Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Charitable Giving: Principles and Practices of Cost-Effective Philanthropy

As I get older, I think more about the wisest approach to philanthropy, to charitable giving.

I've settled on two basic criteria:

1. Maximal societal benefit for the dollars expended, including ripple effects.
2. Funding something wouldn't otherwise get funded. 

Here are initiatives meeting those criteria that I've funded or considered funding:

A prize
I have written previously about a prize I created. I prefer prize to grant because a prize motivates a number of people to work toward the goal I set. In my case, I set up a prize for the best doctoral dissertation leading to understanding the biological basis of cognitive functioning. I like that topic because while it has great potential to benefit humankind, for sociopolitical reasons, it's difficult today to obtain funding for it.

A challenge prize
Since then, I've considered a perhaps more potent related approach: offering a prize to the individual or group that first meets a specific challenge.  So, taking the above example of trying to further our understanding of the biological basis of cognitive function, I've considered Dr. Richard Haier's suggestion: offering a prize for the first individual or team that is able to predict g (a measure of reasoning ability) based on a brain scan or the person's genome. 

Alas, I don't think I can afford to make the prize big enough to motivate a team to redirect its efforts to that issue. I may yet try it with an affordable amount. If no one meets the criterion for winning it, I've lost only the time and administrative cost of publicizing the prize's availability.

Giving to a political candidate or party
I also thought about donating money to a political party or candidate. We are in an era of growing government power, so donating to a party or candidate could significantly affect the  country's direction. Again, alas, I don't have enough money to move the needle even slightly.

Funding a meritocratic rather than egalitarian cause
My current favorite idea is to fund an after-school and summer program for high-ability (although not necessarily high-achieving) kids who live in a blue-collar or lower-middle-class area. Here's how that idea meets my criteria:

America has moved heavily from merit-based allocation of resources to an egalitarian "redistributive justice" approach. Hence, in the schools, especially the public elementary schools, fiscal and human resources have been reallocated from programs for bright and gifted students to the lowest achievers. Today's priority is to close the achievement gap.

Yet I believe that, ultimately, the greatest societal good will accrue from prioritizing as they say, "the best and brightest." Kids with high cognitive ability (reasoning skills, fast learning ability) are more likely to cure cancer, govern wisely, indeed develop more effective approaches to closing the achievement gap. Just as a triage medic in the battlefield is trained to allocate the most resources not to the sickest but to those with the greatest potential to survive, I feel that allocating significant resources to high-ability students is wise--We all know brilliant failures, people who fail to live up to their considerable potential.

It's probably not optimal for me to fund programs in a high socioeconomic area: The schools have a high-enough percentage of high-ability kids that even mainstream instruction may do an acceptable job of meeting their needs. And wealthy parents have the wherewithal to supplement.

Nor do I feel it's optimal to donate my dollars to the lowest-income areas. There, the problems faced even by their high-ability kids tend to be sufficiently multidimensional and intractable that I fear my dollars wouldn't make the biggest difference. It strikes me--and I'm relying not on data but only my perhaps flawed logic--that my dollars will likely make the biggest difference by focusing on schools with a high percentage of lower-middle class people, especially those with a good percentage of new immigrants who were at least middle-class in their home country.

I'm thinking that the wisest point of entry is a lower-middle-class school district's after-school and summer program. There, egalitarian pressures may be more moderate, although I'm not sure. I plan to investigate.(Update: I've since supported the creation of Camp Think, a summer program in Napa run by one of the district's best teachers.)

Donating time

Of course, one can give charity not just with dollars but with time. I've chosen to make writing--for example, this blog--to be my charity of choice. I like writing and like to think that my posts give significant free help to people--maybe even including this post. 

So now we turn to you. Is there anything in this article that makes you clearer about what you might want to donate your money or time to?


Ludovico Capuzzo said...

Marty, I love your work but suggesting you are making a contribution just by pointing out the feasibility of a robot for the elderly is silly. Ideas are a dime a dozen. The idea of assisting the elderly with robots is floating around since ages. What would be truly valuable is the actual engineering and business implementation of that idea.

Marty Nemko said...

You could well be right. Mechanical retard that I am, I thought that perhaps, with all the roboticization going on, it wouldn't be that difficult for a team of enginerds to pull that off. I certainly could be wrong.

Maria Lopez said...

The trouble with a robot for the elderly does not lie solely in its mechanical complexity.

First, what is the robots exact mission. If it is just for wheelchair transfers, a back destroying exercise that caregivers dislike, it might be feasible but even then it might be better used by a human caregiver rather than autonomously.

You don't want it mistaking an arm for a leg, placing a cat under the patient because of how the patient and the cat were lying together in bed or placing a demented patient in a weird position because he or she didn't remember why the robot was there and flailed about attempting to escape it.

In the nineteen fifties Richard Feynman predicted the internet together with robots that cleaned houses. The housecleaning robots have not really come to pass yet because no computer system designed yet can navigate the physical world as well as a normal human.

An eldercare robot may be possible but it would take something with greater complexity than the Big Dog combat robot. Also unless you dope a person with dementia to the gills they often become really anxious if there primary caregiver leaves for any reason.

This does not apply to a person without dementia who is merely too weak to get up but such a person may have much greater benefit per dollar spent for such things as hand grips, shower chairs, canes, elevators, and walkers.

Some other things. IQ from a genome might be useful if you are willing to sequence embryos and implant the ones with the fewest IQ lowering genetic variations but I cannot for the life of me see a good use for IQ from a brain scan.

Brain scans are far more troublesome to the person being scanned than taking a paper and pencil test. Also, I don't know that finding out that you have a low normal IQ does you any good.

If you, in fact, have a high IQ it won't make you feel bad but I'm not sure that it would help you much. If you are working on developing realistic fictional characters while your classmates are more interested in Hot Topic and One Direction then the fact that you are fairly smart should already be obvious to you.

Rex said...

I think these are really great ideas...the idea for the robot is a good one, but seems like it would be very difficult to pull off...even more difficult than making a manufacturing robot. What if the fallen person is injured and/or in pain? I wish I had more money to give away...

Ludovico Capuzzo said...

Wishing is not giving. Consider that the topic of the article is how to give effectively. You may wish good things and you would be right saying you have good intentions but you would be stretching the truth if you thought that's how you contribute effectively. If you really want to contribute with your ideas these have to be at least novel and specific enough to expand the boundaries of the domain knowledge you want to improve. Anything less is a wish not a great idea.

Marty Nemko said...

As I wrote, I agree it was a bad example. Thanks for edifying me. I'm now going to delete it

Ludovico Capuzzo said...

Marty, I was replaying Rex...

Rex said...

Your comment is absurd. I never said I had a"great idea" How old are you? If you're such a font of wisdom why don't you enlighten us with your brilliant ideas on how to "expand the domain knowledge you want to improve."

Ludovico Capuzzo said...

Rex, a good book that explains how to tell apart good ideas from bad ones (and truly expand the boundaries of knowledge) is "The Meaning of It all" by Richard Feynman. Here below I copied a passage.

"The more definite the statement, the more interesting it is to test. If someone were to propose that the planets go around the sun because all planet matter has a kind of tendency for movement, a kind of motility, let us call it an "oomph," this theory could explain a number of other phenomena as well.

So this is a good theory, is it not? No. It is nowhere near as good as a proposition that the planets move around the sun under the influence of a central force which varies exactly inversely as the square of the distance from the center.

The second theory is better because it is so specific; it is so obviously unlikely to be the result of chance. It is so definite that the barest error in the movement can show that it is wrong; but the planets could wobble all over the place, and, according to the first theory, you could say, "Well, that is the funny behavior of the 'oomph.'"

So the more specific the rule, the more powerful it is, the more liable it is to exceptions, and the more interesting and valuable it is to check.

Words can be meaningless. If they are used in such a way that no sharp conclusions can be drawn, as in my example of "oomph," then the proposition they state is almost meaningless, because you can explain almost anything by the assertion that things have a tendency to motility."

Rex said...

And this relates to what I said or the post how?

Ludovico Capuzzo said...

Rex, in your first comment to Marty's article you said the idea of the robot was good but difficult. In my answer to that I said that you could contribute effectively by closing the gap between the wish and the final product.

For example you could contribute effectively by funding a research center. Or coming up with ideas that advance the pertinent (and already developing) domain knowledge (implying here robotics and artificial intelligence).

Just saying go build a robot for the elderly is neither a contribution nor a good idea. And it's not a good idea because it's too known, obvious and vague to be useful to the scientists and engineers who are already working at it.

In your second comment you asked me how I would go about expanding the domain knowledge of a field of expertise.

To that question I answered you back suggesting a book on the nature of science. In that book you'll find out how scientists go about expanding the boundaries of knowledge.

Rex said...

First off, Marty's idea may not have been a great one but it certainly wasn't bad either. I had never thought of it before. Second, I didn't ask for an idea about how to understand how to expand the "domain boundaries of knowledge." LOL. I know how it expands, thanks. I don't need/want to read more Richard Feynman. Been there done that. I was asking you to actually give some original ideas of your own since you were so obviously critical of Marty's, and in my opinion, you went a bit too far. I think you need to lighten up, this is just an informal forum for discussing Marty's ideas...

Ludovico Capuzzo said...

Rex, I never used the expression "domain boundaries of knowledge."

Please read carefully.

Even if I did (and I did not) I think you are better off focusing on the substance of the argument instead of getting lost in its grammatical aspects.

I'm not sure if you noticed but Marty himself implicitly disagrees with you. You said his idea was neither great nor bad. He said it was a bad example and deleted it immediately without all the fuss that you are making.

Marty Nemko said...


Your comment as well as Ludovico convinced me that the "Pick Me Up" robot is more complicated that I had envisioned so I deleted mention of it. Thank you.

Re the value of brain scans, it's not for clinical use, it's for research use: to identify the micro-areas where higher cognition occurs. By identifying those research can be more narrowly targeted--to those areas, their : neurocircuitry, neurochemicals, the expression of genes to proteins to circuits in those areas, etc.

Marty Nemko said...


Your comment as well as Ludovico convinced me that the "Pick Me Up" robot is more complicated that I had envisioned so I deleted mention of it. Thank you.

Re the value of brain scans, it's not for clinical use, it's for research use: to identify the micro-areas where higher cognition occurs. By identifying those research can be more narrowly targeted--to those areas, their : neurocircuitry, neurochemicals, the expression of genes to proteins to circuits in those areas, etc.