The GiveWell Blog

Some considerations against saving for next year

This post is authored by GiveWell staff member Timothy Telleen-Lawton.

In the past we’ve written about some of the advantages of giving early rather than saving for future gifts. This year there seem to be more people in our audience and on our staff interested in saving money with the hopes of having a bigger impact by donating it in the future.

The two basic reasons that giving later may sometimes be better than giving now are a) our greater experience and knowledge in the future may lead us to better opportunities, and b) some good opportunities in the future may not be available today. While I expect both of these to be true to some degree, other factors argue for giving sooner rather than later.

Looking back at GiveWell’s history, for example, I believe that earlier donations to our recommendations were significantly more impactful than later ones. While I believe we’ve steadily gotten better at improving our investigation process and finding outstanding giving opportunities, that wouldn’t have happened without the legitimacy that came from the earlier contributions (although it now seems likely that delaying contributions by a couple years wouldn’t have as much impact on our credibility as it would have in previous years, I think this is still an important factor to consider). Additionally, for any given charity, earlier gifts will likely be more impactful, so even as we’re finding better opportunities, each opportunity we’ve found may have less impact over time.

I think some people are weighing the considerations differently this year than in others, based on a belief that there are especially strong arguments in favor of saving this year and giving next year. I think some of these arguments are valid, but some have been exaggerated.

Is this year special?
Traditional GiveWell recommendations

We may vet a charity in 2014 that ends up being a significantly better giving opportunity than our existing recommendations. While we have made improvements to our process for finding and vetting eligible charities, this has also been true every year for GiveWell, and while we are planning to spend more person-hours on this process in 2014 than 2013, it seems only moderately (not highly) likely that we’ll find a better giving opportunity on this front than our current set. If we do end up recommending a new charity, it will not necessarily need more funds than will be moved to it next year (unlike e.g. GiveDirectly now). Since giving to our current recommendations next year is less impactful than giving to them this year, waiting for a better recommendation is a risk.

The Against Malaria Foundation (AMF)

It seems that the best gamble for a significantly better recommendation within the next year relies on AMF, which is in the unusual position of being off of our recommendations list for a precise reason that could quickly change during this year via completion of a large bed net distribution. Since the evidence of efficacy for bed nets is significantly stronger than that of deworming pills and bednets appear several times more cost effective than cash transfers by our best guesses (more), one could argue for saving some money that would otherwise have been given now to be given at a specific date in the future. This strategy makes more sense to me than donating to AMF now, and is the best argument I can think of for saving rather than giving this year.

GiveWell Labs

Some have also expressed an interest in waiting for opportunities that will come from our GiveWell Labs research. I empathize with this desire since we expect to find opportunities with higher expected value than traditional recommendations (though perhaps never with as much certainty of impact) and expect individuals to eventually contribute to them. However, the generosity and funding potential of Good Ventures put some limits on what sort of room for more funding such opportunities will have in the next few years, even if we develop a mechanism to allow donors to invest alongside Good Ventures before then. There will likely be some room for more funding, but it may not be for the most urgent parts of the funding gaps. So Good Ventures’ resources do remove much of the urgency that would otherwise help justify saving for that time.

I expect to contribute to Labs efforts in the future, but saving for several years seems too risky considering that our recommendations can make good use of money now. For those intent on using donations this year to help GiveWell Labs work, you can also donate to GiveWell.

Modeling versus engineering
I may put more weight on annual giving than some in the effective altruist movement in part because I think we will be better served by modeling the behavior we want to spread, rather than by each of us trying to directly engineer the world outcome we want to see (in this case the precise allocation that will maximize long term impact). The former is something we have more control over, and is more important if most of our long term impact will come from individuals not yet part of this young movement. From this perspective, having a simple, robust heuristic that scales well is a major asset. I see ‘giving what you can each year, to the best opportunities you can find’ to be such a heuristic, so I hold a high bar for breaking it.