The GiveWell Blog

Just a few days left in 2016…

There are only a few days left to give to charity this calendar year.

The majority of donors who support GiveWell’s recommendations choose to make their gifts in December, for tax reasons or due to the holiday season.

This blog post contains quick tips and information about donating to GiveWell’s recommended charities.

Read more

Front-loading my personal giving this year

I’ve decided to give a little more than double what I normally give to charity this year, and skip giving next year. I see many reasons to give a larger-than-normal gift this year, and no countervailing reasons. If it weren’t for some idiosyncratic factors in my situation, I would roll my next three years of giving into this year’s gift.

I decided to write up my reasoning in the hopes of prompting others to consider whether they should be doing similarly. That said, everyone’s financial situation is different, and it may be a good idea to consult with a tax lawyer for personalized advice.

Tax policy

The issue that originally prompted me to consider a larger-than-usual gift was the prospect of changing tax policy due to the new administration, which could result in lower tax benefits for charitable giving in 2017 vs. 2016. A quick summary of my thinking follows; this should not be taken as tax advice, merely as my own personal guesswork and reasoning behind my own giving.

President-elect Trump’s public tax plan has three important features that could affect tax benefits for charitable giving:

  • Reducing tax rates “across-the-board.”* The proposal looks similar in this respect to the 2016 House Republican Tax Reform Plan. Depending on one’s tax bracket, this could mean that the benefit for charitable giving falls by a few percentage points, so giving this year could save more money on taxes than giving next year.
  • Raising the standard deduction significantly (more than doubling it). The proposal looks similar in this respect to the 2016 House Republican Tax Reform Plan. Charitable deductions are only beneficial insofar as total itemized deductions exceed the standard deduction; depending on how else treatment of itemized deductions changes, and on a taxpayer’s specific situation, this could reduce the amount of charitable giving that is effectively deductible by several thousand dollars per year, or not at all. It could also strengthen the case for giving less frequently than once per year.
  • Capping total itemized deductions at $100k for singles/$200k for couples. If this happened as stated, it could effectively eliminate the tax benefit of charitable giving for many people (most of them earning very high amounts, giving very high amounts, or both). The 2016 House Republican Tax Reform Plan does not have a similar provision, and I consider this change less likely than the above two.

Giving opportunities

GiveWell’s top charities look strong this year and have very large amounts of room for more funding. It’s reasonably likely that this will be true again in the next few years, but I don’t know that it will be, and it’s hard to imagine the giving opportunities on this front getting much better in the near term.

I also see a fair amount of appeal in the option I mentioned in the staff personal giving post:

I thought about reallocating my giving to another individual, someone who is quite value-aligned with me and quite knowledgeable, and thinks differently enough that they might see opportunities I don’t.

Right now, I can think of more than one individual in this category, and some of the giving opportunities they’re interested in are not a fit for Good Ventures. In future years, I hope that the Open Philanthropy Project makes connections with more donors and effective philanthropy rises generally, and this could mean that more money flows to opportunities in this category (opportunities that I don’t see and/or that aren’t a good fit for Good Ventures). This is another case where it seems like giving opportunities may get weaker, but are unlikely to get stronger.

What I’m doing

I’m planning to give an amount equivalent to my next two years’ worth of charitable giving, taking the likely trajectory of my salary into account. If not for some idiosyncratic aspects of my situation, I would have gone with three years. I don’t want to plan beyond three years because I think there are a lot of difficult-to-anticipate changes that could take place in that time.

Note that there are limits on the total proportion of income that can be deducted in a year, and one should check these before deciding to make a multi-year gift this year.

* Though as written, the tax plan would appear to constitute a major tax increase for many single filers, based on this statement: “Brackets for single filers are ½ of these amounts.” I’ve chosen not to focus on this issue, partly because there is no similar change in the 2016 House Republican Tax Reform Plan.

Discretionary grant making and implications for donor agency

A few weeks ago, we wrote:

[…] we are recommending that donors split their gift, with 75% going to [the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF)] and 25% going to [the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI)], or give to GiveWell for making grants at our discretion and we will use the funds to fill in the next highest priority gaps.

We’ve gotten some questions about what the difference is between giving according to our recommended allocation (75% to AMF and 25% to SCI) and giving to GiveWell for making grants at our discretion. This post explains the difference.

How we will use discretionary grant funds

In the past, we allocated grants to top charities either in line with our most recent recommendation to individual donors or, if we had tracked enough funding to hit the targeted amounts recommended to individual donors, we would allocate grants to top charities where we judged them to be most needed. (See this post for a more in-depth description of this process.)

For the next set of grants we will make with discretionary funds, in February or March 2017, we plan to:

  • Ask top charities for an update on their total revenues from all sources; and
  • Use this information to update our views on which remaining funding gaps are most valuable to fill, and grant the funds to that gap.

AMF currently has our highest-ranked funding gap for individuals, followed by SCI. (We are recommending that individuals give 75% of their donation to AMF and 25% to SCI, instead of 100% to AMF, because we expect donors following our recommendation to give more than it would take to fill AMF’s highest priority gap and it would be difficult for us to coordinate a quick change in our recommended allocation as soon as AMF’s highest-ranked funding gap was filled.)

Note that, using the plan described above, we would likely not allocate exactly 75% of our grant to AMF and 25% to SCI. If the AMF funding gap we are prioritizing is still sufficiently large in February or March when taking all of AMF’s revenues from all sources into account, it’s likely that we would allocate 100% of the grant to AMF. If AMF’s gap were already filled (or could be filled with only part of the grant), we may allocate the funds to SCI or another top charity that we judge to have the most valuable funding gap.

We are uncertain whether we will continue to use this full process for other grants we make in the future. If we decide to not reassess charities’ funding gaps before making a grant, we will plan to allocate the grant according to our last public recommendation to individual donors.

What implications does our approach have for donor agency

It is almost always the case in charitable giving that donors that give after you will be affected, in expectation, by your gift and may reduce their gift to the organization of your choice as a result. There are some specific ways in which that dynamic plays out as a result of the allocation decisions we have made:

  • For donors who give to our top charities, but not the one(s) that we recommend on the margin, those gifts will affect how much funding we expect those organizations to get next year. The funds may also affect how quickly the organization is able to scale in the next year, which could increase how much we think they can use productively in the following year. Both these factors (working in opposite directions) could affect how much funding we recommend donors give to them next year. (See our review of Deworm the World for an example of how we calculate room for more funding based on past revenue.)
  • For donors who give to the charities we recommend on the margin (AMF and SCI currently), their gifts increase the chance that the funding gaps we have prioritized are filled and that we reallocate funds to other charities. The reallocation could happen as soon as February/March, when we plan to make our next round of grants.

We would guess that many of our donors would be happy to learn that these decisions allow us to play a “coordinating” role, in which we direct some additional funding to where we believe it’s needed most. However, donors who disagree with us to some degree may decide to give to top charities we haven’t prioritized on the margin. For example, donors who feel strongly about giving to deworming over malaria prevention (because, say, they disagree with how steeply we’ve discounted the evidence for deworming or because they value lives improved over deaths averted more than we do), may choose to give to the END Fund, whose funding gap is GiveWell’s highest priority deworming gap that is unlikely to be filled, rather than SCI. Donors who feel strongly about supporting malaria prevention over deworming, they may decide to give to Malaria Consortium over AMF, for the same reason.

For a full list of the funding gaps we seek to fill and in what order, see this spreadsheet.

December 2016 open thread

Our goal with hosting quarterly open threads is to give blog readers an opportunity to publicly raise comments or questions about GiveWell or related topics (in the comments section below). As always, you’re also welcome to email us at info@givewell.org or to request a call with GiveWell staff if you have feedback or questions you’d prefer to discuss privately. We’ll try to respond promptly to questions or comments.

If you have questions related to the Open Philanthropy Project, you can post those in the Open Philanthropy Project’s most recent open thread.

You can view our September 2016 open thread here.