Recommendations for donations, 2016 edition

It’s the giving season, and this year I’m trying to learn from previous years and give some advice before everyone else in the world finishes their yearly donations.  :)

To a large extent, the recommendations I made last year still hold.  And I still endorse most of my criteria from a few years back (but see other posts in my donations tag for further updates and caveats).  So mainly, I want to post those links as a resource for anyone giving now or soon.

The truth is, though, the recent US election has changed some of my own giving priorities.  I’m not going to stop giving to the research causes or the worldwide health efforts that I gave to previously, but I’m going to increase some of my domestic giving to causes that I think are now more at risk.  I’ll be posting more of my thoughts and decisions as I do more research into new organizations — and I’d love your input along the way.

I’ve previously supported civil liberties (primarily ACLU), reproductive rights, criminal justice reform, and investigative journalism (primarily ProPublica) [edit: also LGBT rights] — I plan to increase my donations to such causes, but will revisit and update the specific recommendations.  Additionally, I want to evaluate more organizations supporting racial justice, immigrant rights, human rights, and more, before making any decisions or endorsements.

So far my candidates for evaluation include:

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Talking to Congress (and getting them to listen)

I’m still reeling from the recent U.S. election, as I know many are.  But I already see lots of folks mobilizing to start communicating more with Congress.  So I wanted to pass on Former Congressional staff member Emily Ellsworth’s tips on communicating effectively with your Congress peeps.  A few key points:

  • Phone call > letter > email > Facebook or Twitter feedback
  • The most effective way to express your opinion to the staff is to call the state district office (rather than the D.C. office)
  • If you want to talk to your representative in person and have a back and forth discussion, go to a town hall meeting.  They’re usually sparsely attended and just the same faces; big potential impact if you bring friends.
  • A more specialized point: if you do any local advocacy work, invite staffers to your advocacy events.  They will enjoy attending, better understand the situation on the ground, and then treat you as a resource/expert to consult in the future.

If you happen to be in D.C. when Congress is in session, you can also meet with your representatives and senators in person (or in some cases their staffers), just by making an appointment.  Check the tips on how to be effective in such a meeting.

Edit: more specific hints on how such a phone call should go — and a sample script — below.

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California election research 2016

Here’s my mega spreadsheet of 2016 election research (mostly California ballot initiatives). Sorry for anything that’s hard to read. ;P

I listed my own voting plan and reasoning, but I also tried to give a lot of other info to help people with other priorities/perspectives also make decisions.

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Is rent control effective?

No — it’s been well studied, and economists on the left and right seem to agree it’s counterproductive for the people it’s supposed to benefit.

According to The Economist (“Do Rent Controls Work?”):

As Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times in 2000, rent control is “among the best-understood issues in all of economics, and—among economists, anyway—one of the least controversial”. Economists reckon a restrictive price ceiling reduces the supply of property to the market. When prices are capped, people have less incentive to fix up and rent out their basement flat, or to build rental property. Slower supply growth exacerbates the price crunch. And those landlords who do rent out their properties might not bother to maintain them, because when supply and turnover in the market are limited by rent caps, landlords have little incentive to compete to attract tenants. Rent controls also mean that landlords may also become choosier, and tenants may stay in properties longer than makes sense. And some evidence shows that those living in rent-controlled flats in New York tend to have higher median incomes than those who rent market-rate apartments. That may be because wealthier households may be in a better position to track down and secure rent-stabilised properties.

And the NY Times (“The Perverse Effects of Rent Regulation,” by Adam Davidson of Planet Money):

[T]hese programs actually make the city much less affordable for those unlucky enough not to live in a rent-regulated apartment, Mayer says. The absurdity of New York City’s housing market has become a standard part of many Econ 101 courses, because it is such a clear example of public policy that achieves the near opposite of its goals. There are, effectively, two rental markets in Manhattan. Roughly half the apartments are under rent regulation, public housing or some other government program. That leaves everyone else to compete for the half with rents determined by the market. Mayer points out that most housing programs tie government support to an apartment unit, not a person. “That is completely nuts,” he says. It creates enormous incentive for people to stay in apartments that no longer fit their needs, because they have had kids or their kids have left or their job has moved farther away. This inertia is a key factor in New York’s housing shortage. One East Village real estate agent told me that only 20 to 30 units are available in the entire area any given month.

This might be acceptable if all the rent-controlled and rent-stabilized units were inhabited by the poor people the programs were designed to help and if most poor people lived in rent-regulated units. But according to data from N.Y.U.’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, a majority of people in rent-regulated Manhattan apartments make far above the poverty level.


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Would a non-binding proposition to overturn Citizens United have any impact?

(And is that even something we should do?)

This year, California has a non-binding ballot initiative asking CA state lawmakers to do everything they can to overturn Citizens United via a constitutional amendment.  Many other states have had or currently have similar propositions on their ballot.  In trying to figure out how to vote on this strange advisory initiative, I considered these factors:

  1. What has the impact been of Citizens United?  (Is it all negative?)
  2. Is this proposition an effective way to try to overturn it?
  3. Are there other campaign finance reforms we should be focusing on instead?
  4. Should non-binding propositions be discouraged?

TL;DR: an amendment is not likely to be an effective approach for addressing the downsides of Citizens United, because amendments are way too hard to pass. It’s also difficult to craft well, and some organizations like the ACLU oppose such an amendment (others, like the L.A. Times, object to committing to an amendment without knowing the specifics). There are many other campaign finance reforms suggested that seem more plausible, and important. Additionally, this non-binding resolution seems unlikely to be all that effective at persuading CA lawmakers to shift much due to the current political situation.

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What do plastic bag bans do?

What do plastic bag bans actually achieve?  There are a couple California ballot initiatives about a potential statewide ban (I’ll be sharing more research on CA ballot initiatives soon), so I have a pressing reason for curiosity.

I don’t want to contribute to the giant plastic island in the ocean or to the amount of plastic in animals’ stomachs.  And I’d love to decrease local litter while reducing energy & pollution usage (which supporters of bans claim come from making plastic bags).  Do plastic bag bans have these effects (as claimed by supporters) without causing worse side effects?

Short answer: plastic bag bans are very good at one of the things they set out to do (dramatically reducing plastic bag litter), and they mostly get replaced not by paper but by either reusable bags or no bag.  There are predicted substantial energy savings from this shift, but from what I can tell there’s not enough data to be sure of that.  And some of the side effects/potential downsides are not as well quantified.

» Continue reading “What do plastic bag bans do?”

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Effective health research

I’m still trying to figure out when, where, and how it’s most effective to donate to health research. Here’s a link & data roundup while I start to try to make sense of the research.

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Recommendations for donations: 2015-16 edition

Sorry this post arrives so late in the year, probably after most of you have already made your charitable year end donations.  However, I’m following my own advice — see my final point below.  

Are you fortunate enough to be able to donate resources to others this year?  If so, here are some ideas for how to maximize the effects of your donation.  Some of these are suggestions for specific charities.  But whatever causes and charities are most important to you, there are ways to make your giving more effective — and some of these suggestions apply to all donations.

Do you want your donation to have a large, empirically proven impact?

I’ve talked before about how much I admire GiveWell and Innovations for Poverty Action, which are effectivist organizations to the core — both organizations do empirical, in-depth evaluations of the impact of charities.  This year, the press is taking notice as well; Vox and Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Zweig both wrote about how these organizations help your charity dollars go farther.

GiveWell once again has published their annual top charities list, with the four charities that they’ve determined give the most impact per donation. I recommend following GiveWell’s donation allocation suggestion:

For those seeking our recommended allocation, we simply recommend giving to the top-ranked charity on the list, which is AMF.

Another organization, The Life You Can Save, has an overlapping top charities list — along with a very useful Impact Calculator that lets you see the impact of a donation to each charity.  I don’t endorse this organization as strongly as the others, because I don’t know as much about it (it was founded by ethicist Peter Singer; I don’t believe it does the same degree of rigorous evaluations as the two sites above, but it does depend on some outside evaluations), but a number of these charities have been endorsed by the other two sites, and the Impact Calculator is great.

For instance, if you’re considering donating $500, you can see the impact on GiveWell’s top-rated Against Malaria Foundation:


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Why I’m not donating to the American Red Cross this year

As the end of the year approaches, I’m revisiting my old strategies for donating money, and deciding where to donate this time around. This year, I’m starting with where not to donate, starting with the American Red Cross.

ProPublica and NPR recently teamed up to produce a troubling expose about the American Red Cross’s lack of effectiveness during Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac.  (Here’s a podcast with the report’s author.) A few particularly outrageous details about their use of emergency supplies for PR:

During Isaac, Red Cross supervisors ordered dozens of trucks usually deployed to deliver aid to be driven around nearly empty instead, “just to be seen,” one of the drivers, Jim Dunham, recalls….

During Sandy,emergency vehicles were taken away from relief work and assigned to serve as backdrops for press conferences, angering disaster responders on the ground.

(Note: The Red Cross responds that these claims are inaccurate.)

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Link roundup: direct charitable giving, energy efficiency, and TSA opt-outs

I was just trying to help — This American Life and Planet Money recently did an episode about a charity that gives money directly to people.  I haven’t actually had a chance to listen yet, but am looking forward to it and will hopefully post more about it once I do.

Why bad environmentalism is such an easy sell — A recent Freakonomics episode that I did listen to.  It was mostly useful as a reminder that evaluating environmental impact can be more difficult than you think; e.g., increasing the amount of development in cities (which are relatively energy efficient due to factors like shared transit, short distances to travel to get resources, etc.) may be better for the environment than more rural development.  Also, if everyone switched to more fuel efficient cars, and the cost of fuel to travel a given distance goes down, that could potentially cause people to drive a lot more.  The conversation was generally more speculative than data-driven (and Freakonomics has been sloppy about some of their claims in the past), but it made me want to dig into the work of Ed Glaeser — the Harvard economics professor interviewed here — and related work in more detail.

CHARTS: US carbon emissions are dropping:  Historically, I’ve mostly blogged here about quantifying the effects of individual choices we make in our lives.  But it’s great to get more systemic evidence that our individual actions can add up.   Among the factors that have made a significant impact are household energy reduction and more fuel efficient vehicles.  More people and businesses have been using renewable energy, too. Of course, it’s not all that clear-cut: the biggest factor is the increase in use of natural gas in place of coal — a change which is thanks mostly to fracking.  This American Life and many others have covered some of the potential worries surrounding fracking.  Still, it’s heartening to see some large scale good news, which reduced carbon emissions are.

Scanning the scanners — millimeter wave vs. X-ray TSA scanners: A good comparison of the types of TSA body scanners currently in use.  I’ve been meaning to post for some time about whether opting out of TSA body scans does anything to change the system.  There are personal reasons in terms of personal safety and privacy — and a lack of outside auditing — to consider opting out of scans for at least the X-ray machines (arguably there may be privacy concerns for both).  And there is evidence that the machines are not nearly as effective as one would hope, both missing actual weapons and having high rates of false alarms.

But if one of your primary objectives in opting out is registering a complaint with the government and encouraging systemic changes, is opting out at all effective?  I suspect it probably isn’t very effective, but I don’t have any evidence yet.  I’ll continue to look for evidence as to how effective this and other methods of TSA protest are.   In the meantime, I’d love to hear from people who currently opt-out about why they do so, especially if they opt out of the millimeter wave machines.

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