14 November, 2019

Pay the Rent First

When you don't have much money, sometimes you have to prioritize which bills you can pay first. Should you pay the electricity bill? Or water? Food? Or rent?

If you're really desperate, then it can become a delicate balance of always staying ahead of eviction or the lights going out. But there's a narrow band of poverty where this is a legitimate question, where the answer always remains the same: Always pay the rent first.

If enough money comes in to pay bills eventually, but they don't come in quite enough time, then you always want to pay rent first because that's the most important thing to keep you okay. Other bills can be paid late, and you can get assistance at a food bank for meals, but not paying your rent can have devastating consequences.

Sometimes I think about charity this way. It can be nice to give to a direct charity like Animal Equality, giving you that warm feeling of knowing that your money is working directly on helping to make animals' lives better. But sometimes it's better to think about paying the rent first, before going to the movies or eating out.

Animal Charity Evaluators
Animal Charity Evaluators is an organization evaluator; it (among other things) looks at organizations that are potentially highly effective and looks into whether they actually are among the top tier of animal advocacy organizations using an effective altruism framework. ACE's job is to find and promote the best animal charities, so usually when people go to ACE's website, what they're looking for is a recommendation for which animal charity they should give to.

Yet before you give to those recommended charities, it may make sense to first give to the organization that is actually doing the work of finding and promoting the best charities and interventions that help animals. By paying the rent first (donating to ACE before donating to its recommended organizations), you can ensure that the best opportunities for giving in the animal advocacy space will continually be identified and the best charities will be incentivized to not just be among the best today, but to always move forward as well, to stay in that designation as an ACE top recommended charity.

This is why I'd like to ask those of you who are already planning to donate to an animal advocacy charity to donate a portion of that amount first to Animal Charity Evaluators. It's not as sexy as donating to direct aid organizations, but it's nevertheless important to pay the rent first.

I should mention a few caveats here.
  1. First, while moving donations can potentially be much more effective than merely increasing your donations, in the case I lay out here this is not true. If you're already giving to a top charity, moving it to ACE might or might not be more effective. My argument would follow effective altruism philosophy more clearly if I instead made the ask for people to increase their donation by giving to ACE, rather than moving money from one top charity to another. But others are already making asks like that; I'm trying to focus instead on the idea of paying rent before spending on movies, rather than spending solely on movies. This scenario doesn't have an analogue of increasing one's donations, so it doesn't apply here.
  2. Second, I'm on the board of directors for Animal Charity Evaluators, so that may color how you interpret my suggestion to give to ACE. I would argue that the reason why I'm on the board of ACE is because I believe it is so very highly effective and so sought it out; it's not the case that I'm only recommending ACE because I happen to be on its board.
  3. If you really took this argument to the extreme, you might want to extend the analogy to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, at which point you might argue that you need to first spend money on oneself before spending anything on charity. I'm not averse to these kinds of arguments, but I do think that saying so to the audience likely to read this blog post sends the wrong message. In general, people allocate far too little to the most effective causes, so arguing that we should spend on ourselves first isn't the best argument to be making, even if it technically is true.
  4. If you need more info before donating, I highly recommend that you read about ACE's room for more funding or my colleague Allison Smith's pitch for donations to the organization before the giving season starts, at which point all marketing efforts ACE makes will be made toward giving to its recommended organizations and funds.
  5. If you're single, it actually isn't that difficult to live without paying rent, so long as you pay for a gym that has showers and a post office box. In that case, you should probably pay for your gym membership and post office box first, before any other bills. I wouldn't recommend it, though.

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