The GiveWell Blog

No on Prop 8: High-ROI donation opportunity?

I gave to a group fighting Proposition 8 in California because it struck me as a really good opportunity to make a difference with a donation. This is about as far from our normal focus as it gets, and I don’t have nearly the knowledge of political advocacy that I would like to have, so I’m not going to go into this much. But in a nutshell:

  • The polling on this issue looks close. Unlike the Presidential election, it may be close enough that some extra advertising could make the big difference.
  • I’d also guess that it’s relatively easy to translate dollars into votes for something like this. A lot of people will be turning out primarily to vote for President; a well-done ad or phone call, or just a reminder, could be enough to get them to vote No on Proposition 8.
  • As such, I don’t really need to be convinced that the people running this organization are particularly brilliant or have amazing advertising abilities; as long as they’re using money to do things like run ads and make phone calls, it’s probably money well spent. (And there is enough content on the website that I don’t fear fraud.)
  • I feel strongly that gay couples should be able to get legal marriage licenses. I think most political issues are more complex/two-sided than advocates recognize, but not this one. If you feel differently, this post doesn’t apply to you, and that’s fine.

I hope that sometime in the future, we’re able to learn more about the conditions under which advocacy money matters and the conditions under which it doesn’t. With what little I know, and even without an ability to remotely quantify it, this seemed like too good of a buy to pass up, so I’m passing it on.


  • jsalvati on October 23, 2008 at 7:59 pm said:

    Aren’t you violating one of the primary rules of charitable giving, donate to a single charity only, here? Also, I am having a hard time understanding the calculus here, do you really think that the good from an increased probability of getting legalized gay marriage in California outweighs the good that could be done by spending the same amount buying diarrhea medicine? That seems extremely doubtful to me.

    I’m not really criticizing, we all have our passions and it’s frequently tempting to donate to causes that address them. I am similarly tempted by all sorts of cool open source software projects. But if we give in to that temptation, we shouldn’t count that as charity.

  • Holden on October 23, 2008 at 8:12 pm said:

    I think the points you raise are valid, and I’ll admit to some “irrationality” (or at least not pure altruism) here.

    My general approach to giving is to give the lion’s share of my charity (~90%) to the single best vehicle I can find in any cause (last year this was GiveWell the organization, and if not for GiveWell it would be PSI). The rest of my charitable budget is for things that strike me as good values along other dimensions that can’t be straightforwardly compared.

    From a pure expected-value perspective, the allocation of this 10% doesn’t make sense – I should give it all to my #1 – so you could think of this part of the budget as something in between charity and self-expression. That’s why I make sure that it’s a pretty small part of my budget.*

    That’s how I see my own gift to this cause. The blog post is more rational than the gift – I’m pointing out what I think is an unusually high-ROI opportunity for people whose values and priorities may not be identical to mine.

    *All of this assumes perfect scalability, probably a good assumption for relatively small charitable budgets.

  • I’m all for strategy and focus and impact, but sometimes you give to something because it’s just a good thing to do. You gave surplus wealth to a cause you believe in. Nothing more, nothing less. The effort to couch it in “high-ROI opportunity” terms strikes me as an unnecessary rationalization. It’s philanthropy. Philia isn’t exactly rational, nor should it be.

    I await the update on your relationship to a significant other, citing the potential benefits to the gene pool.

  • Nowhere above did I claim that this donation was (a) quantifiable (b) purely rational. In fact, I’ve expressly said it was neither.

    “High-ROI” refers to the fact that I think this donation was an effective – not just symbolic – way to contribute to something I care about.

    As I’ve written before, “rationality vs. emotion” is a false distinction and one that I’ve never promoted. I give for emotional reasons. The distinction that matters to me is between effective and ineffective.

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