Donations, The Third Year

Previously: Donations, The First Year

Here’s an update on what my household donated to this year, and why. Please be warned that there is some upsetting content related to the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict in this post, in the first section.

The Against Malaria Foundation

Around 90% of our donations ($15,000 of $16,500 total, all amounts in CAD) went to the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF). I remain a very old school EA mostly committed to global health and poverty reduction interventions for humans.

If I was a US citizen I’d donate a portion of this to GiveWell’s Unrestricted Fund for reasons I’ll touch on below, but as a Canadian the key consideration for me was which GiveWell-recommended charities and funds had a Canadian entity, and unfortunately (or fortunately for eliminating analysis paralysis?) the AMF was the only recommended charity registered in Canada. This meant I could donate tax-deductibly, which meant I can donate ~20% more.

(Or so I thought at the time. I’ve now discovered CAFCanada, but that’s a problem for my 2024 donations.)

The AMF almost didn’t get my donation this year.

According to Givewell’s 2021 analysis, the AMF saves in expectation one life for every $7300 CAD donated. In the days after the onset of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, I began researching nonprofits offering medical aid to Palestinians, thinking that there’s a chance their impact might surpass that benchmark1.

I read many annual reports for many charities, focusing extra on their work in previous years of conflict. In the end none of them were anywhere close to how effective the AMF is (like at least an order of magnitude off), with one exception.

Glia Gaza is a small team of Canadian doctors who are providing emergency care and 3D printed tourniquets to wounded Palestinians. The tourniquets came in different sizes for women and children in addition to men (most suppliers only supply tourniquets in adult male sizes).

I researched the efficacy of tourniquets in saving lives. If you are dealing with bullet wounds, they help a lot when you use them to staunch bleeding and prolong the time you have to get to a hospital. They help, too, if there are no hospitals, just by significantly reducing the chance that you bleed out and die right there.

Tying a tourniquet is challenging; it’s easy to make mistakes that could worsen the situation or fail to apply them tightly enough. Glia created a new kind of 3D printed tourniquet that made it easier to tie properly, quickly. You can read some harrowing field reports that they wrote about their prototypes in 2018. There are some disturbing pictures, and worse stories. But the conclusion was that the tourniquets worked, and that they worked well.

Their 3D printers were solar powered so they weren’t dependent on grid access and the plastic was locally sourced. They’re just printing out a whole bunch of them and leaving strategic caches for medical professionals to use, and to use themselves. Each tourniquet would cost $15 CAD to produce and distribute. With $7300 CAD they’d be able to distribute 486 tourniquets. I thought the chances were good that 486 additional tourniquets translated to more than one life saved on expectation (though I’m not an expert and I had some pretty huge error bars, and there was some questions around scalability with additional funds and the like). I decided to sleep on it before donating.

I woke up to an update to their fundraising page. Their office where they had all their 3D printers (they didn’t have that many) was caught in the blast of a bomb, and they had no ability to fix them. And because of the blockade there was no chance that they’d be able to fix them any time soon.

Also, because of the blockade, it really didn’t matter anymore if I donated to any charity, none of them would be able to get people or medical supplies into Gaza anyways.

I felt devastated at the news. I stopped working on the report, because there wasn’t a point anymore. I was very upset for weeks, too upset to keep researching. I asked ChatGPT to take on the role of a seasoned effective altruist and it helped me process some things.

In some ways, I feel like this was my first trial as an effective altruist. This was my third year of having a salary and donating out of it, and the considerations in previous years of where to donate to were much less serious than this. The deluge of coverage around the conflict caused me to feel extreme amounts of urgency and empathy for those involved in it. I don’t think this is bad – Rebecca Solnit in A Paradise Built in Hell explains that people tend to joyfully give in times of crisis, and I think humans are better off for having this instinct.

But I only have so much space in my head, you know? In this case, that sense of urgency meant that I de-facto emotionally devalued the less glamorous needs of people who the world gives even less of a shit about than Palestinians. People dying of preventable illnesses and poverty every day of every year and not just when there’s a military conflict.

That’s of course not saying that I shouldn’t have been upset about what happened to Glia Gaza. My Good Reasonโ„ข for being upset was that for a shining moment it seemed possible that I could save lives at a discount, and then that opportunity was taken away, and I was upset at the loss.

I also have a much less good reason for being upset. I remember a part of me feeling like it was callous and wrong of me to turn away from the crisis and do the cold robotic thing of donating to the same nonprofits I always donated to even when the crisis was all I could think about. Glia Gaza’s existence, I think, gave me a way to have my cake and eat it too – be committed to geographic impartiality, but still donate to the cause that moved me the most emotionally. Now I sadly had to actually reconcile some contradictory beliefs I held.

But I lurked on the forums and chatted more to Seasoned EA!ChatGPT (v grateful to the EA and rationalist communities’ scrapable online logorrhea btw, I can’t imagine ChatGPT keeping up as well in most other subcultures2) and slowly I realized that the crisis was overemphasized in the media for the bog standard geopolitics reasons that the media always emphasizes some crises over others and I was able to slowly recover more and more space in my head for clearer thinking.

Dipping my toe into doing charity evaluations myself gave me a better sense of both how challenging it is, the tradeoffs involved (esp around scalability and resiliency) and how there are still lots of hundred dollar bills on the sidewalk, if we dedicated effort into finding them. And that’s why I would have donated at least partly to the Unrestricted Fund, except alas I won’t get tax credits that way ๐Ÿ˜ฉ

(By the way, Glia is still around, albeit in a diminished form. They have a new campaign up to support their Gaza team here.)

Local Charities

~10% of our donations ($1500) went to two local charities. 10% seems to me vibes-wise as a better amount to donate locally than 45% (why did I think this was reasonable in year one???), and is the same ratio as we went for last year.

Half of the $1500 went to Sanguen, a local safe supply/harm reduction outfit. On their donations page they mustered a commendable effort on explaining the ROI on donations, which I think more nonprofits should try their hand at.

Early this year a kerfuffle broke out where some economists wrote a paper about why the harm reduction calculus has changed now that fentanyl exists, it was retracted, the usual suspects cried wokeism and censorship, but if you read further into it there were maybe some pretty serious methodological flaws of the paper.

Having worked adjacent to this space, my medium confidence take is that harm reduction works and has outsized positive externalities, and basically no good data exists because it’s extremely extremely difficult to get good data of literally anything while respecting the privacy (medical and otherwise) of homeless drug users. Also, a lot of really weird shit is going on in the lives of homeless drug users, all the time, they’re just objectively hard to run longitudinal studies on. Like, maybe the retracted paper had some methodological flaws and the author neglected certain datasets? I haven’t tracked down where the Discourse ended up on this. But the core issue imo is the actual complete lack of reliable datasets, which are incredibly ethically challenging to obtain.

I’m not asking you to trust me on this, but I’m confident enough in my own analysis and experiences to think that it’s worthwhile for me to donate to, especially to a team that I know does outstanding work in my own local community.

The other half I requested to go towards a specific department in the nonprofit that I wrote about at length in Things I Learned by Spending Five Thousand Hours In Non-EA Charities. I wasn’t going to donate to them again because I learned some new stuff about them that soured me on them a little (nothing that contradicts the essay which I still endorse completely). But on a whim I did a quick back of the envelope calculation (using some insider info3) that suggested that the cost effectiveness of that specific department was something like 20-30x cash, and after that the matter was out of my hands.

In short, Canada has a lot of federal/provincial benefits to help people in a variety of different circumstances, but you need to know about them, and then apply to them. Because of various systemic failures, many new immigrants and refugees and other claimants can only get that money that is allocated for helping them with the help of this department.

Now, it’s a little bit more complicated than this. The government knows that there are barriers, so a small portion of their benefit funding is reserved as grants to help access the rest of the funds. Samaritans operates this department by getting those grants, so whether or not my money actually helps is a bit of a question mark. I told them that if I can’t donate to that department then they should just direct my money where it’s most needed.

I also think it might be hard for them to use marginal money, I think it’s more helpful if it comes in like, FTE-salary-size blocks. In the new year I’d like to reach out to them and work out if there’s a donation size that works well for both of us, I just (as always) left the actual donating to the last minute and then can’t actually message anyone for more information because it was literally Christmas Day.

If this is work that you think is worth funding, consider donating money or time to your local low-income financial aid and/or tax assistance clinics. If you’re American, I’d expect a smaller ROI (maybe 5-10x cash, low confidence) because I think your government benefits tend to be less generous than Canada’s and also your forms look more intimidating, but I could be wrong on one or both of those things. If you’re Canadian or European, I would recommend looking into this with more enthusiasm.

I’d also love to hear other EAs’ opinions on if these programs are worthwhile to fund, which I’m honestly slightly dubious about – am I just subsidizing government bureaucracy? Will this create a dependency loop? And to what extent do those second order effects matter in the light of putting much needed rent and grocery money in the hands of families that need them?

Community Building

Besides donations, I’ve also done a small amount of community building work for effective altruism this year.

The EA group in my city is cool and they’re doing good stuff. They are also entirely made up of university students destined to become professional computer touchers and they accordingly focus basically exclusively on AI risk in their regular meetups. I’ve been organizing two or three joint events with them per school term, mostly on more neartermist and non-AI longtermist stuff (one, two, three). Just broadening the horizons on what EA is, and what it can be. AI safety is important but it’s not all there is to the movement.

I don’t consider this to be part of my donations for the year because I got a bit of funding from the EAIF to do stuff like this.

Concluding thoughts

Lots of ambiguities in this year’s donations, but I think that’s good – getting comfy with ambiguity. Not getting complacent.

I remember a lot of DIY spirit in the early EA days – the idea that people in the community are smart and capable of thinking about charities and evaluating them, by themselves or with their friends or meetup groups.

Nowadays the community has more professional and specialized programs and organizations for that, which is very much a positive, but I feel like has consequently led to some learned helplessness for those not in those organizations. I’m writing this article in part to push back against it. I’m just some guy! But that’s not going to stop me from evaluating charities to better understand where my money is going and what the impact is going to be – especially when I don’t see anyone else doing it. If you see anything wrong with any of my analyses, please let me know so I can do better next year.

One last recommendation to close this off: if you run or attend a local EA group, consider having a meeting once a year where the group collectively susses out your local charities and evaluate them based on the metrics that you think are important. You’ll struggle a bunch but the skills are eminently transferable! Please tag me if you write something up about it too, I’d love to see it ๐Ÿ™‚

  1. Israel’s GDP per capita is higher than Canada’s so I didn’t think I’d find anything worth reallocating AMF funding to there – let me know if you think that’s a bad assumption.[โ†‘]
  2. Iโ€™ve attempted numerous times to get it to discuss feminist theory with me and I swear to god this thinking machine knows the names of more EAs than feminists >:([โ†‘]
  3. Being able to have insider info is one reason I strongly endorse donating locally.[โ†‘]

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