For Impact, The Future Matters More

Follow up to Giving Now Currently Seems To Beat Giving Later

Thinking about analyzing cost-effectiveness for vegetarian outreach, has made me think more about where philanthropic dollars should go in order to do the most amount of good. Most people just give to whatever charities come their way, send them advertisements, etc. A lot of people are also concerned with giving back to their local community, supporting their church, or their university.

I don’t condemn any of those motivations – I think they’re wonderful, local communities do deserve support, and there’s something to be said for “paying it forward” and giving back to those who have set you up for success. But I’m mostly concerned with what one should do with the goal to improve the world as much as possible (on the assumption that all interests count equally), and I’ve changed the way I think.

My (Previous) Way of Thinking

The way I have always thought about philanthropy, however, was to be cause blind, and think solely on giving wherever I could do the most. If one opportunity came up where I could help someone cope with blindness by spending $50000 to get them a seeing eye dog, and another opportunity came up where I could cure blindness altogether through $25 cataract surgery, I would jump at the opportunity to fund the $25 surgery. I wouldn’t care if that person were all the way in Africa and the blind person needing the seeing eye dog were in my local community.

It’s not that I don’t care about the local blind person. It’s that I also care about the non-local blind person, and that I could treat 2000 people like him or her for the same amount of money. I think it’s ludicrous for the local blind person to insist that she or he is 2000x more valuable to me solely because he or she lives nearby. I noticed that where I gave is literally a matter of life and death, so I was very motivated to get this question right.

This is the general philosophy of GiveWell, Giving What We Can, and Effective Animal Activism – investigate lots of non-profits, find the one organization that can do the most good with an additional dollar, and give them a dollar. …Or far more.

However, I’ve recently come to see that this way of thinking is incomplete; perhaps even mistaken.

The Far Future Blind Spot

When I’ve been thinking about giving opportunities and their quantification, I’ve been thinking firmly in the present. In my previous way of thinking, I would look at Against Malaria Foundation and see that it can save a life for about $2000. I’d then compare it to my cost-estimates and other cost-estimates, weigh the differences in quality of evidence, and arrive at a decision.

But, when I was considering this $2000 to save a life, I never thought to question what it actually means to “save a life”. The person I save may, instead of dying at age five from malaria, go on to live a pretty decent life, but still die of old age at 60. I haven’t “saved” the life – instead, I’ve happily extended it by 55 years.

But I’m also not considering the further impacts of extending this life. It turns out that by helping reduce the mortality burden of malaria, I’m helping to lead people to have less children overall, because parents in the developing world have less kids when they’re less concerned their kids will die of malaria. Overall, this is going to prevent many years of life that otherwise would have been lived.

So where is my actual impact? More realistically, it’s not in “saving a life”, but rather in reducing overpopulation, helping to reduce concerns from malaria, and helping turn people’s attention to better and happier things. In saving a life, I’m really helping to develop the developing world.


The same is true in considering Vegan Outreach. Sure my two pennies might, under more optimistic assumptions, be all that is needed to prevent a year of intense animal suffering. But my real impact is going to be from making the person I’ve helped indirectly convert to vegetarianism more compassionate, more likely to recruit others, and more likely to get the ball rolling on ending factory farming.

Right now, there are billions of people alive, hundreds of billions of factory-farmed animals, and trillions of nonhuman animals in the wild. There’s a lot I can do to help them, and I do my best to care about all of them. But this pales in comparison to the trillions of people and the quadrillions of nonhuman animals who will be born over the next thousands of years, and I want them to have good lives too.

If I can change the present a little bit, I may help the people alive now a little bit. But, through compounding effects, movement building, and momentum, I’ll have a lot more impact on the people in the farther future. I just might not be able to quantify it.

To be fair, GiveWell has been looking away from the “cost of a life” metric and toward measures of economic development. But this way of thinking for the far future is pretty alien to most people, and was alien to me even back in Dec 2012. I don’t think we should discard quantification altogether, of course. But I do think it needs to be retooled in our thoughts toward focusing on where the real impact may lie, not in quantifying our marginal, more minimal impact on the present.

The Streetlight Dilemma

An old parable goes as follows:

Late one evening a police officer comes across a man on the way home from a party. He is quite drunk and looking for something under a streetlight.

“What are you looking for?” asks the policeman.

“My keys,” the man replies, pointing down the road a little way, “I dropped them somewhere way over there.”

The policeman is baffled, “Then why are you looking for them here?”.

“Because there’s no light over there. The light is over here”

Obviously, we would reject the behavior of the drunk man in the parable as irrational – no matter how much light is over where he’s looking, he’s not going to find his keys, because they’re not in the light.

The bottom goal of all of my donating has been to have the largest impact per dollar, in utilitarian terms of making lives go better. Currently, I’ve been looking at the opportunities that can be easily quantified. However, I have been ignoring the opportunities that cannot be quantified.


Applying the metaphor of the streetlight, quantification is that very light – only certain things can be quantified easily. I, put not so kindly, are the drunk person, searching in the light of easy quantification because… well… that’s where the quantification is. Even if the best opportunity for maximal impact exists somewhere else.

Of course, there’s something to be said for the streetlight. Givewell writes “In Defense of the Streetlight Effect”, pointing out that there are plenty of good opportunities to be explored within the areas of easy quantification, and I agree. On an impact per dollar point-of-view, there is a lot to be gained by switching from the Seeing Eye Dog charity to the cataract surgery charity, based on our assessment of their impact. GiveWell’s top charities do really great work for not that much money, and are definitely worth funding.

But on the other end, a lot still needs to be done with the streetlight. Abusing the metaphor, we can spend money hiring more people to look in the streetlight. We can pay money to build more streetlights and better streetlights. If we only stayed within the streetlight and never strayed out, we’d be stuck with the first good, quantified thing we find.

But if we stick only on expanding the streetlight and never on any of the things we find, then we’ll never get anything done.


Ditching the metaphor for some clarity, the tension I’m exploring is that of first-order tasks vs. second-order tasks that make the first-order tasks go better. Especially when applying long-term thinking, there’s a lot of impact to be had from improving first-order tasks. There’s likely also a lot of impact to be had from improving second-order tasks as well.

And, of course, the distinction between what’s in the streetlight and what’s outside the streetlight isn’t as distinct as bright light vs. dark night. Instead, there are shades of grey upon which reasonable guesses about impact can be made, even amid uncertainty. The point is not to take these rough estimates as given (instead, we should probably subject them to lots of skepticism, perhaps even more than is typical) nor to give up quantification altogether, but rather to use these less certain conclusions to inform our decisions and not restrict ourselves to a particular level of confidence.

Going Meta With My Money

So where am I planning on giving my (meager college student) money now?

With a look toward the far future, existential risk reduction looks like a much better bet. But, more realistically, I have to say that no one I know has a convincing enough answer yet on where we should donate. There’s a lot of good work to be done in reducing existential risk, in reducing nonhuman animal suffering, and in raising the standard of living for the developing world. But I earnestly can’t tell which opportunity is the smartest.

I had thought at first I should just start saving my money and wait until either I die, or a convincing enough answer comes along. But then I thought that there’s a lot that can be done by just recruiting more and more people to start thinking about these problems. If I can recruit just one person to think about these problems as deeply and as intelligently as I currently am (or more!), I will have doubled my impact. Then, imagine what happens if they start recruiting people as well!

So, I want to invest my money in the movement. Effective Animal Activism was a pretty good bet, though now for completely different reasons than I once thought. I’m going to start giving my meager college student money toward The Centre for Effective Altruism, which does a lot to collect a group of people together to think about where to give and to give more.

Normally, I would be concerned about not doing any first-order actions and actually doing something. But I’m reassured that lots of other people are donating their money directly to high-impact activities, and that I’m unlikely to persuade so many people that I upset this balance. Instead, I think there’s a good chance that not only could I get more than $1 to go to a good cause for every $1 I give them!

After all, if they didn’t exist, I very likely never would have even started thinking about these issues, let alone giving much money at all.


Author’s Note: An earlier draft of this essay was originally posted on my old blog.