How is the world different if I make a donation?post by banx · 2014-12-29T23:29:31.758Z · score: 6 (7 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 7 comments
How is the world different if I give X dollars to the Against Malaria Foundation, where X < 100,000 USD? (In reality, giving directly to GiveWell is probably the better choice. But using AMF works well for this question.)
Here's the answer that would make me very motivated to give:
If I don't give, AMF will purchase and cause to be distributed N bed nets in the next 5 years. If I do give, AMF will purchase and cause to be distributed N+K bed nets in the next 5 years, where K is roughly X / (cost of a bed net, taking into account administrative costs, etc).
In reality, I think the answer is more like:
If I give, AMF will have X more dollars in its bank account than if I don't give. It will make decisions on whether or not to move forward with various large net distribution projects based on the amount of money it has available at the time of each decision. For each decision there will be some amount Z such that AMF will choose to go forward with the project if and only if it has at least Z dollars in the bank, holding all other factors equal. (Even if they claim there's such a cut-off point Y, but would still go forward with the project if they had slightly less than Y, there's an actual amount Z that is the real cut-off point.)
I can think of two kinds of these distribution decisions, which interact differently with this extra money. First, if AMF is presented a unique, time-sensitive distribution opportunity, the extra money slightly increases the chance that they have enough to move forward with the distribution. Second, suppose there are recurring opportunities that are mostly the same. Assuming that AMF has a steady income of donations, there is a small chance this money will cause AMF to have enough money to fund the K-1th distribution instead of the Kth distribution, thereby getting bed nets out to people who need them sooner. This one-time time advantage would not "use up" the extra money. Assuming the K-1th distribution occurred but the Kth did not, at the time of the K+1th, AMF would still have X more dollars than if I hadn't given. So the chance of the time-advantage happening again (and the chance of a unique opportunity being funded) still exists.
I'm fairly confused about the above, and haven't succeeded in rigorously defining a satisfying model from which I can compute the expected utility of a donation. My intuition is that the expected value of a donation should work out to the good done by the number of nets that can be purchased and distributed with that amount of money, but I can't justify it. What is important is that I don't think you can just say that AMF will eventually spend that money on nets in that way, and so that is the good done by the donation. It seems that that argument only works if AMF eventually spends all of its money on distributing nets and then ceases to exist. While this is an ideal end to AMF -- that they've solved the problem they were created to solve -- it doesn't seem like it's definitely going to happen. Even if it did, it's very possible that by the time they are spending their last dollars the marginal cost of saving lives will have gone up significantly compared to what it is today (either because the cost of purchase and distribution has increased or, probably more likely, because the strongest opportunities for doing good with bed nets are no longer available).
In the past, I was very motivated to give because I had the impression that for every five-ish dollars I gave to AMF, an extra bed net would be distributed. It seems that this isn't correct, and this year I'm not nearly as motivated. I will likely be mailing a check to GiveWell tomorrow anyway (I have an employer match that expires at the end of the year), but I would like to have a better understanding of what I'm doing and if it makes sense. I have a sense that I'm not really accomplishing anything, and could spend my money better by giving to a small organization that spends money much less efficiently but would definitely get more done if it had the money, or, alternatively, by buying myself a car. I think this sense is confused, but the fact that I can't articulate exactly how makes it hard to dismiss. I think the ideas in this post more-or-less apply whether I'm considering a gift to AMF, GiveWell, or MIRI. AMF makes things easier to think about because they're mostly focused on only one thing.
Along with any other feedback, I'd love some help with these questions:
1. Does it make sense to be asking this question (How is the world in which I give different from the world in which I don't)? Is the answer to that question not important for some reason? Should I be satisfied with just doing my share in causing AMF to have the money it needs?
2. Can the model of how an organization like AMF actually benefits from small amounts of marginal dollars be made more precise, to the point that I can roughly compute the expected utility (in terms of whatever) of a donation?
3. Is it at all reasonable to prefer using my money on something that has a reasonably high likelihood of succeeding compared to something that has a very small chance of resulting in any desired outcome, when the thing with the tiny likelihood of success has (based on calculations using my assessments of utility) a higher expected utility? It feels really bad to throw tens of thousands of dollars at something, when I know that there's a very tiny chance that it will accomplish anything. This problem is a lot easier to deal with when I expect to iterate enough times that I expect to eventually hit the low-chance outcome. But when I don't expect to iterate nearly enough times for that to happen, it's hard to feel good about the choice. I think the answer may be that the community of givers iterates sufficiently many times that the low-chance outcomes are hit. What if that weren't true? Does it matter? I've asked a similar question in an open thread once, and I got some helpful answers. I think I need to work on truly accepting and internalizing that tiny probabilities of really good things are worth caring about.
Thanks for reading.
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