12. Some philanthropy wins in 2020

bright spots in a horrible year

Welcome back to Giving to Strangers, a newsletter about making giving easier and philanthropy better, written by me, Anya Marchenko. You can follow me on my newfangled Twitter.

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Here are some wins that I’ve been following, in no particular order.

1) Giving Green launched, touting itself as the first GiveWell for climate change

Living through the California fires this year, nothing felt more immediate than climate change and more frustrating than an individual’s powerlessness in the face of it. I spent many frustrating hours online trying to find reliable and traceable carbon offsets. But most organizations selling offsets aren’t transparent, and it’s hard to understand whether the offsets are truly additive.

That’s why it's so important that last month, Dan Stein (Chief Economist at IDinsight), announced the launch of the Giving Green climate initiative, which recommends evidence-backed projects and charities that combat climate change. They currently recommend 2 effective organizations working to change US policy (Clean Air Task Force, Sunrise Movement) and 3 charities selling carbon offsets (Climeworks, Tradewater, BURN). I do think there are some growing pains for the team to sort out in their recommendations — seeing Climeworks and BURN raised my eyebrows, as one is very expensive and the other has a tiny impact on global emissions. But I’ll dive into those gripes in a future post about Giving Green.

All in all, Giving Green fills a really important niche, one that is overdue for an evidence-backed, careful, expert player to fill in the philanthropy space. I would recommend following their advice if you want to make an evidence-informed donation, but aren’t an expert in environment or energy.

If you want to learn more about good things that happened in 2020 in the energy and environment space, read this concise roundup by Max Auffhammer, an environmental economist at Berkeley. It will make you smarter.

2) MacKenzie Scott donated $7 billion quickly and quietly, demonstrating a new model of giving for the ultra-wealthy

MacKenzie Scott and Jeff Bezos divorced in 2019, leaving her with $35.6 billion in Amazon stock (now valued at $56 billion). In August 2020, Kelsey Piper wrote for Vox:

One month after the divorce, Scott signed the Giving Pledge that Bezos never did. “I have a disproportionate amount of money to share,” she wrote in her pledge letter. “I won’t wait. And I will keep at it until the safe is empty.” And it seems like she’s been acting on that declaration. 

In a Medium post, MacKenzie describes her philanthropic effort in her own words:

The result over the last four months has been $4,158,500,000 in gifts to 384 organizations across all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington D.C. Some are filling basic needs: food banks, emergency relief funds, and support services for those most vulnerable. Others are addressing long-term systemic inequities that have been deepened by the crisis: debt relief, employment training, credit and financial services for under-resourced communities, education for historically marginalized and underserved people, civil rights advocacy groups, and legal defense funds that take on institutional discrimination.

$4 billion in 4 months. Wow. There is a sort of humility behind that kind of speed — an acknowledgement that since MacKenzie doesn’t know more about racial justice than someone working on it, what’s the point in grueling vetting, when charities that who seem to be doing good work need money now?

MacKenzie Scott does not know how to solve racial justice, women’s rights, or LGBTQ+ equality. She just happens to, unlike most of us, be in possession of $35 billion, and so she decided that if she gave much of that money to Black activists and LGBTQ+ activists and women’s activists, probably they would be better suited than she is to figure out how the money could be spent to solve those problems.

But it’s also worth it to be skeptical:

3) Cash transfer charities stepped up to respond to Covid-19 

GiveDirectly, a GiveWell top charity, delivered emergency cash to more than 600,000 people around the world affected by Covid-19. The cash either provided a stopgap between stimulus bills (in the US), or was the only aid some people would receive.

They has already given cash to ~175k families in the US, distributing a total of $180M (~$1,000 per family), and funded 400k people in Africa, distributing $90M (~$225 per person).

GiveDirectly asked recipients in the US to record a video about how the pandemic, and the cash, has affected them. You can watch Alina’s from Georgia short (30 sec) testimony here about how the cash allowed her to escape homelessness.

4) Fair Fight and other philanthropy-supported voter turnout efforts handed Democrats a huge victory in Georgia

In November, two years of concerted efforts to boost voter turnout in Georgia paid off. Read my post on how Stacey Abrams and Fair Fight flipped Georgia blue:

Stacey Abrams is widely credited with the huge increase in voter turnout that gave Democrats the gains they needed to force the Senate elections into runoff. Six years ago, Abrams founded The New Georgia Project (the same one Warnock led), which focuses exclusively on voter registration. After losing the Georgia gubernatorial election in 2018 because of actual voter suppression, Abrams started a huge push in Georgia to register voters, also pushing back against the state’s “exact match” system, purging of voter rolls, and closing of polling places. Along with a consortium of other organizations, Abrams’ New Georgia Project and Fair Fight nonprofits have registered 800,000 Georgians to vote since November 2018.

But it’s not over — if you’re a voter in Georgia, please make sure to vote by January 5th in your Senate election.

Bye, 2020

Thank you for being a part of the Giving to Strangers community. Since we started in August 2020, we’ve grown to almost double the subscribers; we’ve explained effective giving opportunities across climate change, US elections, and animal welfare; and we’ve talked to Freakonomics author Steve Levitt, activist and Berkeley mayor runner-up Wayne Hsiung, and animal rights activists exposing some of animal ag’s worst abuses. I’m really excited to keep exploring in 2021, and I hope you’ll join me.

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