William MacAskill: ‘They must focus their resources where most needed’
Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have announced that they will donate 99% of their Facebook shares, currently valued at $45bn, to a new charitable foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
Zuckerberg and Chan deserve enormous respect for this decision. Their letter about the gift suggests that they have exactly the right goal in mind, and could have been a mission statement for the social movement called “effective altruism” that I’ve been working to build since 2009: “We believe all lives have equal value, and that includes the many more people who will live in future generations than live today. Our society has an obligation to invest now to improve the lives of all those coming into this world, not just those already here.”
Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan announce baby girl – and $45bn charity initiative
The next big question is: where should this money go? And that is just as important, if not more important, than the decision of whether to give at all. A large proportion of social programmes have no impact at all, whereas the best are incredibly effective – hundreds of times better than the merely good ones. Zuckerberg and Chan appear well aware of this problem, noting in their statement: “… right now, we don’t always collectively direct our resources at the biggest opportunities and problems your generation will face.”
The overarching aims they list are broad: “advance human potential” and “promote equality”. Listed underneath each aim is a dizzying array of possibilities, from “eliminating poverty and hunger” to “curing disease so you live much longer and healthier lives”.
That’s a good sign. There are a lot of important problems in the world. It would be worrying if their foundation had already narrowed its focus at such an early stage, before they had collected any evidence about where their donation could have the greatest social impact.
However, they will have to narrow their focus sooner or later. At $45bn, this is one of the biggest charitable gifts in history, but it’s still only a third of a year’s worth of global foreign aid spending.
And though some foreign aid spending does a lot of good – most clearly the share spent on basic health services like vaccinations – Zuckerberg and Chan will surely want their gift to go even further. They can make that happen by investing only in the projects with the greatest potential to significantly improve people’s quality of life at low cost.
What I’d really hope is that they follow the lead of Zuckerberg’s cofounder Dustin Moskovitz and his partner Cari Tuna, a former Wall Street Journal reporter. Together, they founded Good Ventures, which might be the best model for how to run a charitable foundation.
Unlike many foundations, Good Ventures is extremely transparent, publishing the evidence and analysis behind its grants, so that others can scrutinise their choices and learn from their experience. Moreover, the research they rely on is detailed and sophisticated. Early on, Good Ventures partnered with the charity evaluator GiveWell, which had years of experience identifying the giving opportunities with the strongest evidence behind them.
Most importantly and unusually, Good Ventures engages in strategic cause selection. Most philanthropists choose which cause area to fund based on what they’re passionate about. But what if their passions don’t match up with what the world really needs? Their gifts can be wasted on problems that are comparatively not very important, that are particularly difficult to solve, or that receive too much attention already.
GiveWell has hired a large team of analysts to look into which cause areas will allow Good Ventures money to make the biggest possible difference. They look for three key characteristics: scale, neglect and tractability.
Based on their research, they have decided to focus on poverty in the developing world rather than poverty within the United States. Why is that?
Firstly, the scale of the problem is greater: the poorest people in Africa scrape by on less than a tenth what the poorest people in the United States live on.
Secondly, it is more neglected: many times as many resources are spent helping each poor American than each poor person overseas. All foreign aid spending comes to just $65 per person per year when divided between the 2 billion people living in serious poverty – and that’s if it reaches them at all.
Thirdly, it is more tractable: there is strong evidence that progress can be made on the problem at low cost. Hundreds of millions of people in the developing world lack even the most basic health treatments that would prevent their children dying of malaria or diarrhoea.
When your attitude is that “all lives have equal value” the conclusion is obvious.
That comparison is relatively easy to draw, but Good Ventures has not stopped there in its attempt to find cause areas that will allow its money to go further. They have searched widely, writing reports on opportunities as wide ranging as criminal justice reform, macroeconomic policy and open science – in some cases making grants to people working in these areas.
If the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative wants its money to go as far as possible, they should also consider collaborating with GiveWell, or build their own interdisciplinary team of analysts to help them figure out which problems are most pressing for them to work on.
Otherwise their enormous generosity may achieve much less than it could have done.
William MacAskill is author of Doing Good Better: How effective altruism can help you make a difference
Deborah Orr: ‘Acts of great financial generosity are a luxury for the extremely wealthy’
It’s a rookie error. You have your first baby and it’s very exciting. So, instead of quietly getting on with working out what life with a baby is going to be like, you noisily tell everyone you can think of that you’ve had a baby and this is going to be the best baby ever. There is such a flurry of activity around the news, that you can’t manage five peaceful minutes with the baby before some distraction comes along. Before you know it, your two months of paternity leave is all used up.
Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg have had a baby. You can tell that the baby hasn’t become a person to the couple yet, because Dad has written a letter to the baby, then shown it to everyone in the world except the baby. So the baby, for the purposes of this exercise, isn’t a baby at all, but a literary device employed to decorate a business announcement.
At some point, presumably, the baby will get to read her own letter, and learn that her birth precipitated a massive gesture of philanthropy aimed at making the world a better place. Any sensible child can only respond with, well, discomfort. Worst Dad-dancing evah.
It’s terribly churlish, mocking people for acts of great financial generosity. But acts of great financial generosity are just one of those many luxuries that only the extremely wealthy can afford. Having spent several centuries struggling to formulate some kind of democratic system in which everyone has the right to participate, I think humans have every right to find it quite amusing that some guy with a lot of money thinks he can do better, literally on his own initiative.
Anyway, since Zuckerberg is personally going to administer the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, what he’s actually done is give himself a really interesting new job for which he’s eminently unqualified.
Zuckerberg’s new job will be very much unlike other people’s jobs, because it will be all about giving money away, rather than getting hold of it, to put bread on the table. At the same time, he’s lectured parents around the world about how important it is to set their own work aside to spend time with their children.
Hilariously, the new job will largely consist of striving to promote equality. No prizes for guessing who’s first among equals. And second. And third.