Practical Limits to Giving Now and The Haste Consideration

Follow up to “Giving Now Currently Seems to Beat Giving Later”.

Quite a few people have talked about whether or not it’s better to donate money or donate time now rather than save and donate more money later. While there’s lots of nuance on these positions, there does seem to be roughly these two camps – weighing in (mostly) on the give now side includes GiveWell, Giving What We Can, Scott Alexander, Matt Wage, and me. Weighing in (mostly) on the give later side include Paul Christiano, Robin Hanson, and maybe Brian Tomasik.

The general idea in favor of giving/working now is what Matt Wage calls the haste consideration, or the idea that we can spend resources now to get additional people involved in the movement, and doing so multiplies our impact substantially – getting just one person to pursue altruism with the same effectiveness we would have done doubles our impact for the rest of our life.

This haste consideration, if true, has strong implications. It means not only would we want to donate as soon as possible, but we’d want to make sure we earn money as soon as possible as well, meaning opportunities like law or medicine that have high incomes but also significantly more schooling may be less appealing from an altruistic perspective. It also would mean we should be donating higher percentages of our income instead of saving, even if this would lead to giving less money over the long term.

However, I think the haste consideration might not be as powerful as it might appear, for three reasons I haven’t seen discussed much:

  1. Money and talent seems to encounter some bottlenecks in their usage and it seems difficult to make good use them at the rate they could be given.

  2. There could be significantly better opportunities in the future that need funding and talent, and we need resources around to take up these opportunities as well.

  3. If we take the haste consideration to it’s logical conclusion, we face a potential reductio ad absurdum that we should be taking out large loans to finance the effective altruist movement.

Caveats

Before I begin to elaborate on these three points, I’d like to remind everyone that I’m speculating about funding needs that I know only a little bit about and it’s quite possible I’m misrepresenting organization’s needs for money or how they plan on using their funds.

I offer these ideas in the spirit of “putting things out there” for discussion and reconsideration, but I think there’s a good chance that I’m wrong and look forward to being corrected.

How quickly can money and talent be used?

Right now it seems that the effective altruist movement cannot make quick use of large amounts of funding and talent. There are a couple examples of this:

Funding the Against Malaria Foundation

First, the Against Malaria Foundation is said to be constrained entirely by a need for more money, but they’re still holding on to more than $4M from the previous year that they weren’t able to immediately convert into nets. This leads me to believe, perhaps naïvely, that donating to AMF now versus donating to it a year ago would not make a difference in net distribution, therefore giving a larger length to the haste consideration than immediately thought.

Funding Effective Altruist Orgs

Second, organizations where the haste consideration is most immediately applicable, like Giving What We Can, 80,000 Hours, or Effective Animal Activism are constrained not just by money but also by the talent needed to spend that money well. Currently they’re in large need of funding about six or seven staff positions between them. While there’s definitely a need for this staff, funding them would take up, by my guess, less than $200K in the first year. Additional funding beyond that probably couldn’t be spent immediately.

And even then, the salaries for careers couldn’t be spent immediately either, because a recruitment process needs to be run first and people need to be hired and settled into their positions. So even among the $200K that could be spent soon wouldn’t be spent for several months, and therefore there would be little difference between donating now and donating a few months from now.

Working for Effective Altruist Orgs

Furthermore, while the haste consideration would favor trying to launch into work as fast as possible without spending time to gather experience or further education in unrelated fields. However, many of these organizations also lack the capacity to take on a large amount of staff for long periods of time and are only looking for the “best of the best”. Therefore, if you don’t fall into the upper limit of talent, it would be more advisable to ignore the haste consideration here and work on cultivating further talent first.

More Generally…

Most generally, it seems like effective altruist organizations, like all organizations, are constrained by logistics and management and cannot absorb money and talent as quickly as it can be flung at them. Perhaps this is optimistic of how many resources are being channelled into the effective altruist movement and it turns out that everything could be used up, but excess money and talent would be better invested until it can be used well.

Could there be significantly better opportunities just a few years from now?

On the flip side of things, it could turn out that we end up with enormously better opportunities to spend money in just a few years. Given that non-profit cost-effectiveness varies widely, the discovery of a new giving opportunity (by say GiveWell Labs) could be huge and it’s quite plausible that the returns from saving now and donating to this much better opportunity are higher than donating to whatever we can best find now.

It might make sense to give now if your giving time or money will make us find this opportunity quicker (value of information in giving), but it seems like many people are not in the position for this to be the case. For example, GiveWell labs is already fully funded and working about as fast as they can, and there might not be anything we can do to speed things up but wait.

Should we take out loans to give now?

While perhaps unfair or infeasible for a variety of reasons, a possible reductio ad absurdum of the idea of giving as fast as possible is the idea that we would be in the best position to give now if we took out large loans and donated the proceeds. Interest rates for loans are very frequently much less than the returns on giving now that some people have suggested, which could be 20% or more. Therefore, one could take out a loan now, donate it all, and use the rest of the income they earn over their life to repay the loan.

I have an intuitive aversion to this idea of taking out a loan and I suspect other people do as well. Exploring why we’re averse to this idea could explain why it might be a bad idea to donate as much as possible now (or lead us to all take out loans).

Conclusion

Overall, it seems like the haste consideration is not as “smooth” or “linear” as it may seem. Non-profits rarely spend every dollar right as it comes in, instead gathering together many donations and making large purchases all at once. Therefore, whether you donate today or a year from now might not make much difference at all.

Given these constraints, I think it’s worth taking the haste consideration somewhat seriously, but perhaps less seriously than it may seem on face value. For example, I think it often would be a bad idea to do things like eschew further education or refuse to save portions of your income. Though, luckily, I haven’t heard of anyone taking the haste consideration so seriously that they would do this.

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This essay was also cross-posted on LessWrong.