Category Archives: Charity

Education philanthropists should not take advice from Larry Summers

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Tyler Cowen just interviewed Larry Summers.

In a blog post about the interview, Tyler wrote: “if you think you know someone who is very smart, Larry is almost certainly smarter.”

This may be the case when it comes to economics. While I’m in no position to evaluate his economic policy claims, I found Summers to be reflective, curious, and thoughtful. He seems like the kind of person I would enjoy working with.

But Summers also discussed education philanthropy, and I came away with a strong belief that I almost certainly smarter than Summers on this subject.

I don’t say this because I for sure know that I’m right and Summers is wrong; rather, I say this because I have a firmer grasp of the research, more hands on experience, and a clearer strategic vision for scalable and sustainable change.

Given that Summers likely has a good 20-30 IQ points on me, and that he has risen to the top of an extremely competitive field, the fact that I’m likely smarter than Summers in this area is a testament to the powers of specialization and the domain specific nature of knowledge.

How should you spend a $100 million? 

In the interview, Tyler asked Summers how he would advise a philanthropist in St. Louis who wanted to give away a $100 million to help her city.  After admitting the he knew little about St. Louis, Summers answered the question more generally, and said that he would focus on public education.

As it happens, my job is to advise philanthropists who want to improve public education. Currently, our team manages the philanthropic giving for Reed Hastings and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

Given my day job, I was curious to hear how Summers would respond.

Moreover, while he may not remember, Summers was once asked about relinquishment during an interview on education reform (I was in attendance and vividly remember him saying “Ah, relinquishment…”), and I was curious to see if my ideas had impacted him at all.

They have not!

Summer’s advice: avoid charter schools and work outside the system 

In the interview, Summers gave two pieces of advice to education philanthropists:

  1. Avoid charter schools: Too many philanthropists set-up charter schools that cream students, pay teachers salaries that are not sustainable on the public dollar, and then ultimately cannibalize the traditional system of good students, good teachers, and public funds.
  2. Avoid the K12 system: Instead of trying to tackle the core K-12 system, it’s better to fund efforts that work around the system, such as after school or summer school.

I think both of these points are wrong.

Summers ignores a large evidence base on charter schools

I recently summarized the evidence on charters schools on this blog. Summers ignores most of this research:

Achievement: Urban charter schools outperform traditional public schools, posting annual effects of .05-.1 standard deviations. This holds true with both quasi-experimental designs (where researchers try to control for student selection) and experimental designs (where student selection is randomized). Charters are not achieving their impacts because of student creaming.

Funding: Charter schools, on average, receive much less funding than traditional schools. As I previously wrote about, in numerous cities where charter schools receive less money, they still outperform the traditional system.

Teacher Pay: Nationally, traditional school teachers have higher average salaries than charter school teachers. And while some of this is due to the effect that charters hire younger teachers, I have seen no research that indicates that, at scale, charters are picking off the best teachers by offering them unsustainable salaries.

Impact on Traditional Schools: Lastly, most research shows that charter schools have positive or neutral effects on traditional school achievement. Moreover, cities that have improved their educational systems over the past decade have often seen rising charter school enrollment during the same period. Washington D.C. and Denver stand out as primary examples of cities where all schools got better as charter schools expanded.

All boats rising – and not cannibalism – is the norm.

It appears that Summers is reasoning from anecdote rather research.

I am sure there are  some charter organizations that cream students and spend way above the public dollar (I can think of a few!), but these are outliers.

At scale, urban charter schools achieve more and spend less than traditional public schools.

Working outside the system is low impact and not leveraged with existing public funds

Summer’s second piece of advice – work outside the system rather than fix the system itself – is also flawed.

Yes, fixing the system is hard. But kids spend a lot of time in the system. It will be very difficult to improve public education if you ignore what happens to students from 8 AM to 3 PM for 13 years.

Moreover, to the extent that a philanthropist funds an outside the system intervention that works, the only way to scale the intervention is with more philanthropy or increased public revenues. There is no leverage with existing public dollars.

While I am not against raising additional public revenue for things that work, I think we should spend most of our energy improving the effectiveness of the dollars we already spend, especially given that systems level K12 interventions (like urban charter schools), are achieving success at scale.

If there was no evidence that the system could be fixed, I would tend to agree with Summers. But as more and more cities breakthrough and achieve citywide gains, the logic of working mostly outside the system is increasingly flawed. The one exception I’d make to this claim is pre-school, which has a reasonably strong evidence base and is increasingly funded with public dollars.

If you are a philanthropist who wants to improve public education in your city, please contact me 

In the event that Tyler’s question was not hypothetical in nature, and that there is a philanthropist in St. Louis who wants to donate a $100 million, I do hope she contacts me (neeravkingsland at gmail) rather than takes Summers’ advice.

I am a firm believer that philanthropy well spent can forever positively alter the trajectory of a city’s public educational system.

And while those of us advocating for systems level change still have much to prove, we now have numerous examples of cities achieving citywide improvements for their most at-risk students. Philanthropists should double down on their successes, evolve the model based on local conditions, and continue to fund further research so we can keep on learning.

Here’s how much I gave to charity this year


Every year I write a blog post about how much I gave to charity. I do this with the hopes of (ever slightly) increasing a culture of giving.

This year, I gave 8% of my gross income.

Some reflections below.

How much does it cost to save a life?

GiveWell makes rough estimates that the most effective charities save a life for around $1,000-$3,000.

That means most readers of this blog could save the lives of multiple people this year.

I hope you do so.

Where did I give? Why? 

I gave my money to GiveWell and told them they could allocate it across any of their preferred charities, save for Give Directly.

My giving is based on the following:

(1) I understand that peace, economic growth, technological advancement is what really matters most over the long-haul.

(2) I have no idea how to donate to charity in a manner that helps the above.

(3) There are many people who face acute suffering right now.

(4) I have some modest hopes that charities can help with this acute suffering.

(5) Giving internationally is the most effective way to ease the most acute suffering per donation.

The reason I do not give to Give Directly (direct cash transfers to poor people) is not that I think it’s a bad idea; rather I just don’t think we have enough evidence to prove that it alleviates suffering as well as GiveWell’s others recommend charities.

What worries me the most about my giving strategy?

I am open to the idea that making high-risk bets on existential issues (war, climate change, A.I., pandemics, etc.) will have more long-term utility than lower-risk bets that ameliorate current human suffering.

But I don’t trust myself to evaluate how to give to these causes, nor have I found experts that I fully trust that could guide my giving on these causes.

GiveWell is trying to mature this space with its Open Philanthropy initiative, but I don’t yet have enough confidence in their analysis to shift my giving.

Given the current turmoil in our country, why didn’t I give domestically?

I do think that the United States could do incredible global harm by starting an ill-advised war, radically reducing its commitment to climate change efforts, or erecting massive trade barriers that severely slow the global economy.

Because of this, I made political donations throughout the year (which I did not include in my charitable giving).

However, right now, I’m not really sure how to donate in a manner that would lower the risks of our government making any of the aforementioned grave errors.

If there is a way to do so, I will consider giving to these causes next year.

Should you calculate your giving rate based on pre or post tax income? 

I go back and forth in how one should figure taxes into this.

On one hand, about 10-20% of taxes go to the poor (I think, it’s very hard to get clear answers on this), which feels like charitable giving of some sort.

On the other hand, charitable giving is also tax deductible; moreover, I surely reap the fruits of living in a functioning country, and, in modern times, some form of welfare state is part of what creates domestic stability.

So I’m not sure that pre-tax is exactly the right baseline for calculation.

But I’ll stick to the hard line and calculate pre-tax: so 8% it is.

From the Comments: More Thoughts on Charity

Had some thoughtful responses (blog comments, twitter) to my last post on giving. I tried to tackle them below. Very complicated questions so consider the below speculative…

Is your line of work more important than your giving? [John Danner via Twitter, Ryan Hill via comments]

First, I’ll just say that being in a “good” line of work is no reason not to give. Most Americans can afford to give 10% of their income to charity, and given that this can save the lives of real people, all of us should donate. So I don’t have a ton of sympathy for not giving because you determine your career choice gives you an out. Not that folks were making this argument, but it’s worth remember that “should you give?” is a question independent of “what should you do?”

That being said, one’s line of work is important. But I think it’s not as easy as one might suppose to determine what lines of work are more important than others. Some thoughts:

1. Much of the commentary I hear on this question greatly ignores the fact that the market prices a lot of contributions fairly well. As a starting point, it’s worth understand if people will pay for whatever it is you are producing. People who make a lot of money often provide societal value. So if you’re trying to figure out what to do, I’d start there.

2. Of course, this is not always the case. Jobs in areas with major positive externalities may be under compensated, especially if these jobs involved public good, merit goods, or technological innovation. I just think a lot of people convince themselves that their jobs fall in this category when they probably don’t.

3. If I had to come up with my best answer here, it would be to: (a) try and identify existential threats to humanity where (b) there are feasible solutions that humans can work on and (c) your skills provide a significant value-add over and above the current set of people working to develop and enact these solutions.

Should you count taxes as part of your giving? [Rob Reich via Twitter]

I said it’s ok to count 10% of your taxes as charitable giving. I based this on the fact that roughly 10% of our taxes goes directly to support people living in poverty.

Rob said this shouldn’t count.

I’m not so sure. What if the government taxed me at 80% and gave 90% of this to the poor. Under this regime, I would not feel much of an obligation to give to charity.

So I’m not sure why I should’t incorporate tax based government transfers into my giving calculation.

Should you save now and give later? [Ryan Hill via comments]

Yes, with some sound investing you can increase you giving capacity. But we don’t know what problems will exist in the future, nor how much it will cost to solve these problems.

But right now we do know that many people are dying for reasons that can be solved for not a lot of money.

So long as a few hundred dollars can save someone’s life, it seems like we should be giving rather than investing.

Of course, if you have strong reasons to believe that in the future it will be cheaper to save someone’s life, then perhaps you should invest. I just haven’t seen evidence that this will be the case.

Is giving a cop out? [Ripper via comments]

See this video. Basically, if you job and lifestyle are based on a tax regime that promotes income inequality, an economy that is based on environmental degradation, and so forth… well, who cares if you give a little bit of your income away after you make your money off this corrupt system?

First, I think it’s worth noting that global inequality is decreasing and global absolute wealth is rising. The world’s poor are significantly benefitting from the current global economic regime.

That being said, I’m very sympathetic with the environmental part of the argument. As such, working in this field (either in terms of policy change or technological innovation) may in fact be one of the best things you can do (if you can add real value). But this then just reverts back to the line of work question…

So, yes, do try and understand the system you’re a part of and perhaps helping maintain, but do so objectively. There are both incredibly good (rising global wealth) and bad (environmental degradation) parts of this system.

Give and work accordingly.

Do You Give Enough to Charity? Here’s How I Much I Give.

Yesterday I wrote about Effective Altruists.

It’s one thing to judge the charitable giving of others, so today I’ll write about myself.

In doing so, I hope to make the issue of giving more relevant to a reader of this blog, as well as to increase accountability for me to give. So long as this blog is going, I’ll be public about what percentage of my income I’m giving to charity, as well as where I donate it.

This Dylan Matthews post is a good foray into individual giving. In reviewing Jeb Bush’s charitable giving, he writes:

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So how am I doing?

I calculated my giving like this: (my giving to charities) + (10% of my taxes paid).

From what I gather, about 10% of our taxes goes to helping the poor, so I think it’s fair to count that as (forced) charitable giving. Others might disagree / view this as cheating. Perhaps.

All told:  6% of my earnings went to helping those less off.

Where did I give? 

100% of my charitable giving went to the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI).

I made this donation because Give Well ranked it as a top charity.

I chose to give to deworming rather than the Against Malaria Foundation (another top rated charity) for no real rationale reason. I just picked it.

I choose not to fund Give Directly (another top rated charity) because my read on the evidence is that conditional cash transfers work better than direct cash transfers. Give Well has spent more time on this than I have, so I surely might be wrong, but I had questions about Give Well ranking unconditional cash transfers so highly.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Give Well is the end all be all of charitable giving. Many organizations are doing work that is difficult to measure in controlled experiments. But I don’t have a lot of time to evaluate these organizations, so I’d rather give to a place that has been vetted than one that has not.

If either Give Well or another charity evaluator began attempting to analyze the effectiveness of these types of organizations, I might shift my charity allocations.

I can do better

How much is enough? I surely won’t be able to answer that question in this post.

But I’d like to get it up to 10%.

In December, I’ll let you know if I do.

Hopefully if we’re all more transparent about how much we give, as well as where we give it, we can increase the amount and effectiveness of our collective giving.