For a while, my general plan has been to make money in the corporate world that I can use to fund projects to reduce suffering. I'm still very much uncertain about exactly which causes are most cost-effective, so I intended to invest my earnings until I was older and wiser. However, for several reasons I now think it would be financially advantageous for me to begin donating sooner. I haven't yet determined the exact amount, but it would probably be at least $15,000 per year. In addition, it must be given to a US-based public 501(c)(3) charity (not a private foundation).
I'm very interested in organizations whose work would increase the number of people that care about animal welfare -- especially in the utilitarian sense of wanting to reduce animal suffering as much as possible, including that of animals in the wild. (It would be a shame, for instance, to increase the number of people who care about "animal rights" because of an ideology that humans should not be interfering with the natural world.) More generally, I would like to find cost-effective ways to make people care more about various types of suffering (or possible suffering) that usually go ignored: e.g., on the part of insects, simulations, etc. Being an irrational human, I incline toward more immediate and tangible benefits (e.g., preventing chicken suffering during slaughter) even if they have lower expected value, but I may also take Eliezer Yudkowsky's advice and split my donation into two or more pieces, one for feel-good value and one for maximum expected benefit.
The purpose of this post is to help me figure out where exactly to give. At the moment, I would most like to donate toward promoting concern for the suffering of wild animals, among academics and/or the general public, as described here. However, I'm not aware of any existing organizations (much less 501(c)(3)'s in the US) engaged in this work -- do readers have any ideas?
Perhaps there's a cadre of animal-welfare supporters who would like to help found such a group? If so, I could provide seed funding once it was registered as a charity. It needn't be a particularly large undertaking -- perhaps just a legal structure set up to funnel at least $15,000 toward high-quality academic work or public outreach. Alternatively, perhaps there's an existing animal-welfare organization on which I could piggyback such work? (The key, of course, is to find projects that wouldn't be undertaken without that funding. There's no benefit in, say, providing money to a researcher who could almost as easily pay for the project through grants from the government or private foundations.)
If I can't find or jump-start an organization to work on wild-animal suffering, there are other possibilities I might consider. Below I've listed just a few organizations that came to mind, but there are plenty of others (please feel free to suggest more!).
I encourage representatives of organizations that would like funding to answer this question: If you got an extra donation of, say, $15,000 next year, what specifically could you do with it? What additional project(s) would be supported that wouldn't otherwise have been possible? How exactly would those projects help to reduce the expected amount of suffering in the multiverse?
My hope is to make this process as transparent and public as I can, so that, among other things, readers will benefit from the exchange (similar to GiveWell's Clear Fund), so I encourage replies on the forum. However, I realize that there may be some things better discussed in private; if so, I encourage readers to write to me at the email address given on the front page of my website. Let me know if any portions of your emails can be posted on this page.
Here are some example charities:
1. Vegan Outreach
This organization is a small but genuine group of activists who achieve some impressive results. In terms of direct impact on animal suffering in factory farms, I've estimated that each dollar donated prevents between 100 days and 51 years of farmed-animal life-years and between 2 and 358 slaughters. Moreover, the organization has a practical, utilitarian mindset of the type very much needed within the animal-welfare movement.
But perhaps the most important impact of Vegan Outreach's work is to expand the base of people who are aware of animal suffering and want to do something about it. While I often find that such concern can be misdirected toward low-priority issues, I hope that at least a few of the animal activists that Vegan Outreach creates end up working on more important efforts. In the long run, I hope that such people will think about the immense amount of suffering that occurs in nature to the point that -- eventually, if and when it becomes possible to address the problem without causing more harm than good -- there is support for action on the issue. At the very least, I hope such people would think more circumspectly about actions that could vastly increase the amount of wild-animal suffering.
I have two main worries with donating to Vegan Outreach, both related to wild animals.
The first is the one raised here: Namely, does vegetarianism increase the number of animals suffering in the wild? If such animals have sufficiently low welfare, then might vegetarianism actually cause more animal pain than it averts?
Second, I fear that some of the animal-rights activists created by Vegan Outreach's brochures may, as suggested previously, adopt the view that humans ought to avoid interfering with animals entirely, which could lead them to oppose efforts to reduce animal suffering in the wild. My guess is that the fraction of such people would be relatively small -- especially among the newly created activists, since many of the people holding that type of extreme non-interference view are likely already vegans. And this is probably much less a concern with Vegan Outreach than other pro-veg organizations because Vegan Outreach's brochures tend to have a consequentialist slant.
2. Humane slaughter
A second approach to reducing suffering on factory farms is to improve welfare conditions, through legislation and campaigns encouraging corporations to commit to better standards. I think of this as the conservative, low-risk but low-expected-value option. Unlike Vegan Outreach, I see no real potential adverse consequences here, since the number of farmed animals -- and hence the environmental implications -- probably wouldn't change much in either direction. (Indeed, if people see meat as more humane, they may be less averse to buying it. On the other hand, the public outreach associated with these campaigns would involve depictions of the cruelty of factory farming, which might lead some people to go vegetarian.) On the other hand, this option is wanting in precisely the domain where Vegan Outreach is strongest: Changing society's long-term attitudes toward animal suffering. While the impact here is still probably positive (for instance, because changed laws or corporate policies will tend to normalize the notion that animals deserve humane treatment, similarly to the way in which anti-discrimination laws have helped to normalize concern for people of all races), I would guess it's considerably smaller than the direct, person-to-person influence that leafleting has.
How do the direct factory-farming impacts of this approach compare? Here's a crude attempt at an analysis. One example of a welfare campaign that would impact a large number of animals is the Humane Socity's effort to include birds in the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA). The number of chickens slaughtered in 2008 was roughly 9 billion, and will likely remain at a similar level for at least, say, 20 years before in vitro meat is developed and adopted. A change to the law would then conservatively impact on the order of 200 billion animals. If we suppose that the law would -- due to poor enforcement, etc. -- reduce the painfulness of slaughter by only, say, 1/4, the impact would be equivalent to preventing roughly 50 billion instances of slaughter.
Estimating probabilities of success as a function of money spent is difficult, but here's a stab. Suppose it would take $10 million to increase the probability of success by 50%. (As an illustration, the Yes on 2 campaign in California raised $10.6 million, though this figure obviously ignores the enormous contributions of volunteers to the effort.) The expected number of equivalent slaughters prevented per dollar would then be (50 billion) * (0.5) / (10 million) = 2,500, which is higher than even the upper bound for Vegan Outreach. This remains true even if we increase the spending amount as high as $65 million. Of course, vegetarianism does much more than prevent slaughter -- most of the benefit comes from preventing ordinary life on a factory farm -- so the comparison isn't completely fair. I'm also assuming that the change in probability of success is linear in the amount donated, which isn't true in practice. Finally, Vegan Outreach's work is itself connected with political efforts like covering birds under HMSA, because some fraction of the people that Vegan Outreach reaches will go on to lobby for improved animal welfare.
Of course, in addition to covering birds under HMSA, there are lots of other farm-animal-welfare efforts, such as HSUS's cage-free-egg campaign, or maybe promotion of controlled-atmosphere killing. Any recommendations on one that's particularly cost-effective?
3. Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (SIAI)
I've written elsewhere with a few comments about friendly artificial intelligence. I support the idea in theory, but it's less clear to me exactly what would be accomplished by a donation to SIAI: What specific types of research projects would be funded? And is there reason to think that research wouldn't take place otherwise? Would there be any way to direct my donation toward particular topics that most interest me: e.g., infinite decision theory or examination of dystopic future scenarios?
As I mentioned, I welcome suggestions on other charities to consider. Thanks in advance for the comments!