the end-of-2019 cash balance paints a misleading picture

Thanks for pointing this out. I didn't look more closely into GiveWell's specifics because GiveWell is used as an example of a methodology that generalizes to other charities as I stated in the article. Data like this is very difficult to correlate with an organization's cash balance. We don't know what percentage of GiveWell's cash balance the Maximum Impact Fund is, what the Maximum Impact Fund balance is after a grant is made, whether the "amount" column reflects all donor inflows during a specified period or also granting from reserves or other revenue sources, etc.

The year you've chosen for your analysis happens to be the year with the highest cash rates in the past 12 years.

The most recent data is most relevant to GiveWell's current and future opportunity costs.

This isn't acknowledged, and you don't backtest your strategy in other years (e.g. all the years where rates were ~0%).

That is a good point! Time did not permit, but as I stated in my reply to Rob, I do think that "to get savings accounts yields themselves, we might need to use a third-party service or design a benchmark ourselves. Given the current situation with the federal funds rate, it would make sense for us to find a better proxy for good savings accounts yields in 2020 so that we can better estimate the opportunity cost for 2020 once the 2020 Form 990s come out as well as use the rate as a point of reference for current and future expected earnings."

So it is a good idea to use an alternative metric to the federal funds rate, particularly for lower interest rate years, so they more accurately reflect the opportunity cost. Off the top of my head I think that rates were around 1% (see Ally Bank's 2015 and 2016 historical yields when the fed funds rate was 0.13% and 0.39% respectively), which is the exact same rate I used for the forward-looking estimate for GiveWell. Using savings yields from one bank or a blend of banks instead still wouldn't change the article's conclusions, given that those rates would be both higher than the federal funds rate and also significant enough to warrant consideration even in a zero interest rate environment.

Potential returns of other investment options

There's nothing about that asset that makes its one year backward-looking return able to be extrapolated. Indeed this is basically the equivalent of picking a different asset that you know now performed well over a one year period and using that to  estimate opportunity cost. Why not Bitcoin in 2017 or Tesla stock in 2020?

Exactly, why wouldn't I pick Bitcoin or Tesla? Because both ultra-short-term bonds and a standard conservative risk portfolio are extremely common investment portfolios for more risk averse investors such as many nonprofits who require a steady rate of return with minimal drawdowns. It doesn't matter what examples you use, low-risk options would have performed well during this time period and other time periods, just worse than riskier options.

Citing the one year, backward looking return of JPST is misleading

And another reason I used JPST as an example is because I recommend  JPST in my early-2019 article before I could see its historical performance. So I'm not sure if "backward looking" is the right verbiage.

And re citing a year of drawdown data - the fund had a drawdown in March 2020! If you look at a similar index with a longer timeseries you'll see there have been drawdowns, even against the backdrop of a period of secularly falling interest rates that juiced bond returns.

I already state in the article that I am quoting month-to-month drawdown data, not day-to-day data. This means the fund did not decline in value month by month. The highest historical month-to-month drawdown was -1.72% and it recovered in two months. Hardly a volatile investment.

This analysis suffers from the same problem. At least there's an attempt to look at a window longer than one year, but again it's a cherry-picked period of 20 years, and it's backward looking returns data implied to be forward-looking. You also mention the drawdown in 2018. What was the maximum drawdown in 2008 to 2009?

Given the organization is granting funds a couple of months after receiving them, it has little ability to tolerate drawdowns, making comparisons to a higher risk fund incorrect to misleading.

I did not cherry pick the time period, stocks and bonds have generally performed well across time. Portfolio Visualizer has data starting from 1987, which indicates an annual return even higher than what I quoted, at 7.07%. Maximum drawdown is -8.49% from the 2008 crash. Exactly why this is considered a standard conservative portfolio by financial professionals.

Given the organization is granting funds a couple of months after receiving them, it has little ability to tolerate drawdowns, making comparisons to a higher risk fund incorrect to misleading.

As we can see, the drawdown is very low, and the expected value is positive and significant. For granted funds that GiveWell cannot afford to have a drawdown on (this does not represent all of their funds), then a "zero-risk" option like a savings account would make more sense. It all depends on the charity. Investment examples are for illustrative purposes, I have no idea what approaches GiveWell can or cannot take in actuality, beyond a savings account, which it should be able to do.

Conclusion and staff time

As shown above, getting a counterfactual impact number in the millions of dollars is not "very likely... regardless of the estimation method". That statement is somewhere between incorrect and misleading. For instance if the cash balance is 10% of what you cite, and the interest rate is more like 0.50%, it doesn't hold up.

That depends on what numbers we're using. I think 10% is very low. As I've said, the Maximum Impact Fund cannot be used as a reliable estimate or predictor of GiveWell's average daily cash balance. But if we assume just the fund itself represents all of GiveWell's money, we can see that there's a 3-month grant collection period (averages to 1.5 months of cash at 100%) plus a 2–3 month delay in granting (averages to 2.5 months of cash at 100%) which would suggest a minimum percentage of at least 33% (4/12 months) just based on the money collected during the last three months of the year.

The staff time estimate is also somewhere between incorrect and misleading:

  • If it's just opening bank accounts, then the impact is GiveWell on average earning roughly the prevailing bank interest rate (close to zero for much of the relevant period)
  • If instead you want them (without the benefit of hindsight that you employ) picking actively managed JP Morgan bond funds, or creating and balancing a bond + stock fund, then I'd hazard it's more than two hours of work per year!
  • So either it's not much effort, and not much return, or there can be higher returns, but clearly it's more than 2 hours a year of effort.

This is probably evident from the rest of my replies, but a 1% account savings rate or even 0.5% still produces significant financial returns. These numbers should be used instead of 0%.

And it would take a very small amount of time to keep funds in one fund for multiple years, whether that's JPST or a multi-asset fund that has, say, a 20% stock allocation and 80% bond allocation. Vanguard, a well-known and trusted provider, has a great ultra-short-term bond fund as a JPST alternative. A nonprofit might not maximize returns by shifting between funds on the reg (which is, as you say, time consuming, although Antigravity Investments is more than happy to help with that), but evidently they will do much better than nothing. Many nonprofits self-manage their investment approach.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on How You Can Counterfactually Send Millions of Dollars to EA Charities · 2020-12-30T06:34:25.777Z · EA · GW

This article makes several statements that I interpret as somewhere between intentionally misleading and outright incorrect.

Could you list out those statements? Are you talking about the article, or my comments? I would certainly not want to intentionally mislead, nor be outright incorrect.

For instance, this reply says the 2.19% Fed Funds rate was the prevailing rate in 2019, and isn't intended to be a forecast of the future. But since we know the Fed Funds rate is 0% today, why would that rate be used to argue for a forward-looking change in behavior?

As I state in the introduction, "In this section, we will introduce our cash interest opportunity cost estimation methodology for U.S. 501(c)(3) charities." The majority of this article is about open sourcing the estimation methodology we developed, which took considerable effort over multiple years. We analyzed financial data across over 300,000 nonprofits and ran the methodology past the IRS and an independent accountant. This methodology was not designed to forecast future opportunity costs, and doing so seemed especially unnecessary in the pre-COVID-19 environment of rising interest rates that we originally developed the methodology in.

As you can see by the dollar amount of the $4 million dollar forward-looking estimate for GiveWell (based on a 1% interest rate), the interest rate does not need to be 2% for this recommendation to make sense. Current bank yields are 0.5%, so if we assume that's the case for the next five years, the five-year benefit is $2 million instead. Given that the implementation time is, say, a conservative 20 hours, the associated staff time cost might be 20 * $100 = $2,000. Should GiveWell spend $2,000 to make $2,000,000? That's a 1000x ROI.

Part of the reason why the article was mostly about my estimation methodology is because the exact forward-looking numbers don't change the conclusions of the article.

So assuming an organization needed to make a grant within 12 moths, they could currently expect to make 0.10% on their cash balance. Needless to say this is 1/10th of 1%, or <1/20th of the figure cited in the post. And it seems a stretch to assume organizations hold cash for 12 months before granting it. So the likely benefit is perhaps at best 1/10th and potentially <1/100th of what's cited here.

You are citing numbers for an unappealing option to store cash in, and using that to argue that that's the best that organizations can do. Furthermore, you're doing this after I already mentioned bank interest rates of 0.5%+ in my reply to Rob that you are replying to. A quick Google search indicates that there are lower risk options (business savings accounts) that yield 0.5% and upwards. I have no idea why you are quoting a 0.10% figure.

You may not be understanding what the article means by "cash balance." As I make very clear in the article, we are using the organization's estimated average daily cash balance to calculate the historical and future opportunity costs. The average daily cash balance is the amount that an organization literally makes interest on; I can't think of a better number to use to calculate the interest an organization previously made and could be making in the future. All organizations have a cash balance, which we can say is the amount of cash in their checking and/or savings accounts, that they regularly make grants out of. As you can see from the historical opportunity cost estimation, clearly organizations have cash reserves on hand, and clearly those cash reserves could be earning more interest than they are now, regardless of whether or how they make grants.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on How You Can Counterfactually Send Millions of Dollars to EA Charities · 2020-12-29T19:38:11.239Z · EA · GW

Thanks for your thoughtful reply Rob!

"The 2.16% U.S. federal funds rate in 2019 is one of the most conservative interest rates possible."

The U.S. Federal Funds rate has been effectively 0% since April 2020 and was roughly 0% for six years from 2009 to 2015. The same is roughly true of the UK. Central banks in both countries are saying they'll keep rates low for years to come.

I can't immediately find a reputable business savings accounts in the UK/US that currently offers more than 1%.

To quote my reply to GMcGowan, "We used the latest Form 990 data from 2018 and 2019 and the associated interest rates from those years to calculate the prior-year opportunity costs as accurately as possible, which is a separate calculation than estimating the forward-looking counterfactual impact." In other words, the 2.16% is meant to be a conservative rate of interest a charity could earn by holding cash in a respectable savings account in 2019 rather than a forward-looking projection.

The federal funds rate is a good rate to use for historical analysis because we have very granular data for what it is in the past, whereas to get savings accounts yields themselves, we might need to use a third-party service or design a benchmark ourselves. Given the current situation with the federal funds rate, it would make sense for us to find a better proxy for good savings accounts yields in 2020 so that we can better estimate the opportunity cost for 2020 once the 2020 Form 990s come out as well as use the rate as a point of reference for current and future expected earnings.

I think the recommendation in this article is timeless, so the specific numbers don't matter that much. In fact, if the interest rates are lower, organizations are even less likely to do this, so the counterfactual impact decreases along the lines of expected interest increase but increases with the timeframe of impact before the organization would have otherwise implemented these changes.

In the "estimating counterfactual impact" section of this article, I use a 1% average improvement over the next five years to estimate GiveWell's opportunity cost over the next five years rather than, say, 2.16%. Right now, the rates are below 1% as you say. I see savings account options around the 0.5% and 0.6% range in both the US and the UK, although they've been higher earlier this year even after COVID-19.

You mention challenges with opening and managing bank accounts like: 

"I can't immediately find a reputable business savings accounts in the UK/US that currently offers more than 1%"

"These accounts usually offer a high rate to attract customers for a while, then dramatically reduce the interest rate"

"Opening bank accounts for non-profits, at least in the UK, is a pain."

"It looks like you usually won't be able to put in more than a million dollars/pounds in any given account, often less."

"keep track of them, secure the chequebooks, have them audited annually, integrate them into your bookkeeping system, change the signatures when staff turn over, figure out the idiosyncratic requirements to pull out money when you need to"

I have three responses. First, given the magnitude of the opportunity costs involved, most organizations with significant cash holdings should do this since the benefit is greater than the operational complexity (maybe a higher cash threshold for organizations wanting to hold money in UK banks). All organizations mentioned in the table have cash holdings of over $1,000,000.

Second, I think you've articulated some great reasons why Antigravity Investments should exist! On the surface, it might appear challenging to solve this problem, so having one person or organization figure this out and make the recommendation to multiple organizations and help with implementation as needed seems like a much more efficient model compared to having operations/finance team members at each organization relying on their preconceived notions to evaluate the benefits of this, plus needing to figure out the implementation component all by themselves.

Third, because Antigravity Investments exists, the EA community is now aware that there are institutional cash management solutions that overcome the challenges you mentioned. While it's better to directly contact Antigravity Investments for our latest recommendations, I wrote a DIY guide to institutional cash management in my  2019 EA Forum article (which is the solution to the opportunity cost problem mentioned in this forum post, although slightly outdated).

I've mostly been focusing on the United States and business savings accounts seem easier to open here. However, it so happens that I have done some preliminary exploration for the UK where you seem to have more experience with dealing with bank accounts. I'll mention several solutions, which address all of the concerns you mentioned.

In my original article, I mention a service called StoneCastle: "Our recommended solution is StoneCastle’s AAA-rated Federally Insured Cash Account (FICA). FICA works by continually analyzing yields at hundreds of U.S. banks and automatically storing cash at each high-yield bank up to the $250,000 FDIC insurance limit." Basically, you open one account, and that one account automatically optimizes the yield across hundreds of banks. The application is a very short PDF that can be filled out and submitted quickly and completely digitally. StoneCastle is open to international clients that want to store funds in USD.

As I mention in a comment on my 2019 article, "We're in the process of investigating options in the UK. Right now, Flagstone looks very promising, particularly for charities and large account sizes."

Flagstone is a somewhat similar service to StoneCastle but for UK cash deposits. It allows charities to open a single account and gain access to the best rates across (as of the time of writing) 45 partner banks. Unlike StoneCastle, money isn't moved automatically, but it can be moved at the click of a button. Flagstone appears to overcome the discovering reputable banks problem, the interest rate teaser problem, the switching bank accounts to get the highest yield problem, the account maximum balance problem, and the complexities of managing multiple accounts problem that you mentioned.

As mentioned in my original article and briefly in this article, storing money in ultra-short-term bonds or other investments is another good approach. Then, there's only a single brokerage account, and no bank-related complexity. Options like ultra-short-term bonds are safe relative to other investment options and also have a higher expected yield than savings accounts. Organizations can manage a brokerage account with a DIY approach, which could be as simple as making a couple-minute trade in a brokerage account every few months, or have an external service (like us) handle that.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on How You Can Counterfactually Send Millions of Dollars to EA Charities · 2020-12-29T01:42:40.410Z · EA · GW

I have not received a response from GiveWell staff members I've cold emailed in the past, but I have consistently received responses from info@givewell.org. This makes me think that info@givewell.org is a good choice.

I believe the detailed documentation of GiveWell's opportunity cost in this article makes it likely (85%) that GiveWell will respond to this inquiry or a follow-up email within two months. Hopefully they forward the inquiry to the appropriate team members.

I anticipate that the main failure mode of email outreach is that GiveWell indicates they intend to take action but does not do so in a timely manner (within six months), or isn't transparent regarding cash management improvements they say they've made in the past or intend to make in the future. In the latter case, the lack of transparency makes it difficult to determine the effectiveness of GiveWell improvements relative to the best possible interest rate until new Form 990s are released, which will be mid-2022 at the earliest for the 2021 Form 990. As an interest rate reference point, Axos Bank, which I mentioned in my talk earlier this year, is paying a 0.50% rate of interest right now.

I believe that it is difficult to mitigate risks associated with this failure mode without some way to increase GiveWell's trust in this recommendation or influence/get more time to speak with the appropriate decision makers. To date I have not found someone that can help with this, so I think a cold email is most appropriate in this case.

My email is as follows:

To: info@givewell.org

Subject: EA Forum Article About GiveWell

Dear GiveWell,

I wanted to share an EA Forum article I recently published about the opportunity costs of GiveWell's current approach to cash management. A rough estimate puts GiveWell's opportunity cost at $4 million over the next five years. Excluding deliberation time, I believe it will take under 10 hours for GiveWell to implement the change the article recommends.

It would be great to know if GiveWell has or intends to make changes, as well as the change that was made/how much interest it is currently paying relative to the best business savings accounts. My outreach to GiveWell is being publicly tracked in the action thread of the article, which is an experiment around leveraging the EA Forum to drive institutional behavior change.

Best,

Brendon

Comment by Brendon_Wong on How You Can Counterfactually Send Millions of Dollars to EA Charities · 2020-12-29T01:15:44.880Z · EA · GW

GiveWell

This is the first post in the action thread which I hope will be a good model for anyone that would like to try posting in this thread in the future. I hope that the action thread in general will be a good experiment for the EA Forum.

As documented in this article, I estimate GiveWell's five-year opportunity cost at $4 million. This is a very rough estimate which is dependent on many factors including GiveWell's true past and future cash balances. GiveWell's Form 990 makes it pretty clear they can benefit from this recommendation because they are earning a very small amount of interest income per year, even if their cash balances during the year are considerably lower than the year-end balances in Form 990.

Comment by Brendon_Wong on How You Can Counterfactually Send Millions of Dollars to EA Charities · 2020-12-24T09:34:55.571Z · EA · GW

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

For point 1, I mention this in more detail in my response to GMcGowan—the 2.16% federal funds rate in 2019 was in fact a conservative estimate for bank yields. That can be seen by looking at my EA Forum article from 2019 which references bank savings yields of up to 2.4%. The accounts that offer a higher rate of interest (like the 2.4% accounts) do not fluctuate like bonds and have identical risk to other savings accounts because they’re all insured by the FDIC. They yield less in 2020, of course. I perform a more in-depth risk analysis of savings accounts and alternative options in my article from 2019.

Regarding point 2, if we include 2% estimated inflation, then bonds would return 1% and a low-interest charity savings account would return -2%. If we adjust your estimates upwards to include inflation like my 5.51% figure, so 7% for equities and 3% for bonds, we get 3.8% (likely higher, say 4%, with rebalancing). Would you say that’s within the same ballpark? Regardless, I think future returns are very difficult to forecast, even with good causal explanations. With those assumptions, it would make sense to allocate more of the portfolio to stocks instead.

Regarding point 3, yep, that’s a shortcoming of solely relying on Form 990 data. If we had the full data, I think it’s unlikely that would change the numbers by that much (say more than 50% higher or lower). I talk about this and other estimation issues in the “Estimation Methodology Caveats” section of the article.